Understanding Friendship through the Eyes of Aristotle

Anika Prather

I was taken by surprise when at the end of Book Seven in Aristotle’s Ethics, Aristotle expresses that he would like to discuss friendship (1154b 30). The Ethics touches upon a plethora of subjects that are connected to the moral character of man. When Aristotle decided to address the topic of friendship, I was intrigued. How does the topic of friendship contribute to the exploration of the moral character of man? To seek an answer to this question, I will be focusing on the introductory book to friendship, Book Eight.

To adopt the language of John Milton Gregory,[1] my mind instantly sought to understand the unknown by means of the known, thus upon first seeing the word “friendship”, I instantly reflected on my own friends. I thought of my friends from church, school, work, and even some of my family members that I also consider friends. As long as I tried to place this portion of the text within the context of my cultural understanding of friendship, I grappled with the relevance. However, when I began to look at the term “friendship” (φιλία, philia) as a word he has chosen to define the various types of connection in human society, then a deeper understanding became illuminated for me.

A fifteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Austrian National Library, Vienna)

Aristotle outlines three kinds of friendships: a friendship of utility, a friendship of pleasure and a perfect friendship (1156a 10 – 1156b 30).[2] In a friendship of utility, the individuals are connected because of some good that they are able to obtain from each other. Once you take the good that they both desire away, then the friendship dissolves (1156a 10–12, 14–15). With a friendship of pleasure, the individuals are only connected by some kind of pleasure that they both can get from each other. Take that away, then the friendship dissolves (1156 a 12–14, 16–17).

At first I was ashamed that I am engaged in both the friendship of utility and the friendship of pleasure. I was ashamed because of how superficial these two friendships seem to be. I have tried to live by the principle found in Proverbs 17:17 which says, “A friend loves at all times.” Deep within my heart is the conviction that a friendship does not dissolve. Yet there is a deep feeling of conviction when I think about the ladies who have done my hair or done my nails. I go in for my appointment and we talk about all types of topics and then I go home. We never reach out to each other outside of the appointment and then when I move on to a new salon, the friendship ceases to exist.

An example of the friendship of utility within my life is a hairdresser I used many years ago that I no longer have any connection to. When I would go in, we would say our usual “Hey girl!” and then we would talk about relationships or even faith, but mostly relationships. We even had a lot in common. She was from the same country as my best friend (Cameroon) and even had the same name as her (Ambo). At one point I called up my best friend on my cell while I was getting my hair done and we all enjoyed a nice conversation full of laughter. But each time Christine finishes my hair, I pay her and then I leave. I never call her or ask her to hang out with me. I never confide in her my most private secrets. We are completely disconnected until I go in to get my hair done again in about another month. My only purpose for having her in my life is because she is providing a service to me. Aristotle says, “Those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves” (1156 a 14–15). Eventually I stopped needing to go to her because I got a new hair cut. Was this ever a true friendship? Thinking back over this friendship I wonder, is it necessary for every single human interaction to be a true friendship?

Aristotle says, “Friendship seems to hold states together” (1155a 22–23). This kind of friendship seems necessary. My hairdresser needs the money to build her business. She was a single mom of two kids, so in paying her I contributed to her success and helped her provide for her family. In addition, as a citizen of the United States, by paying for her services I am pouring back into the US economy. It is a necessary connection and part of building our country. As Aristotle chooses to define it, it is a friendship of utility, but a friendship nonetheless.

Several years ago I had a friendship of pleasure. In fact, it has been a long time since I have enjoyed a friendship like this one. We would talk on the phone throughout the week and, because both of us tended to be quite dramatic, our conversations were filled with laughter. There were so many connections between us that we delighted in. We both had bought a foreclosed home and in watching the home decoration channel HGTV we would swap ideas on how to make the places our own. We also were both trying to get pregnant at the same time and decided to use a midwife. Talking about natural childbirth became our greatest passion. It was so refreshing for me to meet someone that I had so much in common with. What we shared brought us pleasure. Most of our friends and acquaintances did not share our interests in fixing up old houses or midwife-assisted natural childbirth, so we often got lost in these passions as we talked about them. And then something changed. I moved to another home. She stopped having children and I continued to. The pleasure we shared was in talking together about the things we had in common. Once those conversations were no longer necessary, the friendship soon ended. Aristotle says, “Unanimity seems to be something like friendship” (1155a 24–5). The unanimity was gone and so was the friendship.

There is still yet one more type of friendship to explore. Aristotle says that perfect friendship is “made up of men who are good and alike in virtue; for each alike wishes well to each other… they are good in themselves” (1156b 7–9). The closest example I can think of would be the friendship that I have with my mom. I know, however, that Aristotle places familial friendships in a totally different category (1158b 12–15), but I will explore this nonetheless, because the friendship my mom and I share is a unique relationship rooted in a history of seeing each other through life and death – literally.

Wedding day congratulations!

Our friendship contains elements of the aforementioned friendships in that we share pleasure together (our love for dogs, for example). We “utilize” each other. When I am overwhelmed with work, she prepares a meal or cares for my children. I buy her groceries, help her clean and run various errands for her. Yet our friendship goes far beyond these characteristics. She’s my only shopping buddy and we both have a passion for organic and natural eating. Her brother (my uncle) used to call us “Peat and Repeat” because we have always tended to follow each other everywhere: you can be sure to find us in a corner talking about so many things.

In these examples, I see traces of the friendships I shared with the other two people, but unlike those two friendships, this one still exists and the lack of those elements does not end the friendship. When there is no pleasure (and my mom really can drive me insane sometimes!) or when there is no utility (and, since getting married, I have “needed” her less and less) our friendship still thrives. I am attracted to my mom because of the virtue that I see in her. Aristotle says that these types of friendships, perfect friendships, are “alike in virtue” (1156b 7). Her faithfulness to her faith, family and humanity is something that inspires me. Again, Aristotle says, “It is natural that such friendships should be infrequent, for such men (or women) are rare (1156b 24–5). My mom is truly rare and, in my almost 50 years of life, I have yet to find a friendship as meaningful as this one. Could this be an example of a perfect friendship? It has lasted this long and continues to grow and thrive. The perfect friendship, “is perfect in respect of duration” (1156b 33–4).

Analyzing the existence of the three types of friendships in my life and reflecting on the friendship that I share with my mother led me to the passage in the Ethics that says:

Friendship for the sake of pleasure bears resemblance to this kind [i.e. perfect friendship], for good people too are pleasant to each other. So too does friendship for the sake of utility, for the good are useful for each other. In these cases the friendship is most lasting when each friend derives the same benefit, such as pleasure, from the other, and not only that, but derives it from the same source. (1157a 1–3)

Aristotle is seeking to reveal how friendships are the building blocks of a society and, in addition, he is helping us understand that the building and dissolution of friendships is a natural process that contributes to the growth of a society – and this is a natural part of being human.

Anika Prather is Professor of Classics at Howard University.


1 The Seven Laws of Teaching (Boston, 1886) 66, accessible here.
2 This fascinating text can be most conveniently read here.

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