Considering Friendship (With a Few Thoughts from Aristotle)

Since I was young, I've enjoyed reading about the ancient Greeks. While still a pious evangelical, I adored Plato's ethereal and confusing philosophical system. As I grew to appreciate skepticism and science, I came to appreciate a man often called their father, Aristotle (Plato's student), and his approach to answering life's deep questions as best he could in relation to rational principles.

Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE) seems to have written much that sadly did not survive, but what is left ranges from studies in astronomy and marine biology, to ethics and systematic logic. If a particular field of study interested him and no one had yet studied it, he would invent it. He was an invaluable thinker known for his reliance on empirical thinking. While certainly not the single greatest thinker who ever lived (he maintained that men and women had different numbers of teeth!), his works on happiness and the good life make up any and all shortcomings. His science, even when wrong, used methods which allowed him to be proved wrong, and that was groundbreaking for his time.

The Ethics of Happiness. For Aristotle, the good life is one where those who live well and are good to one another are made happy by doing so. Happiness, he says, is the chief aim of the good life. As a philosophical concept, happiness is my absolute favorite to consider, but as a pursuit, it can be just as elusive as it is desirable. To get right to the punchline, our relationships, especially our friendships, play a large role in the conquest of happiness.

In his work on ethics dedicated to his son Nicomantus, Aristotle sets aside a really lovely section on friendship (book seven). One of the most important ways one can be happy is found in their relationships with others. The good life is one rife with companionship. He writes, “Friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error, just as it is also to the old, with a view to the care they require and their diminished capacity for action stemming from their weakness; it is a help also to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for ‘two going together’ are better able to think and to act.”

Who we choose to spend our short time with says a lot about us as individuals, and of the various types of relationships humans enter into, Aristotle distills most of them into three categories of friendship.

Utilitarian Friendships. The first and second are both what he considered to be friendships that are considered accidental in nature. The very first of these are friendships based on utility. These seldom last and are quite numerous in a single lifetime, as the relationship will be over when the benefits of knowing one another cease. The source of the friendship is more important than the friendship itself.

Companionship. The second of these friendships are those based in pleasure. As long as friends have similar interests and enjoy the same activities they will maintain these relationships. As one changes their tastes, they may very likely find their friends change as well.

While these relationships are not written off as bad – Aristotle notes they are enjoyable and even necessary in life – they lack a certain depth and involvement critical to the good life. Both of these accidental friendships can be rather short-lived as they are rooted in aspects of the human experience that change rather fast.

Friendship of the Good. Aristotle lastly names "Friendships of the good" as the kind of friendship we should all aspire to. Respect and appreciation for a person and their values are the source of the relationship rather than what benefits the person may afford. Connecting with someone on this level is both time consuming and requires maintenance, so one ought not hope to know everyone on this level. However, a few friendships rooted in deep affection and care for each other are more than enough to enrich one's life and pursuit of happiness.

An older friend of mine I have made through Oasis once remarked to me that in adult life it is really hard to find friendship, especially after graduating any number of institutions when many of our peers move away. For him, this is what made Oasis such a beautiful idea. Setting aside the lack of religious belief that brings most of the Oasis crowd together, the chance to meet sincere people who care about reason and the good life are what appealed to him the most. I noticed then that I shared the sentiment.

There simply are not enough venues in the physical world that offer a non-awkward way to reach out and meet new people. Offering friendship is one thing ideologies and communities do really well. I'm proud to say that our secular community does an equally admirable job bringing together those of us who might otherwise have to settle for accidental friendships. In striving to be accepting and to also be accepted, the Oasis community has given me the opportunity to meet some people I have a great deal of love for, and affording that opportunity to others should be something we take great pride in. I'll close with some of the words Aristotle ends his section on friendship with, "For most things, life is long enough. It is, however, too short for the wrong kinds of friendship."