In book VIII of Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics (1999; 1156a6 – 1156a30), the notion of ‘The Three Kinds of Friendship’ (Philia) is expressed. Holding that there are three basic kinds or species of friendship that bind us together expressing that in respect to each there exists a mutual and recognised love. Utility, pleasure, virtue and the good can attract and bind us together in an association of friendship, essentially we become friends with certain individuals because they are either: useful to us, provide us with pleasure, or they attain to the principles of virtue and the good.
In pursuing friendship by way of our actions we can have three goals in mind. The ‘three objects of love’ that which we strive to achieve being: utility, pleasure and the good. Friendships of utility and pleasure pertain to self-indulgent and self-centred natures and are therefore only friendships in a truncated effect, they are prone to dissolution due the changeable nature of our wants and desires effecting what we find useful or pleasurable.
Aristotle states that in such friendships love is only incidental with one not precisely loving the other at all but only his own good. Hence these relationships are seen to be incomplete or imperfect. To base a friendship on utility is not to love the other in their own right but to gain some good from them, in relation to one or both the parties involved. Aristotle relates this kind of friendship to that of a commercial transaction between two parties or a relation of two old men who provide each other with mutual support in their twilight years. Friendships of pleasure characteristic of the young whom are compelled by impulse and desire are sought as means of attaining pleasure from another. Like the desires that spawn them they are transient by nature but can be cherished and are held in higher esteem than friendships based on utility, as they can be sought for their own sake, involving a sharing of pleasures what gives life a certain sweetness. Although the emphasis here by way of desire leans towards erotic relationships friendships of pleasure can also be based on pleasure such a conversation. The complete friendship is one based on virtue and moral goodness, existing between people of equal moral and virtuous standing these ‘good people’ are similar in virtue wishing goods to each other for each other’s sake. These men acting by way of virtue complement each other incidental to each other’s wants or needs they simply admire the other in relation to the good and attain usefulness and pleasure to the highest degree.
Complete friendships are then rare, raising the problem: can anyone really have a true friendship in the eyes of Aristotle? How many people can really attain to this idea of the good man? Is it possible to be that morally good and virtuously astute?
Friendship is a term we know very well one that is important to all of us in our everyday lives. Aristotle here is expressing friendship in terms of the Greek word Philia. The conception is altogether different form our modern interpretation, more extensive in its interpretation. Philia can exist in the family sphere as well as in relation to being a citizen and the duties that that entails even as far to include people’s relations to natural phenomena.
Aristotle grounds his discussion of friendship in praxis: practical reason. Human beings act in search of an end or goal in search of the good. To act in accordance with the good is to act virtuously, the ultimate end being happiness or flourishing. The differences between the three ‘objects of love’ are differences of degree. Friendships of utility and pleasure resemble that of the good but are incomplete formulations and only resemble that of the good. In essence utility and pleasure are incidental and extrinsic not being sought for their own sake but, for an external gain or benefit. Essentially all relationships can useful, pleasurable and good, but, a truly excellent virtuous relationship should be sought in accordance with the good as a final end. These ‘good people’ develop good character by way of acting virtuously perfected by habit (Hexis). One cannot simply learn virtue. Instead a cultivation of habits is required with experienced grounded in life to become virtuous you must act in accordance with virtue, do virtuous things. The notion of sameness is also introduced: a perfect integration of oneself into friendship creating a perfect oneness. One must also be conscious or aware of the other, each reflecting on what is good for the other. This criteria together as one creates a primary friendship.