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Why Is Virtue Friendship--Aristotle's Highest Type--Arguably Extremely Difficult to Achieve Today?

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In middle school, a stint with skateboarding landed me a temporary group of friends with whom I practiced my nollies, kick flips, and (failed) grinds. I soon grew bored of the hobby and swapped it for knitting. As my skating squad and I grew distant, it occurred to me to wonder: had we ever really been friends? According to Aristotle, the answer is yes—but not the kind that really, really matters. Sometime around 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher named three types of friendships: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, or friendships of the good, as described in Book VIII of The Nicomachean Ethics. The first type encompasses those who are convenient to your life. Think of the pal who signs up for the same yoga class as you and assists your handstand practice

Pleasure-based friendships help you stay light-hearted. You meet up with them on Friday nights for a spritz and casual gossip—but things never get too serious.

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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.

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This made me realize that friendships based on utility do not last simply because the people involved are only after what they need from each other, and when both their needs change, they get out of this relationship and look for another one whom they can utilize to gain another benefit. One particular example that Aristotle gave is the friendship that exist between old people or the elderly (p.144). Because of their age, they no longer seek friendship or companionship for the sake of pleasure but only to gain advantage from it. For the second kind, which is friendship out of pleasure, I noticed that it holds the same principle when it comes to making friends. The only difference is that, this kind of friendship is grounded on what is pleasant for the parties involved, not because of the benefits they can get (p.144). But, just like the first kind, friendship based on pleasure can be easily dissolved and this can happen when one person no longer feels good about the other. He gets out of the relationship and will eventually find another one who can gratify him temporarily. This is the reason why Aristotle’s example on this involves the young people (p.145) because they are more vulnerable when it comes to their feelings and they always mistakenly identify pleasure with love, that’s why they can easily fall in love and quickly fall out of it too (p.145). As a young person myself, I noticed that this is indeed the reason why many relationships, even those that last for years, fail – simply because either one or both of them no longer find it pleasant to continue being together. On the other hand, I found perfect friendship different from the first two kinds. It neither grows out of good feelings nor getting benefits from the other person. As Aristotle mentioned, this is the kind of friendship where people involved wishes good to each other for his/her sake (p.145). In my own understanding, a person has an unconditional love towards the other person and vice versa, and this is the reason why their friendship lasts long. Their goodness in themselves and towards the other, regardless of the person’s qualification, can be both useful and pleasurable at the same time. It is therefore necessary for both parties to spend time and become familiar with each other (p.146) in order to attain perfect friendship, and one example that I can think of is the relationship between husband and wife. For me, they have a perfect kind of friendship because both of them have devoted time and effort to know each other deeply, thus making them love each other unconditionally. After reading Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship, I now understand that each and every person has different opinions and views about friendship

Some may see it as something beneficial or pleasurable while others value friendship regardless of the benefits or pleasure that it brings. The friendship bond between two people can possibly last long but it solely depends on the motives and reasons of the two people involved.

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In conclusion, while he saw the value in accidental friendships based on pleasure and utility, he felt that their impermanence diminished their potential. They lacked depth and a solid foundation. Instead, he argued for the cultivation of virtuous friendships built with intention and based on a mutual appreciation of character and goodness. He knew these friendships could only be strengthened over time — and if they did thrive, they’d last for life. We are, and we live through, the people we spend time with

The bonds we forge with those close to us directly shape the quality of our lives. Life is too short for shallow friendships.

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Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford World’s Classics. Trans. David Ross. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

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