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Victor Nuovo: Friendship — the tie that binds

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Posted on May 18, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Aristotle suggests that love or a feeling of mutual affection between citizens may be a more effective means of unifying a city than justice, indeed that the latter may depend upon the former. It is an alluring thought and deserves to be explored.

He observes that there are three kinds of friendship: one founded on mutual utility, another on mutual pleasure, and a third that he designates perfect friendship. Almost as an afterthought, he comes upon friendliness, which is a civic virtue rather than a relation with some person. Yet, of all the varieties of friendship, it is best of all.

First there is friendship based on utility: I know a man who has the remarkable ability to fix any household appliance that breaks down and whom I can rely upon to come to my aid whenever I need him, even on weekends, and who asks a modest return for his services, far less than he deserves. I hold him in the highest regard. But is he my friend? There is a relationship of mutuality between us inasmuch as I desire him to prosper and so am quick to pay him and recommend him to others. His readiness to serve may be based on the pleasure he takes in fixing things and in solving mechanical problems that the engineers who designed the project never imagined could happen. But, I find in his attitude something more, a desire to use his skills to help others, which I take to be a kind of affection or friendliness, directed not to any one person in particular, but to anyone in our community who needs his help. I feel towards him not only gratitude, I wish him the best in life. So, to answer my question, he is a friend, but this is because of his friendliness.

Then there are friendships based on mutual pleasure, the pleasure of company or companionship; as well as associations of persons drawn together by elective affinities, who are kindred spirits. These arise between individuals more or less in regular contact; but they need not. These sorts of friendships may be casual and everyday: a clerk in a local shop who always has some kind words to say, or who is witty and with whom one can share a joke or items of mutual interest — sports, movies, or life itself. We all have many friends of this sort. Without them, everyday life would not be worth living, our daily commerce with each other would be grim and, well, unfriendly.   

Aristotle regards these first two sorts of friendship as deficient, for the whole moral person is lacking in them. Perfect friendship, then, is a mutual relationship of love between two individuals, where each party unselfishly desires what is best for the other; it is a desire motivated by pure goodness, a desire to realize something unconditionally good not for oneself but for another.

It follows that perfect friendship is a relationship of complete equality, and to be realized it requires that two persons live together. It is like marriage. However, Aristotle supposed that this sort of friendship could occur only between two good men of equal social status, allowing that it may involve sexual intimacy also. Because he supposed that marriage is a relationship only between a man and a woman, and that men take wives as servants and homemakers, he did not regard marriage as friendship, although at its best it would involve a natural affection between man and wife. But he was wrong.

Today, we have come to see that marriage is a relationship of perfect mutuality between two persons (whatever their gender or sexual preference or race or ethnicity may be), and we know that it is or can be a perfect friendship. Aristotle also supposed that friendship is more likely to occur between two men of the same race. As a statement of probability, this may have a small measure of truth in it. But as a moral statement, it is completely false. It would deprive friendship of any civic value, and on Aristotle’s own grounds, that it must be an achievement of pure goodness, it would be contradictory. People who base their friendship on the “birds of a feather” principle are not friends to anyone, most of all themselves.

Aristotle makes equality a condition of perfect friendship, and because he supposed that not all persons are equal, he imagined that it was possible only within a certain class: in an aristocratic society there can be no perfect friendship between an aristocrat and a commoner; and even in a democratic society there may be class distinctions that inhibit the cultivation of friendship. But in the nature of things, there is no basis for this sort of inequality, and the belief in inequality is a prejudice. The great benefit of marriage equality is that it hastens the end of prejudice.

But we cannot be friends with everybody. Nevertheless, having friendships cultivates an attitude of friendliness, which is a civic virtue. It involves being a friend to the city, like the virtue of my friend who fixes appliances.

According to his method of seeking the mean between extremes, Aristotle locates it between being obsequious or servile and being quarrelsome or generally disagreeable. We acquire the virtue of friendliness through relations with our friends, for being a good friend involves tolerating some faults yet being ready to criticize when it is needed, yet never ceasing to be a friend.

Someone who applauds all that we do or who never fails to express displeasure or disapproval of whatever we do or think or say, is no friend. Aristotle gives no name to this virtue, but tradition has designated it “friendliness.” It is a love or affection of one’s city and community; a desire to bring about what is truly best for it; a desire that is inclusive, excluding no one. It finds expression in a variety of sentiments: neighborliness, sympathy, compassion, a deep yearning for the happiness of all. Friendliness is the tie that binds a city together. It is a timely and timeless idea.

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