In “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle offers students a refreshing alternative to the instrumentality of modern life: the pursuit of goodness. Goodness inspires honor, and mutual honor is the stuff of friendships of virtue. These are the friendships which yield the greatest happiness.
Recently, I had the great pleasure afforded by technology in our chaotic, pandemic times of “Zooming” with friends of mine from graduate school, many of whom I have not seen in at least twenty-five years. Most of us are now teachers of college or high school students, and after reminiscing about our “salad days,” we asked one another which of the books we studied together still held the same magic for our students. My own response was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and particularly his treatment of friendship. However students may bristle at Aristotle’s superior characterization of the “magnanimous man” or his suggestion that in order to practice certain virtues, one must have means, and so on, his discussion of friendship has yet to fail me in the classroom.
First of all, students quickly recognize Aristotle’s description of the first two types of friendship: that of utility and of pleasure. What teenager or twenty-something lacks the experience of a quid pro quo relationship or one strictly based on mutual pleasure-seeking? While no young person wants to be accused of “using” another, students quickly see that what Aristotle is talking about is both commonplace and necessary. Friends help one another out and not just in times of trouble. It is simply part of being human to have needs, and no one is self-sufficient. And as Aristotle observes, friendships must always be reciprocal or they aren’t real friendships. So those who are just beginning their adult lives—with much to do and many aspirations—rely on each other all the time. But when their interests or needs shift, their friends of utility must change to fit their development, and everyone recognizes this.
As for friendships of pleasure, students hardly need convincing that it is more fun to do pleasant things with others who share that pleasure than it is to do them alone. As Aristotle points out, young people, by nature, are pleasure-seekers who gravitate toward each other to increase their pleasure. This is as true today as it ever was. Sent home from school and into lockdown these past few months, young people have sorely missed moving about freely among their peers and enjoying this kind of pleasure.
Aristotle lists a number of criteria for friendship, and interestingly, the only one which usually gives my students pause is that of the necessity of proximity. Despite the way that young adults naturally seek out each other’s company in pursuing the simplest of pleasures, they question whether one really needs to live among those they would call friends. After a bit of prodding, however, students see that proximity places demands which absence, no matter how fond, cannot. We feel responsible for those we bump up against, and we enjoy being physically present to those with whom we share obligations and pleasures. The initial problem students have with this argument lies in this age of social media when one makes hundreds of “friends” with people unseen, except on a screen. Students push back a bit against Aristotle on this point because they want to claim legitimacy to these relationships. But when pressed about which sort of company one would prefer to keep with friends, they begin to see the point. And I suspect the point will never be easier to make than after the experience of quarantine.
In terms of Aristotle’s “relevance” for contemporary students, so far so good. Friendships of utility and pleasure: They know them because they have them. But moving on to the third type of friendship—that of virtue or “the good”—now there’s a challenge. In the first two kinds of friendship, the fruits are known and felt by what is offered by one’s friend. So, for example, one either finds another person to be useful to him, or not; witty and charming, or not; a fellow baseball fan, or not. But with friendships of virtue, the friends share an admiration for what is good or noble generally, and love it particularly as it inheres in the character of the friend. Put another way, the goods of the lower types of friendships are “easy come, easy go” as one develops and passes through different stages of life. The good of the highest kind of friendship, however, places greater demands on the friends, but those demands bear many fruits including a more permanent form of friendship.
As Aristotle unapologetically tells us, the young make for lousy students of political philosophy. Perhaps for the same reasons, they aren’t so good at being friends of virtue either. Being young, they are only beginning to cultivate good habits, and one must be pursue and practice goodness over the course of a lifetime in order to be truly excellent and recognize such excellence in another. And as Aristotle observes, the young are more likely to follow their impulses and emotions than they are to act in accord with right reason. They are too narrowly focused on what they are “getting out of” a relationship to consider a higher good which transcends particular benefits (although it doesn’t necessarily exclude them). In some sense, then, it is understandable that young people have not yet formed friendships of virtue. What is far more concerning is the fact that quite often they cannot even recognize a friendship of virtue as something real and desirable.
Students are immediately attracted to Aristotle’s teaching that a friend is another self and that one must be a self-lover in order to be a good friend. But do they really understand what he means? And more importantly, given the current cultural climate, can they? Can young people fathom prizing someone for something other than what they “get out of” a relationship with him? Can they imagine a self-love, or “self-esteem,” based on a character that is actually estimable? Is a certain degree of self-absorption merely a feature of youth which works itself out in maturity or is this a more troubling sign of our times?
The most promising of today’s young people excel at setting and achieving goals when it comes to certain aspects of their lives. Helicopter parenting has ensured that these students set their sights, work hard, achieve their objectives, and then move on to the next thing. But do they see the “big picture” of all this activity? In other words, do they realize that identifying a worthy aim, striving for and attaining it, is all part of the process which makes us who we are, that is, which forms our character? Do they realize that achieving happiness has everything to do with being good? And that doing good things requires a good disposition? And that morality is not moralistic?
If they are able to see it, Aristotle offers students a refreshing alternative to the instrumentality of modern life. Of course, a good life is marked by a series of goals, but what’s the point of it all? Most goals are means to other ends, and certainly there exists a hierarchy of goals—of all goods—in human life. But an appetite for good things presumes a certain goodness in the first place. The more excellence one attains, the more one wants to continue that activity, not because one is greedy but because one has become a lover of goodness; and one can never get enough goodness. It is that goodness which inspires honor, and mutual honor is the stuff of friendships of virtue. Not surprisingly, these are the friendships which yield the greatest happiness.
Friendships of virtue depend, of course, on the mutual strength of character in the friends themselves; and friends must continually hold each other to high standards. The formation of moral virtue requires both an exemplar and a cultivated desire for and recognition of the good when one sees it. But the complete moral life which leads to full human flourishing, Aristotle claims, includes another dimension of virtue: intellectual. As rational animals, the life of the mind naturally plays a critical role in being human. And friendship based on contemplation of the good, the true, and the beautiful—though rare—is a friendship to be treasured most. In an age which has relegated philosophy to a dusty corner of the university, this kind of friendship is even harder to find and even more difficult to hold out to students as a fruitful good worthy of their attention and labors.
And this point brings me back to the evening with my friends. How good it was to talk of ideas and their effects on our lives and our students’ lives. How effortless it was to pick back up with friends with whom I have lost touch. As we grow older, we increasingly have the experience of running into someone who played a significant part in our past. But we can readily distinguish between someone from whom we have grown apart and someone with whom we can immediately connect once again no matter the length of absence between us. Certainly, these latter friendships can be useful and pleasant, but because they are rooted in love of more permanent realities, they are lasting and provide real nourishment for the soul. I am grateful for such friendships and remain hopeful that I might give my students reason to long for them.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened slightly for clarity.