Establishing them for the right reasons and avoiding superficial relationships is key for a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Social interaction is at the core of everything we do. Whether we’re heading to the pub, chatting in the office, or relying on someone when things get tough. The relationships we form influence our daily lives.
But we rarely question the reason why someone is friends with us. Do they genuinely care about us? When the going gets tough, would they be there? Or is the relationship superficial, are they using us to achieve some other end?
With most of these questions left unanswered, 4th-century Philosopher Aristotle explored what it means to have an authentic friendship in Nichomachean Ethics.
In terms of philosophical influence, Aristotle is hailed as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. His research spans a wide range of fields, most notably: logic, metaphysics, mind, ethics, and political theory — and his work has shaped centuries of thought.
His discussion on relationships is among his most influential work. To him, friendship is one of life’s true joys — an essential component to a meaningful and worthwhile life. For that reason, his findings remain relevant today.
During his discussion, he explores different types of relationships we form, in an attempt to pin down the reasons why we form the ones we do.
“Bad men will be friends for the sake of pleasure or of utility, being in this respect like each other, but good men will be friends for their own sake.” — Nichomachean Ethics
Friendships Based on Utility
To Aristotle, these are the most common types of friendship. They reflect those we form because being friends is beneficial to us, rather than because we care about the person. In cases like these, we don’t perceive the relationship as intrinsically good, instead, we use it as a means to get the things we truly desire.
These types are temporary and short-lived. Once the benefit ends, so does the relationship.
In an ideal situation, these types would be mutually beneficial. But in some rare cases, one person might base their relationship on utility, while the other genuinely cares and is invested in it.
The “benefits” you gain from these utility-based relationships come in many different forms. To name a few examples, consider instances where:
- Your “friend” has high social status (like the “cool kids” at school,) and it boosts your likeability and popularity being around them.
- This person has rich and wealthy parents, who spoil you with luxuries whenever you hang around them.
- You only spend time with this person when you’re bored and have nothing better to do — in which they are used as a cure for boredom.
To Aristotle, these are the types of relationships that the younger generation forms with the adults around them:
“This kind of friendship seems to exist chiefly between old people (for at that age people pursue not the pleasant but the useful) and, of those who are in their prime or young, between those who pursue utility. And such people do not live much with each other either; for sometimes they do not even find each other pleasant; therefore they do not need such companionship unless they are useful to each other”
Though we might welcome mutually beneficial relationships like these, they are toxic at their root. They are self-regarding and selfishly motivated by nature, and highlight a dark side to our character.
They certainly don’t contribute to a valuable and meaningful life. We can’t rely on this person when the going gets tough, and they will leave the minute we can’t do something for them. For that reason, it’s a stretch to even call these “friendships.”
“Friendship based on utility is for the commercially minded. [By contrast] people who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends” — Nichomachean Ethics
Friendships for the Sake of Sensual Pleasure
Aristotle notes this type of friendship is typically pursued by younger generations, because: “they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and is immediately before them.”
For that reason, these types are formed based on sensual pleasure. Where “sensual” is understood in a broad sense: while physical and sexual pleasure is included, so are general pleasures, like feelings of delight. Consider that hilarious friend who makes you laugh, the person you’ve been hooking up with, or your drinking buddy.
Like before, these types are self-focused: we form the relationship as a means to facilitate our own pleasures.
And, according to Aristotle, they don’t mean much to us. As we grow, our emotions rapidly change. That’s why we’re quick to form these types of relationships, and they abruptly end. In the words of Aristotle:
“For the greater part of the friendship of love depends on emotion and aims at pleasure; this is why they fall in love and quickly fall out of love, changing often within a single day. But these people do wish to spend their days and lives together; for it is thus that they attain the purpose of their friendship.”
All in all, these types are better than friendships based on utility. At the time the relationship forms, the person does intend to spend their days and lives together. It’s just that their emotions, desires, and interests change so quickly, that this intention doesn’t last very long.
Because they’re grounded in emotion and are short-lived, it’s difficult to form a real, meaningful, and trusting relationship based on pleasure alone.
The Gold Standard: Friendships Grounded in Virtue
The previous two friendships, according to Aristotle, lack any real depth and meaning. They’re fine for achieving your desired ends, but they’re not valuable relationships.
Instead, the gold standard is a friendship grounded in virtue. In the words of Zat Rana:
“Rather than utility or pleasure, [the ideal] relationship is based on a mutual appreciation of the virtues [and values] the other person holds dear.”
The most worthwhile relationships are those between people who are alike in virtue. They have a deep understanding of each other, care, and wish each other well for the sake of the friend themself — rather than to achieve some end.
In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that these types of relationships are long-lasting and enduring over time, because:
- The relationship was formed for its own sake, rather than incidentally when pursuing something else. “Therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing.”
- Both parties care for the other without qualification. Regardless of whether the relationship is beneficial or brings pleasure, they will both stand by and love each other.
It’s because of this that these friendships are expected to be permanent. In Aristotle’s own words:
“all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves… the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities.”
The Perfect Combination
These types of relationships are incredibly rare and hard to come by. They take time to nurture, grow and build trust. They also require familiarity — as the proverb says, men cannot know each other until they have “eaten salt together.” It’s for this reason that we form a deeper bond with the people we’ve been through hardship with.
Despite their rarity, Aristotle believes they provide the perfect combination. “They’re perfect in both duration, and all other respects.” They provide a deeper trust, intimacy, and appreciation, far beyond any other friendship.
Though not pursued for their sake, as they blossom, these relationships also bring pleasure and utility. When you respect and care for someone, you enjoy spending time in their company — and you’re supported just as much as you provide support.
As they are believed to be permanent, you will retain these benefits for the rest of your life. For that reason, despite taking time and effort to nurture, when opportunities for a perfect friendship arise, you should seize the chance.
Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle made an enlightening discovery about human social interactions that, even today, most of us fail to recognize:
most of the friendships we form are superficial.
Sure, they're nice in the present moment, but scratch beneath the surface and their impermanence is revealed. Neither party is in it for the sake of their friend, and they are prepared to leave when their circumstances change. In instances like these, we are being used as a means to an end: to help the other achieve pleasure, or for some sort of utility.
Because they’re selfish and self-motivated at their core, they don’t contribute to a valuable, fulfilling, and meaningful life.
Instead of getting caught up in them, we should seek friendships grounded in virtue: where we value and respect someone for their own sake, and don’t put qualifications on the relationship. Through thick and thin, these friends stand by and care for the other.
Though rare, these types are often permanent and bring deeper value, appreciation, and trust into our lives than any other relationship.
We should put less emphasis on having lots of superficial friends, and focus our time on cultivating a few, deeper relationships based on agape love, filled with mutual and long-lasting goodness.