When was the last time you hung out with your best friend from grade school? The one you told all your secrets to, had inside jokes with, even did a blood oath with? It’s probably been a while. Maybe a couple decades. Despite all the #rideordie hashtags and our massive collections of Facebook “friends,” most of the friendships that we form throughout our lives will dissolve. It’s inevitable, but why? To answer that question, I looked to a 2,000-year-old text.
The writings of Aristotle have shaped the course of history, influencing everything from political theory to economic systems to Western aesthetics. But the Greek philosopher also had profound thoughts on matters of everyday life, like our friendships. In Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described “three kinds of friendship” that people form under different conditions, and why some bonds are stronger than others. Here, he laid out the first two: utility and pleasure.
“There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable. Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.”
Friendships of utility and pleasure are similar — and they’re both fleeting. Aristotle observed that friendships of pleasure are most common among the young. Today, we can see that these friendships often form as a byproduct of shared phases — high school, college, or the first job search. As the next life chapter arrives, these friendships come to an end.
Friendships of utility often form between people who are more established, those who have learned that life consists of many tradeoffs, those who accept relationships that are more transactional in nature. A couple with small children might form a friendship with another young family in their neighborhood, and trade babysitting duties, for instance. Or a first-time founder might rely on a seasoned expert in his field. These relationships are also short-lived in nature because as soon as the benefit disappears, so do we. Aristotle writes:
“And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful, the other ceases to love him.”
I’m in my late twenties, and can already feel my relationships becoming more utilitarian. People are busy, or they don’t want to overstep their boundaries, and it takes much more effort just to go grab a beer. People think: There better be a good reason for this.
There is nothing wrong with these kinds of friendships. But if they’re all we ever experience, two things will happen: 1) All of our relationships will eventually fade because our wants, needs, desires, and wishes keep changing until the day we die. 2) We’ll always crave something more — a deeper, more honest, more meaningful connection.
This deeper connection is the third kind of friendship that Aristotle described. He called it “perfect friendship:”
“Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing.”
Writer Zat Rana penned a great piece about this type of relationship, which eloquently sums it up: “In this kind of friendship, the people themselves and the qualities they represent provide the incentive for the two parties to be in each other’s lives.”
These special kinds of friendships aren’t based on what someone can do for you or how they make you feel — they simply exist because you value who they are. Maybe you love your friend’s dedication to hard work. Or perhaps you deeply respect their courage to step up during conflict. Whatever pleasure and utility you get out of the relationship are merely a side effect of that love.
“Perfect friendship” is rare — even Aristotle believed this to be true. So how does this kind of friendship form? With time.
“Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together;’ nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each.”
There is no hack or shortcut to accelerate the formation of true friendships. Think about it: Your closest friends are likely the people with whom you’ve shared the most intense phases of your life. All-night study sessions in college. A cross-country road trip. New jobs. The loss of loved ones. Bouts of depression. Moments of joy. If you’ve shared a series of experiences like that someone, and stayed friends throughout ups and downs, you’re on your way to perfect friendship. Only with time do we learn to appreciate people as they are. Aristotle writes:
“Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.”
If we never venture beyond utility and pleasure, we’ll miss the relationships that give us real meaning and happiness. The only way to build these rare friendships — the perfect friendship — is to spend time together, traverse our ups and downs, and learn to value each other as human beings along the way. It won’t always be easy and it won’t always work out, but if we commit to valuing virtue over comfort and pleasure, we’ll look back at the end of our lives and see the faces of a few people we’ll call true friends.