A Friendly Discourse on Friendship


Facebook has changed everything. “Friend” used to be a noun, but now is also used as a verb, as in “to friend” someone on Facebook.

This change raises the question of how “friend” is defined and what a real friend is, now that the definition has been widened. Joseph Epstein gives us a good start in his wonderful book Friendship: An Expose:

Friendship is affection, variously based on common interests, a common past, common values, and, alas, sometimes common enemies, in each case leading to delight and contentment in one another’s company.

What else should we add? It is probably not possible to have very many really close friends, because friendship takes some time and effort, thus excluding the possibility of — say — 100 close friends. Indeed, the philosopher Plutarch thought seven was the correct number. And Aristotle believed that it would be hard to find enough really good people worthy of closeness, thus limiting the number of excellent friendships one could have even further.

Here are a few of the qualities we might find in friendship, as derived from the likes of Epstein, Aristotle (in his Nichomachean Ethics), and yours truly. As you read them, ask yourself whether these characteristics are present in the friendships you enjoy:

  • Friends are constant. They aren’t interchangeable. We like to think of friends as people who will be our friends for quite some time, if not forever.
  • You can be yourself around your friend. You don’t have to put on a show or try to win approval. If the two of you are good friends, then there is a significant amount of acceptance and a lack of pretense.
  • A best friend is like a brother or a sister; perhaps even closer. Almost like “another self,” according to Aristotle.
  • You share interests with friends. You have a compatible sense of humor and view of the world. If you don’t, that may put your friendship at risk.
  • Friendships are more easily maintained when you and your friend have relatively equal status and prosperity. Major differences in these areas can strain the relationship.
  • The best friendships involve people who can be open with each other (although this is not required at every moment). There is understanding between the two parties.
  • Friendship usually necessitates some regularity of seeing and/or communicating with one another, although electronic means of contact have certainly changed any face-to-face requirement, especially for old friends.
  • Over time, a history of shared memories will deepen the friendship.

Before I get to some other qualities that are typically present in close friendships, let’s turn to Aristotle, who said that there are three different categories in the friendship department. Again, you might want to try to sort your friends into these:

  1. Friendship based on usefulness. Think of those people to whom you are friendly because of what they can do for you. Many business relationships fit this category.
  2. Friendship based on pleasure. This classification would include individuals with whom you keep company because they are fun to be with; or perhaps for the sexual thrill provided by your interaction with them. But, as with the first category, when the benefit ends, so does the friendship. It is one-dimensional.
  3. Friendship based on excellence or virtue. Aristotle considers this the highest form of friendship. It is between two people who are good and who both wish all that is best for each other. It is therefore different from the purely self-interested categories above. This type of companionship will include the qualities of usefulness and pleasure that are present in those two types of pairings, but lasts as long as the parties are good, not being entirely dependent on the other’s utility or entertainment value. Considerable time spent together is usually required to create such relationships. Each person first has to have enough experience of the other to trust that person.

Here are some additional qualities commonly found in the best friendships:

  • Friends provide consolation in times of trouble and take joy in the good fortune of the other.
  • Friendships are more easily created when there is time alone with the other person. It is harder to achieve any significant level of intimacy in groups; or, when you have time with the potential friend only in the presence of his spouse (or girlfriend) as well as your own mate. Individuals in groups tend to keep the talk “small,” light, and unrevealing.
  • Epstein again: “One might begin by saying that one’s friends must be honorable, fair, decent, good-humored, generous, and kind.” Sounds like Aristotle’s highest form of this category, doesn’t it?
  • Friendships are never ideal, but Aristotle suggests that when your friend is going off the righteous path, it is your job (as his friend) to try to set him straight. Only if time proves that he has gone permanently wrong should you abandon him.
  • As you and your friend age, both of you will change. In order to maintain the relationship at the same level of importance and closeness, the alterations that occur in each of you will have to be compatible.
  • Cicero, another ancient philosopher, suggested that none of us is probably as good a friend as the kind of person we are looking to have as a friend. Tolerance and acceptance of imperfection is required in any such pairing.
  • Reciprocity is a key to a well-functioning companionship. If one person is always initiating the calling, texting, organizing of get-togethers, driving, giving the gifts, and picking up the dinner checks, the strain of imbalance and inequity can break the relationship.
  • Friends should be reliable and dependable. They shouldn’t forget their promises and the meetings they’ve scheduled with you. They won’t blow you off when a better offer comes along, at least not with regularity.

Aristotle devoted approximately 20% of the Nichomachean Ethics to the issue of friendship, showing just how important he thought it was to achieving a good and satisfying life. Clearly, he wasn’t talking about Facebook friends, who probably would have been called “acquaintances” in the old days.

Psychologists tell us that friendship is essential to life satisfaction, especially as one ages. Moreover, friendship is often thought to be more productive of happiness than even one’s contact with a spouse or children. Clearly, it is a part of life that should not be ignored.

Tired of me quoting great philosophers and writers? Here is a last word on friendship from an unlikely source: a boxer. But it is as wise a comment as any from the ancient Greeks:

“Friendship… is not something you learn in school. But, if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you haven’t learned anything.” (Muhammad Ali).

When the Humpty-Dumpty of friendship has a great fall, here is a better remedy than “all the king’s men:” When Friendships Go Bad and How to Fix Them.