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The Best Kind of Friend: Aristotle on Friendship

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Being a woman can be a lonely business. Young women have to strike out on their own and make lives for themselves—often far from home. Most moms must make the painful choice between missing their children from work or missing adult companionship while home with their kids. Older women cope with many different kinds of loss when their children move away from home or a spouse or beloved friend dies.

Friendship is what carries most women through these difficult transitions in their lives. In fact, the great philosopher Aristotle describes friendship as “most necessary with a view to living.”

Friendship Is Important…

Why exactly is friendship a “most necessary” part of life?

Friendship makes life worth living.

“Without friends, no one would choose to live.”

Friendships add meaning to our lives. A good friend is there for us when everything seems to be going wrong to remind us of all the reasons we have for living.

Friendship makes us better.

“[Friendship] stimulates to noble actions.”

A good friend sets a good example of good choices and challenges us to make ourselves better.

Friendship is necessary to a stable society.

Friendship seems to hold the state together.

Civil society depends on the interrelationships between people. It’s easier to interact with someone—even someone who disagrees with you—if you are friends.

…But Not All Friendships Are the Same

We tend to use the word “friend” in many different senses. You can be “friends” with your mailman, your coworkers, your “kindred spirit,” or your spouse. But when you get right down to it, the relationships you share with all of these different people don’t really share that much in common.

According to Aristotle, all of the different relationships we class as friendship fall into three basic categories:

Friendship based on usefulness.

“[Utility friends] do not love each other for themselves, but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”

A utility friendship is a friendship from which both you and your friend hope to gain. Most likely, your relationship with your favorite barista is a utility friendship: you’re hoping to get good service and he or she hopes to earn a tip. We all need utility friendships, but personal gain isn’t the foundation of a life-changing relationship. When you and your utility friend no longer have anything to offer each other, the friendship will dissolve.

Friendship based on pleasure.

“It is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.”

A pleasure friendship is a friendship based mostly on mutual enjoyment of each other’s company. Most of those friends from high school and college that make you laugh for hours are probably pleasure friends. Again, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure friendship. In fact, pleasure friends make life a lot more fun. But your pleasure friendships are likely to last only as long as you can keep each other amused.

Friendship based on virtue.

“[Virtue friendship] is the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other quagood, and they are good in themselves.”

A virtue friendship is the kind of friendship that will change your life. It’s based on choosing what is good for your friend over what is good for you—and trusting your friend to do the same for you. A virtue friend challenges you to be the best you can be. Virtue friendships are the ones that last.

The Best Friendships Must Be Cultivated

While utility and pleasure friends make life easier and more enjoyable, it’s the virtue friends that really make life worth living. So how can you develop a virtue friendship?

Be good.

“It is natural that [virtue] friendship should be infrequent for such men are rare.”

It’s an old cliché that you have to be the kind of friend you want to have. Virtue friendships are unusual because many people find it hard to make themselves emotionally vulnerable and choose someone else’s needs over their own. The best thing you can to do help cultivate a virtue friendship is to practice making selfless choices.

Be selective.

“One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once.”

Don’t expect every friendship to be a virtue friendship. Look for a friend you can look up to, whose example makes you want to be better. These virtuous people make the best virtue friends.

Be nearby.

“There is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.”

Virtue friendships last across distances of time and space, but you can only build a true virtue friendship with someone you see regularly. Seek out your virtue friend from people within your own community. Prioritize spending time with her to get to know each other better.

Be patient.

“[Virtue] friendship requires time and familiarity.”

Virtue friendship doesn’t grow overnight. Don’t forget that good conversations—the kind that make and break a friendship—take time, a good setting, and silence. Going for a walk is a great activity for friendship building because they are peaceful and allow for natural pauses in the conversation.

A virtue friendship is well worth the time and effort it takes to build. Women with strong virtue friendships are happier, healthier members wives, mothers, community members—and people.

Learn More

To learn more about Aristotle and his ideas on friendship, check out

Are you lucky enough to have a virtue friend? Tell us more about her in the comments.

4 responses »

  1. Enlightening. I wish all relationships were based on friendship. The virtuous kind, of course.

    Mark Blasini

    • It would be great if all relationships were based on based on friendship and goodwill, but I think part of Aristotle’s point is that not all friendships can be virtue friendships. You can really only have a virtue friendship with someone who is your equal or near equal intellectually, morally, and socially. But you can certainly use the idea that friendship ought to make us better in all your relationships with other people.

  2. Ah, and there’s the beauty of it. To feel equal to everyone, to feel that everyone has something unique to contribute to you, and that you can offer the same uniqueness — that would be true, true friendship. But I agree, perhaps it’s not possible. Thank you for your reply!


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