July 30th marks the United Nations (UN) ‘International Day of Friendship’. The authors of the UN webpage state that friendship is essential to forming mutual trust and overcoming all of the world’s challenges, disasters, and divisions. However, despite recognising and affirming the importance of friendship, it is not entirely clear what the UN means when using the term.
This should come as little surprise since the concept has been puzzling thinkers since the time of the ancient Greeks! The Socrates of Plato’s Lysis struggled to define friendship, concluding that although he recognised Lysis as his friend, he was unable to determine exactly what he meant by the term (223b).
Aristotle examined the idea of friendship in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he established his idea that friendship is a virtue, or at least involves virtue (1155a4). Aristotle thought there were three types of friendship, each corresponding to one of the ‘three objects of love’ (1156a7-8):
• There are those who we enjoy having around (pleasant friends);
• Those we have because they are useful to us (friends of utility);
• Those who are our true friends (complete friendship).
Aristotle notes that we do not like the witty person because of their character, but because we find them pleasant to be around (1156a12-14). Those who love each other for utility love not the other in their own right, but only as long as they gain some good for themselves (1156a9-11). Pleasant or useful friends easily come and go, for the friendship ends when the other is no longer pleasant or useful to us (1156a20-21).
Aristotle’s idea of complete friendship rests on the idea of wishing goods to the other for their own sake (1156b9-10). In this scenario, the friendship is reciprocated goodwill, and the friends are aware that this goodwill exists (1155b31-36).
However, does Aristotle’s categorisation of friendship apply to the present-day? It is difficult to say into which of these categories Facebook ‘friends’ fit. For instance, we may feel envy rather than pleasure upon seeing glamorous snapshots of the lives of others, or find our time spent on the platform wasted, quite the opposite to utility! It is also difficult to know whether goodwill is authentic when conveyed through the medium of a computer screen, or whether others recognise the goodwill that we send.
Therefore, it seems that the authors of the UN webpage on friendship were wise in not defining friendship, as our modern world has entirely transformed the concept. On other social media, we have LinkedIn ‘connections’, Instagram and Twitter ‘followers’, but these also do not fit clearly into any of the three forms that Aristotle identified. It would be difficult to determine how these friends differ from mere acquaintances or associates, raising the question whether social media platforms are merely preserving our friendships of utility or pleasure, unable to dissolve as they would in real life?
The internet has connected us more than at any other point in human history; so it is perhaps ironic that it has blurred our understanding of friendship even further. It is even more perplexing when we consider people who claim to have made friends through the internet or maintained contact with friends living in far-away places across considerable amounts of time. Perhaps then, we are similar to Socrates, recognising our friends even if we cannot clearly say what we mean when using the term.
To end on a positive note, it is clear that despite the confusion around friendships, we still realise their importance. Perhaps this July 30th we should take the time to think about those we consider to be true friends and reach out to them to commemorate the date.
Aristotle. (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Irwin, T. (2nd Edn), USA: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.
Plato. (2005) Meno and Other Dialogues, translated and edited by Waterfield, R., Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jason Metcalfe, Research Associate, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues