We ask a lot of the word “friend.”
It can conjure up sweet childhood memories of zipping through the neighborhood on bikes and staying up past a reasonable bedtime on the phone (smart or otherwise). But “friend” also serves as the go-to term for social media followers, colleagues at awkward team-building exercises, fellow recipients of a fund-raising letter, and countless other relationships that don’t really meet the definition of the word.
It’s also how we sometimes refer to people we feel we have to show loyalty towards in order to succeed, or people who see us as extensions of themselves with little concern for our own struggles.
“I call her my ‘friend,’ but I don’t know what we have in common anymore. It’s just easier to keep hanging out than to stay home.”
A transition like a new job, new city, or new relationship can require building up a new circle of friends. It can be exhausting to have to start from scratch meeting new people and testing the waters to see if any of these acquaintances will develop into true friends. At other times, we may find that we’ve gone in a different direction with our lives than the people we used to consider our friends, and we may have to reevaluate how we are spending our time an energy.
A good question to ask about friendship is:
Where are we going with this?
“Where are we going with this?” is one of the oldest questions in philosophy: does this have a purpose? And one of the earliest thinkers to examine this question was Aristotle, who explored this question — where are we going with this? — as it applied to natural science, politics, and other subjects. For Aristotle, every act is geared towards an ultimate goal or purpose. For humans, our actions are ultimately directed towards happiness, but not in the sense of instant gratification. Aristotle’s idea of happiness is sometimes spoken of as The Good: the happiness we gain from pursuing what is worthwhile in life.
The Uses of Friendship
Friendships should serve to point us towards some form of goodness. Gregory Sadler provides an excellent overview of how Aristotle categorized three types of friendship based on how they are useful to us.How Difficult Is It To Find An Aristotelian Friend?
What does it take to develop the fullest sort of friendship?medium.com
Aristotle gives the word “friend” three different meanings:
- Friendship of utility, in which you and your friend understand that you will provide certain benefits to one another for as long as the friendship endures. A study group for biology class or colleagues in a professional organization could be considered friends of utility. Often, once the mutual usefulness of your interaction has faded, so does the friendship.
- Friendship of pleasure, which centers on shared enjoyment of an activity or pastime. Think of the delighting in the birth of an inside joke, or the triumphing as you score good seats together for a concert. These friendships, which tend to be more common among young people, are rooted in some common pleasure.
- Friendship of virtue, which may sound like “friendship with a chaperone” but which Aristotle considers the highest form of friendship. These are the friendships that point us towards The Good. We form them when we recognize that our friend possesses or aims at the virtues we hope to cultivate in ourselves. We are able to see these friends the most clearly because we pursue the friendship with the implicit understanding that we both wish to pursue The Good.
Investing in Friendship
You can’t have 50 friends of virtue.
You may have 50 virtuous friends, who all choose to live their lives in pursuit of the Good. (If you do, what a life you may enjoy!) Friendships of pleasure or utility can blossom into friendships of virtue over time as you come to know one another better. If your shared pleasure is some sort of self-improvement, or you are useful to one another in making your lives better, then it’s more likely that these relationships could ultimately grow into friendships of virtue. But friendships of virtue are precious and rare.
Friendship of virtue is rare because it requires deep, deliberate investment.
First, we must invest our time. It’s not enough to say that of course we act loyally, justly, kindly, and other adverbial conditions: this is how friends act, so this is how I will treat my friends. We have to demonstrate this commitment repeatedly over time towards those we hope to consider friends. It’s not so much that friends have to do specific activities together like Super Deep Journal Sessions or Meaningful Hikes of Contemplation; it’s more about how they consistently treat one another.
The deeper investment, which grows from this shared history of experiences, is an investment of self-disclosure. A friend of virtue is one who shares the same virtues (or, at least, aspires to them) as we hope to live out in our own lives. We can only know that we are on this same path if we are willing to reveal ourselves to the other person.
If we’re spending a lot of time together, we are already revealing a lot about ourselves without the hey-here’s-something-I-am-struggling-with deliberate conversation that can lead to self-disclosure. My friend knows me well because, thanks all of our shared experiences, she sees how I interact with those around me, not just based on what I tell her about my life (in which I am usually the beleaguered heroine of my own story). Those shared experiences provide opportunities to open up to one another about how we are responding to situations based on the virtues we supposedly wish to pursue.
And we have to be truthful in this self-disclosure, which is a risky proposition.
If you really knew me, would you try to fix me?
Self-Disclosure Is Risky
The fact that we can never truly know what another person is thinking means that sharing our deeper worries and aspirations can leave us vulnerable to misunderstandings and rejection. While a friend should not be expected to respond to our struggles with the expertise of a trained therapist, we can grow closer both to our friend and to The Good if we are genuine in self-disclosure.
Classicist David Konstan mentions a drinking song from Athens in the fifth century BCE that gets at the question of how well we know our friends with arresting bluntness: “If only it were possible to know without being deceived about each man who is a friend what he is like, cutting open his chest, looking into his heart, and locking it up again.” We are living in a world in which Big Data may have looked into our hearts more deeply than most of our friends, as we have inadvertently revealed ourselves through our online correspondence and social media usage. And just as we may be apprehensive about how much Google knows about our deepest thoughts and daily challenges, we can be fearful of how our friends will react to our self-disclosure.
We could face rejection or a lack of empathy; our friend may see our self-disclosure as an invitation to share all of the ways he’s thought we should improve ourselves to become more presentable. “I’m so glad you shared with me that you are having trouble sticking to a workout routine, because I was thinking you would be much happier if you exercised more, dressed better, upgraded your vehicle, and got these awesome veneers my dentist was telling me about.” (All of these might, indeed, lead to an increase in temporary happiness, but receiving such a prescription from a friend would probably make us not want to share much of anything in future conversations.)
Yet once we get to the point in a friendship where we have the opportunity to reveal ourselves at a deeper level, it is worth the risk. For it in these interactions that we truly pursue the Good.
The Fruits of Friendship
The 16th-century philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, built upon Aristotle’s approach to knowledge and understanding the world via scientific observation. Although he is primarily remembered for his other philosophical contributions, his short essay “Of Friendship” speaks to us of how these deep friendships contribute to our flourishing in ways that make them worth the investment. Bacon argues that we will recognize friendship by its fruits.
First, Bacon tells us that friendship allows us to “discharge . . . the swellings of the heart.” If you have a friend to whom you can “vent” about a problem and eventually arrive at a solution, you are fortunate indeed. Bacon says that friendship “makes daylight in the understanding”: not only can our hearts be lifted by the presence of our friends, but we can come to a clearer understanding of ourselves.
Bacon also writes that the counsel we receive from a friend can remedy the ways in which we flatter ourselves or excuse our shortcomings; it is in these exchanges that we truly could hope to change for the better thanks to a friendship of virtue. Again, we see that we can only reap this fruit of friendship if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. How helpful can a friend be to us if we have refused to share the true circumstances of our suffering?
It may be tempting to compartmentalize friends according to the type of advice they can give us: Susan always motivates me when I am hesitant to step up in my professional life, while Rob can be depended upon to help me figure out how to handle difficulties in my relationships. While it is true that friends from different circles can provide more specific counsel to us in different situations, Bacon argues that this “taking counsel in pieces” can backfire. He likens it to going to a new doctor for a specific illness and not providing any of your medical history: the remedy for your head cold might counteract the other medications that your other physician prescribed for other symptoms, leaving you worse off than before. A friend who knows you well across multiple aspects of your life will often be able to help you through a situation with a more thorough understanding of what obstacles you face.
What If I Don’t Have Any Friends of Virtue?
If you feel lonely, or question whether you have any friendships that resemble what Aristotle and Bacon described, you are not alone! A 2018 study by the global health service company Cigna found that “most American adults are considered lonely.” Even as we make connection after connection through our online interactions and group events (at which introverts may shudder!), we are not necessarily making those friends of virtue who can truly show us we are not alone as we seek the Good.
Here is where the where are we going with this? question may help put things into perspective.
If you find yourself in a group that only seems to exist for socializing and chit-chat, but doesn’t seem to offer that deeper fulfillment of friendship of virtue, try acknowledging: that’s not the purpose of these particular friendships.
If you realize that a person you consider a friend is maybe “just using you” to enhance her status, access your connections, or fill an empty seat at the clique table, try saying: this is a friendship of utility. Perhaps said friend isn’t capable at the moment of providing more; perhaps you need to step away from the friendship. Or perhaps these interactions serve some other, useful purpose for now and eventually will lead you to finding a friend of virtue.
It’s okay to have friendships of pleasure and friendships of utility; it would be hard to get through life without them! We can’t exactly walk around with signage proclaiming “SEEKING FRIEND OF VIRTUE: Superficial types need not apply.” Labeling these interactions correctly can free you from disappointment that a particular friendship isn’t providing that deep connection that you are seeking.
If you’re in search of those friendships of virtue without much success, be patient and understand that they come with time and shared experiences. In the meantime, habits like getting enough sleep, spending time with family (assuming a healthy family environment), regular physical activity, and finding the right balance in work commitments were all found to reduce the “loneliness score” of those surveyed for Cigna’s study. I have found that when I am better at committing to these other habits, it is easier for me to have the energy and desire to nurture my friendships.
And just like any creative effort, building friendships requires repeatedly taking risks. Take a small step towards greater self-disclosure, or even just increase the frequency with which you interact with a specific friend. It could start you both down the road to developing that deeper friendship that points you towards the Good.