Aristotle argues that friendship (philia) is key to human happiness. He claims that for any human to be happy she needs friends and other people close to her.Footnote 7 Generally speaking, the shared life is always superior and, as human wellbeing and social activity cannot be separated, it is better to engage in practical activities with a friend than to do it on one’s own.
The paradigm case of friendship for Aristotle is a relationship that is mutually recognised and taking place between two adults of equal standing. While all other relationships are inferior to this one, Aristotle agrees that relationships between e.g. the non-virtuous may also be called friendship but of a lesser kind, as pointed out above. The most important aspect of friendship is spending time together, preferably engaging in theoria as this is the hallmark of the good friendship.Footnote 8
Broadly speaking friendship helps us grow and become more virtuous as our friends inspire and help us. Both parties gain self-knowledge, ‘we are able to observe our neighbours more than ourselves, and to observe actions more than our own’.Footnote 9 Further to that point Cooper writes that, ‘the presumption is that even an intimate friend remains distinct enough to be studied objectively; yet because one intuitively knows to be fundamentally the same in character as he is, one obtains through him an objective view of oneself’.Footnote 10 So by watching our friend, our ‘other self’, we discover ourselves. Notably, this is an ongoing process: we change when going through life and therefore we must maintain our friendships not to lose track of ourselves. As Sherman succinctly puts it, ‘friendship creates a context or arena for the expression of virtue and ultimately for happiness’.Footnote 11
Good and true friends do things for one another and even though it might not be about counting and taking turns it is nonetheless vital that there is an overall balance which both parties are aware of. But what you do for your friend is not done to secure advantages for yourself, it is done simply because you see your friend as another self. Your friend is an extension of you in the sense that your happiness is to an extent dependent on him and, thus, that part of your fate lies in the hands of your friend(s).
A comprehensive definition of Aristotle’s notion of philia is, ‘the mutually acknowledged and reciprocal exchange of goodwill and affection that exists among individuals who share an interest in each other on the basis of virtue, pleasure or utility’.Footnote 12 In addition to voluntary associations of this sort, Aristotle also includes among friendships the non-chosen relations of affection and care that exists among family members and fellow citizens.Footnote 13
Based on the above-mentioned definition of philia, Aristotle argues that there are three main qualities that determine whether someone qualifies as a friend: excellence, pleasantness and usefulness. He then moves on to saying that these translate into three types of friendships, which often overlap.Footnote 14
friendship based on mutual admiration
friendship based on mutual pleasure
friendship based on mutual advantage
Aristotle claims that the first type of friendship is superior to the other two because it is based on excellence. What the two friends admire is the virtue of the other. It thus deals with the inner qualities of a person. In these situations we love our friend for intrinsic reasons and not solely as a road to pleasure and utility. You must not choose your friend because he makes you laugh or buys you expensive chocolates or has the right connections to secure you the best seats at the opera opening-nights. When you only love that which is useful and pleasant your friend becomes instrumental to securing those goods for you.Footnote 15
Evidently, such behavior is not fitting for the virtuous agent. These intrinsic qualities are stable (contrary to e.g. fame, beauty and wealth) so even if your virtuous friend falls on hard times he will still have those personal qualities you admire and love. The foundations of such a friendship are good without qualification. Your friend and you like each other, share basic values and you admire each other for the right reasons. You see the virtue in one another and you are drawn to it and you wish each other good only for the sake of good.Footnote 16
Although the three types of friendships overlap, it must always be the case that you see your friend as useful and pleasant because you love him and not the other way around.Footnote 17 That said, Aristotle also recognises that friends are important as instruments of happiness. He writes that, ‘happiness also evidently needs external goods to be added, as we said, we cannot, or cannot easily, do fine actions if we lack the resources. For, first of all, in many actions we use friends, wealth, and political power just as we use instruments’.Footnote 18 In addition to this, friends are also intrinsic, necessary components of happiness: ‘For we do not altogether have the character of happiness if we look utterly repulsive or are ill-born, solitary, or childless; and we have it even less, presumably, if our children or friends are totally bad, or were good but have died’.Footnote 19 In many cases people are friends in both senses because even the finest of friendships include pleasure and utility aspects and this does not taint them in any way.
It is worth stressing that the Greek term philia tends to be used in a broader sense by Aristotle and others than the English term ‘friendship’. Aristotle’s theory of friendship covers all the relationships we have with people around us, ranging from our family to our fellow statesmen. In addition to our modern notion of friendship, it includes a substantial chunk of all the other the members of society, for example the local cobblerFootnote 20 and one’s political or business contacts.Footnote 21 Indeed, Aristotle writes that we even have a certain philia with all of mankind and that there is an ever so small element of care among all humans.Footnote 22
Pakaluk claims that, ‘since Aristotle uses the term [philia] for any affection that expects reciprocation, or that expects and finds reciprocation, no matter how extended or attenuated that affection, he applies it very widely: to families, clubs, clans, and even to reciprocal affections of loyalty and patriotism among citizens’.Footnote 23 A slightly more conservative approach can be seen in e.g. Price, Walker and Cooper who all (to various degrees) argue that the lesser kinds of friendship and relationship do not qualify as friendship proper.Footnote 24 We shall return to this idea about different kinds of friendships and its implication for virtual friendship towards the end of this article.
At this point it could perhaps be objected that since philia is used in such a broad sense by Aristotle, it seems that his theory of friendship does not imply any particular intimacy. If true, this could in turn be taken to speak against our claim that virtual friendship is no genuine friendship. If, for instance, business contacts count as friends, in the broad Aristotelian sense, it seems odd to maintain that a virtual friendship cannot count as genuine friendship. Our reply to this objection is that the Aristotelian theory of friendship emphasises the importance of mutual admiration and love among friends. A major problem with online friendship is that this is often not the case. Both parties have to be aware of the relationship, they must both harbour similar feelings for each other and there must be an overall balance.Footnote 25 This is one of the many reasons why virtual friendship is problematic. For the internet user it is often more difficult to ensure that the love and admiration is mutual, as we explain in the next section.