A few months back, I had a severe case of food poisoning. I was so sick I could hardly move and was desperate. Luckily, my good friend Terry came quickly and delivered some Gatorade, Saltine Crackers, and Bananas. After 24 hours of lying in bed unable to budge an inch, that simple combination of food gave me just enough energy and replenishment so that I would be able to function again. I was lucky in that I knew several friends I could call who would help me out. That’s what friends are for and hopefully they know I would do the same.
The classical view of friendship, one largely forgotten, was tied up in the common goal and in the virtue required towards its attainment. Friendship was less about having fun together and more about survival or achieving a communal good. In the traditional sense of human friendship, whether or not you admired a friend had as much to do with whether or not this person was someone who would help the group survive. If your fellow tribesman, fellow warrior, fellow kinsman, or citizen had what it took to work with the group and achieve the goal- building a house, digging a well, farming and cultivating a certain plot of land, or something else, then this person would be deemed a good friend. In the classical sense, a virtuous friend is a good friend.
A virtuous and worthy friend in the classical sense is:
These group survival era traits were what it took in classical times to be a good friend. These qualities are still admired in the modern era, but are less tied up in what it means to be a worthy friend. The life of an individual free from any commitments to a tribe, family, city, kingdom, or group was not heard of until the last 100 or so years, and was not significantly common until the 1960s. This “freeing up” of the individual of course had its many positives, but came with some trade-offs too. So the definition of a friend has changed in that our lives are more individual and so the nature of friendship is different now too.
Aristotle, who lived 500 years before Christ in Athens, Greece, believed that friendship was one of the most important things in life. He saw 3 major types of friendship: 1) pleasure 2) utility (helping one another), and 3) admiration. He saw friendships which were based on pleasure and utility, though a normal and at times necessary part of life, as being what they were- less about mutual “goodness” and more about temporary and fleeting pleasure or convenience. Though he looked at utility and trade-based friendships as less noble than virtuous friendships, he also knew that virtue was linked up to what he called the “telos”, or man’s end. In that sense, and also from a survival perspective, one could argue that Aristotle’s idea of utility-based friendship is linked with virtue. To help achieve the group goal, a man had to be virtuous, at least in some sense, and so this in turn made him a good friend.
Aristotle also saw friendship as something, like character, which took time and effort to develop:
“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” – Aristotle
He saw it as something that made life worth living:
“Friendship is a thing most necessary to life, since without friends no one would choose to live, though possessed of all other advantages.” – Aristotle
He saw friendship as requiring principled & ethical behavior, and values:
“A friend to all is a friend to none.”- Aristotle
Aristotle also saw friendship tied up in an ideal of behavior that would be good for the group, in his case the city of Athens:
“In the arena of human life, the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action. – Aristotle”
The modern view on friendship can still incorporate many of these same classical ideas but it is mostly tied up in entertainment. Friends get together less and less to achieve something or because they admire each other and more to enjoy doing various things. There isn’t anything wrong with this, but it is not as full of an expression of friendship as it could be. If you are getting together with friends to shop, play golf, or go party, it may be fun, but it has little to do with a common goal or whether or not this “friend” is worthy of admiration.
A common view on a worthy friend nowadays is based on relatively ephemeral qualities such as:
There is nothing at all wrong with these qualities but they do present to us a challenge in that they do not involve virtue or character. What if we really need someone’s wisdom, or integrity, or commitment during a hard time? Are these the friends that will provide the type of relationship we need? Will these types of relationships last and make us better people? What if they stop being funny, will we still value them? How about if they become disfigured, or some terrible secret comes out that makes them unpopular? What if they become poor? Are they still worthy of friendship? I think you catch my drift.
Over time, I would say one of the most rewarding things for me has been getting to become closer to my parents. I admire the many building and engineering things my Dad is capable of doing and the many skills and talents my Mom has as well. We are now friends as well as family members and I genuinely admire my parents and their character, not necessarily because we have the exact same hobbies and interests, but because there is mutual admiration there. The best kind of friendship, the best kind of love, is a love and friendship based on admiration of the quality of the other.
This is where I would like to wrap this discussion up. Friendship is one of the most important things in life, quite possibly the most important thing. People with close friends live longer and are happier. Marriages based on friendship and mutual admiration tend to last and be more rewarding too. The way we have built our society, where we don’t have to interact with people, even in our own homes, makes it very challenging to build strong virtue- driven friendships. Social media and technology are solidifying further the walls between us by enclosing us in our own little “silos” of existence.
The state of the world we live in means we have to make a concerted, consistent, and intentional effort to build friendships with people we admire, so we will enjoy our lives and become better people along the way. Re-read the above list of the classical virtues and keep them in mind when deciding who you will spend your time with. It has been proven time and time again that the quality of our friendships determines the quality of the person we will become. Stay committed to lasting and deep friendships, and you will be healthier, your friends will be healthier, and our world will be healthier.
The following are some suggestions for building better friendships:
- Join or start a book club and begin discussing philosophy. This can be a great way to become wiser and to become more empathetic of other points of view.
- Join a church and become involved in service projects or studies. I recently started back going to church regularly, to a small Anglican church and have made some deep friendships already with people I admire and who are interested in things I am like philosophy, history, virtue, travel, and theology.
- Lay out a project for business or pleasure, and pick friends to help you who have the qualities necessary to achieve the common goal.
- Invite a friend to come and visit.
- Ask a friend to go a fitness-oriented trip together, like a hike or another challenging adventure and train together. Several years ago I did the Bike Ride Across Georgia with some friends, which was a fantastic (and grueling) 420 mile experience.
- Start a band, join a martial arts club, or a civic club and work towards a goal with other people.
- Seek out a mentor and ask them to lunch. Ask them if you can call them from time to time for advice. I do this for several people and find it very rewarding.
- Some so-called friends may need to be let go. Some people are just overly negative, manipulative, or dishonest. Some people drag you down and are not worthy of your time.
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