Aristotle as Starting Point, but not Ending Point, for Scholarship on Friendship

As the study of friendship has increased in popularity in recent times, Plato and Aristotle’s treatments of it have resurfaced, as well. While I do feel that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are at times over-emphasized when many other people have had similarly brilliant (and sometimes obviously misguided views), as well, their ideas on friendship specifically within the context of there other works seems to be under-emphasized. Plato, for one, sees friendship as a “consequence rather than a condition of civic unity” [i], focusing more on the state as a whole being held together by civic friendship than individual people’s relationships. He also highlights self-reflection as the path to true happiness (regardless of connection to others) [ii], while other thinkers believe that friendship is necessary for happiness, salvation, etc. Aristotle, for one, believes that “the happy person needs friends” and that friendship is “the greatest external good” [iii]. As Plato’s view of friendship seems less relevant to modern-day relationships, emphasizing utility and transitivity instead of symmetry or reciprocity [iv], I will focus on Aristotle.

Just as Plato details civic friendship and its relation to holding the city together, Aristotle also considers friendship in the context of politics. As opposed to politics now, where friendship is not a primary concern of most governments [v], Aristotle describes it as the “most important part of political philosophy” [vi]. He believes that, while friendship does not need justice, justice needs friendship, and that “the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship” [vii]. At first, this struck me as inspirational, and still does, but I also had a few initial reservations. So much of my college career (and much of my life before that) has been spent talking about social justice and how needed it is in America today. So is this throwing that idea away? Isn’t justice always important? I think the key to understanding this question is in Aristotle’s last sentence: that friendship is the best form of justice. I have seen that in my training to be a mediator, too. In court, it is one side opposed to another—two truths where there is only room for one to be correct. It is “too cold,” focused on “rights” instead of friendship in a way that just pushes people apart [viii]. In mediation and other alternative forms of conflict resolution, however, both (or more) experiences are respected as “truths” and resolution is built around finding common ground. In this case, I agree with Aristotle that the most just justice, that most considers the humanity of the participants, is much closer to friendship.

So what is Aristotle’s definition of friendship? It is obviously important both for the happiness of individuals and of whole countries, but what exactly is it? While Plato sees friendship as based on utility, Aristotle recognizes friendship based on pleasure and friendship based on shared virtues (the best, “perfect friendship”), as well. In any of these three case, he says, friends must have and be aware of “reciprocated goodwill” [ix]. This fits within Brian Carr’s definition of friendship as nontransitive, symmetrical, and reciprocal, though allows for utility to be the source of a lesser kind of friendship. Aristotle’s ideal form of friendship, with two people who share aspirations of goodness and “mutual recognition of each other’s personhood” [x], seems to explain very well how friendship exists in the world, and how, through it, “our humanity is in a very real sense made real” [xi]. Instead of focusing on what the “use” of friendship is, Aristotle takes a more optimistic view, accurately describing the feeling of common goals and connection between friends.

Aristotle’s statements related to the self, too, are very positive. He says that a virtuous person is “of one mind with [themselves], and desires the same things in [their] whole soul,” and hence friends with themselves through “shared” virtues and aspirations [xii].  In terms of confidence, too, Aristotle does not over-stress humility and playing down personal strengths in ways that I think modern culture often does. “Megalopsychos,” Aristotle’s ideal man, possesses both “exceptional merit and accurate self-assessment” that allow him to do the most good that he is capable of instead of being too humble and selling himself short [xiii]. The “virtue” of humbleness is often taken too far, while self-confidence is stifled. However, it is also important to note that Aristotle does not take either of these things to the point of individualism; he also acknowledges that one person cannot have “direct self-knowledge” on their own, but needs parts of themselves to “be seen by someone else” [xiv]. Aristotle refreshingly emphasizes happiness on both individual and relationship levels.

However, there are a few things that Aristotle says that I am hesitant to accept. For example, he says, “Someone with a manly nature tries to prevent his friend from sharing his pain” [xv]. Of course it is possible for someone to put too much of an emotional burden on their friend, but reaching out for support from others is a valuable skill, and hyper-masculinity often causes men to repress feelings in a way that is ultimately harmful. Another statement that he makes that I am conflicted about is the idea that friendships can only be made between humans, not objects or animals. What about friendship with the environment in order to mitigate climate change [xvi]? What about friendship with pets, like dogs? In fact, more recently, it has been argued that “new empirical findings in cognitive ethology indicate that animals actually do fulfill the Aristotelian condition for friendship based on mutual advantage” [xvii]. This specific argument rests on categorizing human-animal friendships as based on utility, also pointing out that “even the lesser friendships include an element of genuine love and goodwill” [xviii]. The fact is, a dog and their owner have a certain way of communicating, both benefit each other, and are both brought joy by their relationship (in the best situation, anyway). Does that count as friendship? Perhaps it could be a “new subform” of friendship [xix]. Perhaps friendship with nature, too, could have its own subform.

These two objections along with other criticisms of elitism in Aristotle’s writings make evident how, while Aristotle wrote many great things about friendship and has most certainly positively influenced the field of friendship studies, his work (as with anyone, of course) is not to just be taken as fact. It can instead be taken as a launching point for further understanding the phenomenon that brings people together, causes so much joy in the world, and makes everything else worth it.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code of Oberlin College in this assignment.

Emily Cairncross



[i] Dimitri El Murr, “Philia in Plato,” page 26.

[ii] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 2/12.

[iii] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 148.

[iv] See Brian Carr’s article, “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis.”

[v] However, this is not entirely true. For an example of how friendship can be taken seriously politically, see Geggel’s article, “Why the UK Just Appointed a Minister of Loneliness.”

[vi] Mahallati, Lecture 2/12.

[vii] Aristotle, page 120.

[viii] Mahallati, Lecture 2/12.

[ix] Aristotle, page 121.

[x] Carr, page 15.

[xi] Ibid, page 30.

[xii] Aristotle, page 142.

[xiii] See Stern-Gillet’s chapter, “Souls Great and Small.”

[xiv] Mahallati, Lecture 2/14.

[xv] Aristotle, page 152.

[xvi] Mahallati, Lecture 2/5.

[xvii] Frööding & Peterson, “Animal Ethics Based on Friendship,” page 58.

[xviii] Ibid, page 61.

[xix] Ibid, page 65.


Works Cited

Aristotle. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin, 2nd ed., Hackett, 1999.

Carr, Brian. “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectivesby Oliver Leaman, CURZON, 1996, pp. 13–31.

El Murr, Dimitri. “Philia in Plato.” Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, edited by Gary M Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014, pp. 3–34.

Frööding, Barbro, and Martin Peterson. “Animal Ethics Based on Friendship.” Journal of Animal Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–69., doi:

Geggel, Laura. “Why the UK Just Appointed a Minister of Loneliness.” LiveScience, Purch, 18 Jan. 2018,

Stern-Gillet, Suzanne. “Souls Great and Small.” Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendshipby Gary M. Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014, pp. 51–83.