This book focuses on the importance of what Aristotle called virtue-friendship for political life. He famously distinguished three types of friendship: (1) utility, (2) pleasure, and (3) virtue. Friendships of utility are present among individuals who trade goods with one another; economic exchange is a paradigmatic example. You do not need to love the friend in order to conduct the exchange. Or, as Adam Smith put it in the Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”1 Friendships of pleasure are present among individuals who share bodily enjoyment of various kinds, such as drinking buddies. Again, friends of pleasure do not necessarily love one another, but rather the pleasure each provides the other. Without anything more, pleasure friendships end when friends cease to amuse each other. That “more” is a regard for the friend’s well-being and character, which points to virtue-friendship. Virtue-friendship is present when friends love one another for their characters. People serious about their own moral character conduct such friendships. They either practise the virtues – like courage, moderation, justice, generosity, etc. – or are fully committed to the life of attaining virtue. Stephen Salkever calls this dedication the “prohairetic life” because friends encourage each other to make good choices (prohairesis) regarding virtue. They continually have “their rough edges knocked off” (NE 1172a17), as Aristotle says.2
The peak of the prohairetic life among friends is the sharing of their lives. Virtue-friendship is higher than political friendship insofar as it involves the sharing of the intellect, the highest part of us. Friends love each other while contemplating the good. Our joint perception of the good, sunaisthesis, constitutes the very flowering of our intellects:
But one’s being is choiceworthy on account of the awareness of oneself as being good, and such an awareness is pleasant in itself. Therefore one also ought to share in a friend’s awareness that he is [or share his friend’s consciousness of his existence – sunaisthanesthai hoti estin], and this would come through living together and sharing conversation and thinking; for this would seem to be what living together means in the case of human beings. (NE 1170b10–12)
Our intellect is structured to seek knowledge, and that also includes seeking to be known. Being known here does not mean being honoured or having fame. Rather, it means knowing oneself and one’s relationship with the world one inhabits – not only through one’s own eyes, but also through the eyes of another. It is an act of intellectual triangulation, as it were, but one familiar to just about all of us. We behold a beautiful scene when accompanied by our friend. Our understanding and appreciation of that scene is enhanced because we share the act of beholding it with our friend, and our understanding and love of that beauty redoubles in our understanding and love of our friend. Furthermore, “were it not for an underlying liking and sympathy for one’s companion, one would not care what he saw, but feeling this, we simultaneously are pleased by his activity and being, and find that it augments our perception of our activity and being and so is good for us … In such shared perception and shared thought, the experiences of two people can most closely approach a perfect unity, by converging upon a single object.”3 Put more simply, two sets of eyes are better than one, and we love to talk about the experience of seeing the beauty with our friend long afterward. One might say that our act of beholding that beauty is not complete unless we talk about it long afterward. Or perhaps a shared silence is all that is needed.
Of course the beauty of a friend’s moral and intellectual excellence is far greater than any beautiful mountain scene or painting. And that beauty is far more difficult to discern. It might be glimpsed in those moments when our moral character is tested and we act in a beautiful manner that sacrifices our good for that of our friend. Yet we also know that we are conflicted beings and that motives are not always pure. Discerning our friend’s character, and our own, is a lifelong project. Our capacity to behold the moral character of our friend is based upon a life shared together, with all its ups and downs, “through living together and sharing conversation and thinking.” Paradoxically, we are most complete, most alive, when we live for another, and when we tell each other stories about our lives lived together.
John von Heyking is professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge.
1 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, book I, chap. 2, para. 2. Smith thought commercial society better distinguished friendships of utility from virtue-friendships, which premodern societies had conflated in nepotistic practices of economic exchange.
2 Salkever, “Taking Friendship Seriously: Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life,” in Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought, edited by John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 59–70.
3 Lorraine Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),190. For other efforts to anchor Aristotelian virtue-friendship in sunaisthesis, see Giorgio Agamben, “Friendship,” Contretemps, no. 5 (December 2004): 2–6; April Flakne, “Embodied and Embedded: Friendship and the Sunaisthetic Self,” Époche 10, no. 1 (2005): 37–63; Aryeh Kosman, “Aristotle on the Desirability of Friends,” Ancient Philosophy 24, no. 1 (2004): 135–54; and chapter two of this study.