The Philosophy of Friendship

My initial post for the New Year titled New Year; New Types of Friends suggests it is the perfect time to re-evaluate your friendships.  In my next two posts in this series, I provide the history and philosophy of friendships.

Starting with the ancient philosophers, many have spoken about the philosophy of friendships. Since then, dozens of sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and historians have written extensively about the need for humans to have friends. So let’s explore the early beliefs about friendships and the role they played at different times in history. 

Ancient Philosophy of Friendship 

Much of the early concepts for classical friendship came from philosophers in Greece and Rome who influenced the conduct of friends during the many centuries that followed. In ancient times, the philosophy of friendships included its social significance, moral basis, and the ethical rules it implied. 

As I wrote in the initial post of this series, Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.) suggests there are three types of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, which was his treatise on how men should best live: 

  • friendship for the sake of a benefit (utility),
  • friendship for mutual pleasure (non-sexual enjoyment),
  • friendship founded on shared values (friendship of the good).

Aristotle felt this last type was the most preferable since it results in living for a better purpose. 

Friendship for a Higher Purpose

Back in the ancient days, friendship had multiple purposes; some great and some not so great. For example, hospitality was something of exceptional importance in Ancient Greece which implied relationships of great honor between the host and their guest or traveler. It was a relationship for utility. 

Additionally, relationships formed because there was a mutual interest in a purpose but the relationship lasted only as long as there was a benefit for both sides. Once the mutuality was lost, the friendship ended. 

However, the philosophical concept of friendship was mainly tied to the trait of virtue. For example, Socrates  (470–399 B.C.) thought that only people of virtue could be capable of being a friend to someone. Plato (424/423 – 348/347 BC) thought that people from different social classes could never be friends. These philosophers felt friendships were to be united mainly for the sacred search for truth and wisdom. Many of the great thinkers of the times thought that only men were capable of having virtues, and therefore only men were capable of forming honorable connections who became friends. 

Of course, we now know that honorable friendship is not just for men!

A Different Type of Friendship

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was someone who talked frequently about the significance of friendship by relying on Aristotle’s writings. Cicero’s book, How to Be a Friend — or in Latin De Amicitia, goes beyond his predecessors to create a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating those people we value not for what they can give us, but because we find in them a kindred soul. 

A Time magazine article titled How to Be a Good Friend, According to an Ancient Philosopher, provides this timeless advice on friendship from Cicero’s book: 

  1. There are different kinds of friendships
  2. Only good people can be true friends
  3. We should choose our friends with care
  4. Friends make you a better person
  5. Make new friends, but keep the old
  6. Friends are honest with each other
  7. The reward of friendship is friendship itself
  8. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong
  9. Friendships can change over time.
  10. Without friends, life is not worth living

Philia: A Different Type of Love Between Friends

There are four ancient Greek words for love: storge (love shown to family members), eros (sensual or passionate love), agape (the unconditional love of God), and philia (usually translated as friendship, but is far more complex).

Philoi was a Greek term that meant all the people we are closest to, but mainly our family members and close friends. Philia is usually translated as “friendship” or affection; the complete opposite is called a phobia.

Friendships Begin to Change

By the early Middle Ages (500-1,400 CE), religious beliefs played an important role in life with a whole set of values and morals centered on the life of Christ. The philosophy of friendships meant friends were united in the love and care of thy neighbor.

Sometimes, this new morality led to alienating people from one another since firm moral rules were considered dangerous to relationships. Some also felt loving another human too much would come at the expense of loving Christ. 

But we all know this is not the case since God’s love is unending (John 3:16)

By the 12th century, there were some changes in the concept of friendship. Amicitia (the Latin word for friendship) was mainly regarded as a contractual link with utilitarian goals including economic and military support. It was a permanent agreement, which —in some instances was even transmitted as an inheritance. Amicable relationships were equaled only by kinship, blood ties, and godfatherhood. Amicable relationships were for building networks for political gain. This was demonstrated by the political maneuvers of King Arthur who married for power rather than love. 

While some friendships were legitimized on the basis of religious or political agency, as with the crusaders, other friendships were accepted purely for the pleasure that they could generate. Again, see the relationships of rulers of the land throughout history.

During this period, the lexicon of friendship in Western Europe included a wide range of relationships of diplomatic agreements; companionships of arms, and monastic brotherhoods, including amorous and sexual bonds. For example, writings about close relationships found in Germany had erotic subtexts. 

It was a time of reconstructing friendship as an earthly relationship, not something that was necessarily directed towards Christ.

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God Buddy Focus

I agree with Aristotle’s philosophy of friendships that his last type – a friendship for the good, is the most preferable since it leads to a GodBuddy friendship based on a mutual goal of becoming more like Christ. 

It’s also important to note how friendships changed throughout time.  Cicero’s 10 pieces of advice on friendships are still relevant today, especially since a life with good friends makes you feel great. They make you happy. Good friends make life worth living.

So now it’s time to find “friends for the good” who share the common purpose of becoming more Christ-like. 

This week:

  • Review about the Cicero’s philosophy of friendships above. Which do you agree with? Are there any that you with? 
  • Discuss the four Greek words for love: storge, eros, agape, and and philia. How are those different? Are there any similarities?
  • Do you have any close friends who make epitomize friends of the good?

My next post provides more about the history of friendships, which may surprise you. In upcoming posts of this series, I’ll also provide some examples of good friends in sports, literature, and entertainment some of which were friends of the good.

As always, I welcome your comments below.


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