I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful – but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.
Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:
Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.
‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.
Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.