What Aristotle can teach us about friendship

Something you won’t hear on Facebook: only the virtuous can be true friends

"Who is the greatest thinker of all time?" is the sort of pub question guaranteed to produce a lack of consensus. BBC Radio 4 ran a survey on the matter a few years ago, and Karl Marx came out on top (well, it was BBC listeners who were asked).

To Fran O'Rourke, however, there's only one right answer. Aristotle (born 384 BC), he says, is "the greatest philosopher who ever lived". In honour of the late biologist, ethicist and occasional tutor of Alexander the Great, Unesco has declared 2016 "Aristotle Anniversary Year" to mark 2,400 years since his birth.

Many of Aristotle’s insights have become everyday sayings, among them: “Man is by nature a social animal” – a statement that “appears so commonplace that we can overlook its profound meaning”, O’Rourke says.

“We are not a species of solitary beings. We need each other and cannot live in isolation – not only for the basic needs of survival, but for the fulfilment of our highest capacities such as thought and language.”


O'Rourke, who retired earlier this year as professor of philosophy from UCD, where he taught for 36 years, has produced a book of essays Aristotelian Interpretations (Irish Academic Press), emphasising the bearded one's contemporary relevance.

If he was around today, Aristotle would have something to say about the neglect of moral education in society, while also providing an important reminder to the Facebook generation to cultivate healthy relationships.

As O’Rourke says: “According to Aristotle, our social nature finds its highest expression in friendship.” However, true friendship only exists among the virtuous – something that can’t be achieved by the slavish accumulation of “likes”.

What’s so special about Aristotle?

“For me it’s his common sense, together with an attitude of wonder towards reality. His starting point is the world as we live and know it. Living the world comes first. This was overturned by Descartes who assumed that what we know directly are ideas rather than things.

“Kant even considered it a scandal of philosophy that no adequate proof can be given for the existence of things outside ourselves. For Heidegger the scandal is that such proofs are even sought. According to Aristotle, ‘it is ridiculous to try to prove that nature exists.’ The French philosopher Bergson remarked that the most difficult problems to solve are those that don’t exist; Descartes posed a false problem and set philosophy on an entirely wrong track.

“The mistake of modern philosophy was to divorce intelligibility from mystery. Aristotle rejoiced in the fact that the cosmos was far greater than the capacity of the human mind, but he never doubted that it was fully intelligible. It is our intelligence that is limited; the gods alone have perfect knowledge.

“Bergson commented that Aristotle’s thought presented the ‘natural metaphysics of the human intellect’. This is confirmed by the fact that many of the basic categories of everyday language derive from Aristotle: he formulated basic terms such as ‘actual’, ‘potential’, ‘substantial’, ‘accidental’, ‘categories’ etc. - what Arthur Koestler referred to as the ‘grammar of existence’.

“I am reminded of the student who asked, ‘What’s the big deal about Shakespeare: his work is just a bunch of famous sayings strung together?’ Aristotle’s thought and language pervade our everyday outlook: a friend is another self, habit is second nature, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

“Although they are not aware of it, most people are Aristotelian in their outlook. Aristotle gave systematic and reflected expression to everyday common sense. You might say that he is the intellectual founding father of the West.”

Why has Aristotle fallen out of favour in recent times?

“He may have been out of favour in recent centuries, but in recent decades there has in fact been a great resurgence of interest in his thought and he has countless adherents. Some of Aristotle’s explanations are outmoded, but many of his fundamental notions retain perennial value.

“For example his notion of ‘form’ – one of his famous four causes [of being] – has been adopted with enthusiasm by biologists. Max Delbrück, a pioneer of molecular genetics, even declared that Aristotle should have posthumously received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the principle implied in DNA.”

Aristotle wrote extensively on ethics and politics. Are these still relevant?

“One might wonder if we can learn anything from someone who accepted slavery as an institution and did not regard women as men’s equals? He wasn’t even a committed democrat. Much of his thought, however, is still relevant. With the upcoming election in the US, it’s worth recalling that Aristotle provided the original inspiration for the American constitution.

“One historian remarked that no 18th century statesman could escape ‘the fine Hellenic hand of Aristotle’. John Adams, second President of the United States, cited the ideals of virtue, justice, political friendship, and stability, and invoked Aristotle in justifying the American Revolution.

"James Madison, the fourth president - often referred to as 'Father of the Constitution', made Aristotle's Politics required reading for members of Congress. He invoked Aristotle's eudaimonistic principle that in politics 'the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people is the supreme object to be pursued'.

"Aristotle's ethics is termed eudaimonistic because it focuses on happiness. Happiness for Aristotle consists in the exercise of the basic human virtues. He maintained that all political associations exist for the sake of the moral perfection of human beings.

“This contrasts with some modern views that man is not by nature political but enters political association for survival and protection.

"There has been a recent revival of interest in 'Virtue Ethics', looking to Aristotelian insights into human flourishing and fulfilment. Speaking of which, I was interested in a recent Irish Times editorial headed 'A question of character in the US presidential election'. Aristotle's basic scheme of values has much to offer public life and the common good.

“The attraction of Aristotle’s virtue ethics is that it places freedom and responsibility at the centre of individual life. In contrast to theories which emphasise duty or utility, Aristotle’s ethics is immediately appealing because it offers personal reasons and incentives why we should be moral; it is centred upon individual happiness.

“Rather than ground morality in obligation or usefulness it is focused on personal values which often supersede duty or utility. He accepts the tension between conflicting elements of personality, hence the need for moral education.”

Has Aristotle’s notion of friendship any relevance today?

“It is a good thing, he says, to have many friends. No one would choose to live without friends even if he possessed all other goods.

“His notion of friendship, however, differs from the Facebook model. He distinguishes between three kinds of friendship: those of pleasure, utility, and virtue. I may love my friend because of our pleasing relationship, because she is useful to me, or because I value her as a virtuous character and love her intrinsic goodness for her own sake.

“Friendships of pleasure and usefulness, he says, are only incidental; they are easily dissolved, when the other person is no longer pleasant or useful. There’s great human insight here.

“Aristotle even says that older people often pursue the friendship of usefulness, young people most frequently the friendship of pleasure. He goes so far as to say that older people sometimes don’t even find each other pleasant, but need companionship.

“On the other hand young people are governed by emotions and seek what is immediately pleasant; they quickly fall in and out of love, even within a single day. Some of his remarks could have been written for the Facebook generation.

“As opposed to friendships of pleasure and usefulness, perfect friendship exists, Aristotle argues, between persons who are virtuous; there’s no friendship among crooks. True friends wish the good of each other. Their friendship lasts as long as they are themselves good and is therefore more enduring.”