Kelly Gallagher ’22
On Monday, April 1, Professor Mary P. Nichols gave her highly-anticipated lecture in Rehm Library on “Aristotle and Friendship.” Nichols, Professor Emerita at Baylor University and author of numerous books on ancient thought, spoke to the audience about Aristotle’s views on friendship and how those views are still relevant today.
Throughout history, friendship has been an integral part of the human experience, yet modern philosophical thought has rather neglected the subject. Prof. Nichols traces this trend back to the thinkings of philosophers Descartes and Hobbes. Descartes was suspicious of his sensory experiences, because they could be an illusion, and thus any friend could be a deception. In Hobbes’ view, the human experience was one of self-preservation in a brutal world. These philosophers’ teachings had no room for friendship, and thus the modern schools of thought they inspired similarly disregard the topic.
Aristotle, on the other hand, considered friends necessary for happiness, and dedicated Books VIII and IX of his Ethics to discussing friendship.
In Book VIII of Ethics, Aristotle presents the friendships within a family as models for other friendships. There are the friendships between parents and their children, husbands and wives, and siblings. Prof. Nichols stressed that Aristotle didn’t hold patriarchal views of the relationship between husbands and wives, but rather focused on how they brought their different strengths to the table in order to contribute to the common good of their family. Sibling friendships, on the other hand, usually stem out of similarities, such as similarities in age or interests.
Book IX of Aristotle’s Ethics reflects on the two types of friendships outside of family friendships. There is political friendship, which is “like-mindedness” amongst citizens, and then there is friendship between human beings. This latter friendship stems from a person loving their friend because their friend is good. This love is derived from self-love, because if we love our own virtues, we will recognize and love such virtues in others.
The nature of friendship is reciprocal, and friends must give to and receive from their companions. People must give both their “pleasure and pain” to their friends, because a friendship will come to a standstill if one friend gives only their pleasure, while the other friend is hesitant to accept this bounty. That second friend will want to support the first friend, but cannot do so if the first friend is reluctant to give their pain. The first friend must be willing, for example, to share either the excitement of getting a job or the disappointment of rejection.
Friends share activities, which enables both parties to be benefactors and beneficiaries, to give and receive, to learn from and teach one another. Of course, the ultimate activity which friends share is that of loving each other. As Prof. Nichols put it, friendship is “more about loving than being loved.”
Prof. Nichols reflected that the nature of friendship has not changed since Aristotle studied it. Friends still get together to share activities, such as playing games or talking about life. Friendship is still integral to the human experience – after all, when students prepare to go to college, one of their major concerns is how they’ll make friends. The subject of friendship certainly merits more consideration in modern philosophical thought, but perhaps no one will contemplate it as well as Aristotle did.