The 3 Types of Friendship According to Aristotle

Listers, Aristotle quite arguably has the most famous philosophic lesson on friendship. Aristotle, “the Philosopher,” observes there are three general lovable qualities that serve as the motives for friendship: utility, pleasure, and the good. Moreover, each type of friendship, to be an actual friendship, has the following attributes: “To be friends therefore, men must (1) feel goodwill for each other, that is, wish each other’s good, and (2) be aware of each other’s goodwill, and (3) the cause of their goodwill must be one of the lovable qualities mentioned above.”1 Note that the wishing of goodwill must be mutual and known. Aristotle states, a man cannot be friends with an inanimate object, for it would be “ridiculous to wish well to a bottle of wine.” It is not a mutual goodwill. Moreover, if a person wishes well to another, but it is not reciprocated, it is not a friendship. Again, it is not mutual. However, even if you had two persons who wished well to each other, but did not know each other wished the good for each other, then it is not friendship as the mutual goodwill is not known. Thus friendship is a known mutual goodwill between persons for one of the lovable qualities, i.e., utility, pleasure, or the good.

1. Friendship of Utility

Aristotle teaches, “thus friends whose affection is based on utility do not love each other in themselves, but in so far as some benefit accrues to them from each other.”2Consequently, in a friendship of utility, “men love their friend for their own good… and not as being the person loved, but as useful or agreeable.”3 In other words, the friend is not loved for his own sake, but for the sake of some benefit received by the other. Aristotle notes that these friendships are not permanent, because if the benefit of the utility ends so too will the friendship. He states, “Hence when the motive of the friendship has passed away, the friendship itself is dissolved, having existed merely as a means to that end.”4

Aristotle observes, “friendships of Utility seem to occur most frequently between the old, as in old age men do not pursue pleasure but profit; and between those persons in the prime of life and young people whose object in life is gain. Friends of this kind do not indeed frequent each other’s company much, for in some cases they are not even pleasing to each other, and therefore have no use for friendly intercourse unless they are mutually profitable; since their pleasure in each other goes no further than their expectations of advantage.”5

Classic examples of a friendship of utility would be business partners or classmates.

2. Friendship of Pleasure

Aristotle observes, “And similarly with those whose friendship is based on pleasure: for instance, we enjoy the society of witty people not because of what they are in themselves, but because they are agreeable to us.”6 As with utility, in the friendship of pleasure persons love their friend not for the sake of the friend, but for the sake of the pleasure received. Moreover, as with utility, friendships of pleasure are tenuous as they can change or end as quickly as the pleasure received can change or end.

In contrast to friendships of utility, Aristotle states, “With the young on the other hand the motive of friendship appears to be pleasure, since the young guide their lives by emotion, and for the most part pursue what is pleasant to themselves, and the object of the moment. And the things that please them change as their age alters; hence they both form friendships and drop them quickly, since their affections alter with what gives them pleasure, and the tastes of youth change quickly. Also the young are prone to fall in love, as love is chiefly guided by emotion, and grounded on pleasure; hence they form attachments quickly and give them up quickly, often changing before the day is out. The young do desire to pass their time in their friend’s company, for that is how they get the enjoyment of their friendship.”7

Classic examples of a friendship of pleasures would be friends who share the same hobbies, hunting partners, drinking buddies, or love affairs.8

3. Friendship of the Good

Aristotle observes, “The perfect form of friendship is that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue. For these friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness, and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense, since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally. Hence the friendship of these lasts as long as they continue to be good; and virtue is a permanent quality. And each is good relatively to his friend as well as absolutely, since the good are both good absolutely and profitable to each other. And each is pleasant in both ways also, since good men are pleasant both absolutely and to each other; for everyone is pleased by his own actions, and therefore by actions that resemble his own, and the actions of all good men are the same or similar.”9

He continues, “Such friendship is naturally permanent, since it combines in itself all the attributes that friends ought to possess. All affection is based on good or on pleasure, either absolute or relative to the person who feels it, and is prompted by similarity of some sort; but this friendship possesses all these attributes in the friends themselves, for they are alike, et cetera, in that way. Also the absolutely good is pleasant absolutely as well; but the absolutely good and pleasant are the chief objects of affection; therefore it is between good men that affection and friendship exist in their fullest and best form.”10

Continuing on true friendship, he states, “Such friendships are of course rare, because such men are few. Moreover they require time and intimacy… people who enter into friendly relations quickly have the wish to be friends, but cannot really be friends without being worthy of friendship, and also knowing each other to be so; the wish to be friends is a quick growth, but friendship is not.”11

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Other Lists on SPL

  1. Nichomachean Ethics↩︎
  2. Ethics↩︎
  3. Id. ↩︎
  4. Id. ↩︎
  5. Id. ↩︎
  6. Id. ↩︎
  7. Id. ↩︎
  8. Are the friendships of utility and pleasure actually true friendship? “Aristotle comes rather close to saying that relationships based on profit or pleasure should not be called friendships at all. But he decides to stay close to common parlance and to use the term “friend” loosely. Friendships based on character are the ones in which each person benefits the other for the sake of other; and these are friendships most of all. Because each party benefits the other, it is advantageous to form such friendships. And since each enjoys the trust and companionship of the other, there is considerable pleasure in these relationships as well. Because these perfect friendships produce advantages and pleasures for each of the parties, there is some basis for going along with common usage and calling any relationship entered into for the sake of just one of these goods a friendship. Friendships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone deserve to be called friendships because in full-fledged friendships these two properties, advantage and pleasure, are present.” Aristotle’s Ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia. ↩︎
  9. Ethics↩︎
  10. Id. ↩︎
  11. Id., “Aristotle makes it clear that the number of people with whom one can sustain the kind of relationship he calls a perfect friendship is quite small (IX.10). Even if one lived in a city populated entirely by perfectly virtuous citizens, the number with whom one could carry on a friendship of the perfect type would be at most a handful. For he thinks that this kind of friendship can exist only when one spends a great deal of time with the other person, participating in joint activities and engaging in mutually beneficial behavior; and one cannot cooperate on these close terms with every member of the political community.” Aristotle’s Ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia. 

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