On Friendship


By Alexander Nehamas

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An eminent philosopher reflects on the nature of friendship, past and present

Friends are a constant feature of our lives, yet friendship itself is difficult to define. Even Michel de Montaigne, author of the seminal essay “Of Friendship,” found it nearly impossible to account for the great friendship of his life. Why is something so commonplace and universal so hard to grasp? What is it about the nature of friendship that proves so elusive?

In On Friendship, the acclaimed philosopher Alexander Nehamas launches an original and far-ranging investigation of friendship. Exploring the long history of philosophical thinking on the subject, from Aristotle to Emerson and beyond, and drawing on examples from literature, art, drama, and his own life, Nehamas shows that for centuries, friendship was as much a public relationship as it was a private one-inseparable from politics and commerce, favors and perks. Now that it is more firmly in the private realm, Nehamas holds, close friendship is central to the good life.

Profound and affecting, On Friendship sheds light on why we love our friends-and how they determine who we are, and who we might become.



Chapter 1


Aristotelian Foundations

NONE OF US WOULD EVER WANT TO LIVE WITHOUT friends, according to Aristotle, even if we had every other good in the world. Aristotle wrote a long time ago—in the fourth century BC—but time has done little to cast doubt on his praise of friendship: friends may have enemies; friendship itself does not. Some of us think of our friends as a kind of mirror in which we can see and come to know ourselves as we couldn’t possibly do on our own, as another self. Others believe that the essence of friendship lies in the ability of friends to be completely open with one another and share their most intimate secrets. And everyone is aware of its indirect benefits, especially the willingness of friends to help one another personally, professionally, and financially in their hour of need, often sacrificing their own welfare, sometimes even their own life, for their friends’ sake.

Aristotle has always been not only the inspiration of most of our philosophy of friendship but also of much of our common sense about it. His influence has been immense, both through his own writings directly and through Cicero’s dialogue On Friendship, which disseminated Aristotle’s views during much of the Middle Ages, while Aristotle’s texts were lost and before they were rediscovered and became available again in the West.

To be sure, there are exceptions—but they are few, as we will see. On the whole, and to an extent unparalleled in a field that sometimes considers agreement a form of discourtesy, the philosophical tradition is overwhelmingly on Aristotle’s side, from whose discussion of philia—which is almost always translated as “friendship”—it has inherited two central ideas. The first is that friendship is an unalloyed good, a flawless sort of love and one of life’s greatest pleasures, making every life in which friendship plays a part a better life than one without it. Companionship is a basic human need. Without it, even Paradise is robbed of its pleasures, as Milton’s Adam laments to God:

                 With me I see not who partakes. In solitude

                 What happiness? Who can enjoy alone,

                 Or all enjoying, what contentment find?

David Hume followed suit: “A perfect solitude is, perhaps, the greatest punishment we can suffer. Every pleasure languishes when enjoy’d apart from society.” For Ralph Waldo Emerson, friendship is nothing less than “a select and sacred relation, which is a kind of absolute, and which even leaves the language of love suspicious and common, so much is this purer, and nothing is so much divine.”

The second Aristotelian idea that philosophical thought about friendship has incorporated without any qualification is that the three kinds of philia that Aristotle distinguishes are three distinct kinds of friendship. Some of us, Aristotle says, are attracted to one another because we have something to gain from our relationship, some because of the pleasure we provide for one another, and some are drawn to one another’s aretê, or “excellence”—or, more often, “virtue,” which, as we will see, has a meaning to Aristotle that is different from our own. A business association would be a case of the first kind and a love affair of the second. But it is the third kind of philia that is, for Aristotle, the best: a perfect good. Cicero followed Aristotle almost to the letter: “Without virtue,” he wrote, “friendship cannot exist at all,” and without such “true and perfect friendship” life would not be worth living. The virtuous have no need of the friendships of “ordinary” people, who, in line with Aristotle’s view, find in it at best “a source of pleasure and profit.”

Ever since that time, Aristotle’s ideas about philia have dominated the philosophical approaches to friendship with uncanny consistency, as if friendship has remained the same, whether among the boisterous citizens of classical Athens and republican Rome, the isolated Cistercian monks of twelfth-century England, the French partisans of the religious wars of the sixteenth century, the retainers of the Elizabethan court, the scions of the Scottish Enlightenment, eighteenth-century Prussians, nineteenth-century transcendentalists, or contemporary analytical philosophers. Compared to disagreements about reality or justice, knowledge or beauty, the discussion of friendship constitutes an isolated area of calm in philosophy’s roiling waters. The exceptions to this consensus are, again, very few. When Nietzsche, for example, wrote in his autobiography that an unprecedented burst of creativity—four major works and several minor ones composed within a few months—made him feel “grateful” to his whole life, he was most profoundly isolated, and yet there is every reason to believe that his happiness was genuine.

Whether it is possible to live well without any friends is an open question. What is certain, though, is that good friends do sometimes make life better and happier. Do they always do so? Can’t good friends, sometimes not even through a fault of their own, draw us into dangerous or harmful adventures? If they do, does that show that they were bad friends or not friends at all in the first place? Aristotle would simply dismiss these questions because he and, by extension, the philosophical tradition make a very strong assumption about the nature of friendship: only good people can be friends. Genuine or perfect philia, he tells us, is limited to the virtuous: bad people can never be friends, good friends can never be bad people, and no friendship between them can ever cause harm. And although modern philosophy has acknowledged that less than perfect people—most of us—are capable of genuine friendship, it has agreed with him that friendship is always to the good, a good, as we will see, it has identified with morality. That, too, is a purely benign view of friendship: it faces the same questions we just asked of Aristotle.

Can bad people be good friends? Can good friends harm each other? Does friendship belong to morality or not? These are questions that will occupy us throughout this book, which aims to present a more complex and nuanced picture of friendship. The first step to answering these questions will require asking one that may not seem directly relevant to them: Are Aristotelian philia and modern friendship equivalent?

PHILIA, FOR ARISTOTLE, IS UBIQUITOUS. IT IS NECESSARY not only for rich and poor, young and old, male and female alike, but for animals as well. It unites families, political parties, social and religious organizations, tribes, even whole cities and entire species. It can exist between individuals of the same age, with the same social, financial, intellectual, or moral standing, or between superiors and inferiors: parents and children, men and women, rulers and ruled, gods and humans. Through philia, the ignorant are connected to the wise, and the beautiful to the ugly. Erotic love is one of its kinds. It arises among travelers and soldiers and governs the relations between host and guest and, perhaps most surprising, between buyer and seller.

That is an extraordinary range of relationships. What is it that holds these seemingly disparate bonds together? Aristotle cites three features that characterize every case of philia. First, philia requires philêsis—a word as badly translated by its common rendering as “love” or “affection” as philia is by “friendship”: “love” is much too strong a term for the feelings of debtors and creditors, members of social clubs, or citizens of the same state for one another; “affection” is much too weak for the attachment of parents to their children, the passion of lovers, and the deep devotion of friends. A broad and generic term, philêsis covers a huge variety of positive attitudes, ranging from a merchant’s cool appreciation of profit to the most blazing erotic passion. It is provoked by everything that we care for to whatever degree. And what we ultimately care for, according to Aristotle, comes down to three fundamental objects: practical benefit, pleasure, and virtue.

Second, though it requires philêsis, philia is a reciprocal relationship, whereas philêsis is a feeling we can have for inanimate objects and need not be reciprocated in any way. I can care for many inanimate objects—wine is Aristotle’s own example—but none of them can care for me in return. Only another person can.

Third, although my wish for what is good for my wine is a wish that it taste as good as possible only so that I can enjoy it more, if you and I are philoi, I must care and wish good things to you for your sake and not, or not only, for my own—and you must feel the same way about me. Aristotle calls this mutual care “good will.” And when I bear you good will, I do so either because of the practical benefits I derive from our relationship, or because of the pleasure our interaction gives me, or finally because I am drawn to your virtues—courage, justice, temperance, magnificence, wisdom, and the other features that are necessary to make a life a good and happy one.

If, then, I care for you; if I wish you good things for your sake, not only for mine; and if, moreover, you feel the same way toward me, we are bound to each other by philia and are each other’s philos.

The idea that our feelings for some people may sometimes make their well-being as important to us as our very own, that for them to do well is also for us to do well, that their successes and failures are also ours, is absolutely essential to friendship as we understand it today. Since, at least at first sight, that idea seems essential to philia as well, it has made it tempting to think that philia is the Greek equivalent of friendship and explains why the two have been so often identified with one another.

Of the three kinds of philia Aristotle distinguishes, however, only the bond that draws people to each other’s virtue is “perfect” or “complete,” the paradigm of philia for him and for friendship for the tradition that follows him. The pursuit of pleasure or benefit leads to lesser, inferior relationships, worthy of being considered philia only to the extent that they “resemble” and share some of their features with that perfect sort. Importantly, in Aristotle’s view no relationship between two people can be based on their admiration of each other’s virtue unless both are virtuous in the first place. In regard to his contemporaries, Aristotle didn’t need to be the great observer and anatomist he was in order to have no illusions about them. “Such philia is rare,” he concedes, “for there are few such people,” although that fact seems not to have disturbed him at all: he seems perfectly happy to limit virtue to Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, “and those like him.”

If all three kinds of philia were kinds of friendship as well, the rarity of the bond of the virtuous would not be a problem. For, in that case, the other two kinds, less demanding and more appropriate to the rest of us, might fill the gap. But can they? Does the appreciation of pleasure and profit generate genuine, even if imperfect, friendships?

If our relationship were based on benefit or pleasure it would count as a friendship, even if not ideal, if I loved and wished good things for you for your own sake. But Aristotle also says that “those who care for each other wish each other good things insofar as they love each other.” That means that if we are bound to each other through virtue, I will wish good things for you to the extent that you are virtuous; if through pleasure, to the extent that you provide me with pleasure; and if through practical benefit, to the extent that you are useful to me. And in the latter two cases, Aristotle tells us, I would not care for you for yourself but only on account of the pleasure or benefit you provide me. If, for example, I care for you because you can introduce me to the right people, I don’t care for you for yourself, that is, because of the kind of person you are: I don’t care for you but only for the benefit you bring me; our bond is imperfect. Only the bond of the virtuous is perfect because for Aristotle it is our virtues that make us who we truly are. It is our virtues, and only our virtues, that express our essential nature, and so only if I am drawn to your virtues do I care for you as you really are; only then am I capable of wishing you well for your own sake.

There seems, then, to be a tension—if not an outright contradiction—between what Aristotle first says about philia and what he adds immediately afterward. Let’s recall that he begins by saying that good will is to wish good things “for the philos’ sake”; he adds that it is to wish good things for our philos “on account of” his virtue, the pleasure or the benefit he provides; and he finishes with the claim that philoi wish each other well “insofar as” they are virtuous, pleasant, or beneficial. But despite the similarity of these accounts, Aristotle points out a major difference between benefit and pleasure on the one hand and virtue on the other:

Those who care for each other on account of benefit don’t care for [each other] in themselves but only insofar as they obtain some benefit from them; so too in the case of pleasure: these people don’t care for those they find entertaining in themselves, but on account of their being pleasant to them . . . Such relationships, then, are incidental: people are not cared for insofar as they are who they are but only insofar as they provide either benefit or pleasure.

So, if your virtue is what draws you to me, I wish you well on account of your character and therefore on account of who you really are; but if it is pleasure or benefit, I wish you well on account of features—your sense of humor, your looks, your financial resources, or your social position—that are all, as far as Aristotle is concerned, incidental to your rational essence, which makes you what you are.

That means that imperfect philia is not focused on the other person at all: “Those who love for benefit are fond of the other on account of what is good for themselves, and those who love for pleasure on account of what is pleasant for themselves,” and such relationships collapse if either one of us no longer provides pleasure or benefit. Even more: “Those who are philoi on account of benefit part as soon as their interests separate, for they were not philoi of each other but of gain,” while erotic philoi separate “as soon as that for the sake of which they were involved is no longer there, for they did not care for each other but for things they happened to have—things that are not permanent.”

In short, Aristotle says both that every kind of philia requires wishing good things for the philos’ sake, and also that in pleasure- or benefit-philia we don’t really care about our philos at all but for our pleasure or benefit instead. Can we make sense of these seemingly contradictory views?

Actually, we can. Let’s first suppose that I wish good things to my barber, Tomas, insofar as he cuts my hair well. For Aristotle, that would be to bear him good will because of one of his incidental features, since he can stop being of use to me—by leaving town, for example—without changing at all in himself: and if that happened, our philia would end as well. But if I wish him well insofar as he is virtuous, my good will is based on Tomas’s essence, or who he really is. I then care for him, in today’s terms, “as a person” and not for this or that feature of his. Since the benefit I derive from Tomas does not depend on who he is as a person but on the occupation he happens to have, Aristotle would say that I don’t care for Tomas himself but for the benefits he provides instead. Not so, though, if what matters to me is his virtue: since his virtue constitutes who Tomas is, to care for him on its account is not to care for his virtue instead of caring for Tomas himself.

Consider, second, that there are all sorts of good things I can wish for you if our relationship is based on benefit or pleasure: more money, a good marriage, winning a prize. I can be happy for you even if I get no added benefit or pleasure from your good fortune—so long as you continue to provide me whatever prompted our relationship in the first place. Since I get no benefit from your new riches or your marriage, that shows that I wish you well not only for my own sake but for yours as well. But other good things can happen to you that are contrary to my own interests: your new riches may introduce you to a new social circle and cause you no longer to care for my welfare. Since I value what benefits you only to the extent that it either promotes or at least does not conflict with my own interests, I will neither wish such things for you nor help you obtain them. In relationships of pleasure or benefit, what determines what I will or will not wish for you ultimately depends on my own interests. So, I will wish you well even if your welfare adds nothing to mine: that’s why I wish you well for your sake and not only for mine. But I still won’t wish you well for your own sake.

That’s something that only virtuous philoi can do. If our relationship is based on benefit or pleasure, something may be pleasant or beneficial, and therefore good, for one of us but not for the other: if that happens, our relationship will collapse. But if we are joined through virtue, nothing that is good for one of us can ever be bad for the other. For when I wish you well insofar as you are virtuous, every good thing I wish you will either augment or at least not interfere with your virtue: otherwise it wouldn’t be a good. But nothing that happens as a result of your becoming a better person can ever harm me or, as far as Aristotle is concerned, conflict with my interests. And since anything that serves virtue, if done for the right reasons, is itself virtuous, anything I do for you will be, in addition to any beneficial or pleasant consequences it may have for us, itself good—a virtuous act in its own right. As long as we are both virtuous, nothing we wish or do for one another can be bad for us. In the end, I wish all my philoi well for their sake, and not only for my own; but only if I wish you well on account of your virtue do I wish you well for your own sake, as the person you are and not for what I can get out of you.

Perfect philia also differs from its imperfect varieties because the bonds of virtue are, if not always permanent, at least very long-lasting. A virtuous character, according to Aristotle, is unlikely to undergo serious change; by contrast, wealth, power, and beauty can disappear without warning, and so relationships that are based upon them are also likely to be short-lived. It is sometimes thought that “friendship is eternal if it is true friendship; but if it should ever cease to be, then it was not true friendship, even though it seemed to be so.” That is an exaggeration. Aristotle recognized that even the philia of the virtuous may sometimes come to an end—extraordinary circumstances can sometimes erode even the virtues—without thinking that such an end shows the relationship to have been a sham.

When friendships break down, they often generate the suspicion that what had appeared to be a real friendship was all along masked selfishness. As a result, it seems to us essential that if I wish you to do well for your own sake, I will be willing to rate my own interests below yours if that becomes necessary, and the extent of my sacrifice is often a measure of the depth of our friendship. But no such sacrifice is possible in Aristotle’s scheme. That is clear if our philia is based on pleasure or benefit: I will end it as soon as I realize that your good is incompatible with mine. But it is also true, perhaps surprisingly, that even virtue-philia doesn’t ever require a sacrifice: every good thing I might wish for you promotes your virtue and nothing that happens as a result of your becoming a better person can be either painful or harmful to me. Even if I give my life for you, Aristotle believes that far from harming myself, I end up with an even greater good than life: nobility (to kalon). With very rare exceptions, virtue-philia can’t ever hurt those it connects to each other: it is almost an object of veneration for Aristotle.

Since I will sever any relationship of pleasure or benefit if I no longer obtain what I wanted, what ultimately matters for me is what I was able to get out of it. That doesn’t make those relationships selfish or exploitative, since I am glad to provide whatever the other participants desire as long as it doesn’t interfere with my own plans, though it does make them instrumental. But friends, we believe, are people who love each other, as we say, for themselves and not just for what they can get out of their relationship. The fact, then, that both pleasure- and benefit-philia are instrumental makes it clear that they are not friendships. We therefore cannot identify Aristotelian philia as a whole with modern friendship. In particular, whether based on benefit or pleasure, philia does not correspond to what we take friendship to be.

But virtue-philia, of course, does. It has a deep connection to our relationship with our closest friends. Both Aristotle’s virtuous philoi and our own close friends love one another “for themselves,” both are attracted to one another’s character, and both expect their relationships to be, if not permanent, at least long-lasting. But there are other similarities as well. Although one does not enter into it for what one can get out of it, virtue-philia brings with it both benefits and pleasure. So does friendship: one can rely on one’s friends in times of need, and their company is overwhelmingly enjoyable—although Aristotle doesn’t seem to focus his discriminating eye on the sorrows and troubles that friends can cause one another. Like virtue-philia, friendship is immune, or at least resistant, to slander: virtue-philoi (we might as well call them friends from now on) trust one another, and it takes much to undermine their faith in each other. Friends influence the shape of one another’s life: they spend much of their time together, do things they would not have done had they been alone, and affect each other’s character deeply. Theirs is a complex and demanding relationship, which one can have only with a few people: “It is impossible to have the perfect sort of philia with many people.” Friends don’t dispute about who has done what for whom, and their relationship makes claims on them in its own right: one should still care for one’s friends even if they have undergone serious changes—provided, though, that they have not become “incurably” vicious. Friends, finally, in Aristotle’s famous formulation, “are disposed toward each other as they are disposed to themselves: a friend is another self.”

But precisely because virtue-philia is so close to friendship, we should pause before we follow Aristotle, as many have done, in emphasizing the connection between friendship and virtue, especially, as we do today, its moral variety. That is partly because Aristotelian virtue, as we have seen, is much broader than moral virtue. But that is not the main reason. More important, Aristotle allowed only a small group of Athenian men to love one another (and sometimes, in a qualified sense, their wives) as friends love one another. But friendship is both much more common and more fraught with risk than he imagined.

Aristotle’s scheme, in which friendship is limited to a rarefied few, turns out to be at odds with what we know through experience. We are all of us mixtures of virtues and vices, and all of us are aware that even our best friends have their shortcomings. True, it is unlikely that we can be friends with people we consider evil. But we often have no trouble excusing our friends’ failings, both trivial and, often, serious.

NEVERTHELESS, IN ARISTOTLE’S BOND BETWEEN friendship and virtue there is a deep insight that it is important not to lose.

In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes and his friend Pylades travel to Tauri, a town in the Crimea, in order to bring its sacred statue of Artemis to Athens. At Tauri, they are captured by the locals and brought to Artemis’ priestess. As it turns out, the priestess is actually Orestes’ sister Iphigenia, thought to have been sacrificed to Artemis by their father Agamemnon so that the Greek ships could sail for Troy but whom the goddess had secretly snatched from the altar at the very last moment. Iphigenia, of course, doesn’t recognize her brother, any more than he knows who she is. Custom in Tauri required a human sacrifice to Artemis, but when Orestes has to choose which of the two is to be the victim, he refuses to allow Pylades, his “best and dearest friend” to die in his place—partly because, he explains, “I am the captain of this misadventure, / and he the loyal shipmate who stayed by my side,” revealing that their friendship, whatever else it involves, is also based on Pylades’ courage and loyalty—his virtues.


  • "Alexander Nehamas, known for his distinguished and very readable books that make philosophy accessible to a broad audience, has written a far-ranging, meticulously researched yet warmly personal account of the mysterious phenomenon known as friendship. His prose is luminous, intimate and erudite. Highly recommended!"—Joyce Carol Oates
  • "With the social media 'friending' mind-set so prevalent in today's society, Nehamas's treatise of the subject is timely and significant. Accessible philosophical writing for general readers who want to understand better an essential feature of our lives."—Library Journal
  • "For those wanting to see how the concept of friendship in Western civilization has evolved since Aristotle, this study offers a useful, if idiosyncratic survey."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "On Friendship accomplishes the remarkable; Nehamas punctures standard pieties with clear-eyed realism about the risks of loss or corruption through our friendships, while saving every bit of our unshakeable sense that our friends remain immeasurably valuable, and of central importance in our lives. This deeply insightful book--the fruit of a lifetime's reflection--should be read not only by those who care about friendship in general, but by all of us who care about our friends."—Lanier Anderson, professor of philosophy at Stanford University
  • "Beautiful and wise, On Friendship will deepen your understanding of the friendships through which you live. Can a work of philosophy be a page-turner? This one is hard to put down. Here Montaigne triumphs over Aristotle, while theater emerges as the art that best illuminates friendship--which, as Nehamas shows us, is best appreciated as a work of art is appreciated, for what it is for us, individually and irreplaceably."—Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Texas at Austin

On Sale
May 3, 2016
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Alexander Nehamas

About the Author

Alexander Nehamas is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The author of books on art, literature, and authenticity, among other subjects, he lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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