Poking Aristotle

Observations on friendship

News that the comedian Stephen Fry has been forced to hire an assistant to manage his online social networking makes one wonder what Aristotle would make of Facebook. The great thinker had a lot to say about friendship that is newly relevant with the rise of such network sites.

The founding father of the scientific method, western philosophy and logic would probably have hundreds clamouring to join his Facebook friend list. Perhaps he might even rival Fry's reported 20-plus friend requests an hour.

But Aristotle was no Lindsay Lohan, the US starlet renowned for a mega-friend list. Not for him the craven popularity contest - though he saw its necessity.

Friendship, as defined by Aristotle, is "mutual reciprocity of affection and purpose". Liking someone from afar is not enough: "Being a friend of many people at once is prevented even by the factor of affection, for it is not possible for affection to be active in relation to many at once."

So, when numbers get into the thousands we're talking stalkers or admirers, not friends. Barack Obama has it right - he's changed his 97,785-and-counting Facebook "friends" to "supporters". Fry has decided to set up a separate friendship group for strangers who would like to be his friend.

Aristotle's findings on friendship outlined in Eudemian Ethics would make a useful FAQ for those coming to Facebook for the first time. He began his analysis with close observation, which led him to conclude there were three types of friendship: those based on utility, pleasure and goodness.

Utility is the most common basis of friendship, he observed, and exists between two people who are mutually useful to each other. Indeed, Aristotle thought the primary goal of political science was to make citizens useful to each other and so plant the seeds of friendship and goodwill: "While the moral friendship is more noble, utility is more necessary."

So he would have loved the way social networking sites make people useful to one another.

As for friendships based on pleasure, he also understood the core Facebook user group. Only the young have "a sense of what is pleasant" Aristotle thought, whereas older people become serious with responsibilities. As characters fix, so too do friends.

The friendship Aristotle put above all others is that based on goodness, where the balance sheet of reciprocity is thrown away and each provides affection and support without expectation of payback. Yet, in a lifetime, a person can find only a handful of such friends. How come so few?

"There is no stable friendship without confidence, and confidence only comes with time," he wrote. Friendships need to be tested and one would have to live with many people to test their character. There simply isn't enough time or opportunity.

"Those who become friends without the test of time are not real friends but only wish to be friends . . . But as a matter of fact it happens in friendship as in everything else; people are not healthy merely if they wish to be healthy."

So don't expect your Facebook friends to rush to your aid in time of tragedy. Recriminations arise most often when we mistake friendships based on utility or pleasure for those based on goodness. Thus Aristotle advises that friendships should have a legal underpinning to avoid misunderstanding.

Time for a Facebook friendship contract perhaps?

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror