Aristotle and Jesus on Friendship

19 Nov

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle shares his view on a number of issues in order to explain that the “telos,” the highest good, for humanity is happiness.  One aspect of human nature Aristotle examines is that of friendship. In this essay I want to compare Aristotle’s view of friendship to the view found in the teaching of Jesus in the parable known as “The Good Samaritan.” I will briefly discuss the human want for relationships, share Aristotle’s understanding of the term friend, summarize the three kinds of friendships understood by Aristotle, review the Good Samaritan story (taught by Jesus), offer some difference between Aristotle and Jesus on friendship and share how those differences call followers of Jesus to live at a higher level beyond Aristotle’s view.

Humans were created to be social beings.  It’s our nature to seek the companionship of those we label as our friends.  This is such an incredible drive within the human nature that online communities, like Facebook, have been created.  The purpose of these communities is to give people the feeling of being involved in others lives even while they are physically separated. The importance of friendship to humanity did not go unnoticed by Aristotle.

Aristotle’s understanding or definition of friendship is broader than the modern view.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a modern definition of friend as “one attached to another by affection or esteem.” While Aristotle recognized the intimate bonds of many relationships (husband and wife, father and son, neighbors), and consider them friends, he also included relationships with less intimate bonds.  Aristotle would have spoken about business partners, team members, instructors and students as friends as well. His view is that all friendships can be broken down into three categories: the friendship of utility, the friendship of pleasure and the friendship of good.

Aristotle sees the friendship of utility as being shallow and “easily dissolved” (Aristotle 121).  These friendships are based upon what each person brings to the relationship and how that benefits the other.  An example of this type of relationship in my life is my connection with my mailwoman.  We’re cordial, make reference to the weather but the truth is all I really want is my mail.  This type of relationship dissolves when the relationship is no longer beneficial to one or both of the individuals.  For the last two years I’ve taken my cars to the same auto mechanic.  I’ve recently realized that another auto mechanic can do the same quality work for less.  Hence, my relationship with the former mechanic has dissolved.  Those involved in a friendship of utility have weak bonds with one another.  Aristotle believed that the friendship of utility is most common among the elderly because they are more concerned with what is useful or beneficial.

According to Aristotle, the friendship of pleasure is based on receiving something pleasant from the relationship and is usually established between the young (Aristotle 122).  The reason for this is that their passions and pleasures are great emotional influences in their lives.  The difference between the friendship of utility and pleasure is that the former is about a long-term benefit and the latter is about a present pleasure (Aristotle 122).  Aristotle notes that young people are subject to “erotic passions” and therefore “love and quickly stop, often changing in a single day” (Aristotle 122).  Therefore, Aristotle views both the friendship of utility and pleasure as unbalanced and subject to sudden modifications.

It is argued by Aristotle that the highest form of friendship is that of the good.  In this relationship both parties would focus on each other’s good and not their own selfish gain. This type of relationship is one that requires trust by both parties.  Trust in one another that the things done or said aren’t about gaining but about making the other better.  Aristotle says, “…among good people there is trust, the belief that they would never do injustice…” (Aristotle 124, italics added). Aristotle goes as far as saying the friendship of good is a “complete friendship…” consisting of “…good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other…” (Aristotle 122).  It’s argued by Aristotle that the “complete” virtuous friendship is difficult to obtain because “good” people are hard to find and it takes a considerable amount of work.  Although, “the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not” (Aristotle 123).

Jesus shares the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  He shares this story for the purpose of explaining who one’s neighbor is, for we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  How is one to interpret the term “neighbor?”  Does it refer to a close friend or to every person? Or does it mean something else all together?

The story is being told to a group of Jewish listeners, specifically to a Torah scholar.  It can be assumed that the listeners would have identified the injured man as a Jew, although Jesus never specifically says.  How the injured man is viewed is important because of whom the “hero” of the story is, a Samaritan.  Jews and Samaritans didn’t care for each other and that is a polite way of stating it.  “When the word ‘Samaritan’ was said among the Jewish people in the first century, no one thought of the descriptive term ‘good.’ The Samaritans were considered enemies of the people” (Young 109).

So in this teaching of Jesus we find a Samaritan, an enemy of the injured man, giving of himself to one he isn’t a “friend” of.  The injured man is saved because of the actions of the Samaritan, who “went to him,” “bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine,” and “put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.”  If that wasn’t enough the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to take care of him and pledged to return and take care of any additional expenses.  What kind of “friend” would Aristotle label the Samaritan to be?

From the perspective of the Samaritan this wasn’t a “friendship” of utility.  The injured man had nothing of use for him.  The Samaritan was only giving and promised to give even more in the future.  It certainly wasn’t a “friendship” of pleasure. How pleasurable is it to take care of another’s wounds, change your schedule, and give away your money for someone you don’t know? Based on Aristotle’s views, this wasn’t a “friendship” of the good either.  Even though the Samaritan was concerned with the best for the injured man, they had no history with one another.  They shared very little in common but yet the Samaritan acted in ways that illustrates a “complete” friendship. Aristotle’s view of friendship is limited by preferences, while Jesus taught to love others with no limitations. Soren Kierkegaard said, “the neighbor…is all people” (Kierkegaard 52).

All three kinds of “friendships” described by Aristotle include to some degree each participant receiving from the other.  With Jesus, one of the lessons seen in the Good Samaritan story is to give without expectation of anything in return.  For Aristotle, friendship was based on having something in common with the other. Jesus taught his followers to treat every person they come across with the same respect and care they would have for their friends.  Trust, for Aristotle, was a major ingredient of establishing the “good” friendship. But for Jesus, he taught his followers to give to even those they can’t trust, their enemies.

In summary, humanity seeks friendships.  While Aristotle offered good insight into human nature in regards to friendships, it’s still inferior to that which Jesus calls his followers.  Followers of Jesus are called not only to give to those whom they call friend, but also to give to, to love, their enemies.

Works Cited:

Irwin, Terence.  “Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics.”  Indianapolis, IN.  Hackett Publishing, 1999.

Kierkegaard, Soren.  “Works of Love.” Trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 1995.

The Holy Bible: TNIV. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 2005.

Young, Brad. “The Parables.” Peabody, MA.  Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.

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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in Devotional, Reflection


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