Friendship: Aristotle’s Era versus Now

Aristotle’s account of friendship has ever so majestically withstood the test of time. He maintained that there are three types of friendship: (1) friendships of pleasure, (2) friendships of convenience, and (3) perfect friendships. Many centuries later, Aristotle’s three-tier account of friendship continues to be deemed as ever so accurate.
The question that I have asked myself over and over again is whether or not perfect friendships or companion friendships—as I prefer to say—have acquired a richness that they did not have during Aristotle’s era.

Aristotle held that perfect friendships profoundly enjoy one another’s company. Accordingly, they willfully spend a considerable amount of time with one another. Of course, during Aristotle’s era, it is rather clear that spending time together was absolutely crucial to companion friends getting to have both (a) profound insight into one another’s character and (b) the deep conviction that each could fully trust the other. Well, a question that mightily presents itself is whether or not advances in technology have eliminated the need for companion friends to spend time with one another, since such friends can tremendously communicate with one another even though they are oceans apart. Moreover, trust remains ever so important between companion friends notwithstanding. For even if two companion friends are oceans apart, the trust between them remains ever so important.
But if the concluding point of the preceding paragraph is right, then there is a respect in which Aristotle’s account of companion friendship is in need of modification. For he held that companion friends very much look forward to spending time together, where doing so is a very deep sign of their mutual trust. And there is certainly a reason why that is so. While written accounts of this or that physical or moral pain and this or that social and/or professional benefit can be ever so rich and informative, it is manifestly clear that no written statement is the equivalent of bearing witness to the emotions that an individual expresses. So, it is whether we are talking about emotions of joy or emotions of sorrow or pain.

Thus, with companion friends, the ease with which they can communicate with one another via technology does not at all eliminate the need for them to interact with one another face-to-face. And that stands to reason. For no amount of texting can take the place of directly bearing witness to a friend’s reaction or non-reaction. Indeed, there is the expression “pregnant pause”. To state the obvious: That expression is not at all about the act of giving birth. Rather, it is about the moral significance that attaches to a person’s hesitation in responding. Indeed, a pause can be rather informative. If I ask you “How did you enjoy the party last night?” And you respond with “Ah, hum, ah, hum it was interesting,” then you have essentially told me that you really did not have all that good of a time being at the party. For you had really enjoyed yourself, you would have immediately responded with “Awesome” or something akin to that word.

Is it the case that in general technology is marvelously enhancing or enriching friendships? Quite poignantly, it is far from obvious that the answer to the question just asked is a resounding “Absolutely ! ! ! Indeed, it seems that sufficiently many are more besotted with communicating by way of their gadget than communicating face-to-face. And that preference structure is ever so revealing; for it is tantamount to saying that one does not want to be bothered with the actual feelings that person is having. And that is an ever so clear sign that the friendship is not at all the tremendously deep perfect friendship that Aristotle described.

Painfully, modernity allows for a self-deception with respect to deep friendship that in the past was a level of self-deception that was essentially an impossibility. Thus, there is a fundamental respect in which modernity is doing more harm than good.

© Laurence Thomas, 2017

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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