Friendship Through the Lenses of Pythagoras and Aristotle

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As we are living through the post-modern time, we are witnesses of many virtues and values under transformation, as younger generations appreciate different traits. What we today call friendship was a different concept twenty years ago, a hundred years ago, and even centuries ago. That’s why through this article, we’ll reveal some of the principles of friendship derived from the philosophy of Aristotle and Pythagoras, to see how the perception of friendship differed from our modern ones!

Friendship at the times of Aristotle and Pythagoras
Friendship at the times of Aristotle and Pythagoras

 

Aristotle wisdom about friendship: Greek philosophy is rich in intellectual heritage. You will find different topics that were discussed by some of the most famous Greek philosophers – Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and many more.

They called them-selves philosophers for a reason. The word philosophy comes from ancient Greek, and it means the love of wisdom! While you may read about the Greek philosophers’ perspectives on eros, politics, power, and virtue, you will also find valuable insights given to describe Philia.

Philia is the Greek word for friendship, although, as written in the book “The Classical Ideals of Friendship” by Dirk Baltzly and Nick Eliopolous – the definition of Philia for the ancient Greeks also included family members and people we would describe as acquaintances, not friends.

So philosophical theories of Philia cover much more ground than one might initially expect. And this is not the last reference we will use from this book, as it describes in perfect detail the perspectives of the most famous Greek philosophers on friendship.

 

Pythagoras

 Friendship is a harmonious equality. 

We all know him as the father of Mathematics, but did you know that Pythagoras is considered one of the first philosophers to elaborate on the notion of friendship? And he did this way before Aristotle, Socrates, or Plato.

According to the book “Friendship, Love, and Brotherhood in Medieval Northern Europe”, Pythagoras was the first known philosopher to plead for an intellectual and spiritual form of friendship. During his lifetime, he formed a religious brotherhood known as the Pythagorean Community in Crotone, Italy.

Pythagoras
Pythagoras – a mathematician and philosopher

Lars Hermanson, in the book mentioned above, writes that Pythagoras associated the concept of philia with an intimate friendship based on love, affection, and selflessness. The Pythagoreans tried to practice these principles of friendship, through their fraternity.

Pythagoras valued highly the meaning of friendship, and considered it the most important bond for a collective way of life, even more important than kinship – which used to determine the social hierarchies and elite classes of Ancient Greece. Kinship had a significant role in the development of the Polis. However, friendship as explained by Pythagoras was a different, deeper level of human connection, in which social status and origin were of no importance. For the great philosopher, friends should own everything in common, and philia meant equality among the brotherhood. This concept of friendship and brotherhood was a cause for the formation of the intellectual societies of classical and late antiquity.

 

Aristotle

 In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old, they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life, they incite to noble deeds.

Aristotle
Aristotle – an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist

Although dating from a long time ago, some of Aristotle’s theories on humanity are very much relevant to the time we are living in. Maybe seen from a different angle (a shallower one, perhaps), but with the same meaning.

One of the most important works of medieval philosophy is the “Nicomachean Ethics.” It is Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics, explained in a practical manner rather than a theoretical one. This masterpiece consists of ten books, originally separate scrolls, which tackle different aspects of what makes human life good. Books VIII and IX emphasize the role of friendship as one of the fundamental virtues that lead people to eudaimonia – a term that translates as happiness and is mentioned throughout all of Aristotle’s books. According to Aristotle, friendship is the part of life that makes eudaimonia, and it is directly related to the nature of us as humans.

 

Aristotle divides the aims of friendship into three types:

  • Friendships of utility or usefulness
  • Friendships of pleasure
  • Friendship for the pursuit of good

Aristotle sees friendship of utility as friendships through which people are of benefit to one another. He includes here family ties, hospitality extended to foreigners, partnerships, relationships with older people, etc. He highlights that once these people stop being useful to one another, their friendships cease to exist, whereas friendships of pleasure are those where individuals make friends with one another because of a shared activity that brings them joy. These are often associated with younger, passionate people, who simply enjoy each other’s company. Yet, once they stop sharing common joyous activities, their bond hangs by a thread.

Helping friends
Friendship is when people are useful to each other…

The most important friendships described by Aristotle are the friendships of goodness. These friendships are based upon mutual respect and profound admiration for each other’s virtues.

 

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.

                                                                                                    Nicomachean Ethics

 

These types of friendships, as described in the book, are utterly relatable. It is enough food for thought for us to filter the friends we have, and see who belongs in which group. That way, we can really understand whether we have pure forms of friendship in our lives, the ones seeking for the good, as Aristotle says.

 

Bottom line

Greek philosophy contemplates the achievement of happiness – the eudemonic life – and it considers friendship as a key aspect of leading what is called the good life. It was Aristotle who said that man is by nature a social animal, and that man cannot live alone. He surely needed some lessons on basic gender concepts, as you do not include all of humanity in the shadow of the term “Man,” yet, we’ll let this one go given that those were medieval times, and that what he emphasized was the core importance of socialization!

If you want to read more about friendship in medieval times, we suggest you take a look into the works we have used as a point of reference in this article:

  1. The Classical Ideals of Friendship – Dirk Baltzly and Nick Eliopolous
  2. Early Greek Kinship – Emily Karen Varto
  3. Friendship, Love, and Brotherhood in Medieval Northern Europe – Lars Hermanson

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney

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