What would Aristotle do?

Just in case you thought it was all worthy hard slog over here at YRTK – I’ve decided to post an off-topic article I wrote on Facebook, Aristotle and friendship. Yes, I know – the world has heard too much about Facebook in recent weeks but can you honestly say you’ve seen it done like this before? And besides, I have to find some way of paying for all the time I’ve spent socially networking.

This is the full version of an article that appeared in the New Statesman (you’ll note they added a lot more about comedian Stephen Fry).

Poking Aristotle
By Heather Brooke

What would Aristotle make of Facebook? The great thinker had a lot to say about friendship that is newly relevant with the rise of social networking sites. The founding father of the scientific method, western philosophy and logic would likely have hundreds clamouring to join his Facebook friend list. Perhaps he might even rival comedian Stephen Fry’s reported 20+ friend requests an hour or be forced to hire an assistant to manage his online social networks as some busy execs do.

But Aristotle was no Lindsay Lohan, a US-starlet renowned for her mega-friend list. Not for him the craven popularity contest – though he saw its necessity – but rather the pinnacle of friendship based on moral goodness.

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.” Hence when numbers get into the thousands we’re talking stalkers and/or admirers not friends. Barack Obama has it right – he’s changed his 91,495 Facebook ‘friends’ to ‘supporters’. Fry has decided to set up a separate friendship group for strangers who would like to be his friend.

Aristotle studied biology as a youth and brought the same techniques he used to analyse the plant kingdom to human behaviour. His 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 ultimate friendship, and the one Aristotle put above the 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; for it is necessary to make trial, as Theognis says: ‘Thou canst not know the mind of man nor woman/ E’er though has tried them as thou triest cattle.’”

And life is too short to try many cattle (or friends). One would have to live with many people to test their character and their 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; and such a character very readily passes for friendship because when eager to be friends they think that by rendering each other all friendly services they do not merely wish to be friends but actually are 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 or emergency. Most of us know that already. But recriminations are likely to arise most often when we mistake friendships based on utility or pleasure for those based on goodness. Thus Aristotle advises that the more immediate friendships should have a legal underpinning to avoid misunderstanding. Time for the Facebook friendship contract perhaps? We could at least introduce some Aristotilian icons such as the handshake (indicating a utility friendships), a smiley face (for pleasure) and the gold star (for goodness).


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