“Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Perfect friendship: the words sound like a fairy tale. What Aristotle means here is the kind of friendship that is most true, the kind of friendship that most fulfills the human heart.
Not every friendship can or should be this kind of friendship. Aristotle says it can only be had with a very small number of people. But this kind of relationship, when we achieve it, is where we most come alive.
In an earth-shattering assertion, Aristotle says that we can only have this kind of friendship to the extent that we are virtuous. The features of true friendship that set it apart and make it so wonderful—that it is where we find communion, support, peace, solace, and true love, and these with consistency and stability—are all rooted in the nature and power of virtue.
Of the first two determining factors at the foundation of a true friendship—my moral character and the other’s moral character—only one of these is directly in my control. But also, another key factor is in my control: the firm intention first to discern the possibility of friendship and then to cultivate it.
We might not achieve an absolutely perfect friendship in this life. Yet to the extent that we come close, it will not have been by accident. It will be because we have chosen, again and again, to forge it. And also because we have been blessed with that for which we can prepare ourselves but which we can never demand.
This semester I am teaching a course called the Philosophy of Friendship. In it we carefully read the many wise observations of Aristotle and others about friendship, which I never tire of considering and re-considering. It will be my pleasure to share some of these here throughout the autumn.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
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