Authentic Friendship, Part I: The Three Types of Friendship

This is the first post in a two-part series written by Anthony Haskin, Holy Spirit Prep’s High School History teacher. Read Part II.


“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.”

These are the words of Charles Ryder, as he looks upon the house of Brideshead for what he thinks shall be the final time in the novel Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. He says that he is “leaving a part of [him]self behind.” There are many reasons for this, but one that I should particularly like to highlight is the absence of friendship. Ryder is leaving himself behind because he is leaving his friends behind, or rather, the place that holds the memories of his now-lost friends. He departs alone, searching for that which he once had. Without these friends, without these parts of himself, it seems he cannot rest, and wanders like a ghost. Indeed, this ghostly shade could no better illustrate the pithy line of that great philosopher Aristotle: “Without friends, no one would choose to live.”

The Meaning of Friendship

But what is friendship? Let us look again to Aristotle, who says that friendship is none other than mutual love, or “willing the good of the other.” He adds the further clarification that it is not simply this mutual good will, but that the true friend “ought to wish what is good for his friend’s sake.” Seems simple enough. But to live authentic friendship is deceptively hard in practice. I think this is because many of us have an idea of what we think to be friendship, but in reality (through no fault of our own) it falls short of what true friendship is.

Aristotle and the Three Types of Friendship

A marble sculpture of Aristotle

Again, let us take Aristotle for our guide. He distinguishes between three types of friendship. The first is that of utility. Within a friendship of utility the friends “do not love each other for themselves, but rather in virtue of some good that they get from each other.” The friends provide some sort of service or good to the other, that if taken away would negate the friendship. For example, I am quite friendly with my barber, Hung. However, our friendship is predicated on the fact that he gives me a nice fade, and I pay him handsomely for it. If those things were removed, our friendship would be terminated. The second, is friendships of pleasure. These are probably the most common types of friendships, especially among youths. Aristotle says the friendship of young people “seems to aim at pleasure, for they live under the guidance of emotion.” In this type of friendship, you remain friends with someone because of the joy and pleasantness received in their company. To “hang out” with such friends makes you feel good, so you continue to do it. However, just like in utility, if the good received were removed, namely, if it was no longer pleasurable, then the friendship is terminated. I had many of these friends as well, but a shared interest of hockey or music could only take us so far. Lastly, the third form of friendship is “perfect friendship.” Only this form truly attains to what is meant by friendship. Of this, Aristotle says the following in his discussion of friendship in “Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII”:
“Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature, and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good – and goodness is an enduring thing.”
This is the so-called “friendship of virtue.” Friends of this sort love their friend for his own sake, and desire his good above all else. In the mind of Aristotle, this means desiring that his friend be a man of virtue, a good man. The true friend desires this over and above even his own good will. These are the friendships that last, for the friend seeks nothing in return. These types of friendships build one another up, and the friends help each other to become virtuous. In one of my favorite passages of Sacred Scripture, the book of Sirach (6:14-16) describes such a friendship:
“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:     he that has found one has found a treasure. There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend,     and no scales can measure his excellence.  A faithful friend is an elixir of life;     and those who fear the Lord will find him.”

Attaining the Highest Form of Friendship

So, it is this highest form of friendship that is desirable, that we should all seek. That is not to say the others are bad, but rather they are imperfect. We all no doubt have many friendships of utility and of pleasure, and these are perfectly fine so long as the utility and pleasure attained is lawful. But how does one, especially one in high school, make a perfect friend, a friend of virtue? Remember, Aristotle said that youths tend to make decisions based on emotion, so pleasant friendships are more common. But it can be as simple as transforming some of those friendships of pleasure into friendships of virtue. The first step begins with you. Are you a man or woman of virtue? Are you the type of person that can truly encourage and inspire your friends to become better with you? You don’t have to be perfect, for none of us are, but you certainly mustn’t be vicious, for you shall make your friends like unto yourself.

Anthony Haskin teaches High School History at Holy Spirit Preparatory School.
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