What is friendship? How many types of friendship can we recognize and in what degree shall we seek each of them? Several of the greatest philosophers have addressed those questions and neighboring ones. Let’s see some illustrations of their work.
Ancient Philosophy on Friendship
Friendship played a central role in ancient ethics and political philosophy. In books eight and nine of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle divides friendship into three sorts: friends for pleasure; friends for benefit; and true friends. To the former belong those sorts of social bonds that are established to enjoy one’s spare time, e.g. friends for sports or hobbies, friends for dining, or for partying. In the second are included all those bonds whose cultivation is primarily motivated by work-related reasons or by civic duties, such as being friend with your colleagues and neighbors. In the third category we find Friendship with the capital "f." True friends, explains Aristotle, are mirrors to each other.
Here are two passages from Aristotle:
"To the query, ''What is a friend?'' his reply was ''A single soul dwelling in two bodies."
"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."
Echoing Aristotle, some centuries afterwards, the Roman orator Cicero wrote about friendship in his Laelius, or on Friendship: "A friend is, as it were, a second self." (Marcus Tulius Cicero)
Before Aristotle, Zeno and Pythagora had already elevated friendship to one of the foremost human activities that deserves to be cultivated. Here are two quotes from them: "A friend is our alter ego" (Zeno)
"Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other to persevere in the road to a happier life." (Pythagora)
Epicurus was also famous for the care with which he cultivated friendships, to which echoes his Roman follower, Lucretius: “It is not so much our friends' help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.” (Epicurus)
"We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly embracing one another" (Lucretius)
Even in ancient literature, often entangled with philosophical views, we find plenty of passages on friendship. Here are some samples from Seneca, Euripides, Plautus and Plutarch: "Friendship always benefits; love sometimes injures." (Seneca)
"Friends show their love in times of trouble..." (Euripides)
"Life has no blessing like a prudent friend." (Euripides)
"Nothing but heaven itself is better than a friend who is really a friend." (Plautus)
"I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better." (Plutarch)
Finally, friendship played a key role also in the development of religious communities, such as in early Christianity. Here is a passage from Augustine: "I want my friend to miss me as long as I miss him." (Augustine)
Modern and Contemporary Philosophy on Friendship
In modern and contemporary philosophy, friendship loses the central role it had played once upon a time. Largely, we may speculate this to be related to the emergence of new forms of social aggregations – nation States. Nonetheless, it is easy to find some good quotes. "Without friends the world is but a wilderness. There is no man that imparteth his joys to his friends, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his grieves to his friend, but he grieveth the less." (Francis Bacon)
"Friendship is the shadow of the evening, which increases with the setting sun of life." (Jean de La Fontaine)
"A man's friendships are one of the best measures of his worth." (Charles Darwin)
"Three things tell a man: his eyes, his friends and his favorite quotes" (Immanuel Kant)
"The language of friendship is not words but meanings." (Henry David Thoreau)
"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival." (C.S. Lewis)
"Friendship is almost always the union of a part of one mind with the part of another; people are friends in spots." (George Santayana)
"Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendship and intimacies, and soon their places will know them no more, and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to keep by force of inertia." (William James)