part III: characteristics of true friendship

There is a definite congruence of thought about the characteristics of true friendship; familiarity, similarity, respect and trust are all qualities universally associated with friendship. While the ideas expressed about these and other aspects of friendship are largely the same from writer to writer, each writer brings to the discussion a unique perspective. Drawing upon my sources, I have identified eleven characteristics which illuminate the nature of true friendship.

1. Familiarity

One of the most essential elements of friendship is familiarity. Aristotle points this out when he draws a distinction between good will and affection by saying that “affection involves familiarity, whereas good will can arise on the spur of the moment.” For Aristotle, while good will marks the start of friendship, it reveals that a relationship has not yet arrived at the maturity of affection. Cicero agrees with this view and draws upon some proverbial knowledge to make his point: “There is real truth in the familiar saying that people must eat many a peck of salt together if they are to know the full meaning of friendship.” Ralph Waldo Emerson takes this idea one step further when he warns against friendships that are quickly constructed: “Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fibre of the human heart…. We snatch at the slowest fruit in the whole garden of God, which many summers and many winters must ripen.” It is evident from these observations that two people must spend time getting to know each other before they can engage in a true friendship.

2. Choice

As two people become familiar with one another, they discover good and bad qualities in each other and on the basis of these qualities, they make a choice — although perhaps not always consciously — either to deepen their relationship with each other or to let it weaken. Choice is a key factor in the development of friendship; in the words of Aristotle, “mutual affection involves choice.” When choice (as represented by good will) is eliminated from a relationship, it can no longer be truly called friendship, as Cicero points out: “Relatives may lose their goodwill, friends cannot, for once goodwill is lost, the friend is no longer a friend, but the relative is still a relative.” This idea is made even more explicit by Montaigne, who speaks of choice as an exercise of free will:

Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also. He is my son, he is my kinsman, but he is an unsociable man, a knave, or a fool. And then, the more they are friendships which law and natural obligation impose on us, the less of our choice and free will there is in them. And our free will has no product more properly its own than affection and friendship.

Clearly, then, friendship involves an election or choice, and Montaigne intimates above that it is based on a similarity of disposition.

3. Shared situations and interests

Although Montaigne merely hints at this similarity between friends, Aristotle makes it explicit when he says that friendship involves an element of sharing: “Friendship is present to the extent that men share something in common… Friendship consists in community.” On one level, Aristotle is speaking of a physical community. He makes numerous mentions of the fact that “nothing characterizes friends as much as living in each other’s company.” He also speaks of the sharing of common interests as a mark of friendship in his discussion of the master/slave relationship: “The part and the whole… have an identical interest; and the slave is a part of the master, in the sense of being a living but separate part of his body. There is thus a community of interest, and a relation of friendship, between master and slave…” Cicero takes the argument further when he states that “the one element indispensable to friendship [is] a complete agreement in aims, ambitions, and attitudes.” From these arguments, it becomes evident that friendship does depend on a certain sharing and that the common element that brings men together can be a situation, a belief, a goal, or a disposition.

4. Pleasure

One of the more obvious characteristics of friends is that they enjoy being with one another. To put it in the language of Aristotle, “It is impossible for men to spend their time together unless they are pleasant [in one another’s eyes] and find joy in the same things. It is this quality which seems typical of comradeship.” A friend can lift our spirits, and this is one of the most attractive aspects of friendship. As Saint Augustine writes: “Is not the unfeigned confidence and mutual love of true and good friends our one solace in human society, filled as it is with misunderstandings and calamities?” Our friends can make us happy because the love they show is given freely and sincerely, as Cicero notes: “What we get from a friend gives us joy since it comes to us with love.” The affection of friendship makes it pleasurable; true friends enjoy being around each other because it gives them an opportunity to give and receive affection.

5. Charity

Affection is expressed by a person through his willingness to serve his friend. Aristotle emphasizes this charitable aspect of friendship when he writes that “friendship appears to consist in giving rather than in receiving affection.” He implies that friendship involves a certain selflessness, and this sentiment is confirmed by Cicero, who asks: “How many things are there which we would not do for our own sake, but which we are constantly doing for the sake of our friends?” Emerson communicates the same idea when he notes that “the only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” From these comments, one concludes that in friendship a person removes the focus from himself and shifts it to his companion. Montaigne says that this shift is negligible in true friendship because, in this situation, everything is shared and so no benefits actually belong to either person. He does admit, however, that in a friendship both persons are “seeking above all things to benefit the other.” From a Christian perspective, this quality can be likened to the divine love of God, and from a Catholic point of view, it is this element of friendship that gives it a sacramental character. As Robert Hugh Benson writes in The Friendship of Christ: “It seeks to win nothing, to produce nothing — but to sacrifice all. Even where the supernatural motive is absent, it can reflect on the natural plane… the characteristics of divine charity.” From all of the above observations, it is clear that friendship involves a degree of self-sacrifice.

6. Self-love

This self-giving stems from a healthy sense of self. According to Aristotle, “…the friendly relations which we have with our neighbors and which serve to define the various kinds of friendship seem to be derived from our relations to ourselves.” He continues by listing attitudes that a person expresses toward a friend (such as a desire for the friend’s existence and good) and shows that a good man has all these feelings in relation to himself, “for his friend is really another self.” Cicero echoes these ideas while placing an emphasis on the need for self-confidence: “The more confidence a man has in himself, the more he finds himself so fortified by virtue and wisdom that he is completely self-sufficient and believes that his destiny is in his own hands, so much the better will he be both at making and at keeping friends.” This confidence, stemming from a love of self, is essential to friendship with others. Cicero is saying that a true friend is dear to someone in the way that a person is dear to himself; in this respect, a friend is a “second self.” This term has become a cliche by the time of Montaigne; he uses it without a word of explanation when he describes the death of his closest friend: “I was already so formed and accustomed to being a second self everywhere that only half of me seems to be alive now.” On the basis of these statements, it can be concluded that friendship consists in a love similar to and dependent on self-love.

7. Trust

Friendship also requires trust. Aristotle writes that “the friendship of good men implies mutual trust” and Cicero says that “the foundation of that steadfastness and loyalty for which we are looking in friendship is trust, for nothing endures that cannot be trusted.” This trust, which is crucial to the existence of friendship, goes hand in hand with honesty; in fact, honesty naturally flows out of trust. Cicero suggests this when he observes that “hypocrisy is vicious… it is particularly inimical to friendship, for it makes honesty impossible, and without honesty the word ‘friendship’ has no meaning.” If a friend is not honest with us, we can no longer trust him. This puts an end to friendship because a friend is, by Emerson’s definition, someone who can be trusted and with whom we can speak the truth (i.e. be honest). Thus the qualities of trust and honesty are inseparable and both belong to the nature of friendship.

8. Respect

Two people could hardly be considered friends if they did not hold each other in high regard. Friends must see qualities in each other that they admire, or else the relationship will not be a friendship in the highest sense. Aristotle writes that “it is clear that good men alone can be friends on the basis of what they are.” In other words, good men respect one another, and this is the basis of true friendship. Indeed, Cicero writes the following epigram in praise of respect: “Take respect out of friendship and you deprive it of its noblest crown.” Emerson takes a slightly more moderate view, stating that while respect is an attitude appropriate to friendship, it is most deeply associated with the self: “In strictness, the soul does not respect men as it respects itself.” This assertion, however, does not diminish the importance of respect in friendship because, as was mentioned earlier, the attitude we exhibit toward our friends is a mirror of the view we have of ourselves.

9. Justice

Friendship also involves a sense of what is fair and right, a sense of justice. This notion is very important in the writings of Aristotle. For him, the just is something subordinate to friendship: “When people are friends, they have no need of justice, but when they are just, they need friendship in addition. In fact, the just in the fullest sense is regarded as constituting an element of friendship.” Carrying the idea into his political theory, he views a type of friendship as the bond that creates a coherent state, a bond that provides a certain sort of justice. After a discussion of the different types of political constitutions, he writes that “each of these constitutions exhibits friendship to the same extent that it exhibits [a notion of] what is just.” For him, friendship and justice are closely interrelated. Emerson shies away from this practical notion of friendship by stressing that friendship is much more than mere justice and that it cannot be reduced to a fair exchange. In his own words, “We chide the citizen because he makes love a commodity… and quite loses sight of the delicacies and nobility of the relation.” This is not a denial of the importance of justice in friendship, but rather a request for a deeper look into the qualities of friendship.

10. Criticism

In addition to treating each other justly, friends offer constructive criticism to one another. According to Aristotle, friends take pleasure in each other’s goodness and they “neither go wrong themselves nor let their friends do so.” A good man will not tolerate wrongdoing on the part of his friend: “The… man who will put up with — and likewise refuse to put up with — the right things in the right manner… is the kind of person we mean when we speak of a ‘good friend’.” Cicero agrees that friends should correct one another when they stray from prudent behavior, but states that the motive for the criticism must be the benefit of the person criticized: “It often happens that friends must be admonished and even reprimanded, and this we must take in good part when it is offered in a spirit of charity.” He continues by saying that flattery is worse than criticism, “for by failing to call wrongdoing to account, it lets a friend fall to his ruin,” and concludes that “it is an essential part of true friendship… to offer and to receive admonition.” Thus, the exchange of helpful criticism marks a real friendship. In contrast, Montaigne admits a certain reluctance to criticize others: “I do not make it my business to tell the world what it should do — enough others do that — but what I do in it.” He shows a degree of disdain for criticism and fails to observe that it has a place in friendship. From the tone of his essay, it seems that because true friendship implies the proper choice of friends, he feels that criticism is unnecessary. He is speaking in terms of an ideal friendship, which perhaps excuses this aberration of opinion.

11. Virtue

It is commonly agreed that virtue is related to friendship, but the nature of this relationship is described differently by Aristotle and Cicero. Aristotle claims that friendship is itself a virtue, while Cicero asserts that virtue is a prerequisite to friendship when he says that “without virtue friendship cannot exist at all.” In accordance with this view, he says that “nothing… offers stronger incentive to affection” than virtue. Not only does it provide the motivation for friendship, but its presence maintains the relationship: “It is virtue, yes virtue, that initiates and preserves friendship. For it is virtue that is the source of the rational, the stable, the consistent element in life.” The question now becomes whether virtue is the cause of friendship (as Cicero says) or its result (as Aristotle asserts). Since there is no contradiction involved in saying that it is both a cause and an effect, the ideas presented by these two writers can be viewed as complementary. In short, virtue makes friendship possible. Saint Thomas Aquinas also talks about virtue and friendship, not in terms of a natural virtue, however, but in reference to the theological virtue of charity. This will be discussed in the section entitled Friendship with God.

2 thoughts on “part III: characteristics of true friendship

  1. i was reading this page looking for characteristics of a friend .. aristotle said .. friends have to be alike .. i dont think so … frends r frends bcos of theyre differences 😀

  2. Well done. I teach this theme in my philosophy class. Many students have found their way to this material in doing their friendship papers for the class. I think you put it together very well.
    Fr. Ed Moran
    Saint Leo University

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