Despite being many years on social media, I am still amazed at the concept of online friendships and the people I call my friends but never met in person.
The virtual friendship thing is something I think more about after I have read Aristotle’s theory of friendship. In Nicomachean Ethics (Books VIII and IX), Aristotle discusses the nature and purpose of friendship (philia) as the essential ‘ingredient’ of the good life. The term philia is often translated as friendship, although had a broader meaning in Ancient Greek.
Nicomachean Ethics is not easy to read due to its verbose style. Besides, the translation of ancient Greek to modern English is a bit awkward. First, I would like to highlight some of Aristotle’s thoughts and observations related to the subject matter. His understanding of human nature and the philosophy of friendship is still relevant today.
Can friendship arise between any two people, or only between the good? Can wicked men be friends? Is there only one kind of friendship, or more?
Aristotle speculated that one should distinguish between true and apparent friendship, as well as different levels of friendship. There are three types of friendship, each based on different goals: a) perfect friendship or friendship of the good, b) friendship of pleasure, and c) friendship of utility.
The perfect friendship based on goodness is only such in the full sense of the word. Since goodness is an enduring quality, such friendships tend to be long lasting. The friendships based on pleasure and usefulness Aristotle considered less valuable and volatile. When there is no more benefit or pleasure, such friendships easily dissolve. Friendship based on utility is the lowest type of friendship because partners use each other for their own interests. Those three types are not mutually exclusive. Friendships of the good are often uplifted by utility or pleasure.
Wicked men can be friends with each other for the sake of pleasure and usefulness. The wicked do not rejoice in one another unless they benefit from each other. Only good men will be friends for their own sake (in virtue of their goodness), and influence each other in a good way. Aristotle wrote, “To be friends, then, they must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other.”
Some friendships are based on equality and others by virtue of superiority. Still, friendships based on superiority are not long lasting. When there is a too great gap between friends and one become far more virtuous than the other, the friendship dissolves.
Friendship is the key to human happiness and noble in itself. No one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods. “Friends are thought the greatest of external goods.”
The good and honest people are not in abundance, and we must be content if we find even a few such to be our friends. Friendships of the good must be cultivated and for good friends is most important to spend time together.
There is a natural limit to how many friends of the good one can have.
One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having a friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once.
—NE, Book VIII
How Aristotle’s theory can be applied to virtual friendships?
In today’s world, with hundreds of superficial connections made through social media platforms, friendships of the good in the Aristotelian sense are almost impossible to achieve. Even real-life friendships eventually decay over time if they are not occasionally reinforced by face-to-face interaction. What, then, can be expected from friendships that are grounded on text-based interaction only?
The majority of offline friendships are utility and pleasure friendships. The question is, can the highest level of friendship (perfect friendship) be reached exclusively online? How well we know the character of our online friends. Do they reveal their true selves to others? The same questions go for us. How are we honest in presenting ourselves online?
Further, can we put trust in people we have never seen in the flesh? To quote Aristotle:
Men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together.’
—NE, Book VIII
It means friendship requires time to evolve and mature, and people need to learn more about each other, conversing over many meals, to become close and trusted friends. Sharing meals also implies sharing all of life’s experiences. Exclusively online interactions cannot fully meet that criterion of ‘salt eating friendships.’
Out of my hundreds of professional connections I have gained over the years on LinkedIn, I hardly know anyone. I stopped a long time ago to accept invitations to connect if I have not had a previous meaningful interaction with those people through commenting or messaging.
Having conversations is the best way of getting to know someone better, and text-based interaction is the first step. Not only our direct interaction with that person but the person’s interactions with the people connected to him/her. We can also use apps that enable us to hear and see each other, though last year made most of us tired of all video meetings. It is just not a natural way to interact with people.
Despite all the modes of communication the Internet offers us, I still wonder, Is that enough? Can we still consider such friendships true friendships if there is no real-life interaction?
If Aristotle were alive, what he would say about virtual friendships?
If Aristotle had been living in the age of social media, when people, although geographically distant, can spend their time together with the help of the Internet and its various video, audio, and text communication apps, he would have probably thought of online friendship as one more level of friendship – of a hybrid kind and even close to perfect friendship.
Technology changed our lives and affected every aspect of them. Social media does change the way people connect with others. What still matters is the meaning of the interaction. I saw online friends supporting each other in the same way offline friends would. If there is a will and if circumstances allow, online relationships can evolve to offline.
Just like virtue friendships in the offline world, true virtual friendships are rare. I have only a few close online friends with whom I cherish deep personal and meaningful interactions despite never met them in person.
Still, my opinion is that ‘eating salt together’ in the Aristotelian sense is essential to true friendship. Spending time with my close friends over a cup of coffee and sharing my life with them is an irreplaceable ingredient of a fulfilled life.
Somehow, I think Aristotle would agree with me. J
Citations Source: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, written 350 B.C.E (translated by W. D. Ross)