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If Aristotle Were Alive, What He Would Say About Virtual Friendships?

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.

Aristotle asked:

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 Aristotlewritten 350 B.C.E (translated by W. D. Ross)

Lada Prkić
Lada Prkićhttps://www.bebee.com/@lada-prkic
Lada Prkić is a Civil Engineer and has a lot of professional experience in various fields of Civil Engineering. She works at the University of Split on the capital construction projects at the University Campus and beyond. Besides performing responsible tasks as a Project Manager, and Head of Capital Investment Office, Lada became passionate about blogging. She writes about civil engineering, architecture, geometry, networks on social media, and human relations. Lada lives with her family in Split, Croatia, a beautiful 2,000 years old city on the coast of the Adriatic sea.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Lada, Immensely relevant and extremely interesting topic and the number of research articles on trust building in different virtual settings has naturally exploded during the pandemic. And the question is real and has always been real (writing letters, emails…), but perhaps now with physical restraint/constraint has it emerged as a genuine (=relevant) question in the real world (not just the speculative world of philosophy).
    Basically, Aristotle’s analysis of friendship can be transferred (reasonably) to a general domain of relationship and partnership management in the world business and commerce, academia and research – in short all social aspects of life. At the basis of this we find Trust (my opinion) in different types, as you mention, and ask – can it be built virtually? Along comes concepts of psychological safety because they are interconnected more often than not (even in, or perhaps especially visible in children’s play – Aristotle also cover this partly). Perfect friendship could be seen as the “ideal” type worth striving for even though we know they are few (but we still play the lottery).
    In a recent piece Amy C. Edmondson and Mark Mortensen (HBR) points out that the “WFH” / “remote” work will continue (not a great surprise) and moreover that new ways of handling “relationships will be needed (leader-employee, employee-employee) and there seems to be elements of including a more holistic human perspective in the sense that “virtual” work blurs the “imaginary” lines between “work” and “life” – perhaps producing a better balance between how much “work” takes up of “life”:
    “The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances — a categorically different domain.” (Edmondson, Mortensen).
    Personally, I think the emerging construction of virtual “Local-globalities” enabled by the #Onlife as an #inforg (Luciano Floridi) will spur a sub-species of friendship although still adhering to the general principles of the Aristotelian friendship framework (because it is human and social). More often than not we will see development of friendship from a reverse order than we have done before (already so) – the virtual connection will precede the physical. How that influences thoughts on the philosophy of body-mind and the event, is a matter for seasoned philosophers to figure out and surely supported by excellent researchers (in many fields) :-)

    • Per, thank you for your on-the-topic and informative comment. We already see the development of friendship from a reverse when online relationships evolve into offline friendships. My husband is a member of several professional groups on Facebook. He met online many people in his field (Malacology). With a few of them, he established close and trusted friendships after meeting them in person. So, they were first collaborators on several scientific articles, and after, they became close friends and often visited each other even though they live in different countries.
      I’m aware that WFH will continue and possibly for years to come. It will affect every aspect of our life and also lead to, as you say, sub-species of friendship. Still, my opinion is that real-life interaction is essential for true friendship, the gold standard for friendships.
      Anyone who has even one special friendship that lasts a lifetime, knows what I’m talking about. :)

  2. Aristotle states that friendship is based on profit, pleasure or good, consequently there are three types of friendship: usefulness, pleasure and virtue.
    Friendships based on profit and pleasure are the most fragile and least lasting, since when the useful or the pleasure ceases to exist, these too fail. Friendships of virtue, on the other hand, are the most lasting, but also the rarest because they are based on good souls, which are also rare.
    The philosopher states that only those who live in intimate relationships can establish friendship bonds. But the most important concept that Aristotle wants to teach us is that the important thing is not to have as many friends as possible, because true friends are not numerous.
    On these premises it must be concluded that Aristotle would have looked with suspicion at virtual friendships but, I think, also because friendship in the current world seems to have died out, perhaps because we become more and more attached to material and superficial things.
    The current conception of friendship is certainly also conditioned by the advent of social networks, which foster virtual friendships.
    Can these friendships replace those in which two people look into each other’s eyes and not from behind a screen?
    Social networks have as their main purposes to introduce new people and share photos or videos with friends at a distance. So perhaps these platforms are a double-edged sword.
    Nowadays the concept of friendship is progressively impoverishing, because now we also call “friends” people we met a few days earlier. Friendship, in fact, means creating a deep bond, not of simple knowledge. It is a bond that must be sweated and conquered.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Aldo. I find myself asking this same question about people we call ‘friends’ but met only recently on social media. People use the word ‘friend’ on social media too easily. Some of my connections on LI call me their friend after I commented only once on their posts, and we had no other interactions.
      Being friends have a way much deeper meaning to me. As I said in my comment to Charlotte, truly knowing someone requires years walking beside them in all life’s situations. I have a few true longtime friendships that are perfect in the Aristotelian sense. We have eaten more than one sack of salt together. :)

  3. That’s a tough one Lada. I can say with certainty that many online friendships are not as strong as those established in real life. Yes, we can make very good friends online. It’s rare, if not unlikely, that we will ever meet any of our distant pen-pals directly, but I don’t see too many investing in the deep time necessary to build something lasting. As soon as you log-off or depart from a social media platform, those limited friendships begin to evaporate. Many will not know how to continue correspondence, nor will they lift a finger to reach out and say hello. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but I’ve discovered that virtual friendships are almost disposable. I suppose it depends on the person or the circumstance, of course, as each situation is different. It’s simply not as easy to build the human level of trust you get from face-to-face interaction, from years of togetherness and direct contact. I don’t state my perspective out of cruelty or vanity… but it’s human nature to rely on what you can actually touch and feel, a pillar of strength you can actually hold onto, a person you can hug or care for. You just can’t get that kind of friendship online. While it’s not impossible, it’s a very rare occurrence. Anyway, just my opinion. Every person is different, so I may be completely wrong… wouldn’t be the first time. 😉

    • Aaron, thank you for commenting on my three last posts here. I appreciate your effort to read and am grateful you find my posts worth commenting on.
      Agreed, it’s a tough topic. I met my closest online friends through blogging and think it’s the best way to get to know someone online. Such friendships last long after logging-off from social media. 😉
      Still, like you, I’m not sure I’ll ever meet my distant pen-pals. It is just another dimension of friendship that is related to my online life only.
      All that you said is close to my way of thinking on this topic. Indeed, every person is different, and we experienced online friendships differently. Chatting with my best friends in person over a cup of coffee sitting by the sea is priceless. But thoughtful discussions with my online friends on their or my blog posts is something I cannot experience with my real-life friends cause they don’t blog.
      I like your comment very much, Aaron, and hope we’ll continue to comment on each other’s articles. See you in a thread. :)

  4. Lada
    I think your assumptions of friendship and your hypothesis of Aristotle’s perceptions and conclusions are thought provoking and worthy of our consideration at a time when individuals and individual relationships are being tested rigorously. I found your essay both informative, to my shame I have never read any of Aristotle’s work and helpful at a time when I am trying to work out the best way to foster and nurture friendships at distance with all the restrictions of lockdown and the pandemic. I agree the technology options have fatigued most of us, but with children, friends and family distant it has been our only option. Whilst reading your piece and writing this response, it became more urgent, that if nothing else, I need a plan to ensure that those relationships remain as strong as they were prior to this awful lockdown. It’s interesting that in thinking about this, it made me think how I would categorise my friendships. I have always been a believer in the difference between real friendship, acquaintance and the people I know and have a convivial exchange with. Like many others I have learned you unintentionally find out who your real friends are when your fortunes are tested and perhaps for a period you can be of no use to your so called ‘Friend’ or as Aristotle would say a “Utility Friend”. My conclusion so far is, moving forward I will continue to value all relationships, investing time and thought in perpetuating those and allow them to grow naturally. I will focus on the “Perfect friendships” and “Friendships for good” in whatever way I can, face to face where possible but virtually if it’s the most practical way. It may seem strange that I reply in this way, but your article resonated with me at a time when relationships and friendships have been so very difficult to maintain for all of us. Albeit a little clinical, it has made me consider and reevaluate how I might be perceived by others, friends, acquaintances et al. I enjoyed reading this and took a lot from your words and perceptions, thank you.

    • Good morning, Christopher! First, let me thank you for such a lovely and emotional comment. Here are 6 AM, and I’m writing this while sipping my morning latte before going to work. It is my best time, and sometimes the only time, to read and comment. As the comment thread on LinkedIn shown, almost all of the commenters established deep friendships with people they never met in person. I also have a few such friends whom I would really like to meet in person and deepen my friendship with them.
      In these difficult times full of restrictive measures, it is hard to maintain even real-life friendships. There’s no doubt that technology is of great help. But in maintaining friendships online, for me, time is crucial, the lack of time to be specific. Seeing people who spend so much time on social media interacting with many virtual friends (many of whom are just superficial connections), I often asked myself does spending much time and energy on online networks is at the expense of maintaining their true real-life friendships. Maybe some people can do both. :) I can’t.

      Thank you for commenting here and on LinkedIn. I hope we’ll conversing again.

  5. You are describing a phenomenon – friendship – that is so difficult to translate, not only from Greek, but across many modern languages. I would happily introduce quite a few people as “this is my friend NN” and invite the same people to a party, but only few of them would be named “ven” in my native tongue. A person who has four of five of these is truly rich. The next circle are somewhat closer to acquaintances (but that is probably not a good translation, either.)

    As for the online communities we sometimes name friends, the “salt” test is very apt. Although we may not have “broken bread” with any, there would be some we really would relish to meet with, should the opportunity arise. Would it go anywhere beyond that only time would show; perhaps their real life personas are very different from what comes across in the written language.

    • Charlotte, I apologize for the delayed response. My online time is very limited and I try to do my best to maintain the conversation.
      You are right about the possibility that real-life personas might be very different from what comes across based on written communication only. There’s much more to know about any one of us than what we share on social media. As I said in my response to Sara’s comment, truly knowing someone requires years walking beside them in all life’s situations.
      Many people are too open on SM and tend to reveal themselves to perfect strangers because they assume that those people will ever truly get to know them. That is why my opinion is that ‘eating salt together’ in the Aristotelian sense is essential to true friendship.

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