Several weeks ago I began to tell you about the book Aristotle’s Psychology, which is one of the readings for a class I am teaching. Aristotle talks about different types of friendships. He defines friendships which are based on gaining something from the relationship, meaning friendships of advantage; those based on enjoying each other, or gaining pleasure from the relationship; and those based on recognizing the good character of the other person and wanting to know that person well. While all relationships may have aspects of each quality, the important defining idea is which quality is the fundamental basis for the relationship.
In a relationship of advantage, once there is no advantage to be gained, the relationship ends. This might be a friendship with your car mechanic, who goes out of business, but it might also be that you have a friend who provides emotional support and listening when you are going through hard times. Once the hard times are over, you may lose interest in the relationship or person. In the same way, if the relationship is based on enjoying being together, then when it is no longer enjoyable, you might have less motivation to spend time together.
Aristotle’s fundamental premise is that deep life satisfaction comes from living one’s life in an ethical way. In other words, according to this view, real happiness comes from thinking carefully, deciding what is right, and living your life in line with that understanding. This is what he might mean by “a good life.” If your process of living your life takes that form, then you will be drawn to, and appreciate, other people who are attempting to live in that way, even if their ideals may be different from your own.
The fact is, it is not easy to find those relationships. Such a person has come to a set of inner convictions that are orienting and guide his or her choices. In this kind of friendship we like the other person because of who he or she is, not because of something that the friendship does for us. We are interested in what is good for the other person for their own sake, and in genuinely mutual relationships of this kind, the other person is interested in what is good for us for our own sake. In other words, regardless of how it affects them.
With the freedom of aligning one’s own life with one’s own deepest, inner ideals, the relationship can consist of shared activities and spending time together for the experience of coming to know another person deeply and well. The anxiety, judgment, and grasping fears of other types of relationships do not exist. There is, as David Richo says, affection, allowing, attention, acceptance, and appreciation. It may be an illusive goal, but it is worth bringing into awareness and being clear in our own minds how we are conducting our relationships. Not every relationship will be of the “perfect” kind that Aristotle describes, but we can grow toward that clearer way of relating.