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Aristotle’s Email – Or, Friendship In The Cyber Age

Tim Madigan ponders the mysteries of friendship.

‘Cause it’s been forty years or more,
Now Martha please recall,
Meet me out for coffee,
Where we’ll talk about it all.’
– Tom Waits, ‘Martha’ (from Closing Time)

In Book VIII of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorizes three different types of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good. Friendships of utility are those where people are on cordial terms primarily because each person benefits from the other in some way. Business partnerships, relationships among co-workers, and classmate connections are examples. Friendships of pleasure are those where individuals seek out each other’s company because of the joy it brings. Passionate love affairs, people associating with each other due to belonging to the same hobby organization, and fishing buddies fall into this category. Most important of all are friendships of the good. These are friendships based upon mutual respect, admiration for each other’s virtues, and a strong desire to aid and assist the other person because one recognizes their essential goodness.

The first two types of friendship are relatively fragile. When the purpose for which the relationship is formed somehow changes, then these friendships tend to end. For instance, if the business partnership is dissolved, or if you take another job, or graduate from school, it is more than likely that no ties will be maintained with the former friend of utility. Likewise, once the love affair cools, or you take up a new hobby or give up fishing, the friends of pleasure will go their own ways.

However, friendships of the good tend to be lifelong, are often formed in childhood or adolescence, and will exist so long as the friends continue to remain virtuous in each other’s eyes. To have more than a handful of such friends of the good, Aristotle states, is indeed a fortunate thing. Rare indeed are such friendships, for people of this kind are rare. Or as my mother used to say, “Make new friends but keep the old, for one is silver and the other is gold.” Such friendships of the good require time and intimacy – to truly know people’s finest qualities you must have deep experiences with them, and close connections. “Many a friendship doth want of intercourse destroy,” Aristotle warns us.

And yet, for us living in the frenetic 21st Century, it can be difficult to maintain such ties. Friendships of utility and pleasure come and go quickly as we move from job to job and relationship to relationship. But for Aristotle this need not be a tragedy. Since the interchanges of both types are less intense or permanent, their endings are not necessarily detrimental to one’s self. But to lose a friend of the good – ah, there is tragedy indeed.

Email has added a new wrinkle to Aristotle’s threefold schemata. Thanks to it, and the wonders of the internet in general, it is now easier than ever to stay in touch with people from throughout one’s life. Old acquaintances, long forgotten, can be found relatively easily through Google searches and services such as classmates.com, where you can often track down old school chums you haven’t spoken to in many a moon, for a fee.

Some psychologists have been studying a recent phenomenon: old lovers coming together again, sometimes after several decades of being out of contact. Nancy Kalish’s book Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances (William Morrow and Company) provides a fascinating introduction to such ‘rediscoveries’. Today thousands of people in their fifties and sixties, after divorcing or losing a spouse, wonder whatever became of their first love. After a quick Google search or two, they often find out that their old lovers too are now alone, and the original romantic spark is rekindled. Aristotle, who understood the intensity of friendships formed in youth, would not be astonished by this.

While I haven’t (yet) re-established connections with lovers from long ago, I have availed myself of the opportunities of Google to find former classmates, teachers and friends from years past. I’m amazed at how quickly, even after twenty years or more, we can pick up where we left off. There’s something about email’s democratic nature that makes it easy to send a message to someone you haven’t talked to in decades. A phone call out of the blue seems too potentially disturbing, and a written letter seems too formal; but email makes it seem quite natural to contact acquaintances from years ago. Should they choose not to answer, one can shrug it off with an “Oh, well, that’s how it goes.” But should they reply, it can be the continuation of a beautiful friendship.

Often discussions of personal relationships in the Cyber Age dwell upon the negative ­– the superficial connections, the dangers of identity theft, and information overload. Aristotle does warn us that, at least where friendships of the good are concerned, there are limitations to just how many it is feasible to handle. He writes, “To be a friend to many people in the way of the perfect friendship is not possible.”

Still, it seems to me that email has made it possible for friendships of all three categories to thrive and prosper in ways Aristotle could never have anticipated. Of course nothing beats personal proximity, but in our highly mobile society this is often not feasible. Email has given new opportunities for continuing friendly ties from a distance.

Dour old Arthur Schopenhauer once sarcastically wrote that if you really want to know how you feel about a person, take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you see it on your doormat. I would amend this by saying that an unexpected email from a friend from the past can brighten up one’s day tremendously. As Aristotle reiterated more than once, we humans are social creatures. Email has added to the social realities of our lives.

© Dr Timothy R. Madigan 2007

Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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