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Why Doesn’t Aristotle Accept My Facebook Friendship Request?

Would Aristotle’s Facebook contacts really be his friends? asks Alan Rolle.

I am looking through the 128 contacts I have in my Facebook account. Each has a particular relation to me somehow or other. Some I hold dear to my heart, and others I haven’t spoken to for more than two hours at a party months ago. I have not spoken with some of them for over a decade. According to Facebook, they are all ‘friends’. (I await the day a contact website sends me an ‘enemy’ or ‘arch nemesis’ request.)

Yet looking closer, I notice that the term ‘friend’ has become ambiguous and unclear. How can I define all these people as friends? I do not have time to even contact so many people. There is also the matter that not everyone responds to my attempting to contact them. Looking even closer, besides the trivial messages where people mention what’s on their minds – which could be an intimate detail about themselves (no mention of sex changes yet) – there are virtual games, fan groups for whatever you desire, quizzes of all kinds, etc. All these things you can send to your ‘friends’. How honoured am I for getting various invitations to join Mafia Wars. Somebody even suggested I should start a farm, even though I have no aspiration to milk a cow or to harvest crops. I am fortunate enough to be told who should be my closest friends on the basis of my movie quiz results. Facebook, my little Oracle of Delphi!

Yet despite being able to maintain contact with so many people, I do not think the term ‘friend’ is the most appropriate. If one is not careful, these systems could make contact superficial. They seem to be there for leisure and utility, and not for friendship itself. All these virtual contacts never were there to help me during times of emotional upheaval and insecurity.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII (350 BC), Aristotle claims that there are three types of friendship:

1. Friendships of utility. You relate to a person as long as that person serves a purpose. When that person ceases to serve a purpose you have no reason to remain in contact with them. I will only see my hairdresser for a trim. I am not inviting him for latt és or green tea, or to discuss the latest Tarantino film.

2. Friendship for leisure or amusement. You relate to a person because you have things in common. You gain pleasure from each other’s company. Thus besides utility, you seek each other’s company because you get some entertainment from one another. If that starts to sour, you are likely to distant yourselves. I certainly would have no intention of socialising with someone who’s going to discuss the removal of warts or haemorrhoids. However if that person can talk stimulatingly about Tarantino, philosophy, or anything that I relate to, then I am all ears.

3. Friendship for its own sake. This is considered by Aristotle to be the highest form of friendship. You are not seeking utility or recreation, you just accept that person’s nature – meaning that you accept all aspects of that person no matter what, because you want to maintain your friendship, as you think so well of them.

Aristotle said the third type of friendship is the hardest type to establish, but also the type that lasts longest. The first two types are more common, yet they fizzle out very quickly as our needs and interests change.

Facebook friendship focuses very much on amusement and utility. Clearly the ‘games and interests’ contacts are based on amusement. And when you maintain loads of contacts (even with those you’d love to sent to another galaxy), the contacts often become a form of utility, because for example you want to be seen as popular, or perhaps you want to contact someone else through them, or display your art or writing to them, etc.

My closest friends are not the people who have similar results in a movie quiz to me, or who have sent me a fan-based group request, but the people I can trust and depend on when I need help, and who trust me to do likewise for them. With a real friend, you have a history. Not only do you share ideas, but you challenge each others’ idiosyncrasies and bring out each other’s potential. You are there for one another, and disclose personal details to each other that you do not share with others. You invest your life through listening, caring, sharing and giving. The set of Chinese calligraphy brushes given to me after my friend’s trip to China has more meaning and intimacy to me than any virtual gift given by and to various random people. There may be utility and amusement in the highest friendship too, but that comes through maintaining the relationship. So using the wisdom of Aristotle, I see Facebook as an accessory to, and not a replacement for, friendship.

© Alan Rolle 2011

Alan Rolle is a freelance artist.

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