Aristotle on friends & social media


“Without friends no one would choose to live.”
– Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.

Aristotle had an absolutely sensational social life judging by the glowing account he gives of friendship.  He taught that one cannot merely decide to be friends (say by, hitting a button) just like one cannot decide to be healthy. True friendship takes time to develop because it requires the building of mutual trust. And according to Aristotle, one can only have a few real friends.

With a focus on quality over quantity, time investment, and depth of interaction, it seems that an Aristotelian social media platform would look somewhat different to the ones we’re used to today.

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credit: genius image from @TimeToLogOff

Aristotle defined friends broadly as: two people who want what is good for each other and are aware of this reciprocal good will.[i]  However, the motives for this good will matter a lot.

For example, there are friends of convenience and pleasure for which one’s goodwill is based on the fact that the friend provides utility or pleasure (apparently he had some LinkedIn and MMO friends too).  Far more valuable, however, are friends we have because of their goodness and virtue.

Good friends, according to Aristotle, wish for each other what they wish for themselves: happiness. Good friends are even willing to sacrifice themselves–put aside their vanity and quest for distinction–for the sake of the other.

“Those who wish for the good things for their friends, for their friends’ sake, are friends most of all.”[ii]

According to Aristotle, having true friends helps us on our path to self-growth, moderation and flourishing. This is because we’re motivated to act wisely by a desire to be worthy of our friend’s esteem and affection.  Moreover, these good friendships are those in which we “contemplate in common, and feast in common, only not on the pleasures of food”[iii] (so not this), but on the pleasures of the mind and soul: learning and reason.

Today’s social media platforms are designed to increase our numbers of “friends” indefinitely, so that we can, for example, share the pleasures of food (#instafood).

Many of our social media friends are merely product recommending, achievement sharing, me-forming, worldview validating acquaintances.  But according to Aristotle, this is not the sort of friendship that will lead us to lasting happiness.

An inescapable question, therefore, emerges:

How can future technology support depth, shared contemplation and intimacy among smaller groups of true friends in the Aristotelian sense?

How might technology help us to spend less of our finite time on relatively meaningless interactions and more of it on interactions that matter to our wellbeing?

We’d love your thoughts…


The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics)


[i] Ward, Ann. (2016) Contemplating Friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics. State University of New York Press

[ii] Nicomachean Ethics. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans. (2011). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. As quoted in “Contemplating Friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics” by Ward, Ann. State University of New York Press, 2016.

[iii] Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 2, The Revised Oxford Translation. Edited by Jonathan Barnes

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