Too Many Friends? Aristotle and Aquinas on why it is actually virtuous to limit the number of your friends

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In the Information Age where social media thrives and the possibility of creating new connections with many people is quite easy (even automated), it might be wise perhaps to consider what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have said about friendship.  In Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas comments that Aristotle begins to doubt how others should be loved when Aristotle says [Book Nine, Chapter 10, 1170b 20-23, (Dumb Ox Books: Notre Dame, Indiana. 1993)] “Should a man then make as many friends as possible?…or perhaps it will be fitting in friendship that a man should be neither without friends nor with an excessive number.”  Aristotle, the classical defender of ‘common sense’ asks the very obvious, humble and practical question, whether it is good to make as many friends as one possibly can? Our pride  might say, “Of course, I want many friends in my life because this is a sign of my goodness!”  or one might equate the quantity of persons in one’s social media contact list with one’s own personal sense of self-worth and value to others, based upon the utility they provide you and you provide for them.  However, the key idea here may be Aristotle’s use of the phrase “…in friendship…”, possibly meaning that in true friendship an excess of friends or a lack of friends is not good for a person (this seems to be pointing to a definition of what Aristotle means by friendship, a concept which will be referred below).  Although, Aristotle continues, “This statement seems to be quite applicable to those who make friends for utility.  For it is burdensome to repay the services of many people and a man’s life is not long enough for the task.  Therefore, more friends than are sufficient for our own life distract us from noble living, and there is no need for them.”   Aquinas comments on this by saying, “Therefore, if a man’s useful friends are more numerous than necessary for his own life, they distract and hinder him from the blessings of a life which consists in virtuous activity.  The reason is that while a person gives extra attention to the business of others, he cannot properly care for himself.  Evidently then a man has no need of many useful friends.”  So it seems that both philosophers are here distinguishing between what is true friendship and “useful friends.”  In other words, a person doesn’t need many “useful friends” because they cause him to forget to take care of himself and his own affairs since he is spending so much time attempting to repay their favors, causing him to forget to work on growing in virtue himself and spending his time away from his true friends, his spouse and his family.  The “defender of common sense” says, “…and a man’s life is not long enough for the task.”  This is so obviously true even if we think of the multitude of benefits we receive from so many people just in a single day both directly and indirectly, let alone an entire lifetime.

So, what is Aristotle’s definition of a friend?  He says in a prior book (Book Eight, Chapter 3, 1156b911) that “…people who wish good to friends for their sake are the truest friends; they do this for the friends themselves and not for something incidental.”  Something incidental, such as, the utility a friend brings or the pleasure, such as, being funny.  In other words, a true friend wants the good of that friend as a person, and does not treat that person as a thing from whom one can receive pleasure or finds useful.

So, how does one behave like a true friend?  Aristotle says, “Perhaps then it is not well to seek as many friends as possible but as many as are sufficient for living together…Indeed love is a kind of excess of friendship, and this is possible with one person only, or with a very few.”  Aquinas comments on this very passage saying that, “…it does not seem possible for a man to be very friendly to great numbers…since achievement of the highest perfection cannot take place in most cases due to a multiplicity of defects and hindrances.”  In other words, with many people, the sheer quantity of personal defects, flaws or faults multiplies beyond one’s ability to pursue perfect friendship with the group and there are hindrances, time schedules, for example, distance, availability, preferences, among so many other possible obstacles.  In conclusion, it seems for Aristotle that actually “living together” (not on-line, not virtually) is the true test of true friendship.  If we include this idea of “living together” with the other idea of having time for one’s own self-improvement, our virtuous improvement of those with whom we live and their improvement of us, we can see readily that this is a lot of time consuming yet joyful work.  But, in reality, with whom would we prefer to do all of these things with?  Our true friends whom we love of course!

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