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Confucius and Aristotle share common views on friendship

ZHANG NAN | 2020-03-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A statue of Confucius Photo: FILE


In relation to the subject of friendship, Confucius (551–479 BCE), the founder of Confucianism, was quoted as saying at the very beginning of the Analects, “Isn’t it delightful to have friends coming from afar?” The philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), as a major pioneer of Western ethics, also dedicated two chapters in his great work Nicomachean Ethics to elaborating on friendship.
Both in the West and in China, friendship is regarded as an important and even basic form of interpersonal relationship. In the intellectual history of humanity, the two previously mentioned sages both tried to define what an ideal friendship was in order to provide valuable guidance for friendship in reality.
Going beyond kinship
What is friendship? In the modern context, friendship generally refers to a good interpersonal relationship not based on blood. However, in ancient society where blood ties were valued a great deal, friendship was initially inseparable from kinship. In their argumentations, both Confucius and Aristotle went beyond blood relations to interpret friendship, seeking possibilities for non-biological affection.
Since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), the clan system had remained fundamental to sustaining the operation of Chinese society, and the core of the clan system was kinship, such that human relations in society were mostly blood-based. Under this premise, it was difficult to divorce friendship from kinship.
Friend is translated as pengyou in Chinese. In ancient China, peng denoted counterparts or fellows, while the meaning of you was closer to friends in the modern sense, but still associated with kinship in a complicated way.
This complexity is particularly apparent in the Analects. On the one hand, you indicates human relations through kinship. In the Analects, Confucius quoted the Book of Shang that maintained brotherhood is also a form of filial piety. On the other, you refers to groups without blood relations. For example, Ziyou, one of Confucius’s disciples, once referred to his classmate Zizhang with you, but they were not brothers.
You in the Analects had two connotations, within and outside kinship, mainly because of the disintegration of the clan system in the era of Confucius. When blood ties failed to sustain human relations in society, friendship naturally began to break away from kinship and incorporate non-relatives.
Similar to early China, blood ties also were at the core of social relations in ancient Greece, which resulted in close relations between the ideas of friendship and kinship. In the Nicomachean Ethics, friendship is used to describe almost all close human relations.
However, the so-called “Classical Age,” in which Aristotle lived, arose around the thriving democracy of Athens. The emergence of city-states broke the original tribal kinship. Citizens were not only members of their original clans or tribes, but also participants in the affairs of city-states. As a result, citizens not connected by blood formed communities out of common aspirations. In addition, ancient Greece saw the establishment of various schools of thought and academic organizations, which provided the social conditions for modern friendship.
Virtues matter
What are friends? Through observation and analysis of real-world friendship, Confucius and Aristotle demonstrated the core of establishing an ideal friendship and coincidentally grounded the establishment of ideal friendships in the pursuit of virtues.
According to the Analects, an ideal friendship is a pure relationship between junzi, or gentlemen, with improving each other’s virtues as the main motive. On the contrary, xiaoren, or villains, attempt to benefit from their connections. They come together out of self-interest and estrange each other when there is nothing to gain. The relationship between villains cannot be counted as friendship.
Confucius said, “When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them.” And philosopher Zengzi said, “The gentleman meets with his friends on grounds of culture, and by friendship helps his virtue.” Compared with benefits, benevolence and righteousness are more fundamental. They determine how gentlemen can get along with each other harmoniously and selflessly amid diversity.
However, is the quest for virtues between friends incompatible with the pursuit of interests? Although there is no evident argumentation on the topic in the Analects, such statements as “I should like to share chariots and horses and light fur clothes with my friends, and though they should spoil them, I would not be displeased” and “When any of his friends died, if he had no relations who could be depended on for the necessary offices, he would say, ‘I will bury him’” suggest that ideal friends at least don’t reject the sharing of interests while valuing virtues.
Aristotle divided friendship into three types: “friendship of utility,” “friendship of pleasure” and “friendship based on what is good.” In his view, the friendship for the pursuit of good is the perfect form of friendship.
The “friendship based on what is good” is distinguished from the other two types because “friendships of utility and pleasure do not regard friends as people, but for what they can give in return.” By contrast, in the perfect form of friendship, “friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense.” Moreover, all parties are virtuous. They like each other for their respective virtues and wish each other’s virtues grow even better.
Obviously, the friendship for the pursuit of good is not based on pure interests or sensual pleasure, but on intellectual, even metaphysical, needs. Nonetheless, it doesn’t rule out the pursuit of benefits and pleasure. Instead the pursuit of good will make the friendships of utility and pleasure more perfect.
This perfectness covers all the fundamentals of friendship, integrating the human intellectual pursuit of metaphysics, the sensual quest for pleasure and the most fundamental pursuit of material interests. People will become fully human through the character or affection of the friendship.
Equality valued
After building an ideal paradigm for friendship, how should we practice it? On this issue, Confucius and Aristotle expounded on the significance of equality to developing and maintaining friendship from different perspectives.
Confucius maintained that there were five cardinal relationships in Chinese society: between emperor and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend.
The relationship between friend and friend, or friendship, is special in that it is the only equality-based relationship, while each of the other four relationships is characterized by a superior-subordinate order. The equality of friendship determines the model of contact between friends.
To differentiate friendship from brotherhood, Confucius said friends will criticize each other sincerely, while brothers are in harmony.
Given blood ties and age-based hierarchy, brothers should observe the ethical norm in which “the elder brother loves and cares for the younger, while the younger brother respects the elder.” In friendship, the emphasis should be placed on mutual learning and motivation. To maintain the affection is not the overarching goal. The ultimate aim should be to make common progress toward the good by encouraging each other.
It should be noted that the equality between friends doesn’t signify equal external conditions, such as social status. It is closer to the approval of each other’s virtues. Confucius regarded making friends equal to himself as the principle of establishing friendships. It has two implications. First, he was inclined to make like-minded friends, and in the relationship, friends should advise and encourage each other to improve their virtues.
Aristotle also defined friendship as a kind of affection based on equality and similarity, and he considered such affection the most perfect form of friendship, in which “either party receives from the other the same or similar benefits.” The “same benefits” refer to not only social status, money and power, but also virtues.
In real social interactions, it is hard for two persons who differ vastly in such aspects as virtue and wealth to become friends. As Aristotle said, “the good man does not become the friend of a superior, unless his superior in rank be also his superior in virtue; otherwise the good man as the inferior party cannot make matters proportionally equal.”
Therefore, in the most ideal state, friends are comparable and equal in both material conditions and virtue. So, will two persons unequal in some ways never be friends? Aristotle argued that it is by rendering affection in proportion to their disparity that friends who are not equals may approach most nearly to true friendship, since this will make them equal. In true friendship, the two different parties will do their best to exchange benefits to make up for the disparity. Thus in Aristotle’s opinion, the issue of equality will not hinder the development of friendship, but will catalyze the establishment of friendship.
To sum up, despite greatly different cultural backgrounds, Confucius and Aristotle shared common ground when discussing friendship. In the eyes of both, friendship is an affective relationship beyond blood ties, built on an equal footing and based on mutual help. The relationship doesn’t reject the sharing of practical interests, but stresses the moral life of pursuing benevolence and good even more. The interpretation of what is ideal friendship not only reflects the common wish of humanity since ancient times, but also provides valuable reference for the construction of the “Belt and Road” initiative and promoting international cooperation.
Zhang Nan is a PhD candidate from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.
​edited by CHEN MIRONG