Beck: So if philia is not equal to friendship then what would you say it is?
Nehamas: It's difficult exactly to have a single word for it. It's the kinds of relationships we have with other people in general. People who are sort of relevant to us. So for example philia does not extend beyond the city-state for the Greeks.
Beck: Could you quickly outline what the three kinds are?
Nehamas: The first two lower kinds of philia are relationships that depend on people deriving some pleasure from the relationship and people deriving some profit or advantage from the relationship. When I don't get any pleasure from our getting together or I don't get any profit, those relationships immediately disappear. The third kind of philia is where people like each other not for profit or pleasure but for their characters—for their virtue as he puts it. And this kind of friendship doesn't stop.
Beck: You love each other because you’re both good people and that makes the friendship kind of moral and virtuous and pure.
Nehamas: That’s where you strictly love the other person for themselves, rather than for something you can get out of them. That’s a big difference.
Beck: But you don’t like that conception right? To define modern friendship?
Nehamas: Yeah, one of the major theses in the book is that friendship is not a moral good.
Beck: What’s wrong with this conception?
Nehamas: The major point is that morality is supposed to be impartial and universal. In other words, the assumption is that people are fundamentally alike. And so if we are fundamentally alike, if I act in a particular way towards you, I should act in the same way towards everyone else. Because I should treat everyone equally. That’s what it is to be moral. To say, “I like him and I'll do this for him and I won’t do that for another person”—that would not be a moral statement or moral position.
Beck: What would you say is a better way of conceiving of friendship if not Aristotle’s?
Nehamas: Contrary to morality, friendship is a kind of value that is absolutely partial and preferential. In other words, it’s essential that I treat my friends differently from the way I treat everyone else. I will do favors for you and I will help you in ways that I will feel absolutely no obligation to do for someone else. And that doesn’t fit with our conception of morality, which says you should treat everyone the same.
Beck: That reminds me—you also mentioned that the whole concept of friendship is kind of at odds with the way that Christians think about love. Could you explain that?
Nehamas: Remember I said before that for the Greeks for Aristotle at least philia doesn’t go beyond the limits of the city-state? Those people from other cities, you don’t really have philia for, you don’t have a relationship with them. It stops there. It’s not a universal relationship, philia. But Christian love, or caritas, or agape, is supposed to be addressed to everyone. Because why? We’re all children of God. And in that respect we’re all the same. So I should love everyone. But that creates a serious problem with friendship, because if I’m supposed to love everyone the same way, how can I love my friends more than everybody else? You see the difficulty there?