Having friends is good for you, science confirms, but not all friendships are unequivocally good. They can be imbalanced, codependent, destructive, exclusionary. “Frenemies” was a buzzword there for a while (and apparently a Disney Channel Original Movie in 2012), but even friends who truly care about each other can hurt each other.

And still, “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” as Aristotle wrote. For Aristotle, true friendship was a virtue, and a flawless force for good in the world. In his new book On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas, a professor in the humanities at Princeton University, questions that idea. He thinks that friendship is not about morality at all, and that we value it not because it is always good, but because it is beautiful.

I spoke with Nehamas about the philosophy of friendship, how it compares to other kinds of love, and why, as he writes, “We love both art and our friends, and in the same way.” Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.


Julie Beck: Maybe we should start with Aristotle. He divided friendship into these three different kinds, right?

Alexander Nehamas: So he divided what in Greek is philia. But what I'm arguing is that only one of those three kinds of philia is like friendship.

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?

Beck: Could those things not co-exist?

Nehamas: If they’re both love, they can’t co-exist, because one is love for some people only and not for others, and the other is love for everybody. Unless they are different kinds of love.

Christianity doesn’t like friendship, especially when you think about monastic life where any kind of special relationship is going to be suspicious and dangerous.

Beck: I know this was written about in that C.S. Lewis book. One of the loves is like a friendship love and then one of the loves is this agape love. So my limited understanding of the agape love is that it's an ideal to strive for, but not necessarily something that humans would be capable of doing at all at all times. So couldn’t you still love your friends and have that be practice for this sort of unattainable ideal?

Nehamas: No, no, it can’t be because the love that we have for other people is a love that we give freely to them, not because they have certain features that we like. When I have a friend, you'll say, “Why do you like your friend?” I’ll say, “Well because my friend does this for me and does this for me.” But if you’re talking about Christian love you can’t say, “What have those people done or what are they like that they provoke your love?” There’s nothing they’ve done; it's just that they’re children of God.

Beck: So you think that you can’t have both?

Nehamas: Very few Christian thinkers [do]. St. Augustine, for example, thinks that it’s idolatry to have friends because you love your friends for themselves, and that conflicts with the fact that only God can be loved for himself.

There’s only one person who really loved friendship and that's a man called Aelred of Rievaulx. He was a monk. And he had a wonderful thing to say; I think it’s really one of the most moving things I've heard. He said, look, before human beings fell, as Christians believe, everybody was good. So at that point friendship and agape were identical: You love everyone because they’re good and you love everyone because they are children of God. Once we fell, some people are bad, some people are good. Then, he continues, we good people have friendship for the good people on Earth and love or agape for everyone else. And when we all die and go up to Paradise, we’ll all be good again and therefore again love and friendship are going to be reconciled. And so friendship, he says, is an anticipation of Paradise. Which I think is very beautiful.

What happens is in the Enlightenment, which revolts to some extent against religion, the idea that we are all the same because we’re all children of God becomes we are all the same because we’re rational. So what was love before becomes moral respect in the Enlightenment. So everybody deserves it no matter what they do just because they are rational people. Secular morality is to a very great extent the secularization of Christian love. That’s what I want to say.

Beck: Okay, and so it all ties together because both the Christian love and then morality like you were talking about before, neither of those two universal things are compatible with friendship.

Nehamas: Exactly. There are other reasons why it’s not moral. For example, you can be a truly good friend and destroy your friend in the process. I can’t hurt anybody by acting morally whereas in friendship I can be harmful to you and still be a good friend , as I try to show [in the book] by talking about the movie Thelma and Louise, which I don’t know if you know it or not.

Beck: I haven’t seen it, but I’m familiar.

Nehamas: There you have two women who have a terrible event—one of them shoots a man who is trying to rape the other woman and then they become outlaws. They’re going to go to Mexico because they don’t want to be caught and in the meantime they do all kinds of bad things, like they rob a store or they shut a policeman in the trunk of his car. In the process they become true friends. But their friendship depends on acts that commonly, generally speaking we consider immoral. And yet at the end of the film, when they drive over the rim of the Grand Canyon, they become admirable. They are people who have become something that they can be proud of, even though it depended on immoral means.

Beck: One of the things that I thought was really interesting was the idea that friendship is all about good intentions, that what we actually do with regard to our friends doesn’t matter so much as that we mean well. You give the example of whether or not you should tell your friend that somebody is talking bad about them behind their back, and it doesn’t matter whether you decide to tell them or not, as long as you have their best interests behind the decision.

Nehamas: There is no behavior that is characteristic of friendship. Friends can be doing anything together—even fighting, even killing each other sometimes. There’s nothing that if you see two people doing it you’ll say, “That must be because they’re friends,” because they could be doing it for different reasons.

In order to be a friendly action you have to do it out of friendship, for your friend’s sake. So I can go visit you in the hospital and do it because I have an obligation to do so, or because I want to get something out of you, or I can do it because I'm your friend. The action will be the same in all three cases. It’s in the motive, in the intentions, where friendship is located, rather than the content of your behavior.

Beck: Sometimes friends are bad seeds. They might be a negative influence on you even if they were trying to do something good. So if a friendship is toxic, as the magazines say, are they not actually friendships then? Are they something else? Or is this just like, we’re fallible humans and that's how relationships go sometimes?

Nehamas: I think the latter. I think that friends can harm each other, but that doesn’t prevent them from being friends. Another big issue in today’s society, and in philosophy in particular, is that we equate the whole notion of “value” with moral and political values. Those values, as I was saying earlier, depend on the fact that we assume that we are all similar in some relevant way or other.

But there are other values that don’t depend on our similarities. On the contrary, they depend on our differences. Beauty, for example is a value like that. A thing is beautiful if it is different from everything else around it, if it stands out, if it does something that other things don’t. And friendship is a value like that. And there’s a whole family of values that do not belong to morality and that are sometimes incompatible with morality. A very beautiful work of art can be quite immoral, in content. So that suggests that there must be two different kinds of values in the world. Yet people try to reinterpret values like beauty, friendship, character, style, to make them moral. And I’m not at all interested in doing that. On the contrary I want to say “Look, there are two irreducible kinds of values in the world and we’ve forgotten about one of them.”

Beck: Friends like you for who you are, right? But many of us are different people around our different friends. So is this just a matter of people containing multitudes and exhibiting certain traits more around certain people or does it say something else about how our friends shape who we are in that relationship?

Nehamas: I think it’s both. Some of it is that we have many features and we don’t engage all of them in every one of our relationships, precisely because people are different. So if we're friends, I couldn’t treat you the same way that I treat my friend Tom. I will do some similar things but I won’t have the kind of discussions with you that I have with him. On the other hand, each one of our friends pushes us in rather different directions. So friendship makes us, in a way, more complicated.

Beck: You also mention that friendship in art and literature has kind of taken a backseat to other kinds of relationships, family, and romantic relationships. Why do you think that is? If it’s so interesting and complicated.

Nehamas: Why is it? That’s a really difficult question, especially for somebody who's not a real historian. It may be that friendship can't be depicted in painting [for example], because a painting can only show you behavior and you can’t tell from a painting whether it’s a painting of friendship or not. So it’s more that the structural features of certain arts that make them unsuited for representing friendship. But I think you certainly can see friendship well-represented in drama, in theatre, in movies, and TV. Because they don’t just describe things the way that you do in literature. They also show the facial expressions, and bodily expressions. All those things are involved in friendly behavior and you don’t see those in say, a novel. But you see them on the stage and on the screen.

Beck: The reason I’m asking is because it seems to me like there's been a rising interest in art about friendship lately. There’s all these shows on TV like Broad City, Girls, Playing House, etc., that focus on female friendship. There was the best selling book from last year, A Little Life, which got a bunch of awards, and focused on a group of four friends. I think the Elena Ferrante books are about friendship. And you wrote a book about friendship too, so do you think that there is an increasing interest in good representations of friendships?

Nehamas: I think it is increasing. I think that people need to find a justification for things that they value. People are beginning to think about it very seriously, especially because, in a way, we are more isolated from people than we were before. You know, computers, social media, and all that. Friendship, as it seems that we’re losing it, becomes really important. So I think that’s one of the reasons that there's more artistic creation and philosophical discussion of friendship. Think about it this way: We always talk about art and life as if the two are different. But in fact art is very much a part of life. So we should incorporate that in our thinking about ourselves much more than we usually do.

Beck: You zero in on the central mystery of friendship, which I guess also exists for romantic relationships, which is that any efforts to articulate why you love someone ultimately fall short of capturing it. Why are the reasons for friendships so hard to narrow in?

Nehamas: When you find that you love somebody, whether it’s what you call romantic love or whether it’s friendship, or whether you love the beauty of a work of art, when you find yourself attracted to something or someone, you’re not just depending on the features that you’ve seen already. You also depend on something much more important and uncertain. Suppose that you and I meet at a party, and I like the way you look. So I approach you and I get to know you a bit, and I end up liking you very much. I like you not only for what I’ve noticed about you, I like you also because I hope or I think or I expect that there are other things about you which when I learn, I will be pleased by. So there’s a commitment to the future every time that we love somebody or that we find something beautiful. And since we don’t know what the future will bring we can’t give all the reasons why we love somebody.

Beck: I get that for a person, but for a work of art, would it just be that you expect that you will continue to like it in the future and it will continue to enrich your life in the future?

Nehamas: Yeah. You expect that there’s more in the work than you've seen already, so you keep relating to it—keep reading it or looking at it or listening to it in order to see what other things there are. And as long as you think you haven't exhausted it, you still love it. It’s when you feel that your relationship with somebody will not change you in any way that the relationship is over.