As the years go by, we find that some friendships last practically forever, while others fade away without us even realizing it. In an age when social media make it materially possible—and quite easy—to stay in touch despite distances, an age-old question becomes even more relevant: why are some friendships so lasting, and others so ephemeral?
While there can be various factors involved, there are some commonalities that we can identify. For an answer, let’s turn to one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of all time: Aristotle (384/383-322 BC).
He addresses this topic In his work Nicomachean Ethics. While friendship is necessary in human life, he says, there can be different foundations for friendship, two of which—pleasure and utility—lead to merely temporary relationships.
They who have friendship for one another desire one another’s good according to the motive of their friendship; accordingly they whose motive is utility have no friendship for one another really, but only insofar as some good arises to them from one another.
And they whose motive is pleasure are similar: I mean, they have friendship for people of easy pleasantry, not because they are of a given character but because they are pleasant to themselves. So then they whose motive for friendship is utility love their friends for what is good for themselves; (…) that is to say, not in so far as the friend beloved is but in so far as he or she is useful or pleasurable. These friendships then are a matter of utility: since the object is not beloved in that the person is the such as he or she is, but in that he or she furnishes advantage or pleasure, as the case may be.
Such friendships are of course very liable to dissolution if the parties do not continue alike: I mean, that the others cease to have any friendship for them when they are no longer pleasurable or useful. Now it is the nature of utility not to be permanent but constantly varying: so, of course, when the motive which made them friends is vanished, the friendship likewise dissolves; since it existed only relatively to those circumstances.
According to Aristotle, these characteristics are frequently found in friendship between young people, and this is why such relationships are often inconstant and fleeting:
But the friendship of the young is thought to be based on the motive of pleasure: because they live at the beck and call of passion and generally pursue what is pleasurable to themselves and the object of the present moment: and as their age changes so likewise do their pleasures.
This is the reason why they form and dissolve friendships rapidly: since the friendship changes with the pleasurable object and such pleasure changes quickly.
The young are also much given up to love; this passion being, in great measure, a matter of impulse and based on pleasure: for which cause they conceive friendships and quickly drop them, changing often in the same day: but these wish for society and intimacy with their friends, since they thus attain the object of their friendship.
Seeking what is good
For Aristotle, only those who seek what is good in itself can have lasting friendships:
That then is perfect friendship which subsists between those who are good and whose similarity consists in their goodness: for these people wish one another’s good in similar ways (…) and those are specially friends who wish good to their friends for their sakes, because they feel thus towards them on their own account and not as a mere matter of utility; so the friendship between these people continues to subsist so long as they are good; and goodness, we know, has in it a principle of permanence.
Moreover, each party is good in itself and also relative to their friend, for all good people are not only good in an abstract sense but also useful to one another. Such friends are also mutually pleasurable because all good people are so not only in themselves, but also relative to one another (…). Now when people are good they will be always the same, or at least similar.
Friendship then under these circumstances is permanent, as we should reasonably expect, since it combines in itself all the requisite qualifications of friends. (…) Moreover, in it there is what is good in itself and what is pleasant in itself, and as these are specially the object-matter of friendship so the feeling and the state of friendship is found most intense and most excellent in people of this kind.
Aristotle recognizes that such friendships are rare:
It is probable that friendships of this kind will be rare, because people of this kind are rare. Besides, all requisite qualifications being presupposed, there is further required time and intimacy: for, as the proverb says, people cannot know one another “till they have eaten the requisite quantity of salt together;” nor can they in fact admit one another to intimacy, much less be friends, till each has appeared to the other and been proved to be a fit object of friendship.
Although this kind of friendship can be difficult to attain, we should never give up on the desire of having and being this kind of friend. Today’s world needs good people who form lasting friendships and seek what is good for others, not just seeking their own pleasure and utility.