Aristotle, True Friendship, and the "Soulmate" View of Marriage

 
 

What would it mean for true friendship to exist in a marriage?

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Toward the end of his life, dying from cancer, but finally sober, finally in a stable relationship, and finally at peace, the American writer and poet Raymond Carver wrote “Late Fragment”:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Carver’s words express what we all really want deep down, especially from marriage: we want to feel beloved. But it can be hard to know what that sort of love consists of, let alone how to find it.

It’s reasonable to think that the kind of love Carver wanted out of life, and the love we want out of marriage, is the love of true friendship. We feel ourselves beloved when we know that our friend sees us for who we really are and loves what he sees. Aristotle has some important insights about how such friendship can occur.

Aristotle on Friendship

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. But it is the source of that goodwill that differentiates perfect friendship from two imperfect forms of friendship. With true friendship, friends love each other for their own sake, and they wish good things for each other. This kind of friendship, says Aristotle, is only possible between “good people similar in virtue,” because only good people are capable of loving another person for that person’s own sake.

The two imperfect forms of friendship are based on either utility or pleasure. Imperfect friends love the benefits they derive from their relationship: they find each other pleasant, or useful, or both, and their goodwill stems from that. The relationship I have with a golf buddy who makes me laugh, for instance, might be a friendship of pleasure. If he plays with me because I have a membership in an exclusive golf club, then his friendship for me is one of utility.

The point here is not that true friendships are not pleasant or useful—they are—but merely that the pleasure or usefulness is not the source of the love true friends feel for each other. A true friend loves his friend for who he is, for his character. Because the love is based on something enduring, the friendship is enduring. Imperfect friendships, on the other hand, arise and die quickly, because they are based on impermanent things: beauty, or wealth, or shared experiences. When one or both parties cease to find the relationship pleasant or useful, the relationship ceases as well.

It is important to understand that Aristotle does not think the lesser forms of friendship—friendships of pleasure and utility—are bad. In fact, since we cannot love someone’s character unless we know it, and since we only come to know someone’s character after a long period of time, true friendship will be rare. When it does occur, it will only occur after a long period of time. Thus, even if we might hope that our useful and pleasant relationships will become true friendships, it seems like all friendships—even friendships between virtuous people—would have to begin as friendships of pleasure and utility.

Aristotle on Marriage

To understand what a marriage of true friendship would be like, we have to start with Aristotle’s view of what marriage is about. For Aristotle, any relationship has to be about something. Friends are friends because there are things that they do together—in Aristotle’s words, they are joined in some “shared activity.” The activities that men and women naturally share are so basic, so natural, and so time-consuming that Aristotle says that the relationship between man and woman is the most natural of all relationships. Men and women come together because they need each other and they like each other. They need each other for the “necessities of life” and for having and raising children. Because human offspring take the longest to raise, men and women form the most lasting relationships of any species.

So far, Aristotle’s description of marriage doesn’t sound very lofty. It sounds like he could well be saying that marriage is mostly a friendship of utility with maybe a little pleasure thrown in if we’re lucky. But it’s important to remember that Aristotle isn’t (yet) describing the type of friendship men and women have at all. He’s describing the foundation of the relationship, what it’s about. If someone asked us to explain football, we wouldn’t start by talking about the camaraderie that the most successful teams have; we’d describe what the game is about. And especially when it comes to having and raising children, it’s really important not to forget that the foundation of marriage really is an important, life-long shared activity, one that, once opted into, is difficult or even impossible to opt out of.

The project of having and raising children, whether it is undertaken lightly or not, cannot be lightly discarded. In an important sense, it is bigger than the two people who take it up. Once two people have undertaken the project of begetting and raising a child, that project cannot simply be set aside; it is never “finished.” They might divorce, or even never marry to begin with, but—like it or not—the shared project of raising that child will link them for the rest of their lives. Anyone who has witnessed one parent’s anguish at having to relinquish his or her child to another, untrustworthy, parent’s supervision knows this.

The point is this: once you have taken on the lifelong project of raising a child, the success of that project must itself become a central consideration. But that doesn’t mean your relationship with your spouse doesn’t matter or that your marriage must be merely a friendship of utility. In fact, Aristotle says that although husbands and wives typically have friendships of pleasure and utility, “there can be true friendship between them, if they are decent.”

True Friendship in Marriage

So what would Aristotle think a marriage of true friendship looked like? Aristotle’s discussion of friendships of pleasure and utility already implies a clear answer about how to prevent true friendship from arising between you and your spouse: focus on whether or not you’re getting enough benefits out of the relationship. Things like making mental lists of the ways in which your spouse has failed to do her or her “fair share,” or agonizing over whether the spark is still there, are themselves obstacles to the cultivation of true friendship, because they indicate a focus on the hallmark of imperfect friendships: personal benefit. The more often you dwell on things like these, the harder it is to turn the focus away from yourself.

It’s important to understand that when Aristotle says that true friends seek the other’s benefit over their own, he is not saying that you should simply be a martyr to your spouse. He is not arguing that, to have a true friendship, you must single-mindedly seek to be pleasant and useful to your spouse at your expense. If this were Aristotle’s position, it would be ridiculous. Imagine if we made a claim like that about a sports team. Everyone knows that “selfish” athletes are bad for teams. They are so concerned with displaying their own talent, or maximizing their time on the field, that the team suffers. But the answer is clearly not for the formerly selfish athlete to devote all his energies to showcasing someone else’s talent or maximizing someone else’s time on the field. That would be equally unhelpful. The point is that the game is not about anyone’s personal benefits. It’s about winning the game.

And this, at long last, leads to the really important insight that Aristotle has about true friendship. This is the insight that can help us understand something important about marriage. Aristotle says that true friends care more about benefiting each other than about benefiting themselves, but he never says that’s all they care about or even that it’s the main thing they care about. Far to the contrary. True friends are friends because they care about the same thing: goodness. They love each other for who they are because they see that thing they care most about—goodness—in each other. True friends pursue the good together through whatever activities they share, even when—especially when—the pleasure and utility seem to be gone.

Whatever we believe the goal of life to be, says Aristotle, that is the goal we will want to pursue with our friends. And true friends, friends who love each other for their own sake, see in each other a shared conception of the goal of life. To love my friend’s character is not merely to love certain personality traits, but to love—and to share—that person’s understanding of what the goal of life is. True friends love each other for their own sake, but implicit in that love is a unity of purpose. They are united by a common goal. Just as a football team becomes successful when all its members set aside their own concerns and pursue the goals of the team, so true friends single-mindedly pursue goodness together. They help each other in the pursuit of virtue and, says Aristotle, guard each other’s virtue more carefully than they would each other’s property. They have true concord, because they “wish for what is just and advantageous, and seek it in common.”

Is that what Carver was talking about? I think so. I think the great and terrible loneliness in the feeling that no one “gets us” is at heart the feeling that no one sees the world as we see it or cherishes what we cherish. If what we cherish above all else is our own personal benefit, there is no remedy for that loneliness. But if we can see life as about something higher, something greater, then even a single friend who “gets” those things can be powerful enough to drive that loneliness away.

All of this helps us better understand what it would mean for true friendship to exist in a marriage. For true friends, engaging in the joint activity of running a household and/or rearing children means more than securing the basic necessities of life or getting good things for oneself; it means pursuing virtue together, in and through the shared activity that marriage is about. It means ordering the most basic activities of life to the pursuit of goodness.

What does it mean to “pursue virtue together” or “guard” one’s spouse’s virtue? This requires a longer discussion than we have space for here. It seems pretty clear, though, that in the typical case this won’t mean that you get really adept at pointing out each other’s faults. It’s not just that some of the most annoying habits have nothing to do with moral goodness (virtuous people chew as loudly as vicious ones) but that it’s unlikely that nagging ever made anyone want to be a better person. What it might mean, though, is keeping your joint focus squarely on the goal of life and guarding against what might destroy that focus. In practice, that might mean doing what one can to make the life of virtue more pleasant for one’s spouse: to do what one can to make his or her promise of faith and fidelity a delight rather than a burden, and to guard against things—work, over-scheduling, and the like—that might make the goal harder to pursue, and to present to one’s children, through one’s own actions, a compelling argument for the life of virtue.

Some modern writers criticize what they call the “soulmate” view of marriage: the idea that finding a life partner is about finding one’s perfect match. But maybe that’s not so much a problem with the “soulmate” view of marriage as an incorrect definition of a soulmate. One’s real soulmate is whoever accompanies and guides and shores you up as the both of you mutually attempt to improve your souls. And in that sense, marriage is very much about soulmates. Perhaps it’s not about finding them ready-made, but it is certainly about becoming soulmates for each other.

Angela McKay Knobel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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