“Happiness is not found in self-contemplation; it is perceived only when it is reflected from another.”  – Samuel Johnson, Idler #41.






A meaningful life must have a nexus of purpose which is of sufficient magnitude and duration, and yet attainable within a limited lifespan. It must also be fundamentally virtuous, innocuous or beneficial to outsiders, and recognizable by its owner. I contend that friendship meets all of these criteria and thus offers a tangible and transcendental meaning to life that only the most extreme, friendless, skeptic can deny. A philosopher with a true friend is unlikely to declare that life is completely absurd.  Perhaps this is why after all his musings on the absurdity of the human condition, Albert Camus concludes that “I only know of one duty and that is to love.”

In the introductory essay I reworked the dictionary definition of friendship into one apropos to the philosopher’s use: a voluntary, unconditional love lacking passion, physical desire, and selfishness and based on a deep altruistic connection with another person. The origin of friendship is neither forced like family relationships nor entirely a free choice like raising my arm – rather it is an ambiguous mix of good fortune, emergence, and self-selection. That being said, I suspect Socrates might disagree and argue the term is itself indefinable and its appearance inexplicable.

Nearly all of our great thinkers state friendship occurs among equals of a sort, typically as measured in virtue but also wisdom and strength (consider the metaphor of Gilgamesh and Enkidu). Friends need not be overly alike in other ways.  Nonetheless friendships require a depth that makes them nearly singular, though Emerson waivers on this. Aristotle focuses on enduring reciprocal good will, and interactive assistance in growth of wisdom and virtue for perfect friendship or teleia philia. In fact several of our thinkers see true friendship as the veritable ground of virtue. We are told that friendship is primarily based on communication, that is to say, talking –  multidimensional conversations that reveal the other and deepen the relationship. Still Emerson points out that such interactions need not and perhaps must not be too frequent.

In short, the purpose of friendship is twofold: practical – aid and pleasure of being together- and transcendental -the growth of the self and the second self, the metaphysical confirmation of the other in reality, and the universe in the finite. Friendship is perpetual, priceless, and unbreakable; a manifestation of the absolute. It is also an important means to self-perfection and happiness.

Next time we begin a discussion on the place of acquaintance in the purpose filled life.


But here we come upon several additional paradoxes. Friendship depends on honoring differences, preferring antagonism over compliance. “Let him not cease for an instant to be himself. The only joy I have in his being mine is that the not mine is mine.9 Also “The condition which high friendship demands is the ability to do without it.”10 We must be patient not interfering in its slow development and must limit time in each other’s company to allow for each to find their greatness. “I cannot afford to speak much with my friend.”11 Third friendship is self-selected but not chosen. “Let us buy entrance to this guild by long probation.”12 Rash attempts at friendship “desecrate noble and beautiful souls.”13

Emerson offers several other priceless observations: “We must be our own before we can be another’s.”14 “The only reward of virtue is virtue and the only way to have a friend is to be one.”15 He ends on a final pearl of wisdom: “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust… It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.”16

How do we collate the thoughts of the poet-philosopher with purpose through friendship? True friendship embodies timeless metaphysical and ethical precepts. The friend (like the lover) seems to validate our trust in empirical reality being the most certain external entity of our experience, at least transcendentally, due to their replication and affirmation of our inner self. We further grasp the limits of free will in that friendship is primarily self-selected, not mere voluntary intention. The overlap of its unexpectedness and appearance as a gift reinforces our inference of abstruse cosmic teleology. And friendship reveals the nature of truth by virtue of its primacy in the bonds of friendship. Friendship also discloses ethical values via its commonality with the moral law and its dependence on tenderness and self-restraint.

We have noted that inner purpose comes down to making a good life for oneself, self-perfection, happiness and meaning. The practical benefits of friendship contribute to the good life as do its transcendental features. Emerson tells us that friendships facilitate solitude by the cushion they offer to the outside world but also because loneliness is abated in the knowledge one has friends. Being able to restrain contact with one’s friend dovetails well with ascetic self-denial. Successful friendships augments self-perfection in depending on a right relationship with oneself, honoring differences of others, and making oneself worthy of friendship.

Next time we will put together the last 9 parts into a synopsis on friendship as purpose in life.


9Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Essays and English Traits. Grolier Enterprise Corp., Danbury, Connecticut, 1993 (The Harvard Classics). Page 114.


11Ibid., page 118.

12Ibid., page 115.


14Ibid., page 116.


16Ibid., page 119.


“Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgment and length of time.”  – Cicero, De Amicit,

We come now to the last of our great thinkers on the subject of friendship, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived from 1803-1882. Trained as a preacher, he seems to have given up religion in favor of philosophy following the loss of his wife after only two years of marriage. He left his church to travel Europe where he met several literati and befriended Thomas Carlyle. He returned to America a few years later as a philosopher and wrote and lectured in perhaps the most poetic prose of any American to this day. For that reason I prefer to quote extensively from his essay.

Friends he thinks seem to come to him unsought, a gift of God, “a possession for all time” worthy of “devout thanksgiving.”1 “Friendship, like immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed.”2 He believes we all seek friendship where we learn that “the soul environs itself with friends that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance of solitude…”3

“The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals.”4 Friendships are not fragile, “but the solidest thing we know.”5 They are made up of two components: truth and tenderness. “A friend … is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can confirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being, in all its height, variety, and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”6

Friendship exists for aid and comfort throughout life, during serene and rough times, in order to dignify us with “courage, wisdom, and unity.”7 He disagrees with others who assert perfect friendship requires natures so rare and costly that it cannot exist between more than two, instead imagining a “circle of godlike men and women variously related to each other and between whom subsists a lofty intelligence.”8 But he seems to waiver a bit admitting that mixing more than two inhibits the quality of conversation, and conceding true friendship requires a rare mean between likeness and unlikeness.

(continued next post)


1Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Essays and English Traits. Grolier Enterprise Corp., Danbury, Connecticut, 1993 (The Harvard Classics). Page 106.

2Ibid., page 107.

3Ibid., page 108.

4Ibid., page 109.

5Ibid., page 110.

6Ibid., page 112.

7bid., page 113.



“No man is useless while he has a friend.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, Lay Morals.



We have seen some of the dimensions of friendship as human purpose revealed in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in Lysis by Plato, and in the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. Today we jump 18 centuries forward in time to Michel de Montaigne’s opus magnum, the Essays first published in 1580. The title of Section XXVII in Book 1 is Of Friendship where he picks up on Aristotle

He focuses on the highest kind of friendship which he believes does not mix other purposes such as pleasure, profit, or public or private interests. It is also not one of the four ancient common kinds of friendship – natural, social, hospitable, venerian – or even a mix of these. True friendship is “nourished by communication,”1 itself contingent on levels of equality and appropriateness that are not possible in most relationships as for example between children and parents where complete candor is impractical, awkward, or impossible. Friendship also entails complete and unconditional generosity – the willingness to do anything for the friend.  Montaigne takes on the logical quandary of this principle by using as example the Roman, Cauis Blosius, who when asked if he would ‘fire the temples’ at the request of his ‘chiefist’ friend, Tiberius Gracchus, answered that Tiberius would never ask him to do that. The message is unequivocal- one can do anything for a true friend because true friendship is based on virtue and the virtuous do not request evil deeds of their friends. Moreover reciprocity makes no sense among friends just as one does not reciprocate duty with oneself.

Montaigne also distinguishes friendship from similar relationships. It differs from romantic love which is more active, eager, fickle, and inconstant compared to friendship which is more temperate, gentle, and smooth. Physical love is diminished by satiation while friendship improves with enjoyment. Friendship is more spiritual with the “soul growing still more refined with practice.” 2 It differs from acquaintance which involves “little intercourse betwixt our souls” whereas in friendship, the souls “mix and work themselves into one piece with so universal a mixture that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined.”4  In fact, Montaigne notes we often don’t know how this union formed.

Montaigne seems to argue that perfect friendship must be singular – each giving all to one friend thus having nothing to offer others. “Friendship that possesses the whole soul…cannot possibly admit of a rival.”5 True friendship permits an amended ethic – “a unique and particular friendship dissolves all other obligations whatsoever; for instance “the secret I have sworn not to reveal to any other, I may without perjury communicate to him who is not another but myself.”

In short, Montaigne is telling us the purposeful friendship is unitary, comprehensive and absolute, the experience of the self in another, the multitude in the individual, and the universe in the finite. It seems to me that only romantic love offers a rival comparison though perhaps in that circumstance Montaigne would argue romantic love has been transformed into perfect friendship.


1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Montaigne. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 25, page 83.

2Ibid., Page 84.

3Ibid., Page 85.


5Ibid., Page 87



Aristotle outlines the course of perfect friendship. Good will is the germ of it but not equivalent to it. True friends must be near equals, significantly lower wealth or status must be balanced by superior virtue. There must be love in adequate measure, and the person loved must be one in whose company one wishes to live and upon whom to confer benefits in any way possible. Each friend helps the other realize their potential. Aristotle returns us to others as the externalization of inner purpose – perfect friendship expresses the very end served by human associations hence is the ground of virtue itself.

Aristotle admits one can have kinship friends, particularly siblings of the same parents since they have greater likeness and involve relationships that have withstood the test of time. There is more pleasure and utility in family friendships then is typically possible for strangers. Spouses too can achieve perfect friendship if both are virtuous; otherwise those relationships are limited by what utility and pleasure can sustain.

Aristotle also addresses the issue of self-love in the setting of friendship. He feels the two are compatible as long as self-love does not mean selfishness, but rather love of oneself as noble and a person of virtue.  That form of self-love will seek and aid the friend in also being noble.

Last Aristotle takes on the question of the ideal numbers of friends. For friendships of utility the limit is imposed by the burden of reciprocal utility or obligations. For friendship of pleasure the limit centers on the appropriate level of pleasure desirable in a good life or as he he says “a few are enough, as a little sweetening is enough in our diet.”3 The number of perfect friends possible  also tends to be constrained because of the time required, the ability of multiple  friend to befriend each other, and the limited capacity to devote oneself to numerous  friends. Aristotle notes that historically true friendship is limited to one other as for example Achilles and Patroclus. He also offers a warning, “People who have a host of friends and take everybody to their arms seem to be nobody’s friends…”4

Aristotle’s positioning of friendship stretches all the way to politics. Friends as we have noted do not require justice to ensure virtuous conduct. But since individual friendship is limited to one or a few, society depends on politics or governance to establish justice among non-friends. The good government also has a second fundamental role, that is, to create an environment which encourages virtuous citizens capable of perfect friendships.

I believe Aristotle offers key insights on how inner purpose is externalized in true friends – as the instantiation of virtue, as a means to self-perfection, and as a contributing factor in our happiness. Next time we look at Montaigne on friendship.


3Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 221.

4Ibid., page 222.


Friends and I mean real friends – reserve nothing; the property of one belongs to the other.” – Euripides, Andromache ( 427 B.C.)



Last time we saw that Plato toiled over metaphysical or logical arguments on the possibility of and prerequisites for friendship; nearly to the point of skepticism. Today we will see how Aristotle takes us through a more worldly, yet reasoned ethical analysis of friendship, the true form of which he admits is rare, but which he never questions. In fact Aristotle considers friendship necessary and natural. For the wealthy, friends are for sharing and preserving one’s wealth; for the poor, friends are for help or a singular refuge. For the young, friends help prevent errors in conduct; while for the old, they aid one’s feebleness; and for those in their prime of life, friends prompt them to noble actions. He further argues that we know friendship is indispensable because “without friends no one would choose to live, even though possessed of every other good.”1

Aristotle determines that there are three types of friendship: ones based on utility, ones based on pleasure, and those which are prefect. Friendships based on utility are those where there is a tangible benefit from the relationship, for example a business associate. Such friendships are highly contingent as they end when the usefulness of the relationship ends (for example on retirement) or in cases where a more useful individual or more advantageous relationship presents itself. Similarly, relationships based on pure pleasure tend to be as ephemeral and superficial as the associated pleasure underlying the friendship.

For me these first two forms of “friendship” are more accurately categorized as acquaintances which is the subject of the next section. For our current purposes, friendship or the phrase ‘true friends’ refers to what Aristotle calls ‘perfect friendship’ or teleia philia. He begins his discussion of its origin by handily dispensing with one of Plato’s sticking points – noting “some likeness is involved.”2 But the vital likeness is goodness or virtue; shared values and principles. Perfect friendship is founded on enduring reciprocal good will, and the singular desire to benefit each other. The friend is a ‘second self,’ or ‘another I,’ or in Latin alter ego. In fact, perfect friendship is a relationship absent of the need for justice as it is based on unselfish benevolence with no expectation of reciprocation. These friendships last as long as goodness lasts thus for a lifetime.

(continued next post)


1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 194.



Friends have all things in common.” – Pythagoras, quoted by Diogenes Laertius.

Moving forward chronologically in our literary search to locate friendship as purpose in the meaningful life, we leave ancient Mesopotomia and arrive in the fourth century BCE at a lesser known dialogue by Plato called Lysis (or Friendship).1 There Socrates struggles to identify the defining characteristics of friendship, but nonetheless offers eternal wisdom for would be friends.

The crux of the work is a Socratic dialectic on the metaphysical nature of friendship conducted with four young men (one of whom is the amiable, yet shy Lysis). First he notes friendship must be mutual as it seems illogical for you to be friends with someone who does not consider you his friend as well. His second proposition is that friends must be good individuals as evil persons repulse others and hence are denied friendship. Moreover friendship between good persons is a good in itself. But a paradox looms – the good have no need for friends as they are self-sufficient in being good. Similarly through a typical but maddening Socratic process of question and answering, he demonstrates that friendship cannot be between the like and/or the unlike, seemingly making friendship impossible. A similar inconsistency occurs when one considers the possibility of friendship being a relationship of congenial persons. The dialogue ends unsatisfactorily on the conclusion that they are unable to discover what makes friendship possible.

Nevertheless, Socrates offers many insights in his analysis. First friendship is a true ideal. Second like Pythagoras (see epigram above), friends have all things in common so neither can be richer than the other. In addition a friend must be useful or wise. Friendship does not develop out of servile praise and self-deprecation. “The friend is a friend for the sake of the friend…”2 and a friend is invaluable, even preferable to “all the gold of Darius.”3

I think the take home message of the dialogue is that defining and explaining the existence of friendship is difficult, even impossible. Still we recognize its existence much as we recognize the reality of beauty or the divine. It is not explained or caused by predictable factors, but seems to be accidental or emergent, although virtue is a prerequisite. Whatever its origin, friendship is a priceless good worthy of immense respect and effort.

Next time we look at the most systematic philosophy on friendship ever described, the thoughts of Aristotle recorded in the Nicomachean Ethics.


1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, pages 14-25.

2Ibid., Page 23.

3Ibid., Page 18.


“A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other.”The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IV.

On our journey to understanding purpose and friendship, we reach back to one of the earliest civilizations for what is perhaps the oldest story known to us, The Epic of Gilgamesh. This heroic epic of ancient Mesopotamia concerns Gilgamesh who was king of Uruk circa 2700 BCE. While the tale is full of adventures with monsters, seductions, and angry Gods, the central concerns of the story are ones hauntingly familiar to us today such as loneliness, love, and loss. However by far the two dominant themes are friendship and human mortality.

The story goes like this: after the incredibly strong and handsome king, Gilgamesh, overworks his people building walls around Uruk, the gods punish him by creating a rival wild man of incredible strength, Enkidu, to confront and fight him. In their struggle, Gilgamesh prevails, Enkidu submits, and thereafter they become the closest and most devoted of friends. For the first time in their lives they conquer loneliness and experience true companionship. Together they challenge and kill the evil guardian of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba, but only after Enkidu quells Gilgamesh’s nightmares and Gilgamesh helps Enkidu overcome his cowardice. Enkidu is cursed by Humbaba, and after further adventures together, he dies a slow and horrific death with Gilgamesh in constant attendance. Gilgamesh constructs a gold statue to his memory and in his grief journeys alone on a futile quest to achieve immortality.1

The takeaway for us as to purpose and friendship are multiple. First Enkidu is created as Gilgamesh’s adversary, but instead becomes his close friend which suggests friendship is not contrived but good fortune. You can almost hear a maxim: “Always be open to friendship as even your current enemy may turn out being your best friend.” Second friendship is not superficial nor possible with everyone, but deep, singular, and a relationship of equals (in this case near equals). Loneliness may be a universal experience, but finding true companionship is often novel and unexpected. Third, close friends act as one and each for the other. This involves sensitivity to the fears and troubles of the friend, supporting and learning from each other, and perhaps most vitally helping the friend stay on a course of virtue and honor. Last friendship is perpetual – one purpose of friendship is to be there for each other no matter what until death and to remember and mourn them when they are gone.

Gilgamesh sums it up eloquently in his words to Enkidu: “Take my hand, my friend, we will go on together.”


“Think long whether a man should be admitted to your friendship, and when you have decided he should be, admit him with all your heart, and speak with him as freely as with yourself.” – Seneca.



Our investigation of purpose has proceeded from internal and subjective formulations to more tangible externalization first as romantic love and second as family connections. This brings us now to arguably the highest form and meaningfulness possible in the sphere of human relationship, friendship. The corpus of philosophic literature, especially premodern philosophy, offers limited treatment on romantic love, and almost nothing (at least in the Western tradition) on family, but the subject of friendship has received considerable attention dating back to ancient times. The next few blogs unpack purpose in relation to friendship in the writings of classic philosophers such as Aristotle and Montaigne. Today we start with an overview.

Let’s begin with the dictionary definition of the word, friend – “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.”1 This is in contradistinction to an acquaintance defined as “a person known to one, but usually not a close friend.” 2 The interest of the philosopher centers on this fundamental difference of degree; a friend being close or trusted as opposed to an acquaintance whose relationship is casual, lacks affection, or is merely that of an associate, particularly a business associate. We will take up acquaintance in the next section.

Ancient philosophers considered friendship as one of three forms of love: eros in Greek or amor in Latin referring to romantic or sexual love; philia in Greek or amicitia (or dilectio) in Latin referring to love of friendship, and agape in Greek or caritas in Latin referring to love of charity or brotherhood. To many ancient philosophers, eros is flawed in its passionate nature and its foundation in selfish desire. In contrast, the love of friendship is founded on altruistic motives  making few demands but instead seeking to give to the other.3

Chronologically, I suspect the first kind of purposeful relationship we seek in youth after locating our place within the family originates in a yearning for friendship. The greatest strength of the family – automatic belonging – paradoxically undercuts its supremacy since we eventually value more the voluntary acceptance of ourselves by others and freely chosen intimacy. In maturity this becomes problematic; friendship feels artificial if pursued to fill a declared purpose, and yet the highest level of friendship requires some measure of acknowledgement that includes a clear sense of its purpose.4 So while friendship must occur through accident or fortune not planning, it is sustained by intentional effort.

In short philosophical friendship is a form of voluntary, unconditional love lacking passion, physical desire, and selfishness and based on a deep altruistic connection with another person. Next time we will examine friendship as related in the ancient story, The Epic of Gilgamesh.


1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 768.

2Ibid.,  page 18.

3Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952. Pages 1057-1058.

4The Meaning of Life, from The School of Life, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9957535-4-9, page 57.


Family relationships offer lessons in the source of one’s identity and values, in the truth of free choice unfathomable fate, and in the paradoxical connection between change and continuity. The family teaches us about the linkage of love and commitment and their place in a virtuous life. It offers psychological benefits of unconditional acceptance and belonging and intergenerational and multicultural bonds. More practically, it can be a safety network and a means to social productivity. For some the family feels divine in origin and is an access point for the transcendent.

As we move into society we see how love of one’s kin can be widened to love of the family of humanity. Purpose in family roles can be replicated in analogous conduct with our fellow citizens and arguably our entire species. Perhaps we can find purpose in expanding these feelings for our race further to all animals or even all living things. Meanwhile filial piety and respect for our elders can be transformed into respect for institutions and legitimate authority. Following Confucius we can find authentic purpose in being agents for order, harmony, and the advancement of society and the world.

If individual purpose comes down to making a good life for oneself, self-improvement, and the attaining of happiness and meaning, the family offers a template for us to seek those goals for ourselves while facilitating them for others. If Homo sapiens is destined to be a great species it will depend on us expanding that desire beyond our immediate relatives to everyone living and even those not yet born as best as our meager attempts allow. Virtue and purpose intersect again at the level of humanity and Nature from the example of the family.

Next time we begin the exploration of the third form of relationship which integrates externalized purpose – friendship. Join me then.