I was recently asked to give a talk on what makes relationships beneficial. Since Valentine’s Day was approaching, I decided to offer a set of insights based on three philosophical theories of love which I cover in my philosophy of love class. Here is a brief overview of these insights.
Eros is an intense desire for something which we don’t posses and which we think will complete us, make us whole. Once we have this view of love, we can see how relationships can be beneficial. After all, by entering into relationships we have opportunities to become more complete. Of course, the process of seeking completion can lead to a lot of disappointments. But these disappointments can be profoundly instructive: we come to see that the things or people we thought would complete us cannot do so due to their limitations. We also come to see our own limitations as well. Rational reflection on these limits can help us improve ourselves and move towards more valuable things that have a better chance at satiating our search for wholeness.
Agape is a form of love that, rather than selfishly seeking something perceived to be valuable in order to complete ourselves as in eros, altruistically shares something it already has in order to create value. It is not about possessing something to fill ourselves; it is about giving to fulfill others. Agape is typically associated with a love from God which we, in turn, can extend to others. But it can be given a secular meaning as well.
It is easy to see how agape-based relationships can be beneficial since they give us opportunities to share what we have in order to truly help others. And, in doing so, we can develop a more giving nature which makes us more altruistic. In helping us overcome our selfishness, agape allows us to love others for their own sake and avoid many of the negative effects of relationships based on selfishness. Agape also allows us to experience the beauty of creating value where it didn’t exist before.
Philia, or friendship, is a form of mutual love that was given three forms by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics: friendships of utility, pleasure, and perfect friendships. Friendships of utility are based around mutual use value and last as long as the use value lasts. For example, two people may help each other at work, in a business partnership, or in politics. Should the context for the use value change – say the two no longer work together – then the friendship ends. Friendships of pleasure are similar but are based around pleasure: playing sports together, playing music together, etc. Again, if the context for pleasure ends then the friendship comes to an end. Both these forms of friendship, despite being mutual, have a selfish motive: to gain use value or pleasure.
But perfect friendships do not start with a selfish motive to gain anything. They start with a mutual admiration of virtue or character excellence and proceed into activities in which the friends develop virtue in one another for each other’s sake. These friendships will feature rational dialogue as the means to the development of virtue and good judgment. And, since perfect friendships are committed to an ongoing development of character, they do not fade like friendships of pleasure and utility do. After all, the development of a good character is a life-long task and rational dialogue is not something we can do without. Perfect friendships are therefore constant because they seek to actualize the good potentials of our shared human nature in order to reach a state of eudaimonia or fulfillment. Naturally, this fulfillment will have use value and can be pleasant. But such use value and pleasure are not the motives for entering a perfect friendship; rather, they are the beneficial results of it.
Given this three-fold account of friendship or philia, we can see that relationships can be beneficial given our need for a diversity of mutual relationships that offer us use value, pleasure, and the development of virtue which plays a role in actualizing some of our best natural potentials in order to be fulfilled.