There is no ‘double life’ in philosophical life

One concern has been raised many times by many conversation partners in many quarters. It is that philosophical friendships and erotic lovers are rare. Yet if most of our lives are spent in the world among those of a non-philosophical persuasion, how are we to make sense of this “double life,” a life both apart from the world yet of the world?

It does seem as if we were fated to be very much alone, no longer able to live with non-philosophical others but not actually living in a closed community consisting entirely of kindred spirits. Hence, we would be forced to lead a “double life” in which we were torn in two.

This would indeed be the conclusion were it not for the claim that friendship comes in many kinds. Aristotle, in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, sketches three species of friendships: those of pleasure, those of utility, and those of virtue. He seeks not to deny any of these friendships but to rank order them in terms of importance. He says that some friends make for good company, their presence–their humor, their affability, their liveliness–affording us great pleasure. Other friends are useful to us, allowing us to achieve our higher aims. We say that this relationship is “mutually beneficial” to both parties. The last kind is rare and excellent: philosophical friends are those with whom we can exercise the moral virtues. Aristotle believes that friends who exercise the virtues together are equals and are concerned with the well-being of each other quite apart from his own interests.

The key to Aristotle’s account of friendship is that those of pleasure and utility are lower forms of friendship but, for all that, they have value and should not be dispensed with entirely; they have their place in our lives. Additionally, they are more common than philosophical friendships and so we would expect that most of our friends would fall into the first two categories, only a few into the third category.

We see that the claim that we are bound to lead a “double life” is beginning to lose its force. In the first place, we can observe that the assumption that all our friends must be virtuous (in the Aristotelian sense) is unwarranted. In the second place, we can come to regard many of our dealings in the marketplace and in the workplace as, ideally, dealings with friends of pleasure and utility. Finally, we could claim, in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle’s account, that some friendships of pleasure and utility may become, over time and on account of increasing intimacy, friendships of virtue.

There is thus no “double life” in philosophical life. There is instead a continuum stretching from the lower forms of friendship, which are “less near” and “less intense,” to the highest form of friendship, that through which we learn most about ourselves. Honoring all three kinds of friendships allows us to be comfortably of the world but not so completely in the world.

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