True Friendship’s Role in Living a Life of Virtue

The question of how to live a good life has been in discussion for more than 2500 years. For most philosophers, living a life of virtue is the answer. For Aristotle, moral virtue is to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes; for Plato, virtue is the excellence of the soul, which has a component of excellence of reason, which he calls wisdom. My claim is that we all have an incomplete view of the world because of our subjective point of view and limited experience; being able to understand and see through that subjective experience is what is meant by wisdom. I believe wisdom is essential to living a virtuous life, which is something that we should all be striving for. Subjective experience is an inevitable part of life. We can either not realize it and continue living in some sort of illusion that the world is exactly as we see it or come to the realization that each of us has a different subjective experience. One good way of learning more about life and reality is through other perspectives, which we can get by conversing with our true friends. I argue that true friendships have an essential role in living a virtuous life as they can help us see the world more accurately and help us become better people in the process.

Most of us believe the world is as we see it is because this sort of thinking seems to work out as we continue living, usually with no obstacles. Our sense organs gather information from the outside world, and that information travels along in our brain from neurons to another neuron and helps us navigate in and make sense of the world. The problem is, there is too much information all the time around us, so our attention is guided towards what our brain considers important and relevant, which means useful in survival and reproduction. This system does not care about comprehensiveness or exactness; there are many studies on change blindness[1] and selective attention[2] that show we are quite unaware of most things around us. We know very well how our brain takes information from the outside world to create a representation of the world, which is basically an educated guess, created mostly from inferences. We take information through perception, but can only cognize what we attend to, and we interpret what we attend to make sense of it. We relate everything to everything else, group them, so it is easier for the brain to keep them in mind. Moreover, this is all without considering that each of us has different genetic dispositions and environmental and cultural effects in our brain that create assumptions and affect our interpretations. This is how our brains guide our way in the world: pretty unreliable. Realizing this fallacy is the crucial first step towards wisdom and one that our friends can help us as we get into deep conversations and healthy problem-solving techniques because most times disagreements are just different assumptions and assessments of a situation.

Once we realize the world is not limited to our outlook, then a door of 8 billion other subjective experiences open. How little we know might be frightening at first, but as Socrates said, wisdom consists of claiming not to know what one does not know. For Aristotle, wisdom is understanding why things are a certain way, while it is understanding the true nature of phenomena in Buddhist traditions. Today, attention to circumstance and the big picture, incorporating diverse standpoints of a situation, a balance between inter- and intrapersonal benefits and epistemic humility are considered aspects of wisdom. Wisdom is crucial in living a good, virtuous life. While wisdom can be achieved through self-reflection and contemplation, the true nature of reality is more accurately and easily understood through the lens of different perspectives, which our true friends can provide.

We usually use the word ‘friend’ loosely, but the ancient philosophers had a more specific understanding of what constitutes a friend. For Aristotle, the perfect friendship was between people similar and high in virtue, in which friends love each other for their own sake, and wish good things for them. There is a mutual appreciation of character and goodness. For Plato, one exposed not only one’s ideas but also one’s character. Seneca wrote that we must think long to decide whether we should have someone as a friend, but once we do, we must trust completely. He tells us to speak as boldly with him as with ourselves, share all our worries and reflections and regard ourselves alone when in his company. It is as if a person becomes one with a friend. Friendship is so indispensable that for Aristotle, it surpasses justice and honor in importance, and a good and happy life is inconceivable without friends. I agree with them all: with a true friend, we should fully be our authentic selves. Real friends help you, correct you, be honest with you, hold you responsible for your actions, but does that in an understanding and compassionate way. Through this kind of openness, then there is room for collective thinking without attachment to any particular idea. Reflection and contemplation then lead to a comprehensive assessment of an idea and possible ways of what actually might be in reality. This sort of friendship is possible between people who are open-minded and interested in achieving wisdom, so they are also interested in various subjects, which they can then share and increase their collective knowledge and understanding about the nature of reality and have a more accurate view of the world. The goal is not self-gain or being right, but instead taking pleasure in discussing, contemplating, and widening their perspectives and reaching the truth. Mutual trust is vital as one has to believe whatever one’s friend says is for her benefit, and there is no maleficence. Friends have a positive mind state and goodwill towards each other, and they hold a mirror up to one another, through which they can see much more of reality than it could be possible alone. This sort of friendship is right for the person, and also improves us as persons. Humans are social animals, and we are not meant to live alone.

Humans, by default, from evolution, have a negative bias in their thoughts. Thoughts start from an interpretation of a phenomenon in the world, but then they build up on top of each other through inferences and associations. In the end, we end up with a limited idea about the world and people’s motivations in doing some actions. World of experience is a stream of subjective perceptions. Realizing that the world is not as it looks to us is critical in understanding the nature of reality. Our true friends, whom we can have a heart to heart conversations with and be honest with one another, are essential to see beyond our subjective experience, and therefore to become better people. As we understand the world better, we become wiser and more considerate and sympathetic. This understanding makes us virtuous people, and also makes life much better to live, since we can now see through the illusion. We should all seek to find true friends whom one can contemplate about the world, talk about different subjects and ideas, reflect on actions, and widen perspective, as it will make life worth living.

philosophy with psychology and tech