In the late 18th century, the “Fifty-Niners” were rushing to Colorado for gold.
However, just because the miners found gold didn’t necessarily mean they had made their fortune. They had to determine if the gold they had panned from a stream or mined in the mountains was the real thing.
There was a simple test to determine if the gold was authentic or fool’s gold. In fact, this fool-proof test is still used today by gold dealers to determine the quality and purity of the gold. It consists of taking a small sample of the material in question and applying a drop of nitric acid. If the gold fades, it’s not pure gold.
In short, what looks like gold is not necessarily gold, or even the quality of gold you would expect. The acid test shows the gold for what it truly is.
Have you ever been in a friendship that seemed like it would last forever, but just a few months later, find that it’s deteriorated to non-existence?
Or felt that you had made a great connection with a friend, only to feel later that they were just looking to gain some benefit from you?
How do you tell the difference between true friendship and false, between real gold and fool’s gold? Friendship needs an acid test too; a way to determine the purity or depth of a friendship, a way you could know what to expect.
Hundreds of years before the nitric acid test, Aristotle laid out three types of friendships in his work, the Nicomachean Ethics. Just like the nitric acid test, Aristotle is just as relevant today as he was in the 300’s B.C. (In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas referred to him as “the Philosopher,” in his Summa Theologica.)
Aristotle’s three types of friendship were: pleasant, useful, and virtuous.
A pleasant friendship is short-lived, or based in a circumstance. Its activities could include parties, fun, games, and shallow conversations.
A useful friendship is also short-lived and circumstantial; it includes study partners, workout buddies, and the dude with a pickup who helps you move.
A virtuous friendship is different. Its purpose is anchored in the good of the other person. Its activities could include most of the elements of the other two. The difference comes in the ultimate goal: helping the other to achieve greatness in their life. It is based in the common pursuit of virtue or a good life (good meaning: moral, virtuous, or upright).
Now, you might be thinking that the pleasant and useful friendships are always bad, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Dr. John Cuddeback, author of Friendship the Art of Happiness says,
“These kinds of friendships are natural, and they have their place in everyone’s life. What is very important, however, is to recognize these for what they are. Aristotle calls these ‘incidental friendships.’ What he means is that they are not friendships in the full and most important sense. They can be called friendships because, in a way they fit the generational definition above, but they fall short of what full or true friendship is all about. Making this distinction is a big step toward understanding the most important kind of friendship.”
So how do we cultivate more virtuous friendships?
In my next post, I’ll look more closely at virtuous friendships and how to grow them. But for now a quick start guide:
- Keep them close: Work to grow closer to the men and women that expect you to be better than you currently are.
- Words don’t lie: The content of your conversations is an indication of the type of friendship you possess.
- To have a friend, be a friend: You can’t have virtuous friendships without striving to help others to grow as well.
As one of my boyhood heroes, Tom Osborne, former coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ Football team, would tell his players: “Friends are like buttons on an elevator, they can take you up or down.
But you get to choose.” What are the qualities you currently find in your best friendships? How do you help them grow? I’d love to hear from you!