Lodge No. 9: Lodge of the Nine Muses
Andrew Owen

The “Center of Union”: Aristotle's Friendship Ethics and Freemasonry

Brother Andrew Owen
(Lodge of the Nine Muses No. 9, Grand Lodge of Louisiana, F. & A. M., Initiated 2011)

Around 350 B.C., in Books VIII and IX of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines in great detail his philosophy regarding the kinds of relationships that people call friendships. He surmises that the purpose of friendships can be divided into three major categories: utility, pleasure, or the pursuit of good. He writes,

There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable; for with respect to each there is a mutual and recognized love, and those who love each other wish well to each other in that respect in which they love one another. Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant. Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.

The first two kinds of friendship are not true friendships, since they are simply for receiving benefit. Thus, to Aristotle, the third kind of friendship is the true kind:

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. And each is good without qualification and to his friend, for the good are both good without qualification and useful to each other. ... And such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have. ... Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men. But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have "eaten salt together"; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

People who can exhibit true friendship to one another are indeed rare, as people can have, and are often viewed as having, a rather self-serving nature, until prodded into a higher understanding by some outside experience and inward reflection. To be able to foster a true friendship, one must be sure of the other person's virtue. As Aristotle puts it, "For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, ... but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation." Due to both the shortage of good people and the limitations of time, Aristotle indicates that one cannot be a true friend to very many people, perhaps no more than five or six. Freemasonry, by its selectivity and teachings, aims to increase this potential number by changing the conditions under which men live among each other.

Aristotle's reasoning for a limit on true friends is based primarily on practicality. He writes,

One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once (for love is a sort of excess of feeling, and it is the nature of such only to be felt towards one person); and it is not easy for many people at the same time to please the same person very greatly, or perhaps even to be good in his eyes. One must, too, acquire some experience of the other person and become familiar with him, and that is very hard. But with a view to utility or pleasure it is possible that many people should please one; for many people are useful or pleasant, and these services take little time.

One can divide this rationale into two basic ideas: the rarity of good candidates (that perfect friendships are too special to be dealt out to just anyone) and the lack of time or experiences one has to become intimately familiar with another. To address the first practical limitation, Freemasonry works to slim down those candidates into a specific group of people (a Lodge) by allowing access only to people who both want to be there and are judged by the group as being worthy of being there. Addressing the second practical limitation, the fraternity creates a common set of experiences that unite its brothers, establishing an environment where all lodge rooms are situated in largely the same way, where everyone gains access to the brotherhood in the same way, and where time seems to stand still. Freemasonry itself appears designed as a way of cheating the system and being surrounded by true friends.

There is nothing wrong with having friends of utility and pleasure, a fact Aristotle readily confirms. One should have many friends of pleasure and of utility, assuming one's relationship with them is not exploitative or one-sided.

Friends of utility include roommates, barbers, teachers, sales people, physicians, and other people whom the subject befriends for some purpose. For a roommate, it is to cheapen the financial obligation of living; for a barber, it is to be groomed; for a teacher, it is to be educated; etc. Typically, what makes a friendship of utility good is that on the other end of the friendship is some kind of reciprocation, usually monetary. I get along well with my barber; we talk for the entire session about history, life lessons, graphic design, aesthetics, and philosophy. Yet, we do not associate outside the shop, nor do I remember his last name or have his telephone number. While it would appear we have a friendship while we are present at the shop, our lack of sincere desire for each other's betterment after the session is over marks our relationship as a friendship of utility. I need my hair cut and he needs an income. Thus, not only is he a friend of utility to me for his services, but I am a friend of utility to him for my money. While our relationship is mutually beneficial, it is not a true friendship, as we have not invested the necessary amount of time in each other, and we have not developed a kind of rapport that would allow our relationship to continue should he botch my haircut. A friendship of utility only lasts as long as the usefulness retains. It would end if I refused to pay or if he suddenly proved incompetent. This is not to say that the relationship is bad. Friendships of utility define much of our interaction with the world.

More intimate than friendships of utility are our friendships of pleasure, as these at least have the appearance of true friendships, without actually being true friendships. In youth, most of one's acquaintances fall into this category. These, too, are quite good to have, even if they are not as fulfilling or permanent as true friendships. Like a utility friendship, as soon as a person ceases to be pleasant to the other, the relationship ends, either abruptly through an unpleasant exchange or gradually through neglect. We can have any number of these relationships easily, as all it takes to be a friend to several is to be pleasant to many people, allowing enough distance to back out when any friend becomes unpleasant. As Aristotle writes, "Those who have many friends and mix intimately with them all are thought to be no one's friend, except in the way proper to fellow-citizens, and such people are also called obsequious." That is, it is one thing to have many friends of pleasure, since such friends do not mix intimately with each other; it is another thing entirely to have many true friends without seeming overly servile or flattering. Indeed, Aristotle argues that if one has too many true friends, they cease to be true friends.

Freemasonry is designed to reject friendships of utility and of pleasure within its membership. Albert Pike, for instance, when delivering his Masonic Ten Commandments in the Apprentice chapter of Morals and Dogma, commands this: "Thou shalt avoid and flee from insincere friendships!" One might take the word "insincere" to mean nonreciprocal, or the kind of insincerity that would base a friendship on anything but a sincere desire for the other person's well-being. The main difference here between a sincere friend (a true friend) and an insincere friend (a friend of pleasure or utility) is the motivation. In the former, the subject expects to receive either pleasure or usefulness from the other person. In the latter, the subject gives of himself freely, specifically to better the other man, and in doing so possibly bettering himself.

In Anderson's Constitutions of 1723 is written the phrase, "that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance." Regardless of any differences a brother might have with another brother, through sameness in affiliation with the fraternity, an institution designed for the betterment of men and their relations with others, each brother automatically fosters a true friendship, since it is assumed that to be a Mason, one must be virtuous, and that all of them have undergone the same ritualistic experience for there to be a commonality among them. As Aristotle puts it, "Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue." It is this feature that makes Freemasonry's aim as a "Center of Union" possible within a world of those who remain "at a perpetual Distance." By only permitting access to good men, the fraternity ideally dismantles hierarchies and differences that promote friendships of utility and pleasure, rather than perfect friendships.

A brother does not have a friendship of utility with his brother. For instance, one should not become a Mason to better his chances at employment or some other use of other people. In fact, in many rituals the candidate is asked if this is his reason for joining, whereby a positive answer would result in his rejection. If one is looking for personal gain through the fraternity, the investigating committee should be able to sense this and reject the petitioner. A brother does not seek pleasure friendships with his brothers, as they maintain their fraternal bond even when one ceases to be pleasant to the other. Of course, it is the design of the fraternity that anyone who has a serious difference with his brother resolve the conflict for the sake of the greater brotherhood.

Freemasonry as a hub between brothers, or a "Center of Union," avoids the failings of common friendships of pleasure to allow a more perfect kind of friendship. The fraternity therefore serves as a substitute for the weakness of humankind in resolving conflicts that would otherwise end engagement with one another. When this does not work, the fraternity's disciplinary procedures encourage harmony over retention. Serious animosity is not allowed to last very long in the case of a brother who cannot find peace with another brother.

This very question of how many true friends one should have and if Freemasonry has an effect on this number interested the early Bostonian mason Thaddeus Mason Harris. In 1797, he wrote an address discussing whether masonry resolved the issue of friendship limitation. He wrote that Freemasonry provided a "desirable mean between the diffusedness of general regard and the contractedness of individual attachment." Harris believed that Freemasonry offered a compromise between the kind of investment it takes to develop a true friendship and the ability to spend time with many people. Freemasonry offers both an equal distribution of general regard and a contracted individual attachment-indeed, there might not be a more contracted attachment than the binding obligation that masons take. Fraternal regard thus keeps from being weakened through diffusion among many people by coming from one brother to the "Center of Union," and from that Center to the other brother. A brother therefore does not simply befriend each brother he meets, but he befriends the institution itself, which serves as a constant hub among brothers. Instead of having to spend so much time with a particular brother to become a true friend, a brother enters into a shared fraternal experience that lasted long before he was even involved, and will presumably extend far beyond his own involvement, rendering all of the members into true friends, despite not knowing each other intimately.

A focus on a new kind of friendship has long been an important part of the masonic experience. In the 1744 French exposure La Franc-Maçonne, the catechism for each of the degrees involves friendship as a gift of membership.

Q. What did you receive, on entering your Apprenticeship?
A. The friendship of the Apprentices who have received me.
Q. How did you acknowledge this privilege?
A. By giving them, on my part, the most sincere friendship.
Q. What was its pledge?
A. The kiss that I gave them, in embracing them.

Clearly sincere friendship, and not friendship in name only, was quite important to Freemasons from their earliest days. Its reciprocation is the natural result of its being given. The new member first receives great friendship, and then acknowledges it with "the most sincere friendship." The exchange of the acknowledgement of perfect friendship marks the masonic obligation as an innovation on how society works. Instead of having to earn the respect of a brother through toil and favors, one starts in the organization at a state of great regard.

The best argument against this notion is the idea that Freemasonry only produces many friends of pleasure, as they only associate because of a shared interest. The idea that brothers only associate as far as the fraternity is concerned, then go home away from these brethren until the next meeting would cast the fraternal experience into the realm of my relationship with my barber. It might be that many brothers only associate with other brothers because it is pleasurable to converse with them about the fraternity. The teachings of that fraternity, however, exhort the member to delve more into each other's life, going on their errand, supporting them when they are sick or in distress, supporting their widows, and other such duties. The bond that unites brothers in the fraternity is the very teaching that each brother should be a true friend to every brother. The purpose of the investigation process is to find people who will become a true friend of the fraternity's membership, not simply a custodian of the teachings.

During the petition and investigation process, a group of brothers will ideally test the virtue of a brother. Once his virtue is apparent, the man is qualified to move forward. The committee represents the fraternity as a whole, which can symbolically represent a single man. One man wanting to enter into a perfect friendship with another man does so through the basic channels that Aristotle lines out: (1) each must recognize the other as virtuous, (2) each must love the other permanently and unconditionally, due to the other's inherent virtue, (3) each must wish well for the other person for the other person's sake entirely, and (4) each must spend a considerable amount of time with the other. The first two points are covered in the investigation process. The latter two points come from the fraternal experience itself. One need not be cautious of a lodge brother, but can put his trust in him. His virtue is a precondition for him having been made a mason. Because of its inherent structure, Freemasonry eliminates the problems Aristotle cites as issues for having several true friendships. It cheats the system of human weakness and distrust by sorting out the virtuous men from the vicious men. Regardless, the ideal of perfect friendship is made much more possible within a masonic context than in the profane world. How interesting it would be to hear Aristotle's reaction to Freemasonry!


Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Carr, Harry, ed. The Early French Exposures. London: The Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, 1971.

Coil, Henry Wilson. Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia. New York: Macoy, 1995.

McKeon, Richard, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Charleston: Supreme Council of the Thirty-Third Degree, 1871.

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