A Case for Friendship in Business

Would you hire Aristotle as your director of strategic partnerships? I would, and I’m going to show you why you should, too.

Aristotle on Friendship

Friendship, to Aristotle, was both the flower of ethics and the root of political society. That is to say, the goal of becoming a virtuous person is to become a good friend. And beneath all the systems and policy that aim at the flourishing of a society must lie friendship, without which societies will miss this goal.

But friendship can mean three different things. In Book VII of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lists three ascending tiers: friendship based on utility, pleasure, and objective goodness. 

Unfortunately, his example of friendship based on utility (the lowest tier) is business partnerships. Aristotle argues that such friendships are easily dissolved and don't require real agreement. But that doesn't bother some of us — what matters is the symbiotic relationship within which they help you at little personal cost.

Yet others of us insist on taking our partnerships deeper. We want to connect with organizations that we enjoy working with. It adds a personal element. I think, though, that we could move our partnerships from shallow bases of utility and pleasure to the deeper basis of goodness. But what does basing a partnership on goodness look like? Before getting practical, a little more philosophy! 

Aelred and Cicero on Friendship

Aelred of Rilveaux was a 12th century Christian monk who wrote a little book called On Spiritual Friendship. But by no means did he mean "private" or "behind closed doors” when he dubbed friendship“spiritual.” Rather, he borrowed his definition of friendship almost verbatim from the 1st century Roman politician and philosopher, Cicero:

"Friendship is mutual conformity in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity."

I want to point out two important parts of their definition. First, conformity doesn't just mean agreeing about what's good; it means agreeing with what is actually good. That's friendship based on goodness. Second, agreement covers not only divine concerns, but human ones too: public affairs, like business.

"Director of Institutional Friendship"

If you hired Aristotle as director of strategic partnerships, he might reprint his business cards with "Director of Institutional Friendship."

Businesses, if they are virtuous, become active contributors to human flourishing. And through Institutional Friendship, they receive material and immaterial resources not just for their own benefit, but for the life of the world. How thrilling would your work become if, through Institutional Friendships, you saw more clearly the fruits of the work of your hands, the greater context of your industry's contribution to political society. You might even catch "on earth" bits of the economy "in heaven." 

In my few months working with Denver Institute for Faith & Work and meeting its friends, I've been astounded by how many conversations fit the same threefold form:

  1. "Tell me your story. How did you get here?"
  2. What kind of work are you (and your company) doing, and where do you want to go?”
  3. "Great, how can I help?"

Although most of these conversations are private or informal, some of them have become public and formal. 

If you orient your thinking toward "How does the work of my hands contribute to the common good?" the inflection of the question "What do I have?" becomes not "What do I need?" but "What can I give?" And we've all known since childhood that you make friends by sharing.

What do you have to give?