An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 6, an NBC show illustrates Aristotle’s insights.
To achieve a certain level of mastery, we often need a plan. The ingredients to living a better life are to understand what our priorities are, and behave with purpose, which eventually would lead us to living ‘the good life’ – one of the earliest pursuits of philosophy. One of the critical ingredients of living the good life is friendship, and one of the first philosophers to talk about what friendship entails was (to no one’s surprise) Aristotle. He writes about it extensively in his Nicomachean Ethics. He considers it not only necessary, but also noble. He writes: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.”
One of the more popular shows that focus on friendship is NBC’s Parks and Recreation. It is about an ambitious female government employee who juggles all three of these adjectives. Leslie Knope is enthusiastic and optimistic, and drives the show and the Parks departments of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana. The friendship lessons that this show teaches us would probably make Aristotle proud. For example, one of the most quintessential Leslie quotes (“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work”) is not very different from what Aristotle thought about friendship.
Most people agree that one of the more wholesome parts of the show is the warm, consistent friendship between Leslie and her best friend Ann Perkins. But what exactly is friendship? Is it measured by the duration of your acquaintance, how often you interact, or how much you’ve ‘seen’ together? Can you be a friend if you don’t have much in common, but still have each others’ backs, like Ron and Leslie? Or are you great friends only if you make grand gestures like converting a pit into a park, like Leslie did for Ann? Which pair, then, has a better friendship: Ron and Leslie, or Ann and Leslie? Or is it Chris and Ben, who have worked as a team to do an important, yet terrible job: cutting cities’ budgets? Or Donna and Tom, who celebrate themselves and each other by splurging to their hearts’ content once a year? Or, is friendship even measured quantitatively, through acts, or is it more about the qualitative feeling?
Aristotle argues that there are three motivations for friendship: pleasure, utility, and virtue. The first two, he deems are incidental: not friendship for friendship’s sake. He writes: “those who love because of utility love because of what is good for themselves, and those who love because of pleasure do so because of what is pleasant to themselves, and not because of who the loved person is but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.” These two may dissolve if the parties do not derive pleasure or utility out of them.
For example, friendships that are born out of pleasure are ones that we enjoy going out with for a party, or ones we gossip with to pass our times. The almost ritualistic Treat yo self arc that Donna and Tom engage in throughout the show is representative of this kind of friendship. They take time out for themselves and be extravagant in buying any and everything that they enjoy, be it clothes, being treated like celebrities by paying people to play paparazzi, or bedazzling their elbows. Moreover, they know each others’ hedonistic pleasures, like when Tom snapped out “I wish you guys were Donna,” when he was told that cashmere, concert tickets, and cash would not be the perfect farewell gift for Chris, (but would be for himself) in the episode “Ann and Chris.” Their friendship is based out of two of their favourite things: materialistic goods and themselves.
On the other hand, friendships that are utilitarian are those that we make in the classroom. For example, we might share notes about the class and the friendship is dissolved once the utility is over. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we do not wish the best for them, or we do not like them, but we do not harbour the illusion that the friendship will continue for the rest of our lives. It is just us engaging in normal social behaviour. Thus, they are often transient, just like the friendship between Jerry and Leslie.
Jerry Gergich, one of the oldest and almost unremarkable employees at the Parks department is also often the laughingstock of their motley crew. Jerry is enthusiastic in being Leslie’s aide, however, also ends up fumbling and botching things up fairly frequently. The two of them illustrate Aristotle’s idea of utilitarian friendships very well. Other than the obvious usefulness of Leslie being Jerry’s superior at work, Jerry often also helps her out in doing mundane tasks. In the episode “Lucky,” for instance, Jerry mechanically stuffs envelopes with gusto. He then realises that he has made a mistake, and ends up having to redo the task all over again. After his uneventful retirement, he is almost never mentioned, but returns from a Mediterranean cruise when beckoned to do some filing.
While both Jerry and Leslie do like each other as people, they do not feel the need to stay friends beyond what is expected of them, or stay in touch once he retires. This is not to say that they do not wish for the best for each other, of course – Jerry thinks Leslie is the quintessential powerful woman, and Leslie supports Jerry’s tenure as the mayor of the town. However, they do not pretend to be affectionate beyond what is strictly utilitarian.
Finally, Aristotle argues for a third, more virtuous kind of a friendship: one that is based on mutual respect and appreciation. These tend to be long-lasting, and encompass utility and pleasure, along with ‘goodness.’ That is, when you care for a person, you find spending time with them pleasurable, while also helping you move along, making it utilitarian. This, then, helps in creating trust, awe, and admiration: ingredients for the good life.
The friendship between Leslie and Ann could be categorized as virtuous friendship, of course, but more interesting is the one between Leslie and Ron. The two of them, as people, are as distinct as possible from each other in every way possible. Leslie is a through and through liberal, who is optimistic about government, and about the people around her. She believes in working hard, and vocal about her opinions. She makes scrapbooks and banners to show her impenetrable belief in and love for people. Ron Swanson, on the other hand, is a libertarian who hides his gold under trees. He believes that the government (in which he works too) is a “greedy piglet” that eats the taxpayers’ money, and has said “I will walk deeper into the belly of the beast if it means I’m able to further limit reckless government spending.” He is pessimistic to the extent of being nihilistic, and dislikes most people as much as he dislikes the government.
However, Ron believes in and trusts Leslie, who is probably the only person outside of his family that knows him. For example, she knows his birthday and knows how to celebrate it – steak, Scotch, and The Bridge over the River Kwai. She knows about his cabin in the woods and how to get there. Even though he hates Europe, Leslie gifts him a trip to an island off the coast of Scotland, where the distillery for his favorite alcoholic beverage is situated. Further, she makes him the park superintendent for the National Parks Service, and even though he hates being a federal level employee, he loves the fact that he can be in the open, not interact with people, and gets to sail off in his canoe. In return, Ron calls her his friend, and locates her down when she runs away, and walks her down the aisle.
Aristotle has asserted that only good people can form these kinds of friendships, because ‘bad’ people usually make friendships for utility or pleasure (although, of course, that might not be true), and not out of goodness of their hearts. And Ron and Leslie are as good as people get. Their friendship shows us that there is hope for two people vastly different from each other to not only get along, but also to trust and appreciate each other, and be truly friends.