Aristotle believed that the best friends are those that make you more virtuous. In other words, he thought we should surround ourselves with people who make us better human beings.
Let's unpack that.
First, let's understand what Aristotle meant by "virtuous." Virtue, broadly speaking, is the disposition to do what is right; to know what is right, and to possess the character to do it, especially when no one is looking.
To live a virtuous life is to behave in the right manner relative to your virtues. The Stoics held justice, temperance (i.e., Self-restraint), wisdom, and courage as cardinal virtues. Your virtues are yours to choose, but the Stoic virtues are a great place to start.
Modern culture renders living up to these virtues easier said than done.
In today's culture, we often reward those who flout virtue most aggressively - lying, cheating, and stealing their way to power, fame, and fortune. Shame is in short supply.
Individually, we are complicit. We accept less than our best. We engage in the doom loop, argue in the comments, and unconsciously take our tribe's stance as our own. We give ourselves passes to be less than honest when we know we won't get caught. We expect courage from our leaders while making allowances for ourselves. We don't even know we're doing it most of the time.
These are the waters we swim in. It's exceedingly hard to live virtuously when nearly all the signals we receive from our culture point to the unimportance or even absence of ethical behavior.
How can we break that cycle? The answers to this question are many, but one of the surest ways to live up to our virtues is to surround ourselves with those who do.
Virtuous friendships allow for a positive feedback loop to develop over time. The cultures of our friendships are often defined by the unspoken notion that 'people like us do – or don't do – things like this.' Virtuous friends help you live up to your values by the strength of their example. We, in turn, strengthen their resolve to live by theirs. Mutually, we reinforce each other's disposition to live honorably.
As the saying goes, you are the average of the people you spend the most time with. Choosing who you spend your time with is possibly the simplest and highest-leverage first step on the journey to virtue.
Aristotle further tells us that a person must do two things to be virtuous: first, they must acquire the right dispositions by habit and practice, and second, they must exercise them by acting in accordance with reason. He says, "We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." In other words, we need to know the right thing to do and be courageous enough to do it.
Choosing virtuous friends stacks the deck in your favor. As with any group, individuals tend to adopt the norms and expectations of the group. Surrounding yourself with moral people will naturally influence you to develop Aristotle's "dispositions" and act when it counts.
Choose friends who are honest - who do the right thing when no one is looking.
Choose friends who are measured in word and deed.
Choose friends who are disposed to nuanced thinking. The world is not black and white. Nuanced thinking leads to wisdom and an eye for justice.
Choose friends with the courage to do the right thing, especially when doing the right thing is difficult.
Choose friends who make you a better person.
Apply these principles to choosing your life partner. Maybe more than any other friendship, your partner will have an outsized role in shaping your character going forward.
You are who you surround yourself with. Choose wisely.