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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 428-435

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Agapic Friendship

Sharon E. Sytsma

ARISTOTLE CATEGORIZED FRIENDSHIP into three types: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, and complete (perfect or true) friendships (1156a5-10). 1 The thesis developed here is that Aristotle neglects an important kind of friendship. Various aspects of his theory of friendship have been challenged, but no one has charged that his categorization is incomplete. 2 In what follows, an Aristotelian account of the friendship between James Steerforth and David Copperfield in Dickens' David Copperfield will be given, and then shown to be inadequate. Then a brief account of agapic love will be given and shown to be another basis of friendship—agapic friendship. Finally, the agapic nature of the two young men's friendship will be highlighted.


One might suppose that the friendship between David Copperfield and Steerforth is a mixed form of the three types of friendships identified by Aristotle. There can be no doubt that their friendship was pleasurable and useful to both. The two boys (and later young men) were appreciative of the other's pleasing appearance. David frequently comments on the pleasure attending any kind remark issuing from Steerforth on his own behalf. He admits his pleasure in being "cherished as a kind of plaything in my room," indicating his awareness of Steerforth's pleasure in being with him. Steerforth took great pleasure in David's imaginative and talented storytelling, which David eagerly [End Page 428] used as a "cementing" force in their relationship. Surely, Steerforth also took pleasure in the respect and admiration of his doting schoolmate.

Also undeniable is that both friends found each other to be useful. David treasured the gift of Steerforth's protection. Being favored by Steerforth automatically elicited the admiration and envy of the other schoolboys. "No one dared to annoy one whom [Steerforth] honored with his countenance." Steerforth, on his part, found David's storytelling to be a useful antidote to his insomnia.

However, David's love for Steerforth went beyond any self-interested concern. David loved Steerforth for his friend's own sake. He stayed up late and rose early to recount and embellish tales, not because he was motivated by self-interest or fear, but only because he "admired and loved him." David perceived Steerforth to be considerate and generous, and he mistook his friend's self-confidence as evidence of nobility of character.

These perceptions were hardly objective. David's good nature, generous-mindedness, and youthful naiveté kept him from recognizing the faults in his friend's character, even in the face of ample evidence. Steerforth's cruel streak should have been obvious to David since he witnessed Steerforth allowing another student, the hapless Traddles, to take the blame when Steerforth laughed in church, and his ruthless exposure of Mr. Mell's secret shame of having a mother living on charity in an almshouse. He heard Steerforth's story about how he had "accidentally" thrown a hammer into Rosa Dartle's face. David's uneasiness on these occasions was overcome by his natural generosity of spirit and sense of gratitude. When shocked by a cold and arrogant insult against Little Em'ly's fiancé, Ham, David responds with full confidence:

[You may] try to hide your sympathies in jest from me, but I know better. When I see how perfectly you understand them and how exquisitely you can enter into happiness like this plain fisherman's, or humour a love like my old nurse's, I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people, that can be indifferent to you. And I admire and love you for it, Steerforth, twenty times the more!

So even though David has an inflated sense of Steerforth's virtue, his thinking of Steerforth as virtuous was integral to their relationship, and that in itself would support thinking of the friendship as based on the good.

Given Steerforth's defects of character, one might easily be led to the conclusion that Steerforth loved David only for the pleasure and [End Page 429] benefits of his...


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