Aristotle on Friendship

One thing that you may have noticed about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, as I’ve been describing it so far, is that it seems extraordinarily individualistic.

The ultimate end of our activities is eudaimonia, which is an assessment of individual human flourishing and success. The best sort of eudaimonia is a life of philosophic contemplation, which you can do all by yourself.

There is almost no discussion of family, except some brief mention of the father’s dominion over the family as being a variety of justice and of the necessity of bringing up children well so that they will be virtuous. Romantic relationships get no attention.

His example virtues are done with the motive of being virtuous, any people they effect are mere props. Courage in battle is for the sake of courage, not for the sake of your fellow-soldiers. Temperance is all about self-control. Honor, ambition, good temper, honest self-assessment: these are all for the greater glory of Me.

Other-facing virtues (or potential virtues) like loyalty, trustworthiness, kindness, obedience, devotion, gratitude, love, candidness, reliability, and sensitivity are absent. Even friendliness and wit, though exercised socially, are matters of bringing honor on oneself, not of respecting the needs of others. Justice is a matter of regulating our interactions with others not with them in mind, but with a mathematician’s attention to proportionality. Liberality and magnificence are ostensibly acts of generosity towards others, but are done from self-interested motives.

But Aristotle devotes two books of his ten-book examination of ethics to the subject of friendship, which he describes in explicitly altruistic, other-focused terms, at least in its best form.

Today I’ll try to summarize the first of these two books:

  1. Friendship is a virtue, or at any rate it implies virtue. And it is necessary for eudaimonia; indeed, if you had everything else but had no friends, life would not be worth living. It is also an important consideration in justice and politics, as friendship is what holds states together.
  2. Friendship exists when two people each wish for each other’s good, and are both aware of this mutual relationship of goodwill.
  3. There are two sorts of friendship: 1) utilitarian friends love each other because and to the extent that they are useful or pleasant to each other. This is a selfish sort of friendship, and lasts only so long as it remains useful or pleasant. 2) perfect friends are good and virtuous and wish good things for each other for the other’s sake. Such friendship is more enduring, and can last as long as both parties remain good and virtuous. This is the rarer of the two varieties, and is slower to develop.
  4. Perfect friendship is incidentally utilitarian (it is pleasant and useful) but not primarily so. It is only available to good people. This is partially because it involves trust, and it is difficult to put your trust in someone who isn’t virtuous. The lesser, utilitarian species of friendship is also worthy of attention, but it’s only a shadow of the real thing.
  5. There are real-world friends, and then there are “Facebook friends.” Genuine friendship seems to require regular face-to-face time. Friendship is mutually- and equally-beneficial to good people, as good friends are valuable to have.
  6. You need to be a pleasant, good-natured person to be a friend. Having good will for someone isn’t sufficient; you must also be pleasant to be around and enjoy spending time together. Perfect friendship also cannot be spread too thinly: you may have many utilitarian friendships or people you are friendly towards, but only a few perfect friends.

    Friendships between people differently-situated in authoritarian hierarchies have their own issues. People in authority sometimes have quick-witted friends of the utilitarian-pleasurable sort, and obedient friends of the utilitarian-useful sort, but since quick-witted ones tend not to be obedient, and obedient ones tend not to be quick-witted, rarely do you find the two together. And good, virtuous people tend not to make friends with people above their station (except with those rare ones who are also exceptionally good and virtuous).
  7. There is a variety of friendship that exists between unequals: like the friendship of a father and son, for instance. Rulers can even be said to have a certain sort of friendly regard for their subjects. In these cases, friendship is a sort of respect that should be divvied out, like justice, in proportion to the status of the parties. That is, a child should respect the father more than the father respects the son; subjects should love their king more than the king loves any subject; and so forth. However, in perfect friendship, the mutual love and respect is not given in proportion to worth or station, but is equal, and regardless of such things. This can serve to make it difficult for differently-situated people to become perfect friends, or for such friendship to survive a unbalancing in status between the friends.
  8. Friendship is a form of love, and as such is best exhibited in the giving rather than in the receiving. This differentiates it from something like honor, where it seems better to receive than to give, or from flattery, which is a sort of false friendship that people value to receive. Loving is the characteristic virtue of perfect friends.
  9. The ties that bind a community together and that make people of the same nation think of each other as being more closely-bound than people of different nations, are somewhat akin to friendship. Justice also has a connection to friendship; the closer you are to somebody, the worse it is to behave unjustly toward them — betraying a friend is especially bad. In any sort of coordinated activity, the people who come together cooperate for common advantage, and so become utilitarian-friends of each other. The state is a large-scale example of this phenomenon, and its citizens are utilitarian-friends of a sort.
  10. There are three varieties of state: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy. Of these, monarchy is the best and timocracy the worst. Each variety has its decadent and corrupt counterpart: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. The difference between the good and bad versions has to do with how virtuous, or self-serving, are those in power. A monarch cares for his kingdom and subjects; a tyrant, for himself. An aristocracy looks out for the good of the polis; an oligarchy tries to accrue more power and wealth for itself. A timocracy has the good of everyone in mind; a democracy is always trying to rob the minority to feed the majority.
  11. Each of these varieties of government “may be seen to involve friendship just in so far as it involves justice.” There is a friendship of sorts between a king and his subjects, like that between a father and his children. This sort of friendship implies an unequal relationship, and the justice associated with it is also unequal in the same proportion. The friendship between a man and his wife in a patriarchy is like the friendship between an aristocracy and the commoners; the friendship between brothers is like the friendship between timocrats. However, in the corrupt forms — tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy — justice and friendship can hardly be said to exist at all. In such systems there is no more friendship than between an ox-driver and an ox, or a slave-owner and a slave. One party sees the other solely as a means towards his own ends, and the other sees him only as one who frustrates his own ends. But at least in a democracy there is some equality in who may oppress whom, so friendship is more possible there.
  12. The friendship between kin is tighter than that of fellow-citizens. And the closeness of such friendship is related to the closeness of kinship, as well as to the nearness-in-age of the friends, and the extent to which they have been brought up together. The friendship of parents and children is a special sort, akin to the relationship between the gods and mortals. The friendship between husband and wife is natural and fundamental — even more so than that of the tendency of people to come together in communities. Marriages can be utilitarian friendships or perfect ones. How friends ought to behave towards one another is a question of how they should behave justly vis-a-vis each other.
  13. In friendships (whether utilitarian or perfect) between equals, the friends should love each other equally; in friendships between people not of equal station or honor, they should love each other in proportion to their station (the lower loving the higher more than the higher loves the lower). Perfect friends don’t have much reason to complain about the justice of their friendship, because if they love more than they are loved, that’s okay: it is the loving more than the being loved that is the valuable thing in such a friendship. It is usually more in utilitarian friendships that complaints and questions of whether one of the friends is keeping up his or her end of the friendship come up, and usually each friend is eager to be getting the better bargain: giving less and getting more, and this can lead to tension. For the sake of harmony in utilitarian friendship, it is a good idea to seek always for the just state of proportional equality, and if we find ourselves in a utilitarian friendship that we mistakenly thought was a perfect one, we should make an effort to resolve any debt we may have accidentally incurred. A perfect friend may do us a favor as its own reward, but a utilitarian friend will ultimately expect some other reward. Determining what is just in such a case is tricky, because the receiver of the favor and the giver of the favor may have different notions of the value of the favor and the value of what may be offered in return.
  14. In friendships between unequals, each one has a tendency to feel like they’re getting ripped off. The superior person thinks that the superiority they bring into the friendship ought to qualify them for a superior share of its benefits; the inferior person thinks that their inferiority means that they ought to be able to expect more as they have less to give. Aristotle thinks one way of solving this is to allow the inferior person to have a larger share of actual goods and assistance, while the superior person gains the larger share of honor from such virtue and beneficence, so they both win. This is true of the polis in general as well: some people contribute little and take much from the commonwealth, other people contribute much and take little but are compensated with greater honor. This helps preserve the friendship that holds the political community together. So in unequal relationships, the lower person should give honor to the higher person, repaying as best he can, while the person in a higher station should be generous with wealth and virtue. This is how mortals behave towards gods, and children towards parents.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics