Aristotle on Friendship

, I summarized book eight of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the first of two books on the subject of friendship. , I’ll summarize what Aristotle says in book nine:

  1. Sometimes friends have conflicting expectations of the friendship (for instance, one thinks it a matter of love, while to the other it is merely a matter of utility), and in such cases one friend may feel taken advantage of. These sorts of conflicts aren’t best handled by some formal model of objective justice, since for one thing there isn’t anything like an explicit contract, and for another, there is no common measure by which things like “love” and “utility” can be measured against each other the way we can use money to provide a common measure for dissimilar goods in the marketplace. But, as a rule of thumb, in such cases, in the absence of any contract, the value of favors received (and therefore how much return is due) ought to be determined by the recipient.
  2. What do you do when your obligations to friends conflict with each other, or with other obligations? It seems that for most general rules for dealing with situations like these, it’s easy to think of exceptions where the rules shouldn’t apply. A set of heuristics is the best the subject matter allows: repay debts, prefer kin to non-kin, prefer friends to others, respect your elders, and so forth. Different strengths of obligations apply depending on how close you are to another person (either in blood-relation or some other sort of relation) and what sort of honor is at stake. It is not that there is no right answer, but that there is no simple formula that can apply to all of the complex cases in real-life.
  3. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to break off a friendship? Utilitarian friendships, as we have seen, ought to be expected to last only as long as the mutual utility. That said, if you have been led to believe that you are in a perfect friendship, and it turns out to be a utilitarian one that is broken off when you become less-useful or less-entertaining, you have reason for complaint. Perfect friendships also may end: perhaps one of the parties becomes or turns out to be a vicious, unlovable person (though even in such a case, it would seem the duty of a friend to at least try to repair the fallen friend’s character). Alternatively, what if one friend advances far beyond the other in virtue so that the two no longer have much in common? In such a case, though we should expect some residual fondness to remain between them, they probably could not remain friends.
  4. The kind of regard for another that is necessary for friendship is like the kind of regard for oneself that a virtuous person has. A virtuous person has integrity, and wishes what is actually good for him or herself, for his or her own sake; in these things, he is like a friend to himself, for a friend will be in harmony with a friend, and wish for a friend what is actually good for the friend’s sake. An excerpt from this section is worth repeating here, as it’s a good summing up of Aristotle’s ethics, and also has echoes in some of the Hannah Arendt I’ve commented on hereabouts. Aristotle describes the virtuous man thusly:

    [H]is opinions are harmonious, and he desires the same things with all his soul; and therefore he wishes for himself what is good and what seems so, and does it (for it is characteristic of the good man to work out the good), and does so for his own sake (for he does it for the sake of the intellectual element in him, which is thought to be the man himself); and he wishes himself to live and be preserved, and especially the element by virtue of which he thinks. For existence is good to the virtuous man, and each man wishes himself what is good, while no one chooses to possess the whole world if he has first to become some one else (for that matter, even now God possesses the good); he wishes for this only on condition of being whatever he is; and the element that thinks would seem to be the individual man, or to be so more than any other element in him. And such a man wishes to live with himself; for he does so with pleasure, since the memories of his past acts are delightful and his hopes for the future are good, and therefore pleasant. His mind is well stored too with subjects of contemplation. And he grieves and rejoices, more than any other, with himself; for the same thing is always painful, and the same thing always pleasant, and not one thing at one time and another at another; he has, so to speak, nothing to repent of.

    The virtuous man, that is, the sort of man capable of perfect friendship, will seek out friendships that resemble the sort of relationship he has with himself, says Aristotle. Vicious people, on the other hand, are in conflict even with themselves (their appetites conflict with their reason, and so forth), and so they don’t have a good foundation on which to build good friendships.
  5. Mere goodwill should not be confused with friendship. It is more superficial and ephemeral. It is at best the spark that might potentially ignite a friendship: necessary but far from sufficient. It usually arises when we see something noble or beautiful in another person and sympathize with this, for instance when we see a good athlete about to attempt some feat and we hope they succeed.
  6. Common opinions as to goals and means, which I’ll call “unanimity” (though this doesn’t mean unanimity in every possible opinion), is how friendship manifests itself between comrades or citizens: political friendship. It is possible for a group of virtuous people to have this sort of political friendship, but impossible for people who are not good, since each one of them will desire more than his or her share of goods at less than his or her share of cost, and there can be no mutual agreement on such a scheme. (This seems to contradict modern American political history, in which politicians are unanimous in promising their constituents that they will each get more than their share of government benefits while bearing less than their share of the costs of such munificence. Aristotle warns that when things degenerate that far: “the common weal is soon destroyed. The result is that they are in a state of faction, putting compulsion on each other but unwilling themselves to do what is just.”)
  7. When a person becomes someone’s benefactor, they may adopt a sort of proprietary attitude toward the person they are helping, and indeed may feel more fondly toward that person than that person feels toward them. This may seem paradoxical or maybe a product of resentment, but there’s a better explanation: to the benefactor, the generosity is a matter of action, part of the benefactor’s being in the world, whereas for the recipient it is more of a passive thing, and while advantageous and properly worthy of gratitude, is not the same sort of extension of ego. For this reason also, giving is more enjoyable than receiving, just as actively loving is better than passively being loved. Furthermore, the more effort you expend on something, the more you are likely to value it.
  8. Self-love, self-regard, selfishness — these things are looked down on, except perhaps in objectivist circles. Certainly vicious people are frequently condemned for seeming to care only for themselves, even when they do so in ways that are objectively self-destructive. But, as mentioned above, enlightened self-love is an important prerequisite for loving others. The seeming difference between these two views may come from different understandings of “self-love.” There is the self-love of someone who seeks from appetite to acquire more goods and honors and pleasures than they ought to have, but then there is the self-love of a person who values him or herself and treasures virtue more than goods and honors and pleasures. These people are different and behave quite differently, yet can each be described as being motivated by “self-love.” This seems to be the source of the confusion: intemperate “self-love” is worthy of reproach, but enlightened “self-love” is necessary and proper. It follows that a good person ought to be encouraged in self-love, while a wicked person ought to be discouraged in it, since he or she doesn’t know how to do it properly. Even those who sacrifice their lives for others are doing so in order to gain for themselves the prize of having done such a noble deed, because they value such a thing more than the value of living a humdrum life.
  9. Some people think that a happy person ought to be self-sufficient, ought not to need friends at all. But I think that having friends is one of the characteristics of happiness. It is in our natures to live among people, and friendship is an excellent way to do so. True, a happy, self-sufficient person will not need friends of the utilitarian variety, but will desire perfect friends and will delight in their friendship and in their activities. Perfect friends participate with us in our virtuous actions, and spur us on to greater virtue, and therefore improve our lives. We come to value their lives and activities almost as we do our own, and for the same reason: that we delight in what is virtuous and good.
  10. There seems to be a limit to the number of utilitarian friends one can have, for one can spread oneself too thinly. Is the same true of perfect friends, or is the more the merrier? I think there is a limit. Great friendship can only be felt for a few people, and indeed that only if we’re lucky.
  11. In times of bad fortune, it is good to have friends who can help you out, but in times of good fortune, it is even better to have friends you can help out. In bad times, friends help take the burden and help lighten it too by their pleasant presence; although if your own pain causes pain to your friends, as by sympathy it can, this may be an additional source of pain to you, so this may be a mixed blessing. The pleasures of sharing your good times with friends are less mixed. For this reason, you should readily seek out your friends when things are going well, but only with hesitation when bad fortune strikes you, for instance when they might with little inconvenience do you a great favor. On the other hand, we should not hesitate to go to the aid of a friend in bad straits, even if they have not asked, but we should not go out of our way to try to be the objects of our friends’ kindnesses.
  12. Friends should live and play and work and act together, should share their lives and virtues, for they love each others’ companionship and become better by virtue of each others’ care and interests.

Coincidentally, a review of the history and philosophy of friendship was published a couple of days ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This concludes our look at The Nicomachean Ethics.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics