Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Carolyn Ray, Ph.D., Philosophy

Forum: Independent Study on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Indiana University, 1989
Director: Dr. Michael Morgan, Ancient Philosophy
This piece is the second of a set of three papers written for an independent study undertaken during the author's second year in graduate school. This and the other two pieces, Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics , work together to present the case that altruism is utterly foreign to Aristotle's ethics and that egoism is his implicit doctrine, despite typical mainstream commentator's interpretations. They challenge textual interpretations one by one, showing that only an egoist ethic can explain the passages that commentators find most puzzling, and allow them to fit consistently with other relevant passages and works. Although the independent study and the papers were not undertaken with this goal in mind (the purpose of the study was to familiarize the author with the philosopher's broader work in preparation for advanced study of his metaphysics and epistemology), nevertheless the text forced these conclusions. The current piece was undertaken with a view to simply understanding friendship as Aristotle conceived of it.

While most commentators treat together in one work both friendship and the controversy over whether Aristotle is an egoist or an altruist, I found the latter issue much too big to include here. I make only brief references to it; friendship is enough!

I'll begin with a discussion of Aristotle's conception the nature friendship and of who needs friends and why. Then I'll consider some commentaries and respond to them.

No one, Aristotle observes, would choose to live without friends (1155a5). The better a person's situation, the more he needs friends, because he is proportionately in a better position to behave virtuously (1155a6-10).

But preferring is not the same as needing. Who needs friends?

Some people are just naturally friends, like parents and children, and members of the same species (1155a16-22). And some people are called 'friends ' in virtue of their proximity or community with each other or their common concerns. Such people would include

since, "in every community there seems to be some sort of justice, and some type of friendship also" (1159a25-30).

Two people are friends only if they have goodwill for each other; each knows of the other's goodwill for him (1155b35-1156a6): and the goodwill is caused by love of the pleasant, the useful, or the good. To have goodwill for my friend is to wish him good things--but not all good things, for two reasons: (1) if I wished that my friend would become a god, I'd be wishing his friendship away, since a mortal can't be friends with so superior a being; and (2) if I wished him all (the other) greatest goods, I'd be wishing that there were some that I would not get myself, and that's silly--if I am my own friend (i.e., I am good), then I wish goods to myself most of all (1159a3-14).

Now, the best friendships do not come frequently or quickly. There are few truly virtuous people; and when they meet, it takes a long time for their friendship to develop (1156b25-31). Despite their infrequency, however, the very best friendships are the models to which Aristotle refers.

The best friendship is the one which is caused by love of the good; it has the qualities of the friendship caused by love of utility and the friendship caused by love of the pleasant and more. That is why it is complete, and the other two are only called 'friendships' by their similarity to this case (1156b301157a3).

One question that comes to mind is, "Is it possible for friendship to be complete without the friends' being both useful and pleasant to each other; i.e., for the people to have goodwill for each other merely because they are similar in virtue, even in the absence of pleasure and utility? The answer is a clear "No!" [and this answer will come in handy in arguments with commentators who have difficulties with the persistent threads of egoism that run through the Nicomachean Ethics.] It's a "no" because it would make no sense to call the one kind of friendship 'complete' and the other two 'incomplete' if the very characteristics in virtue of which the incomplete ones are called 'friendships' were not intrinsic to the complete kind. So real friends are useful and pleasant.

Evidence that this is Aristotle's view may be found at 1157b14-18, where it is noted that older people and sour people do not have friends, because they are unpleasant. If pleasantness were not intrinsic to friendship, what would prevent an old but virtuous (or sour but virtuous) person from having friendships with the good as their object? (See also 1158a24-26: the blessedly happy need sources of pleasure, and so look for it in their friends.)

Friends must live together, or they really only have goodwill (1157b19-24). Julia Annas argues that this notion of friendship is too narrow to go along with the list of people that Aristotle says are friends. For example, I am supposed to be friends with my ruler; but I can't live with him.

But this can be easily interpreted. I live in the same house or on the same block with my friends-in-virtue. But George Bush is a friend-in-utility. I live with Bush, but I don't need to see him every day; Washington, D.C. is close enough. Recall that Aristotle says friendship is a source of concord that holds cities (and, presumably, countries) together (1155a23-26); surely there is no reason to suppose that this kind of friendship is the mutual based-on-love-of-the-good kind.

True friendship is not something you can engage in with more than a couple of people. Complete friendship is "like an excess, and an excess is naturally directed at a single individual," and you can't please a lot of people all at once (1158a11-14).

The very best friendships are characterized by an equal exchange. But the exchange is unequal when the friendship is between non-equals. And "when the loving reflects the comparative worth of the friends, equality is achieved in a way, and this seems to be proper to friendship" (1158b24-33). [Here is another surprise for the reader who thinks Aristotle is an altruist: the person who is rightly loved more is the one who has more to begin with, either of wealth, power, age, virtue, or the right sex--not the one who needs it more; nor it the case that both just pour out all the love they can must simply for the sake of the other person.] And it is the degree of friendship which determines what is just. The closer the friends, the more carefully must the claims of justice be attended to.

One of the problems that Aristotle is trying to solve with all this is from the Lysis, according to Julia Annas: Why does the good person need friends? The good person is complete; friends are of no use to him, since he has no deficiencies to fill.

Aristotle's answer is that there are different kinds of friendship: the good, the useful, and the pleasant are the objects, respectively, of these three. But the paradigm case of friendship is the one which has the good as its object. The other two are called friendship in virtue of their similarity to the central case.

The friendship which has the good as its object as based on the character of each partner, rather than on utility or pleasure. A friendship based on utility might occur between two business partners; such a friendship would dissolve if the business were to fold (1157a15-16). A friendship based on pleasure might exist between two people who find each other physically attractive--and end when the initial thrill wears off (1157a710). But virtuous character is more stable (1156b12)(in most cases), and is hence more durable. Furthermore, this is the most complete, because such friendships involve love of each person in himself, for who he is (1156a10-14). However, these may dissolve too, if someone's character changes. The better partner should try to save the other one; but if he can't he should leave him (1165b12-31).

The reasons that one needs friendships of utility and pleasure are self-evident. But we must note well the reasons that Aristotle offers for thinking that the good man cannot hope for eudaimonia in the absence of friendship based on character. These reasons are important because they forestall one of Annas's criticisms of the Ethics, and, much more interestingly, help to highlight the basis of Aristotle's moral theory. The reasons occur at 1169b8-1170b25:

A person may have all of these reasons for behaving in a certain way toward people and still not be involved in true friendship. Friendship implies mutual liking ("Hence, [to be friends] they must have goodwill to each other, wish goods and be aware of it..."(1156a35)). No matter how much he loves some person, he and that person can only be friends if the object of his love loves him too.

Socrates had thought that friendship is a desire to fill some sort of deficiency. But Aristotle does not agree. The only deficiency that is to be filled is the lack of friends. In fact, the more deficient a person is, the less capable of friendship he will be. The reason is that only the good are really capable of the central case of friendship. Plato, in the Lysis, thinks that the bad, being always at variance with themselves, cannot be at unity with anyone else either. But being friends requires being like another person (See Annas, p. 541; and Plato, 214c-d).

Aristotle seems to have accepted this analysis, and augmented it with an explanation of just how to understand friendship with one's neighbors. He says,

The defining features of friendship that are found in friendship to one's neighbors would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself (1166a1-3).

He then goes on to list the features of a good man's relation to himself. The good man is someone who

Annas thinks that Aristotle does not find his derivation of friendship from self-love to be intuitively plausible (Annas, p.540). Why does she think this? And why does she say that the appeal to a person's internal consistency can help Aristotle's argument?

It's puzzling that she cites the passage from the Lysis that dispels any doubts, and yet continues to doubt. Plato says,

...the good are like and friendly with the good, but the bad, as is remarked of them in another place, are not ever even like themselves, but are variable and not to be reckoned upon. And if a thing be unlike and at variance with itself, it will be long, I take it, before it becomes like or friendly with anything else (Lysis, 214c-d).

Only the good are consistent. Only the consistent can be like. Only the like can be friends either with themselves or with others. And real friendship, according to Aristotle, occurs only among the good. It may be helpful here to add that life is choiceworthy in itself, and that's why one acts on one's own behalf. The internally inconsistent person can find life choiceworthy; but in acting, he must act on the behalf of a whole bunch of different "selves" whose interests conflict, so he must perform the act of self-preservation and self-benefit very poorly.

This will give us all the more reason to think that the true definition of friendship must be understood in terms of the good person's relationship to himself, rather than just anybody's relationship to himself. So talking about friendship must involve talking about good people.

Maybe Annas's problem with Aristotle's derivation of philia-to-others from philia-to-self stems from the reading she gives the word 'derivation'. I offer three possible ways to understand what is going on at 1166al-1166bl.

  1. Is other-love derived from self-love because I must love myself before I can love others? To really love myself(objectively speaking), I must be internally consistent. Otherwise, I love one "person" at one time and hate her at another. But friendship is constant. Could this philia-to-self as precondition for philia-to-others be the sense of derivation that Aristotle has in mind?
  2. Or does Aristotle have a definition in mind? For example, "A friend is someone who is almost myself." Since I have a certain relation to myself, to have a friend is to have a relation to someone else that is just like or very like my relation to myself.
  3. Or is this a conceptual aid? For example, if I feel about someone the way I feel about myself, then that person is my friend. A person who is internally inconsistent feels differently about herself at different times, and has mixed feelings about herself at some given time. Certainly I can feel this way about someone else, but it was assumed at the outset that I feel consistent feelings about myself because I am good. Thus, in the case where my feelings about another are as mixed as those toward myself, I have no friend.

Charles Kahn casts further doubt on Annas's assessment of Aristotle's derivation as incomprehensible by offering three more interpretations. On one interpretation, feelings of self-love are primitive, psychologically primary. We come to project our own interests onto others who are special to us. On a second interpretation, self-interest is rationally prior and factually more frequent. Egoism is a more reasonable theory; it helps to explain how people are motivated to act altruistically. And on a third interpretation, friendship includes a self-regarding motivation. It is this last that Kahn chooses. I'll discuss the ramifications of this interpretation later. Right now, I want to look at Annas's assessment of Aristotle's solution to Plato's problem in the Lysis.

So it seems to me that there are a couple of plausible interpretations of the derivability of philia-to-others from philia-to-self. But Annas, being unable to see the plausibility of the derivation, concentrates on the second argument that philia-to-others is derived from philia-to-self. According to this argument, the good person does good things for himself simply because it is himself. This is the purest case of wanting something for someone purely for that person's sake. But a person can also regard someone else's desires as being as important as his own. This is possible because one can regard someone else as "another himself."

Annas is not pleased with the solution. In finding that a person's wanting something for the sake of someone else can be explained by the primary case of wanting something for oneself simply because it is oneself, "Aristotle might well be thought to make egoistic desires conceptually prior after all, because altruistic desires only enter in as a matter of psychological fact" (Annas, p. 543). The primary case of desiring good to someone for that person's sake is the one in which a person desires something for himself.

This is in fact meant to be an objection to the solution that Aristotle offers. I fail to see the force of it. Aristotle explains wanting good for the friend for the friend's sake by saying that a friend is another self, and one naturally wants what is good for oneself simply because it is oneself and one's life is choiceworthy.

Given that Annas notes herself that Aristotle has not offered any defense of the possibility of altruism (Annas, p. 543), should she not be suspicious of the claim that Aristotle is an altruist? I'd like to take up this issue in detail in my final paper.

There is one final complaint from Annas that I want to consider. Annas says that Aristotle's analysis of friendship is inadequate, because we often like people of whom we disapprove strongly (Annas, p. 549).

It is easy to field this one for Aristotle. He would say that such a pair are not friends. He might allow that we can like such people; but he would not allow that it is mutual liking, because bad people are too internally inconsistent to like anyone. Furthermore, Annas's claim that such pairings are instances of friendship is opposed to what we usually hear people say: "I like the work that person does, but we could never be friends, because he is dishonest (is a lush, is a hustler, has no self-respect, etc.)" It seems that we can call people 'friends' even when we disapprove of their actions only because of the good we see in them: "You don't know what he's really like because you only see the harsh part--but he is quite brave in a rough situation." And, although these people are not friends in the truest sense, still they might be considered friends in one of the derivative senses--but they probably won't remain friends for long.

I'll wrap up with a comment on Kahn's interpretation of the derivation of philia-to-others from philia-to-self. This interpretation takes the undifferentiatedness of nous to be the basis of the possibility of friendship. Aristotle identifies the core of one's personality with one's thinking part. The self is nous. The good person recognizes this and loves his nous.

Nous is its true self when separated. So it is not essentially differentiated, even when connected with several mortal psyches. That means that my nous is really identical with everyone else's. So in loving my nous, I love everyone else's.

The obvious problem with this interpretation is that it cannot account for Aristotle's blatant favoritism for friends over strangers. What could possibly be the difference? Either everyone is everyone else's friend, or only good people' nous are identical with each other. The former is unsupported by the text; the latter is inconsistent with the metaphysics. (Note well that this nonsense is the result of Kahn's attempt to read altruism into Aristotle.)

Essay 1: Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics || Essay 3: Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


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