Aristotle on Friendship (Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics)

After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends?

Other than this, friendship protects prosperity, is a refuge in poverty and misfortune, keeps the young from error, assists the elderly, and stimulates to noble actions those in the prime of life. Friendship deepens thought and reinforces action. Parent feels it for offspring and offspring for parent, not only among men but also among most animals. It holds states together, and lawgivers care more for it than for justice. People who are friends have no need for justice, but people who are just need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is a friendly quality. Friendship is not only necessary but noble, and it is those with the greatest virtue who are friends most of all. Some philosophers say that friendship is a kind of likeness, others say the opposite. But is there only one type of friendship?

This question may be cleared up by identifying the object of love. There are three grounds upon which a person might wish another well, who, to be truly a friend, must both recognise and reciprocate this well-wishing: that he is useful, that he is pleasant, or that he is good. These reasons differ from one another in kind, and it follows that so do the corresponding forms of love and friendship. Yet, only those who love each other because they are good love each other for themselves, whereas friendships that are founded on usefulness or pleasure are only incidental, and are easily dissolved if one or both parties ceases to be useful or pleasant. These break ups are made more difficult if one or both parties has misrepresented himself or has been misled into thinking that he is loved for himself rather than for some incidental attribute. After a break up, each party should retain some consideration for the other in honour of their former friendship. Friendships that are founded on usefulness are particularly frequent in the elderly, and those on pleasure in the young. As the young are both pleasure seeking and dominated by their emotions, they quickly fall in and out of love, changing often within a single day.

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good – and goodness is an enduring thing.

The good are not only good to each other, but also useful and pleasant, and this without qualification. It follows that love and friendship are to be found most and in their best form between such virtuous people. Unfortunately, such perfect friendships are as rare as virtuous people themselves, and require a lot of time and familiarity, for people cannot know and trust each other until, as the proverb says, they have eaten salt together. A wish for friendship may arise quickly, but perfect friendship itself does not, and then only in those who are loveable and who are conscious of this fact. In loving his friend, a person loves both the friend and that which is good for him personally, and this need not involve any contradiction. Thus, the person wishes the same things for himself and for his friend, and shares in the same joys and sorrows. He makes an equal return in goodwill and pleasantness, in accordance with the saying that friendship is equality.

There are some relationships, such as those between older and younger or ruler and subject, in which there is a clear inequality between the parties. In such unequal relationships, each party makes a different return according to the nature of the relationship. For instance, a father renders one thing to his son, and the son renders another, equally appropriate, thing to his father. At the same time, the son should love his father more than his father loves him, and in proportion to his superior merit – thereby re-establishing a sort of equality. If, however, persons are vastly unequal in virtue or in wealth or in anything else, then they cannot be friends, and men of no account do not expect to be friends with the best or wisest men.

Most people prefer to be loved rather than to love because they are avid of flattery. However, friendship depends more on loving than on being loved, and an enduring friendship requires due measures of loving. Like loves like, and this is especially true in the case of virtue, for virtuous people hold fast to each other, and neither go wrong nor let their friend go wrong. Wicked people on the other hand do not even remain like to themselves, let alone to each other, and become friends only for a short time so as to delight in each other’s wickedness.

Just as friendship binds together individuals, so justice binds together communities. Friendship is closely related to justice, and the demands of justice increase with the strength of a friendship. For this reason, it is more terrible to defraud a friend than a citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else. At the same time, the friendship of kindred and that of citizens should be marked off from the rest on the grounds that they rely on a sort of compact and are therefore more like mere friendships of association.

There are three kinds of constitution, monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy or polity, monarchy being the best kind and timocracy the worst. Their respective perversions are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, in which privileges are not extended according to merit and rulers look after their own interest rather than the common interest. Of the perversions, tyranny is the worst and democracy is the least bad, with the result that the perversion of the best is the worst and that of the worst is the best. The relationship between father and son is analogous to monarchy, that between man and wife to aristocracy, and that between brothers to timocracy. If these relationships become devoid of friendship or justice, they descend into the perversions of the constitutions to which they are analogous.

Complaints and reproaches tend to arise in the friendship of utility, since those who are friends on the ground of pleasure both get at the same time that which they desire, and those who are friends on the ground of virtue are anxious to do well by each other. Differences also tend to arise in friendships of superior and inferior, for each expects to get more out of the other, and the friendship ends up being dissolved. The better or more useful person expects that he should get more, or else he feels less like he is being a friend and more like he is performing an act of public service. The more needy or inferior person also thinks that he should get more, reasoning that there is otherwise no use in being the friend of a good or powerful person. Each party is justified in his claim, and each should get more out of the friendship than the other – but not of the same thing. The superior person should get more honour, and the inferior person more gain. However, it is often the case that a benefactor loves his beneficiary more than his beneficiary loves him in return because it is more pleasurable to give than to receive and because the benefactor is in some sense responsible for ‘creating’ the beneficiary, much like an artist creates a work of art. It is preferable to have a small number of meaningful friendships than many superficial ones. A virtuous person may be self-sufficient, yet he will seek out friends, for friendship is one of the greatest goods in life.

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