Aristotle and Friendship


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I We know that Aristotle thinks that
(a) the good life consists in excellent, distinctively human activity,
(b) such activity involves character and an ideal of what is noble and worth
doing for its own sake, and
(c) that this activity is (deeply) enjoyable and satisfying because in so acting,
the virtuous person is doing just what she wants to be doing.

II In Books VIII and IX, Aristotle discusses the role of friendship in the good life.
From what has been said so far, it is clear that he must think there is an intimate link
between friendship and virtuous activity. What does Aristotle think friendship is
such that it is so closely tied to the virtuous activity in which a good life consists?

III As usual, Aristotle begins with consensus among thoughtful people. The
indispensable value of friendship is not in dispute: “without friends no one would
choose to live, though he had all other goods.” (1155a5) So it is agreed that
friendship is an ineliminable part of a good human life. But, again, what is
friendship that it is so valuable? And, more specifically, how does this truth fit with
Aristotle’s doctrine that the good life consists of virtuous activity?

IV Aristotle distinguishes three kinds of friendship:
a. relationships of mutual utility or advantage,
b. relationships of mutual pleasure,
c. relationships of mutual love essentially including esteem of the other’s
character.
He says only the third is a friendship in the most genuine and noble sense.
Now the claim that genuine friends are characterized by esteem of each other’s
character may seem odd at first. We may be apt to think of friends as caring about
each other in a way that is not obviously related to character. I want my friends to
flourish for their own sake. What is the relation between a mutual desire for the
other’s flourishing and mutual esteem of character?

V Aristotle argues that only in a relation of mutual esteem between virtuous people:
a. does each love the other “as being the man he is” (1156a20) as opposed
to as a source of advantage or pleasure,
b. will the relationship endure, independently of the vagaries of fluctuating
circumstance, mood, etc. (1156b1)
c. is the relationship reciprocal in the best sense, since “each gets from each
in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives.

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” (1156b34)
d. is the essence of friendship loving rather than being loved (1159a20)

VI This may be true, given the three alternatives that Aristotle outlines, but we might
again ask. Isn’t there a form of mutual concern for the other for his or her own sake
that is different from love of that person’s character? Why does Aristotle think that
friendship essentially involves love of character?

VIII To answer this question, we should first recall that Aristotle thinks a flourishing
life essentially involves character and virtuous activity. So if we wish our friends
well, for their own sake, we wish them a life of virtuous activity. Of course, this just
means that we want our friends to be virtuous, for their own sake, not that friendship
itself consists in love of the other’s virtue. What if the other isn’t virtuous. Does this
mean that we can’t be his friend? Why does Aristotle think so?

IX Let’s come at this from a different direction: What it is about friendship between
the virtuous that makes it particularly valuable? Start with Aristotle’s claim that
virtuous activity is both noble (valuable or estimable) in itself and distinctively
beneficial for the virtuous person. Now consider, what about loving and actively
appreciating what has merit or worth (is noble)? Does this have merit also? If so,
then friends share and amplify the value of virtuous activity. Each admires the virtue
of the other, and because this is virtuous also, it adds value. Each also admires the
other’s admiring of his virtue. And so on. The indefinitely ramifying love of
virtuous activity adds a mutually resonating value as each reflects back the value of
the other and is, in turn, the object of resonating valuable attitudes.

X As an example, consider the case, described by Oliver Sacks, “idiot savant” twins
with a remarkable friendship based on the contemplation of the beauty of prime
numbers.

XI The important point about the distinctive form of friendship that Aristotle
describes seems to be that it is the only form in which people are able genuinely to
share what, if Aristotle is right, is most valuable in life—virtuous activity. We can,
of course, wish well those people we don’t esteem, but can we share (the most)
valuable activity with them? Since the most valuable activity involves virtues, only
the virtuous can share it. It follows that this form of friendship is distinctively
integral to a good life.

XII Consider in this light Aristotle’s remarks in IX.4 that only a good person can
really be friend to himself as well as to others.
“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.”
(1166a 23)
“he has, so to speak, nothing to regret” (1166a 25)
“wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun
themselves.” (1166b18)
“the bad man does not seem to be amicably disposed even to himself”
(1166b25)

XIII Consider also Aristotle’s claim (IX.12) that living together is essential to
friendship..

XIV This may still seem problematic. Does it make friendship simply into a mutual
admiration society? Don’t friends care about each other as individuals, not simply
sterling qualities they see in each other? Is what friends share just their appreciation
of virtue?
An Aristotelian reply?: valuable friendship brings its own distinctive virtues.
It doesn’t just involve the appreciation of other virtues and values. Friends take
satisfaction in their loyalty, trust, etc. These are individual-regarding virtues, but
their being virtues is essential to the value of the relationship.


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