Aristotle's Ethics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Ethics: Book 8

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In this and the next book Aristotle explores the nature and importance of friendship. He begins by describing how important it is. Friendship is a virtue or at least it implies a virtue. It is a necessity of life: no-one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all the other good things of life. It is also important in binding communities together. Indeed lawmakers attach more importance to it than justice. Between friends there is no need of justice, but those who are just still need friendship, indeed friendship is considered to be justice in the fullest sense. Moreover, people think that good men and friends are the same thing. But can friendship occur between all kinds of people or is it impossible for bad men to be friends?


There are three varieties or species of friendship corresponding to the good, pleasant and useful. In the cases of people being liked for their usefulness or the pleasure they can bring, they are not liked for themselves. These are accidental friendships: they are not liked for their nature, but because they can provide some benefit or pleasure. Therefore such friendships are easily dissolved.


Perfect friendship occurs between good men who are similar in their goodness. Those who desire good for their friends for their friend’s sake are true friends. As such the friendship tends to be long-lasting – as long as they remain good and goodness is an enduring quality. This type of friendship is permanent, because in it are united all the attributes that friends ought to possess: the friends are not only good, but their friendship is beneficial and pleasant and, therefore, they unite the three reasons for friendship. Only the friendship between good men can be based on friendship for its own sake. Bad people take no pleasure in each other, unless there’s a chance of some benefit.


So, friendship in the truest sense is only between good men. What is lovable and desirable is in general and for the individual that which is absolutely good or pleasant. The good man is liked by another on both of these grounds. When people wish what is good for those they love for their own sake, it is not from a mere feeling, but in accordance with a moral state, because mutual affection involves choice and choice develops out of a moral state. When a good man becomes a friend, he becomes the other’s good. Each loves their own good and reciprocates by giving the other pleasure and wishing the good for the other.


Friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection, as is the case of a mother’s love for her child, even though the child might show no response. So as friendship seems to depend more on loving than being loved, it seems that loving is the distinctive virtue of friends. When love is given in accordance with merit, friendships endure. This condition allows friendship between unequals, because their inequality can be compensated as a result of it.


Still, the basis for friendship is equal treatment, so a good friend is not just clear about the high standards he expects from himself, but also from his friend. Good men don’t allow themselves to go wrong and, similarly, will not allow their friends to go wrong either. But bad men tend to have short friendships based on enjoying each other’s bad ways. The friendships based on usefulness and pleasure are more durable, but they only last as long as the relationship is useful and pleasant. Friendship based on usefulness seem to occur mainly between opposite types (rich/poor, ignorant/educated, handsome/ugly), because each one is eager to secure what he lacks in himself.


Friendship and justice are concerned with the same people and the same sphere of conduct. The degree of injustice done to another person and the level of their friendship depends upon the community, the association, of which they are members. They differ in degree as to whether they are members of the same association. The duties that comrades share with one another are not the same as for fellow citizens.


In the same way wrongs committed against different types of friends differ. They are more serious in proportion to the degree of intimacy between them. The claims of justice increase with the intensity of friendship. Political associations are formed for the advantages they bring to their members. Other associations are aimed at more specific advantages. All these associations are part of the political community and friendships correspond to these limited associations.


There are three kinds of political constitution and three corruptions that correspond to them. The constitutions are monarchy, aristocracy and timocracy (rule by property owners). The best of these is monarchy, the worst timocracy. The corruption of monarchy is tyranny, in which the tyrant pursues his own interests, rather than that of his subjects as a monarch does. The change in aristocracy is to timocracy, because corrupt ministers distribute the resources of the state and public appointments amongst themselves and not according to merit, because their main concern is wealth. A few bad men, rather than the best, hold power. From timocracy the change is to democracy, where all who satisfy the property qualification are equal. The least bad is democracy.


The quality of friendship in these relations varies with their nature. In each type of constitution there is friendship to the same extent as there is justice. A king’s friendship and justice for his subjects consists of his outstanding beneficence in wanting good for them. Justice is not the same on both sides, but in accordance with merit. In aristocracies the relationship is by virtue of superiority based on merit and the claims of justice are also met in this way. In timocracies ideally citizens are equal, they hold office in turn and, consequently, their friendship is conducted on the same basis.


However, in the corruptions of these constitutions friendship, like justice, is little found. In tyranny there is little or no friendship, because there is nothing in common between the ruler and the ruled. The relationship is like that between a craftsman and his tools. But friendship is most commonly found in democracies, where citizens, being equal, have much in common.


Those whose friendship is based on equality should contribute equal amounts of love in their relationship and those whose friendship is based on superiority should love each other proportionately to such superiority. Complaints and recriminations occur mostly in friendships based on usefulness, because each one is only using the other for their own benefit, whereas in those based on goodness partners are eager to benefit each other. The same can be said for friendships based on pleasure, because both are getting what they want if they enjoy each other’s company. 


Friendship based on usefulness can be ethical or legal. The latter are formed on the basis of specified forms of exchange, while ethical ones have no such clear terms of reciprocity in what is expected from each partner. A person should consider at the outset by whom is the service being done and on what terms, so that he can agree to abide by it or decline it.


But the question arises whether in estimating a service and making a repayment one should regard the benefit of the recipient or the generosity of the donor. In friendship based on usefulness the standard should be the benefit of the recipient, because he makes the request and the other supplies it expecting equal in return. In friendship based on goodness such complaints don’t arise, because it is the intention of the giver to benefit the recipient without reward. The measure of the benefit is the intention of the giver. Intention is the decisive factor in matters of virtue and character.


In friendship based on superiority disagreements arise because the superior person thinks he should receive more, because of his superiority, and the inferior one thinks he should receive more, because of his greater need. But in fact both are right and it’s possible to pay both their due although in different terms. The superior person should receive more honor and the needy more material gain. Honor is the reward for virtue and beneficence, whereas the remedy for need is material gain.


In public office it’s not possible to make money out of public funds and to receive public honor at the same time. Therefore, in associations of unequal friends the party who benefits should repay the superior party in honor, making such payment as is in his power. Friendship asks only for what is practicable, not for what’s in accordance with merit, because this would be impossible in some cases, like a child honoring his or her parent. Nobody could possibly give them what they deserve.




The important principle that underlies Aristotle’s account of friendship is that in genuine friendship each party views the other as their second self, so that what they wish for themselves they wish for the other person and what they admire in the other person they would most like to emulate. Moreover, what each gives to the relationship they give without thought of reciprocation, but simply for the benefit of the other. For this reason friendship could be regarded as a type of virtue, in that as virtuous behavior makes us more virtuous, so friendship improves us in the same way.


But not all friendship is like this. He describes three types: that which is based on utility, on pleasure and on the good. Whereas friendship based on the good has as its only concern the goodness, character and well-being of the other person, the type of friendship based on utility has no regard for the other person at all. This is the lowest and least enduring of the three types. The friendship will end as soon as either party is no longer useful to the other. Predictably, complaints and recriminations are a notable characteristic of this type of friendship.


As for the second type of friendship, although this is an improvement on those formed on the basis of utility, the aim is still mainly selfish. Such friendships are based on the enjoyment experienced by the friends from each other’s company. They may share interests or go to the same clubs. Although this tends to be more durable than those based on utility, they only endure as long as each person shares the same interests or enjoys going to the same places.


Aristotle concludes that it is possible for bad men to have these sorts of friendships, but only good men can have friendships based on the good. As each friend enjoys the other’s character and not just their company, or their shared interests, their friendship will last much longer. The distinguishing characteristic of this type is the motive that lies behind it. Each friend only wants good for their friend and is prepared to help the other in attaining it.


One of the most interesting things about this book is what Aristotle has to say about friendship and justice. In Book 5 you’ll remember Aristotle claimed that justice in its broadest sense is the fullest expression and the unity of all the virtues. Yet in this book he argues that friendship goes beyond justice. For one thing, it is important in binding communities together. In his discussion of the different types of government he argues that the more just the regime the more friendship will there be between the people binding them into a community. Consequently, lawmakers attach more importance to friendship than justice. Indeed, he maintains that where there is friendship there is no need of justice, yet when there is justice there is still a need for friendship.


One part of the explanation, of course, is that a genuine friendship founded on the good involves good men, in other words they are already just men. Beyond this, he argues that friendship offers us even more than justice. In a genuine friendship each friend loves the other for their own sake. A good friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection. While justice insists on reciprocity, genuine friends are happy to give what they can, regardless of what they receive in return. 


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