Aristotle's Ethics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Ethics: Book 9

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In this book Aristotle discusses the fundamental importance of friendship to human beings as social beings. Even if a man possessed all the benefits of wealth, fame, virtue and so on, he would still not lead a happy life without friends.


As for conflicts between friends Aristotle argues that these usually develop when one person thinks that what he is receiving is not equal to what he’s giving. However, when a friendship is based on virtue, on character, things are given for the sake of the other person and the return is made according to the choice of the receiver, which may not be of equal value. In this relationship what is given and received is on a disinterested basis and, therefore, the friendship is more lasting.


In other friendships, where things are given with the expectation of return, the best solution is that the estimate of value should be left to the recipient to decide what is fair, but the price should be fixed not at the level after he received it, but at the level he thought it was worth before he got it. Still, we are not obliged to return the same in all cases, not even a father is entitled to everything. Parents, brothers, comrades and benefactors all have different claims on us, therefore, we must render to each class of benefactors their special and appropriate service. 


The problem is whether or not to break off a friendship with those who don’t remain the same as they were. Friendships based on usefulness and pleasure are broken off when a person changes in such a way as to render the relationship no longer useful or pleasurable. But, if a good man makes friends with someone on the assumption that he is good and then he turns out to be a villain, he shouldn’t immediately break off the friendship. If the person’s depravity is curable, he ought to help him, but, if he is beyond help and his depravity is incurable, it is fine to end it. If one of the parties improves and becomes far superior to the other in virtue, there will no longer be a basis for genuine friendship. Still, the superior friend should retain the memory of their former intimacy and show consideration for him.


Friendly feelings and the different kinds of friendship seem to develop out of the feelings we have towards ourselves. A good man is completely integrated, wishing for himself things with every part of his soul. He wishes and brings about things that are good for him for his own sake. He likes his own company and enjoys being with himself. Because of these feelings for himself, a good man extends them to a friend: a true friend is another self, so friendship is a kind of self-love. In contrast, bad people are in conflict with themselves, not in harmony. They desire one thing and will another: they choose harmful pleasures instead of what they believe to be good. They seek constant companionship to escape their own company, because they are full of bad memories and regrets. Possessing no lovable quality, they have no affection for themselves. 


Goodwill is similar to friendship but not identical. It is the beginning of friendship to which it can lead if the goodwill persists and familiarity develops. But it can never be friendship on the basis of usefulness and pleasure, because these never arouse goodwill. In general goodwill arises from seeing some merit or goodness in the other person. 


Concord is a mark of friendship, but it means more than just agreement about something. It is a form of friendship between citizens of a state, because it’s concerned with important practical things, like their interests and living conditions. It is the mark of good men because they share the same outlook and wish what is good for each other. But it is rare that bad men share this: they want more than their share of advantages and end up in discord. While they each want advantages for themselves, they keep a wary eye on their neighbour and restrain him. 


Benefactors are thought to love those whom they have benefited more than the beneficiaries like the benefactors. A benefactor loves the person he has benefited because that person is his own handiwork and, like an artist or poet, he loves his work more than the work loves him. What’s more, loving is an active experience while being loved is passive, therefore, love and friendly feelings are attributes of those who take the leading part in the action. So a person is bound to be fonder of something he has put effort into acquiring than if he’s just received it.  


But how far and with what justification may a man love himself? We tend to be critical of those who love themselves most and we commend those who disregard their own good for the sake of a friend. However, these arguments are not borne out by the facts. We say that a man should love his best friend most, but a man’s best friend is the one who not only wishes him well, but wishes it for his own sake and this condition is best fulfilled by his attitude towards himself. All friendly feelings for others are extensions of a man’s feelings for himself. A man is his own best friend.


The conflict of opinion occurs when we use the term ‘self-lover’ to mean someone who tries to get more than his share to gratify his desires and the irrational part of his soul. In this sense the reproach is just. Yet a genuine self-lover is someone who performs just and virtuous acts, always insists on acting honorably and is ruled by the rational part of the soul. After all, an individual is his reason, so a self-lover is by definition someone whose reason is in control. What’s more, our reasoned acts are in the fullest sense voluntary, therefore, a good man loves his reason more than anything else. A self-lover in the commendable sense is as superior to one in the reproachful sense as a life ruled by reason is to a life ruled by feeling.


A good man is a self-lover because he will do what is beneficial to himself by performing good acts that help others. But a bad man will injure himself and his neighbours by giving way to his base feelings. For the bad man what he ought to do conflicts with what he does; whereas a good man does what he ought to do. Intelligence always chooses what’s best for itself and the good man is always guided by his intelligence. He performs acts for his friends and his country, even sacrificing his life and turning his back on wealth for the sake of what is good.


But the problem that many see is that the perfectly happy man has no need of friends, because he has all that he needs. However, friends are the greatest of external goods. Besides a good man looks to confer benefits on others – doing good is a characteristic of virtue and a good man – and it is better to do kindness to a friend than a stranger. Therefore, he will need friends to confer benefits on. Moreover, man is by nature sociable, so nobody would choose to have all the good things in life and not have friends.


The reason we are inclined to support this view is that as a truly happy man has all he needs that might be useful and pleasurable, he seems he has no need of friends. But a truly happy man does not seek friends for the sake of usefulness and pleasure. Happiness is a kind of activity, not a possession, and the happiness of a good man is taking pleasure in what is honorable and good. It follows that he will surround himself with friends who are good men so that he can contemplate their good and honorable acts. He takes pleasure in the work of a good man, just as he takes pleasure in his own good works. A good friend is by nature desirable to a good man, because what is by nature good is in itself good and pleasant to the good man. The existence of a friend is almost as desirable as his own.


We need friends in times of prosperity and adversity. Friends are a necessity in times of adversity, but it is more honorable to be a friend in prosperity, because in times of adversity friendship is based on usefulness, while in prosperity it is based on virtue. A strong willed man avoids involving his friends in his troubles, because he can’t stand the thought of causing them distress. But weaker men and women enjoy sharing their troubles with others. Therefore, we should invite our friends to share in our successes, but be reluctant to have them share in our misfortunes.


The best time to ask for help from friends is when it seems they are most likely to do you a favor without significant cost to themselves. On the other hand, it is best to visit and to do a kindness to friends who are suffering misfortune without waiting to be invited, because such kindness is more creditable and more pleasurable to both parties. In all cases, friends are needed and their presence is creditable.  


But friends need to see a lot of each other, largely because a man stands in relation to his friends as he does to himself and since the awareness of his own existence is desirable, his friends’ existence is the same. They share in the same pursuits and hobbies that define their existence and make life worth living. Thus the friendship of worthless men has a bad effect as that of good men has a good effect. Worthless men engage in worthless pursuits and become worse through each other’s influence. But friendship between good men helps them become better, improving each other. The traits they admire in each other get transferred to themselves.




We began the summary of this book by pointing out that Aristotle places a great deal of importance on friendship, because it fulfils a vital social purpose.

But on the face of it, as Aristotle suggests, it appears that a good man is self-sufficient and, therefore, has no need of friends. He enjoys his own company and has everything he needs to lead a happy and fulfilling life. But a good man is good not just because he does good, but because he wishes good, particularly for his friends. Genuine friendship is based on virtue and wishing what is good for friends.


In Aristotelian terms this means helping them become good and honorable people, performing good and honorable acts. In this way a friend helps his friend become virtuous and, as a result, as he becomes more virtuous he achieves genuine happiness. For this reason friendship based on usefulness and pleasure is not really genuine friendship, because this type of friend seeks not the good for his friends but what is pleasurable and useful respectively.


Given this, it’s not difficult to see why Aristotle believes friendship plays such an important social role. It brings concord, rather than discord, to societies built on interpersonal relationships, in which citizens wish only what is good for their fellow citizens. Friendship is the mark of good men because they share the same outlook and wish what is good for each other. In effect a friend is another self. It follows, therefore, that in a genuine friendship one friend wishes and helps the other achieve what he wishes for himself: a life of virtue and, therefore, happiness. By contrast, it is rare for bad men to share the same commitment. They want more than their share of advantages and end up in discord with others. Keeping a wary eye on their neighbours, they seek to maximize any advantage to themselves. 


Friendship between bad men, predictably, has the opposite effect to that between good men. As a friend is another self, he provides an invaluable way for the good man to see himself more objectively, so he can grow in self-knowledge and virtue as a result. But for bad men the opposite is true. As they engage in worthless activities they become worthless as a result under each other’s influence. While good men become better under their mutual influence bad men become worse. The bad man will injure himself and his neighbours by giving way to his base feelings. For the bad man what he ought to do conflicts with what he does; whereas a good man does what he ought to do. Intelligence always chooses what’s best for itself and the good man is always guided by his intelligence.


So while the good man has integrated his self by bringing the lower parts of his soul into harmony with his intellect, the bad man is at war with himself. While the good man shows self-love in the best sense of the word, wanting what is genuinely good for himself, the bad man desires one thing and wills another: he chooses harmful pleasures instead of what he believes to be good. He seeks constant companionship to escape his own company, because he is full of bad memories and regrets. Possessing no lovable quality, he has no affection for himself. 


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