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Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Book VIII

Book VII

Book IX

Friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary

Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.

Justice and friendship are closely connected, as both tie communities together. Since justice, friendship, and community are closely related, it is far worse to abuse a close friend or family member than it is to abuse a stranger.

There are three kinds of political constitution: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy. Tyranny is the corruption of monarchy, where the tyrant looks out for his own interest rather than that of his subjects. Oligarchy is a perversion of aristocracy, and democracy is a perversion of timocracy, but neither is as bad as tyranny. Monarchy is analogous to the father-son relationship, aristocracy to the husband-wife relationship, and timocracy to the relationship between brothers. Corrupt political institutions are like those relationships where no friendship exists, as in the master-slave relationship.

Problems between friends occur most frequently within friendships based on utility. On the whole, the person who receives a service, and not the giver, should determine the value of that service. In unequal friendship, it is important that each person receive an appropriate benefit. A poor person cannot give money to a rich benefactor, but can give whatever honor is within the poor person’s means.

Analysis

In discussing friendship, Aristotle seems intent on discussing every kind of interpersonal relationship and deals at some length with family relationships and political institutions. Nonetheless, his model of ideal friendship is that which exists between two aristocratic men of great virtue. These men are not bonded together through need, utility, or familial duty, but rather through mutual respect and virtue.

Aristotle explains that friendship is the act of loving rather than the act of being loved. It is important that friendship be active, since Aristotle treats friendship as an energeia, akin to pleasure and happiness. Friendship is one of the essential components of the good life, and the value of friendship is in having and enjoying it.

While we in the modern world certainly place a high premium on friendship, it carries far more importance for Aristotle. Flipping through modern works on ethics, it would be difficult to find an extended discussion of friendship at all, let alone a discussion that occupies one-fifth of an exhaustive treatment of the subject, as Aristotle’s does. Friendship no longer carries significant philosophical importance to us because we live in a world where individualism predominates. While most of us are not singlemindedly selfish, we generally assume that we each choose our own path in life, which is defined by a personal set of goals and values. Friends are a help and a comfort along the way, but we cannot expect them to share all our goals and values.

Aristotle’s worldview is significantly different because he thinks of human life as having a telos, or end goal, toward which it is heading. In Aristotle’s world, city-states are tightly knit communities where no strong distinction exists between public and private life. All citizens share the same goals and values, so the pursuit of happiness is a cooperative enterprise.

The close connection between friendship, the community, and the individual explains why we find a discussion of political constitutions in the middle of Book VIII. According to Aristotle, citizens should not cooperate simply because the laws compel them to. Rather, they should cooperate out of a friendly feeling that comes from sharing their lives and goals with one another. His analogies between political relationships and family relationships are not simply metaphorical: both should be determined primarily by love and duty. Laws exist only as safeguards for when the appropriate friendly feelings break down.

Aristotle discusses political constitutions in much greater detail in the Politics, which does not agree entirely with his assessment in the Ethics. In that work, he describes oligarchy as the corrupt form of aristocracy, and he is not so firm in his claim that monarchy is superior to aristocracy and timocracy.

Timocracy, which in the Politics is called a polity or constitutional government, derives its name from the Greek word teme, meaning property qualification. The idea is that all citizens with a minimal property qualification have equal rights. This is roughly the form of government that existed in Athens.

Monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy are all considered to be good forms of government because they all extend privileges according to merit. In a monarchy, the king is of more noble stature than any of his subjects, and so he has every right to govern absolutely so long as he cares for them. An aristocracy consists of a small ruling elite who again are the most noble, and a timocracy also proffers benefits according to each person’s due. This conferring of benefits according to merit is the principle of distributive justice, which Aristotle discusses in Book V.

When merit ceases to determine privilege in a state, that state slides from one of these forms of government to a corrupt form. For instance, a tyrant is a king who no longer cares for his subjects and so is no longer virtuous and worthy of his place.

It may seem strange that Aristotle lists democracy among the corrupt forms of government, as we generally think of democracy as one of the greatest inventions of the Greeks. Aristotle uses “democracy” to mean a kind of mob rule, where those who are afforded the most privilege are not necessarily those who most deserve this privilege.

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objection

by ProfessorHinkley, April 06, 2014

The author of this commentary claims that Aristotle's "concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends." This claim is superficial and grossly misleading. We need to approach books by trying to understand them as the author understands them, and in this case Aristotle articulates a principle of justice, called merit, that transcends gender and socia

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Good Article

by m8292, September 30, 2014

Thanks for the good article.
To the previous poster: Can you explain where you see that Aristotle's principle is meant by the author to transcend gender etc.? I am especially confused by this because you state that we should not read the book as it might be interpreted, but as the author intended it to be interpreted (if I got you right). Doesn't it seem highly unlikely that someone like Aristotle would include anyone but citizens of the polis in his considerations? Do you have any citation that would support Aristotle including women ... Read more

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