Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle

Book VIII

Summary Book VIII

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.