In friendships or exchanges where each person receives
a different benefit, it is important that both parties feel they
are being justly treated. The best method is to fix a price in advance,
though some forms of benevolence cannot properly be repaid. In cases
of dispute, the recipient of a service should determine its value.
While it is important to show preference to one’s friends, one should
not do so in place of meeting obligations to others.
Friendships based on utility or pleasure dissolve when
the friends no longer find utility or pleasure in one another. These
breakups are made more complicated when people are misled into thinking
they are loved for their character and not for certain incidental attributes. It
may also be necessary to break off a friendship with someone who
initially misrepresented the kind of person he or she really is. Friends
who grow apart cannot remain friends, though they should hold on
to some consideration for the former friendship.
The feelings we have for our friends are the same as we
have for ourselves. For instance, a good friend wishes good things
for his or her friend, enjoys that friend’s company, and shares
personal joys and sorrows. This can also be said of our relationship
with ourselves, even in the case of bad people, who treat both themselves
and their friends poorly.
We feel goodwill toward a person in whom we perceive some merit
or goodness, but this feeling is different from friendship or even
affection, because it is superficial and not necessarily requited. Concord
is a form of friendly feeling that exists between friends or within
a state when people have the same ends in view.
Benefactors seem to love those whom they have benefited
more than the beneficiaries love in return. This love is like the
love of an artist for his or her work, because the benefactor is
to some extent responsible for “making” the beneficiary. It is also
more pleasurable to do good actively than to receive good passively.
Those who denigrate self-love are thinking of people who
seek the greatest honors and pleasures only for themselves. A good
person who is self-loving will seek only what is best for himself
or herself, which will be consistent with what is best for all.
A good person will do seemingly unselfish acts, such as taking risks
for friends or giving away money, but will do these things because
they are noble and are motivated by self-love.
If a good person is self-sufficient, it follows
that he or she has no need of friends. However, friendship is one
of the greatest goods in life, so a good person cannot achieve perfect
happiness without friends.
Obviously, it is better to have many friends, but there
is a limit to how many intimate friendships one can sustain, and
it is preferable to have a few close friendships than many superficial
friendships. While we need friends more in adversity, friendship
is more pleasant in prosperity. In adversity, we do not want others
to share our misfortunes, and in prosperity we can help others.
Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, coupled with his
earlier discussion of happiness and virtue, seems to imply two difficult
paradoxes. First, if we admire friends for those qualities we admire
in ourselves, it would seem that self-love is more important than
the love of others. Second, if self-love is the most important thing,
and if the truly happy person is not in need of outside help, it
would seem that the truly happy person does not need friends at
Aristotle’s answer to the first paradox is that self-love
is indeed very valuable: it seems like a negative quality only because
we are thinking of the wrong kind of person. In Book VIII, Aristotle
distinguishes three different kinds of friendship: friendship based
on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on
goodness of character. Similarly, self-love can take on any of these
characteristics. We think of self-love as a bad thing because we
normally think of it in terms of utility or pleasure. The person
who selfishly seeks the benefits of utility will callously seek
out wealth and honor, not caring who is crushed along the way. The
person who selfishly seeks the benefits of pleasure will callously
seek out sex, good food, and other pleasures, not caring who gets
hurt along the way.
These are both inferior forms of self-love, according
to Aristotle. People who seek only utility or pleasure for themselves
are not treating themselves well, just as people who use friends
for utility or pleasure are not treating those friends well. It
is best to love a friend for that friend’s good character, and that
is also the best reason to love oneself. The person who seeks true
personal goodness will aim at a virtuous life that consists not
only of health and prosperity, but also of magnanimity and amiability.
Aristotle’s ideal of the virtuous self-lover is not far
removed from our own ideals of selfless virtue, though there are
important differences. Both the self-lover and the selfless person
will look out for the benefit of others. However, Aristotle’s self-lover
will look out for others, recognizing this concern as a noble personal
trait, while selfless people do not think of themselves at all. Aristotle
would not hold Mother Theresa in high esteem. The kindness of a
self-lover is more a noblesse oblige, where the
kindness of the noble man is given with the understanding that he
is noble and superior to the people he is helping.
Aristotle’s discussion of self-love marks him as one of
the early proponents of ethical egoism, a controversial issue in
the modern world. Ethical egoism is the idea that self-love is the
most important virtue and that if we all sought what was best for
ourselves, the world would naturally work its way into a desirable
shape without the need for selflessness. This idea is unpopular
in the modern world because its most ardent proponents tend to be
selfish conservatives who have no interest in the needs of others.
Unlike us, however, Aristotle lived in a world where there was common
agreement on what was good for all and where the community mattered
more than the individual. In such a world, successful people measured their
success in part by the success of their fellow citizens. Selfishness seems
like a vice only in a world driven by individualism, where there
is no evident benefit for oneself in helping others.
When we understand the communal nature of ancient Greek society,
we are much closer to understanding the value of friendship as well.
In the Politics, Aristotle argues that a man cannot
live a complete life outside a city-state, because the exercise
of civic virtue is a part of living a complete life. Since living
among others is an essential component to life, it follows that
one cannot live a complete life without the benefit of friendship.
While it is helpful to understand Aristotle’s views on
friendship and self-love within their proper contexts, there is
still something troubling about ethical egoism. Presumably, the
good person does good for others not primarily because of concern
for others, but because of concern for self. This idea hearkens
back to the virtue of magnanimity: the virtuous person knows himself
to be virtuous and expects others to respect him for being virtuous.
Such a person is perhaps not morally objectionable,
but there is a degree of shallowness to being good only for the
sake of being good and not for the sake of what comes from being