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 all.

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.