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 good.