Aristotle On Friendship

by Jason Stotts

I have several old philosophy papers that I wrote while I was an undergrad that I still think are interesting and good.  In an effort to keep them from disappearing forever, I’m going to be posting some of them on Erosophia in the next couple of months.

This paper I wrote for my Senior Symposium in the Spring of 2006.  The Senior Symposium at Denison is much like a qualifying test, to prove that you learned enough about philosophy and writing that you could put something philosophically interesting together.  I got a solid A on it.

I’m presenting it here unedited, the exact same draft I read and defended to get my BA in Philosophy.


On Friendship

“For without friends no one would choose to live,
though he had all other goods” ~ Aristotle (NE VIII.1.1155a5)

I. Friends and Eudaimonia

The Aristotelian Ethics is dominated by the concept of Eudaimonia – an idea of the good life for Man.  Aristotle, in both of his surviving ethical treatises[1] the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) and the Eudemian Ethics (EE), argues that in order to achieve Eudaimonia one must have certain kinds of relationships with others.  Specifically, Aristotle argues that at least some form of friendship is necessary for Eudaimonia (NE IX.9.1169b8) and there is strong evidence to support the idea that it is only “Character Friends” which can fulfill this role.  This gives rise to two questions: (1) Why did Aristotle think that one must have friends to be eudaimōn? and (2) Why can only one certain kind of friend suffice for Eudaimonia?

II. Are Friends Necessary?

The main arguments for the necessity of friendship are found in book VII of the Eudemian Ethics and books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics; in the latter Aristotle notes: “Surely it is strange, too, to make the blessed man a solitary; for no one would choose to possess all good things on condition of being alone [] therefore the happy man needs friends” (NE IX.9.1169b17).  It is clear that Aristotle thinks that friends are a necessary condition for Happiness (the happy man needs friends), but it is not clear from this what kind of friend is being discussed.

Aristotle’s claim that friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing should not come as a surprise to most – since there would seem to be few people so misanthropic that they would wish to be completely alone.  If we do nothing more profound than introspect on our own lives, we can see that others are great sources of pleasure and that the company of certain individuals can greatly enhance our existence.  However, Aristotle’s claim is much stronger than ‘others can simply bring us pleasure’; he argues that friends are a necessary condition for human flourishing, that the happy man needs friends.

Of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are different kinds of friendships that can contribute to our happiness.  In the Aristotelian system, there are only three different kinds of friends, the useful, the pleasant, and the virtuous (excellent), and each kind admits of only two senses – either the relationship is between two individuals who are equal or two individuals who are unequal.  We can then see that at most there are six possible combinations of friends (EE VII.4) for the kind of friendship that is necessary for happiness.  It seems that the best path to arrive at what kind of friendship is necessary for Eudaimonia and why it is necessary, is to analyze each kind of friendship by its essential properties to see if we cannot follow Aristotle’s argument; which we will have to judge according to whether it is consistent with the Aristotelian thesis and meets our common sense intuitions about friendship.

Yet, before we begin our analysis and lest it be objected that we have missed a kind of friend or that our analysis seems vacuous, let us pause and note that for Aristotle there seem to be only three kinds of things for which one can value another – utility, pleasure, and virtue – and if this analysis holds, then it would only be possible to have three kinds of friends, each founded on a separate basis of valuation. Aristotle explicitly supports this type of analysis in passages like the following: “There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable; for with respect to each there is a mutual and recognized love, and those who love each other wish well to each other in that respect in which they love one another” (NE VIII.3.1156a7) and the bases of friendship are the conditions on which one could find another lovable: “For not everything seems to be loved but only the lovable, and this is good, pleasant, or useful” (NE VIII.2.1155b17).  Therefore, there could only possibly be three types of friends and our analysis will be exhaustive of the class of friendship.

However, we should pause and notice that each kind of friendship begets of two different senses.[2]  The first sense is the univocal[3] sense of a friendship based on equality between the friends.  In such a relationship, each friend has an equal share of whatever defines that kind of friendship (i.e. utility, pleasure, or virtue) – as opposed to the equivocal[4] sense of friendship which is based on a superiority/inferiority relationship.  Aristotle thought that the sense of friendship between unequal people was equivocal because he thought that two people who had a fundamentally skewed power relation could not truly be friends: “Both [senses] are friendships, but only those between whom there is equality are friends; it would be absurd for a man to be the friend of a child, yet certainly he loves and is loved by him” (EE VII.4.1239a4).  To give another example in hopes of elucidating this complicated issue – let us imagine a professor who has a certain favorite student with whom he works frequently and with whom there is a friendly sort of mutual affection.  Now while one might certainly say that there is some sense of friendship here, the discrepancy between the respective positions of the two individuals precludes their being true friends – although they feel this mutual affection and goodwill, nonetheless one is a student and the other a teacher and this cannot be escaped or ignored.[5]  Now that we have laid out the two different senses, let us look to the three different kinds of friendship.

The first kind of friendship we will deal with is that whose essential quality is the usefulness derived from the association – or “Friends of Utility”.  These are people who love each other qua useful and not qua personhood: “Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other” (NE VIII.3.1156a10) – that is, friends of utility only like each other insofar as they find each other useful.  When one is in a friendship of utility, it is not one’s friend himself that one values, rather one values only the useful benefits one receives from the friend. An example of this could be two thieves who help each other on “jobs”.

The second kind of friendship is that whose essential quality is the pleasure derived from the association – or “Friends of Pleasure”.  These are people who love each other qua pleasant and not qua personhood: “So too [similarly to friends of utility] with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready witted people, but because they find them pleasant.” (NE VIII.3.1156a10) – that is, friends of pleasure only like each other insofar as they find each other pleasant.  As with Aristotle’s example of people who are friends with the witty man, the friendship is based on the pleasure received from the man’s wit and not the witty man’s character – this has the implication that if the witty man was also a horrible person, but was still witty, then the friendship would remain.  It is clear in this case that one would not value the other person for their character (as it is bad), but only for their wit.

The third kind of friendship is that whose essential quality is the mutual virtue and nobility of both the parties to the friendship – it is friendship based on the mutual goodness of character between the friends so it is often called complete, true, or perfect friendship; however, following Robert Mayhew, I suggest calling it “Character Friendship”[6] since it pertains to the moral character of the friends.  In the Character Friendship, in contradistinction from the other two kinds of friendship, each friend loves the other qua essential facets of personhood – they love each other as friends for themselves and their good nature.  Character Friendship, then, is “friendship [that] is grounded on excellence” (EE VII.2.1236a10) – it is friendship based on the mutual virtue of both of the friends. An example of this could be two virtuous people who enjoy doing noble activities together, such as fellow philosophers.

Now that we have seen the nature of the different kinds of friendship, it is time to justify why Aristotle had Character Friends in mind when he asserted that friends are necessary conditions of happiness.  First, it seems as if there is a distinct similarity between friends of utility and friends of pleasure – the similarity being that the friend is loved qua attribute in relation to the loving self and not as a friend per se.  This seems to be a deficiency of character for the person doing the loving and a practical problem since any change in the status of the friend that changes the quality upon which the friendship is based causes the friendship to be destroyed.  For example, Aristotle notes that: “those whose love is based on pleasure do not seem to be friends, when we look carefully, because their friendship is not of the primary kind, being unstable” (EE VII.2.1236b17) – since a friendship based on pleasure is not based on something firm and immutable, a change in this base will cause the friendship to collapse, making it seem like the two people are not really friends.  The case is the same for friends based on utility – the ephemeral nature of the base of these relationships causes it not to last very long.  Thus, this transient nature disqualifies these two kinds of friendships from being the necessary condition for Eudaimonia – as such a shifting basis would be more detrimental to happiness than its absence.  Aristotle further elaborates the point in the NE:

Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.  So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready witted people, but because they find them pleasant.  Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.  And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure.  Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him. (NE VIII.3.1156a10)

The foregoing has shown that Character Friendship is the only kind of friendship possible to serve as the necessary condition for Eudaimonia since it is the only kind of friendship which is based on a person’s unchanging character and further because it is the only kind of friendship for which the other is loved qua person and not qua attribute.[7]  Furthermore, Aristotle argues that Character Friendship is the primary sense of friendship:  “The first friendship then – by reason of which the others get the name – is that based on excellence” (EE VII.2.1238a30) and that it is the only one which could serve as the necessary condition of Eudaimonia.

However, the foregoing makes it seem as if only Character Friends are truly friends and that the other five types of “friends” are not truly friends at all; but this is not what Aristotle is trying to say, as he makes clear below:

To speak, then, of friendship in the primary sense only is to do violence to the phenomena, and makes one assert paradoxes; but it is impossible for all friendships to come under one definition.  The only alternative left is that in a sense there is only one friendship, the primary; but in a sense all kinds are friendship, not as possessing a common name accidentally without being specially related to one another, not yet as falling under one species, but rather as in relation to one and the same thing (EE VII.2.1236b21, italics mine).

The point being that while the other five kinds of friendship have some deficiencies, they are nonetheless still friendships because they share some structural analogy to the primary sense of friendship that is constituted by Character Friendship.

III. On Character Friendship

Now that we have determined Character Friendship to be a necessary condition of Eudaimonia, it behooves us to look more in-depth at this issue and see if we can expand our analysis to find the essential nature of Character Friends.  Let us start by first noting that this kind of friendship requires two individuals who are themselves virtuous[8] and who base their friendship on their mutual virtuous nature, as Aristotle says:

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in excellence; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves.  Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good – and excellence is an enduring thing. (NE VIII.3.1156b6)

The essential and defining characteristic is the mutual virtue – but by itself, this is not a sufficient condition to indicate this kind of friendship. Just because two people are virtuous does not mean that they will necessarily be friends; there is much more to this kind of friendship, such as a mutual goodwill (NE VIII.2.1155b34), a desire to live together[9] (NE IX.12.1171b32), a passage of the test of time (EE VII.2.1237b14), shared experiences (trials and tribulations), and mutual movement towards excellence (NE IX.12.1172a10); yet each of these points bears further elaboration.

To be character friends, one of the first and perhaps most important things necessary is that the two friends need to have a mutual affinity and goodwill for each other.  This means that each friend bears affection for the other and wishes each other well for their own sake.  While this should be intuitively obvious, it is worth noting because it seems that this is one of the fundamental characteristics of friends, as Aristotle says: “goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship” (NE VIII.2.1155b34), and if one did not acknowledge this aspect then one would be left with a paltry view of friendship – it is not even clear what “friends” would be if they did not share mutual affinity and goodwill.

Another aspect of character friends is a mutual desire to live together – although this is not to be taken literally as in the same household.  Rather, character friends desire to spend their lives together in the sense of performing activities together.  As Aristotle explains:

And whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends; and so some drink together, others dice together, others join in athletic exercises and hunting, or in the study of philosophy, each class spending their days together in whatever they love most in life; for since they wish to live with their friends, they do and share in those things as far as they can. (NE IX.12.1171b32)

The description that Aristotle offers us is actually of the genus of friendship, although clearly it can be predicated of any of the kinds of friendship.  The important point though is that friends wish to spend their time together in those activities that define their lives and Character Friends are no exception.

Further, Character Friends wish to be with one another both in times of trials and tribulations, as Aristotle discusses in book IX, chapter 11 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  When one is having bad fortune one needs others to help weather the rough period and when one is having good fortune one wants others with whom to share this good fortune (1171a22).  This is why Aristotle says that friends are more necessary when one is having bad fortune (1171a25) – with the help of friends the period of bad fortune can be shortened or the ill effects can be lessened.  However, friendship is nobler in prosperity (1171a26) when the friends can share in each other’s good achievements and fortune – when they can celebrate each other and their mutual goodness.  However, while it is clear that one needs friends no matter one’s fortune, it is not as if Character Friendship just comes into being ex nihlo.

Character Friendship, as seems obvious, is not something that arises instantly.  Robert Mayhew notes these necessary conditions for its naissance:

Character friends are close.  They require that the friends know each other rather intimately, and this takes time.  The prospective friends must grow accustomed (sunetheias, NE 1156b26) to each other, which requires spending time together.  One must discover that the other is likable and trustworthy (NE 1156b24-32).  Acquiring the necessary knowledge requires comprehension or perception (NE 1161b24-27); one must gain experience of the other, or put the other to the test (empeirian labein, peiran labein, NE 1158a14-15, EE 1237b12-13, 1245b25; cf. NE 1157a20-25), and form judgments (EE 1237b10-12).  But all of this is difficult and takes time.[10]

Certainly none of these conditions seem to be beyond our ordinary conceptions of friendship – in order to be friends it does seem to be necessary to have intimate knowledge, trust, and mutual understanding.  It is for these reasons that one cannot be a Character Friend to many people; for just as Character Friendship cannot just arise arbitrarily, neither can one have too many Character Friends.  Aristotle observes that Character Friends seem to be rather rare; he attributes this first to the fact that men of true virtue are rare, which makes character friendships rare (NE VIII.3.1156b25) and second to the fact that having too many friends dilutes one’s friendship and makes one a true friend to no one (NE IX.10.1171a1).

However, perhaps the last salient feature of Character friendship is the mutual movement towards excellence that comes from the relationship.

The friendship of good men is good, being augmented by their companionship; and they are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other; for from each other they take the mold of the characteristics they approve – whence the saying ‘noble deeds from noble men’ (NE IX.12.1172a10-15).

By being around other virtuous people, our own disposition for virtuous action is augmented –seeing our friend acting virtuously sets an example for us and it shows us that it is not only possible, but we can see clearly the nobility in a way that we cannot always achieve when we are the acting agent[11].

In character friendship, as we said earlier, one loves one’s friend qua person and not just for the attributes which they happen to have.  A.W. Price takes Aristotle’s argument to be this:

Loving a person ‘for his sake’ (NE VIII.2.1155b31) I love him for the person he is (VII.3.1156a17-18), that is qua chooser (cf. VI.2.1139b5).  To love him qua chooser is to identify with his choices: consider the Eudemian concept of ‘reciprocal choice’ (antiprohairesis, VII.2,1236b3, 1237a32-3).  It is above all through his choices that I try to benefit him: in a life of co-operation he partly owes his choices to me, as party both to the way of life within which they operate, and to the practical thinking out of which they issue.  Consequently, his activity displays the character that we share, and the fact that we share it; it is partly in his activity that I find my own eudaimonia.[12]

The major point is that to love another for their own sake is to love them qua chooser (as a moral agent) and since in Aristotelian philosophy one chooses from practical reason and one’s dispositions of character (the defining aspects of one’s personhood) – we can see then that the love of Character Friends is the love of the other person for themselves.

IV. Conclusion

We have now come to the end of our analysis and it is time to review our position.  We have seen that Aristotle believes that friendship is a necessary condition for Eudaimonia.  After analyzing the two different senses and the three different kinds of friends, we determined that only Character Friendship could serve this important function and furthermore that it is only the univocal sense that suffices.  However, it must be remembered that our 6-point analysis of friendship is only a conceptual tool and not a natural kind classification.  We have also determined the nature of Character Friends.  Thus we have answered our original questions that we started with: (1) why Aristotle thought that one must have friends to be eudaimōn and (2) why only one certain kind of friend could suffice for Eudaimonia.

It should now be clear why Aristotle thought that friends were necessary conditions of Eudaimonia and it should also be clear why univocal Character Friends are able to fulfill this function in human life.   We have gained knowledge on this subject, and as Aristotle says: “all knowledge and choice aims at some good” (NE, I.3.1094b27).  Since the telos of human life is to flourish and to be good is to perform one’s ergon well, the ultimate good for human life is Eudaimonia, and our improved understanding of central component will help us to lead more complete and richer lives.

V. Bibliography

Quoted Works:

  1. Aristotle.  Eudemian Ethics. Found in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation.  Vol. 2.  Ed. Jonathan Barnes.  New Jersey: Princeton U. P., 1984.
  1. Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Found in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation.  Vol. 2.  Ed. Jonathan Barnes.  New Jersey: Princeton U. P., 1984.
  1. Mayhew, Robert.  Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
  1. Price, A.W.  Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle. New York: Oxford U.P., 1989.

Referenced Works:

  1. Barnes, Jonathan (Ed).  The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle.  Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1995.
  1. Barnes, Jonathan.  Aristotle.  Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1982.
  1. Cooper, John.  Reason and Human Good in Aristotle.  Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1975.
  1. Kenny, Anthony.  Aristotle on the Perfect Life.  Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1992.
  1. Kraut, Richard.  Aristotle on the Human Good.  Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1989.
  1. Nussbaum, Martha.  The Fragility of Goodness.  Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1986.
  1. Nussbaum, Martha and A. O. Rorty, eds.  Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima.  Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1995.
  1. Rorty, Amelie (Ed).  Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics.  Berkely: U. of California P., 1980.

* I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Lisska and Matt Morrell for their insightful comments on earlier drafts and for the opportunity to spend countless hours in philosophical discourse with each of them, something which has indubitably improved my philosophical abilities.  Gentlemen, you are certainly aristoi.

[1] I am excluding the Magna Moralia, since its authenticity has been seriously contested – as the Oxford translation notes: “The traditional corpus Aristotelicum contains several works which were certainly or probably not written by Aristotle.  A single asterisk against the title of a work indicates that its authenticity has been seriously doubted; a pair of asterisks indicates that its spuriousness has never been contested.”  The Magna Moralia is marked by a single asterisk, indicating that its authenticity has been seriously doubted.

[2] The division between senses is based on passages such as: “There being, then, as has been said, three kinds of friendship – based on excellence, utility, and pleasentness – these again are subdivided each into two, one kind based on equality, the other on superiority.  Both are friendships, but only those between whom there is equality are friends” (EE VII.4.1239a1).  This clearly indicates to me that the division between senses is important and subtle, so that one must be careful to pay it special attention.  The subdivision itself seems to be novel as it’s not usually found in Aristotelian scholarship.

[3] The univocal sense is “when things have the name in common and the definition of being which corresponds to the name is the same” (CAT 1.1a6-7).

[4] The equivocal sense is “when things have only a name in common and the definition of being which corresponds to the name is different” (CAT 1.1a1-2).

[5] Of course, after graduation and grad school, the former pupil could return as a fellow professor and have a full friendship with his former professor – since at that point the power differential would have been closed, as long as they could get beyond their past history and treat each other as equals.

[6] Following Robert Mayhew’s description and distinction from Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic, chapter 4 (specifically page 74).

[7] This distinction between loving someone “qua attribute” versus “qua person” seems to be novel as it does not usually appear in Aristotelian commentaries.

[8] A supposition will be made that the reader understands what it means to be virtuous in the Aristotelian sense, since the issue is outside the scope of the present paper.

[9] This should not be taken literally, rather it is closer to “spending time together” or “spending your life together” in English – see the second full paragraph below this footnote in the text.

[10] Robert Mayhew, Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic, 75.

[11] By “acting agent” I just want to distinguish an agent who is actively acting versus one who is capable of acting, but is not currently acting – it is not meant as a redundancy.

[12] A.W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle, 124.

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