Virtue and Friendship
Live Like an Aristotelian
There is also a dispute regarding a happy person as to whether he will need friends or not. For people say that those who are blessed and self-sufficient have no need of friends, since they already have the things that are good, and being self-sufficient, then, they need nothing in addition . . .. It seems strange, though, to allocate all the good things to a happy person and yet not to grant him friends, who seem to be the greatest of external goods.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX.9
Is friendship essential to human happiness? This question is especially acute for Aristotle’s understanding of happiness, since he defines eudaimonia early on in the Nicomachean Ethics as a complete and self-sufficient activity of the human soul. But friendship, as he notes above, is an “external good.” If friendship is essential to the good life, how can the good life be a self-sufficient one?
Part of the way Aristotle responds to this problem is by exploring the special nature of what he calls a “virtue-friendship,” which is the best type of friendship in his view. The other two types of friendship he discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics are “utility-friendships” and “pleasure-friendships.”
The common feature of these lower types of friendship is that they’re fundamentally self-serving. In a utility-friendship, your dealings with another person serve your own advantage, often with that person’s tacit agreement. This is what relationships look like in the world of commerce and most professional fields, which involve the mutual exchange of goods. There’s nothing wrong with these relationships and they may even be necessary for the smooth functioning of civic life, but Aristotle doesn’t think they’re essential for happiness. Likewise with pleasure-friendships: you value another person insofar as he or she gives you pleasure or enjoyment, and you may even do so with the consent of that person. Such relationships are abundant in our lives, though once more, Aristotle doesn’t believe we need them for our personal happiness.
What is essential, he believes, is virtue-friendship. And what’s characteristic about this relationship is that you value the other person for his or her virtue, which is to say you value the friend for his or her own sake. As Aristotle puts it memorably, such a friend is “another self” (NE IX.10, 1170b). Now, it’s important to observe that valuing another person for his or her own sake doesn’t mean you cannot also derive pleasure or utility from the relationship. (So there’s no such thing as complete altruism here.) In fact, Aristotle believes that the superiority of a virtue-friendship can be seen in the way it allows you to experience the goodness of virtue, utility, and pleasure altogether. However, what ultimately motivates you to treat the other person well in this relationship is not the prospect of utility or pleasure for yourself, but the actual good of that person.
Consider the types of friendship in your life for today. For much of this week, you’ve undertaken a training regimen in cultivating virtue in the way that Aristotle thinks you should. But he also thinks that friendship is a virtue or at least “involves virtue” (NE VIII.1, 1155a). How well do you cultivate your friendships? Do an inventory, perhaps by browsing your social media feeds, of the various kinds of relationships you have with others and ask yourself how you might classify them in terms of Aristotle’s threefold scheme. How many are pleasure-friendships? How many are utility-friendships? How many are virtue-friendships?
Many of the exercises you’ve engaged in this week have been self-directed. Today you get to address your nature as a political animal, which is what you basically are according to Aristotle (see NE I.7, 1097b; IX.9, 1169b). The fragility of the good life for a human being is a point that he insists upon in the Nicomachean Ethics. He believes that without the presence of some external goods in our lives, we simply cannot live well, and that part of our work as political beings involves the pursuit of external goods. Likewise, it’s the work of legislators and those in political office to facilitate our achievement of these goods.
This idea resonates particularly strongly perhaps under our current pandemic conditions. If Aristotle is right that friendship is the greatest of external goods for us, then our relationships with others must contribute directly to our happiness. Conversely, our well-being suffers when we’re deprived of opportunities to interact with others. Try to spend part of your day today (remotely if necessary) engaging with people you feel comfortable regarding simply as “pleasure-friends” and “utility-friends.” Spend another part engaging with people you regard as “virtue-friends.” As you go about your day, ask yourself which group (if any) contributes more to your well-being. How do you engage with others differently in each type of friendship? Has our current pandemic situation and the restrictions it’s placed on our social interactions affected the significance of some relationships for you in comparison with others?