Aristotelian Friendship: Self-Love and Moral Rivalry

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IN THE FIRST SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS of Nicomachean Ethics 9.8, Aristotle asks "whether a man should love himself most" (NE 1168a28),(1) and asserts that "men say that one ought to love best one's best friend" (1168b1). Yet earlier (1159a27) Aristotle describes loving as more essential to friendship than being loved; furthermore, he emphasizes that a man wishes well to his friend for his friend's sake, not as a means to his own happiness (1155b31). Note also Aristotle's continued emphasis upon man as a political animal. In the Politics as well as the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes the biological, even instinctive tendency of humans to seek each other's company. He considers it absurd for a man even to imagine living alone, since "without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods" (1155a5-6). It is only the human animal, however, who is even capable of that genuine friendship which, although rare (1156b25), Aristotle considers "not only necessary but also noble; for . . . we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends" (1155a28-31); these friends are "alike in their excellence" (1156b7), one loving another "as being the man he is" (1156a11).

We would argue that this implies that in loving a friend men thereby choose what is good for themselves: "for the good man in becoming a friend becomes a good to his friend" (1157b28-31), and, simultaneously, his friend a good to him. Aristotle states that it is the recognition of my friend's good character (known by his actions) that incites me, so to speak, to wish for him whatever is good. The same is true in the other direction. Aristotle adds: "it is mutually known to them that well-wishing of this kind is [also] reciprocated" (1156a3-5).

Just what are we wishing for our friend? If one values the person and his welfare, should one not take care to discern how best to serve him? It seems evident that the well-wisher (and well-doer) in a genuine friendship by definition cannot make serious blunders or be greatly unskilled. A developed sensitivity to needs seems assured. After all, one must know what the friend wants: genuine friendship requires time and familiarity to become established (1156b26). Friends trust not only one another, but also (and especially) each other's ability to recognize and even anticipate what each does in fact need.(2) What each wants--being good, hence consistent (and not weak-willed)--is that which is good for the other. That which is good for him is precisely what is good for the well-wisher, for he is another self. Since one's friend is similarly a good man, one chooses for him what one would wish for oneself.

The Self in Friendship. What kind of "another self" is the good man's friend? It is noteworthy that Aristotle employs the noun "self" (autos) very seldom, and only in his ethical treatises. Moreover, it is only in the chapters on friendship that Aristotle refers to another self (allos autos) or considers self-love (philautia). "Self" for Aristotle uniformly describes the human agent responsible for his choices, the originating source of his own conduct. The term is central to Aristotle's analysis of friendship. "Self," we conclude, underlies the notion of what one is when being a friend of the genuine sort, and what goes on in this friendship, namely, self-loving.

Whenever one friend acts (and desires to act) for his friend's sake, this is definitive of genuine friendship (Rhetoric 1361b35-40). For Aristotle, to be aware of one's friend is in effect to be that friend, by means of one's own activity of knowing him; one thereby knows one's self. In order to be able to know myself as friend, however, I must recognize my self in my friend, becoming identical, so to speak, with him. I thereby become aware that he is another self while recognizing that I am one just like him, another self.

Aristotle's notion of self is not that of an impersonal, objective or transcendent mind; rather, the self is simply the individual who thinks, acts, has affections, wishes, and chooses. …