Book 8, Chapter 1. Aristotle turns to a discussion of friendship, which is itself a virtue, or at least involves virtue. It’s also a necessity for life—rich and poor, young and old, all people need friends. Parents and children also have a natural friendship with one another, not only among humans, but among animal species as well.
Friendship will occupy a significant role in Nicomachean Ethics. At this point in Aristotle’s discussion, there is a pronounced shift from a focus on the individual pursuit of virtue to the role of virtue in relationships and communities.
Friendship holds cities together, and legislators seem to be even more concerned about friendship than about justice. That’s because concord, which is the goal of legislators, is very similar to friendship. So where friendship exists, there’s no need for justice.
Friendship—which Aristotle understands in a broader sense than mere affectionate bonds (it pertains to relationships between fellow citizens, for example)—is the fabric of society. When people enjoy harmonious relationships, injustices don’t occur, so the necessity for law is much reduced.
Book 8, Chapter 2. Aristotle defines friendship as “reciprocated goodwill,” of which there are three types. The first is friendship for utility or pleasure, in which a friend is loved insofar as he or she is useful, not for who they are. Such friendships, which are common among older people, are easily dissolved once people can no longer derive some benefit from one another. An example of such a friendship is the relationship between a host and a guest.
That friendships for utility are more common among an older crowd suggests that older people are more interested in pursuing things that will directly benefit them. He also classifies the host and guest relationship under this type of friendship. Imagine the relationship between a hotel manager and a hotel guest—both are getting something from one another (money or lodgings), and the “friendship” is short-lived and ends when the guest’s stay does.
Book 8, Chapter 3. The second type of friendship that Aristotle describes is friendship for pleasure. This type is especially common among young people, because they tend to be guided by their feelings. This type of friendship can shift often, because people’s idea of what’s pleasant changes as they grow older. An example of a friendship for pleasure is one hinging on erotic passion.
Whereas older people are more inclined to friendships of utility, Aristotle thinks that young people tend to pursue pleasure-based friendships—in other words, while older people use their head and pursue practical, utilitarian relationships, younger people use their heart and pursue relationships built on the flimsy foundation of feelings.
The third type of friendship that Aristotle outlines is “complete” friendship, which occurs between people who are similar in virtue. Such people are good in their own right and wish good things for one another for each other’s own sake. Such friendships last as long as the respective friends are good, “and virtue is enduring.” Complete friendships are rare, since virtuous people are hard to find, and such friendships need time and testing in order to take root.
This third type of friendship is the truest and most lasting type, in Aristotle’s view, because the friends are not loved incidentally, nor for advantages or pleasures they can give, but for themselves. It’s only possible between people who’ve attained a comparable level of virtue, and is correspondingly rare.
Book 8, Chapter 4. Aristotle acknowledges that “incomplete” friendships bear some resemblance to “complete” friendships. For example, mutual pleasure and usefulness are still present in complete friendships. And when both people derive what they want from a utilitarian or pleasure-based friendship, these can last for a long time. But even in an erotic relationship, for instance, friendship can dissolve when a beloved’s bloom fades, showing that the two were never fully friends, but interested in what they could gain from one another (particularly the lover from the beloved).
Aristotle doesn’t say that “incomplete” friendships are worthless. Rather, these friendships can be enjoyable and beneficial, but they are unlikely to endure much beyond a given season of life. Ultimately, friendships between virtuous people are full friendships, but the other types of friendship only resemble on the surface this kind of substantial friendship.
Book 8, Chapter 5-6. Aristotle also clarifies that while loving is a feeling, friendship is a state. Friendship requires decision, which comes from a state; and a virtuous person “[wishes] good to the beloved for his own sake in accord with their state, not their feeling.” Also, the friendship of good people is one of equality. This is because a good person wishes the same good for his friend that he desires for himself. It isn’t possible to have complete friendship with many people, since it is difficult and time-consuming to develop the familiarity necessary for such a friendship.
Much like virtue, true friendship is based on more than feelings. Between virtuous people, friendship is based primarily on a continual wishing of good to one another, and this goodwill is founded on the friends’ equality. Complete friendship is rare, however, both because good people are rare and because of the steep commitment required to nurture friendship.
Book 8, Chapter 7. Aristotle says that a different type of friendship is that which “rests on superiority”—like, for instance, the relationship between a father and son, an older person and younger person, a man and a woman, and a ruler and the ruled. These friendships are unequal, and loving must be proportional, with the “better” and more beneficial person being loved more than he loves. To Aristotle, when “loving accords with the comparative worth of the friends, equality is achieved in a way.”
Aristotle believes that complete friendship isn’t possible between certain “unequal” pairings of people. Men—older and authoritative men in particular—are “better” in Aristotle’s view and hence worthier of love. If the “superior” person is loved proportionally more in such friendships, then a kind of equality is possible.
Book 8, Chapter 8. Friendship, then, is more about loving than being loved, and “loving is the virtue of friends.” Aristotle once again emphasizes that similarity in virtue is essential for long-lasting friendship. Because people who give in to vice lack the firmness of virtue, their friendships don’t have the enduring quality of true friendship founded on virtue.
Regardless of the friendship pairing, loving is more important than being loved in Aristotle’s view. And virtue—because of its inherent stability, is most important of all; relationships without virtue cannot have the same staying power.
Book 8, Chapter 9. To Aristotle, Friendship and justice are about the same things and are found in the same people. Because friendship involves some sort of life shared in common, we can say that friendship involves community. The degree of shared life, and what is just or unjust, varies among different sorts of friends. However, all of these, whatever their differences, are parts of the political community, seeking some advantage in common. And these smaller communities—families, tribes, societies, and so on—are subordinate to the larger political community, since they seek “advantage[s] close at hand,” while the broader political community (the city) seeks the good of all.
Aristotle begins to tie friendship more explicitly to the life of the community. The ties found among virtuous friends, in all their variety, form the building blocks of larger communities, and these sub-communities are the foundations of cities. Aristotle sees parallels between the inner workings of friendships and the dynamics in political systems.
Book 8, Chapter 10. There are three types of political systems: kingship, aristocracy, and timocracy. Each of these has a deviant form. The deviation from kingship is tyranny, in which the tyrant seeks his own advantage, whereas the king seeks the advantage of his subjects. The deviation from aristocracy (rule of the best) is oligarchy (rule of the few). In an oligarchy, goods are unjustly distributed, and the wealthiest are favored. Timocracy (rule of those with property) descends into democracy (rule of the majority), which is the least “vicious” deviation, since democracy is still close to being a legitimate political system.
Aristotle’s discussion of political systems and their distortions seems like a slight digression, but he always views the exercise of personal virtues as applicable to the life of the city as a whole, and vice versa. In a way, friendships are political systems in microcosm, as he goes on to explain.
Aristotle points out that these three political systems have a sort of echo within families. For instance, the community of a father and his sons has a kingship structure, which can become tyrannical. The community of a man and a woman is like an aristocracy, which can become an oligarchy if the man controls everything. A timocracy is closest to a community of brothers.
It’s worth noting that, echoing the prejudices of his time, Aristotle believes that the man is the inherently worthy “ruler” over a woman.
Book 8, Chapters 11-12. Friendship appears in the three political systems as long as these systems are just. A king’s friendship with his subjects involves “superior beneficence.” Relationships between parents and children or ancestors and descendants are “friendships of superiority,” too. The friendship between man and woman assigns “more good to the better” (the man). According to Aristotle, it’s not really possible to talk of equality in relationships between ruler and ruled, because they have “nothing in common,” like the craftsman and his tool or the soul and the body. This also applies master and slave, “since a slave is a tool with a soul, while a tool is a slave without a soul.” Yet it’s possible to have friendship with a slave “insofar as he is a human being.”
Aristotle explains how friendship maps onto various political structures. Because he believes that true friendship is founded on equality, which in turn is based on similarity in virtue, he holds that there’s an inherent hierarchy in many human relationships. He doesn’t see men and women or masters and slaves as equally capable of virtue. He does acknowledge the humanity of both of the “lesser” parties in such relationships, but it’s not hard to see the potential for exploitation on both personal and political levels.
Book 8, Chapters 13-14. Aristotle notes that disputes are most common in friendships for utility, because people are inclined to want more and to think they’re getting less than they deserve. Sometimes such friendships are formed with explicit conditions and sometimes not, but either way, there’s a built-in instability. In friendships for virtue, disputes don’t occur, because the friends’ eagerness to benefit one another is proper to virtue and to friendship. And friendships for pleasure lack dispute as long as each friend is getting what they want.
Aristotle concludes this book by summing up the potential for disputes in the various kinds of friendships. Again, any relationships that aren’t founded on virtue and mutual goodwill are inherently unstable. Because complete friendships are based on the virtuous life—the ultimate happiness—they’re desirable for their own sake, and there’s opportunity for conflict than in relationships pursued for other ends.