Nicomachean Ethics

by

Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics: Book 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Book 9, Chapter 1. In friendships with dissimilar aims, Aristotle says, there has to be an equalizer of some sort; for example, in political friendship, money is the common measure, governing the exchange between a cobbler or a weaver and their customers. Any friendship that can’t achieve this sort of proportionality—such as a friendship in which one person loves for pleasure and the other for utility—will be inherently unstable. But because virtuous friendship “is friendship itself,” it endures.
This section underlines the fact that Aristotle’s understanding of friendship is fairly expansive. While the relationship between a tradesman and a customer wouldn’t be considered “friendship” in most contexts, Aristotle views it as a form of reciprocal goodwill that undergirds society, albeit one requiring the “equalizer” of currency.
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Book 9, Chapter 2. Determining what different kinds of friends owe to one another is not an exact pursuit. Parents are owed certain kinds of honor and support, but different kinds of honor are owed to fathers and mothers, and likewise we don’t honor parents in the same way we’d honor a wise person or a general. As far as possible, we should try to accord to each person—whether “kinsfolk, fellow tribesmen, or fellow citizens”—what is proper, “as befits closeness of relation, virtue, or usefulness.”
Like the individual pursuit of virtue, relationships require their own deliberation and decision-making. One must determine what honor should look like in each context, depending on the relative station and level of virtue of the parties involved.
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Book 9, Chapter 3. Aristotle points out that there is also the question of dissolving friendships when a friend proves to have changed. Friends are at odds when they are not friends in the way they think they are (for instance, if someone pretends to like us for our character but it turns out they’re using us for personal advantage). If a friend starts out as a good person but turns to vice, it’s impossible to continue loving him, since only the good is loveable. It makes sense to end a friendship in this case, especially if someone has turned “incurably vicious” such that his character can’t be rescued.
Even friendships that are initially founded on virtue won’t necessarily endure forever, Aristotle says. Only the good can be loved, so a friend who’s turned from virtue to vice is, by definition, no longer loveable.
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On the other hand, if one friend comes to far excel the other friend in virtue, they cannot remain friends, either. Aristotle says that this is often the case when people become friends in childhood but then grow apart—“for if one friend still thinks as a child, while the other becomes a man of the best sort, how could they still be friends?”
Similarly, when one friend exceeds another in the attainment of virtue, the basis for friendship dissolves. Once again, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of equal virtue among friends for the most lasting, substantial friendship.
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Book 9, Chapter 4. Aristotle adds that the best qualities of friendship are also found in the decent person’s relationship with himself. After all, he desires good for himself, finds his own company pleasant, and shares in his own distresses and pleasures. Vicious people’s souls, on the other hand, are in conflict, torn between distress and pleasure over their actions, and thus can’t maintain a friendly attitude even toward themselves, much less toward others.
Friendship is a reflection of the virtuous person’s relationship with himself. Interestingly, this means that a vicious person can’t even have a consistently positive relationship with himself, which explains why, in Aristotle’s view, that person can’t have real friends or be of much benefit to society.
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Book 9, Chapter 5. Goodwill isn’t the same thing as friendship, Aristotle claims, because it arises even toward people we don’t know. It is more superficial than the loving upon which friendship is based. However, it can be the beginning of friendship, when one sees virtue or decency in another, just as the appealing sight of someone might be the beginning of an erotic passion. Goodwill, then, might be called a kind of inactive friendship, which can grow into genuine friendship if it lasts.
According to Aristotle, goodwill is the initial spark of friendship, much like an early spark of sexual attraction between future lovers. Goodwill isn’t a sufficient basis for an enduring friendship by itself, but friendship can’t begin without it.
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Book 9, Chapter 6-7. Concord is another feature of friendship. Concord applies more specifically to political friendship—like among citizens of a city—because it’s concerned with questions about big things affecting society.
An example of concord is when citizens of a city agree on what’s best, make a decision, and act together on that decision (like an election or an alliance).
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Book 9, Chapter 8. Aristotle argues that there is a type of self-love which is justifiably reproached—those who overreach in acquiring bodily pleasures to gratify their appetites. Someone who truly loves himself, however, whose actions are guided by reason, is above reproach. Thus, in this sense, a good person must be a self-lover, since his fine actions benefit both himself and others.
Here Aristotle draws a distinction between selfishness and self-love. Someone who loves himself according to reason (that is, according to virtue) is capable of loving others well; presumably, someone who’s simply self-indulgent is not.
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Book 9, Chapter 9. It might be asked whether a happy person needs friends or not, since he is assumed to be self-sufficient. But if having friends is indeed the greatest external good, then it’s a necessity; moreover, a good person needs someone to benefit, hence he needs friends. Aristotle also assumes that the human being “is a political [animal], tending by nature to live together” with others. So a happy person does need friends.
Aristotle argues that friends are the greatest external good (one of those things that facilitates a person’s happiness), so they are necessary. He also believes that people are designed to have close relationships, making friendship indispensable.
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Aristotle explains that the happy person finds pleasure in the actions of other excellent people, and it’s easier to pursue virtues in the company of others than in solitude; hence, “good people’s life together allows the cultivation of virtue,” another reason that friends are a necessity. A friend’s being is desirable in much the same way that one’s own existence is desirable for oneself. Friends enjoy and benefit from one another’s existence not merely from existing side by side, like “grazing animals,” but by sharing conversation and thought.
This is the crux of Aristotle’s argument about friendship: virtues are best practiced in community, so friendship is not only founded on virtue, but is the ideal proving ground for virtues, making it vital to the flourishing of society as well. Human beings aren’t meant to live side by side in isolation, but to engage in vibrant social life together.
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Book 9, Chapter 10. How many friends, then, are needed? When it comes to friends for utility or pleasure, just a few are sufficient. However, it doesn’t follow that it’s good to have as many excellent and virtuous friends as possible. Aristotle says that the appropriate number of such friends is “the largest number with whom you could live together.” Being extremely close to lots of people doesn’t seem achievable.
By “living together,” Aristotle means precisely what he talked about earlier—not necessarily physical cohabiting, but sharing conversation and ideas, as well as the other pleasures and pains of life. It logically follows that true friendship with more than a few people is not possible.
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Book 9, Chapter 11. According to Aristotle, it’s better to have friends in good fortune than in ill fortune. While it lightens our burden when a friend shares our distress, it’s also painful to be aware of a friend’s pain, so we shouldn’t desire to cause a friend that. It’s much more pleasant to share goods with our friends. At the same time, we should be quick to seek to benefit our friends and to go to them when they’re in trouble.
Aristotle argues that we should be careful to not cause pain to friends in any way, even by seeking their companionship in our own distress. We should be willing, however, to support them in their own troubles and always be on the lookout for ways to benefit them.
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Book 9, Chapter 12. What friends enjoy most of all is living in community together. Whatever someone regards as the end for which he lives, he wishes to share with his friend, whether that’s drinking, hunting, or philosophy. This shows, once again, why the friendship of base people only increases their vice, and why the connection of virtuous people only strengthens their virtue.
From Aristotle’s understanding of life in community, it’s easy to see why friendship is so vital to the formation of virtues, and also why it can easily reinforce vices. Obviously, philosophy is the ideal “end” for friends to pursue in common.
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