Aristotle sees human beings as fundamentally political; human capacities are most completely fulfilled in community, so the individual’s happiness must involve the happiness of others and ultimately of the community as a whole, not only one’s own happiness. While Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues seems focused on individual happiness at first glance, the welfare of others is more prominent in his account of the virtues than might be readily apparent. The welfare of others is especially prominent in Aristotle’s discussion of virtue and of friendship. Aristotle argues that justice, expressed through law, provides external motivations for the virtuous life, while friendship, expressed through a voluntary, shared pursuit of virtue, provides more organic, informal motivations.
First, justice provides a sort of scaffolding for the virtuous life by giving external supports and pressures toward virtuous living. According to Aristotle, justice is the pinnacle of the virtues. Aristotle describes justice as that in which “all virtue is summed up,” because he sees justice as the exercise of all the other virtues of character, and the exercise of these virtues in relation to another person or to one’s community, not only with respect to oneself. Aristotle further defines justice as “whatever produces and maintains happiness […] for a political community,” expressed particularly in a community’s laws, which “aim […] at the common benefit of all.” Aristotle describes laws as “a means to make us good,” on the assumption that most people must be compelled toward virtue. Law also safeguards this broader application of virtue, since “many are able to exercise virtue in their own concerns, but unable in what relates to another.”
Friendship, on the other hand, which Aristotle defines as “reciprocated goodwill,” is a kind of informal school for virtue, whether through familial relationships or voluntary companionship. Friendship is necessary to human life, and it “would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be [even] more concerned about it than about justice.” This is because, in part, people who are friends and therefore in concord with one another “have no need of justice […] but if they are just they need friendship in addition.” So, on one level, friendship is important because it lessens the need for external compulsion (justice through law).
But friendship has a higher function as well. While some so-called friendships exist for the sake of mere utility or pleasure, “complete friendship” is that of “good people similar in virtue.” In such a friendship, a person is concerned not primarily for their own pleasure or gain, but for the other person’s good, for his or her own sake, and for that person’s own character. Friendship, then, is necessary because it promotes virtue. Friends “live together,” by which Aristotle means sharing one another’s pleasures and sorrows, which allows for “the cultivation of virtue.” “[F]riendship is community,” and friends “share the actions in which they find their common life.” Such common life is one of the primary ways that people have the opportunity to practice the virtues theoretically discussed throughout Nicomachean Ethics.
Both justice, as expressed through legislation, and “complete” friendship, then, are things which cultivate virtue. Aristotle’s concern for both justice and friendship also shows that virtue definitely wasn’t something to be practiced in isolation. The virtues must always be practiced with the welfare of whole communities in mind, and it’s largely in community that people test their virtues and find motivation, through one means or another, to persevere in practicing them.
Virtue and Community Life ThemeTracker
Virtue and Community Life Quotes in Nicomachean Ethics
Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person—for instance, not to leave the battle-line, or to flee, or to throw away our weapons; of a temperate person—not to commit adultery or wanton aggression; of a mild person—not to strike or revile another; and similarly requires actions in accord with the other virtues, and prohibits actions in accord with the vices. The correctly established law does this correctly, and the less carefully framed one does this worse. […]
Moreover, justice is complete virtue to the highest degree because it is the complete exercise of complete virtue. And it is the complete exercise because the person who has justice is able to exercise virtue in relation to another, not only in what concerns himself; for many are able to exercise virtue in their own concerns, but unable in what relates to another.
That is why the decent is just, and better than a certain way of being just […] And this is the nature of the decent—rectification of law insofar as the universality of law makes it deficient. This is also the reason why not everything is guided by law. For on some matters legislation is impossible, and so a decree is needed. For the standard applied to the indefinite is itself indefinite, as the lead standard is in Lesbian building, where it is not fixed, but adapts itself to the shape of the stone; similarly, a decree is adapted to fit its objects. It is clear from this what is decent, and clear that it is just, and better than a certain way of being just. It is also evident from this who the decent person is; for he is the one who decides on and does such actions, not an exact stickler for justice in the bad way, but taking less than he might even though he has the law on his side. This is the decent person, and his state is decency; it is a sort of justice, and not some state different from it.
In fact the incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them, as in Anaxandrides' taunt, 'The city willed it, that cares nothing for laws'. The base person, by contrast, is like a city that applies its laws, but applies bad ones.[…] The [impetuous] type of incontinence found in volatile people is more easily cured than the [weak] type of incontinence found in those who deliberate but do not abide by it. And incontinents through habituation are more easily cured than the natural incontinents; for habit is easier than nature to change.
Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship, and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity. Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.
But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.
[…] [I]t is good not to seek as many friends as possible, and good to have no more than enough for living together; indeed it even seems impossible to be an extremely close friend to many people. […] This would seem to be borne out in what people actually do. For the friendship of companions is not found in groups of many people, and the friendships celebrated in song are always between two people. By contrast, those who have many friends and treat everyone as close them seem to be friends to no one […] Certainly it is possible to have a fellow citizen’s friendship for many people, and still to be a truly decent person, not ingratiating; but it is impossible to be many people’s friend for their virtue and for themselves. We have reason to be satisfied if we can find even a few such friends.
[…] [W]hat friends find most choiceworthy is living together. For friendship is community, and we are related to our friend as we are related to ourselves. […] Whatever someone [regards as] his being, or the end for which he chooses to be alive, that is the activity he wishes to pursue in his friend’s company. Hence some friends drink together, others play dice, while others do gymnastics and go hunting, or do philosophy. They spend their days together on whichever pursuit in life they like most; for since they want to live with their friends, they share the actions in which they find their common life.
Now some think it is nature that makes people good; some think it is habit; some that it is teaching. The [contribution] of nature clearly is not up to us, but results from some divine cause in those who have it, who are the truly fortunate ones. Arguments and teaching surely do not prevail on everyone, but the soul of the student needs to have been prepared by habits for enjoying and hating finely, like ground that is to nourish seed. For someone who lives in accord with his feelings would not even listen to an argument turning him away, or comprehend it [if he did listen]; and in that state how could he be persuaded to change? And in general feelings seem to yield to force, not to argument.
Since, then, our predecessors have left the area of legislation uncharted, it is presumably better to examine it ourselves instead, and indeed to examine political systems in general, and so to complete the philosophy of human affairs, as far as we are able. First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly. For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best and what habits and laws it should follow. Let us discuss this, then, starting from the beginning.