The Virtue of True Friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics

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Words: 2024 |

Pages: 4|

11 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Words: 2024|Pages: 4|11 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Friendship is arguably the most relevant philosophical matter expounded upon in The Nicomachean Ethics. While other virtues may not be practiced on a daily basis, friendship and the implications of such a relationship are somewhat more consistent. Living necessitates interactions and relationships with other people, and Aristotle’s view on friendship offers insight that can be incorporated into everyday life. Aristotle uses his discussion of friendship and its relation to justice to create a foundation for his argument about the function of politics, the “science of the human good,” in society (Aristotle, I, 2, 3). In light of his philosophical dissection of friendship and justice, Aristotle would support a government with a philosopher king as the head of the polis—like Plato presents—though Aristotle’s political system would focus more on the individual fostering of virtue than the creation of a perfect society.

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The virtue of true friendship, as Aristotle defines it, deals with the mutually reciprocated relationship between two good people who bear goodwill towards one another for the other’s sake (VIII, 2, 144). Though Aristotle’s definition seems intuitive, a relationship must meet many qualifications in order to be considered a true friendship. Chiefly, the friendship must be virtuous. Virtue, specifically moral virtue, is a “state of character concerned with choice… this being determined by reason, and by that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it,” (II, 6, 31). People perform virtuous actions for the sake of the action, aiming at happiness—the “final and self-sufficient…end of action”—and not using them as a means to obtain something else (I, 7, 10). Virtue also predisposes an individual to execute virtuous actions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way,” (II, 6, 30). Friendship, which is based on mutual love, is a virtue because “mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character,” (VIII, 5, 148). Therefore, if a man considers himself a friend to another, then that man must make a conscious decision to partake in the activities of friendship towards the other person. Friendship, then, cultivates the actions of true friendship in a desire to fulfill the human telos, or end-goal of the human life. For this reason, friendships of utility and pleasure are not virtuous and quickly dissolve, because they exist so that each party can gain something from the other. True friendship, though, stands the test of time so long as the friends interact on a regular basis. In the case of friendship, both parties unconditionally love each other, constantly, equally, and for the sake of the other.

The differences between friendship and other traditional virtues can be seen clearly when considering friendship and temperance. Temperance is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility, the excess and deficit states of character, while true friendship is the extreme in a sense (III, 10, 55). True friendship is not positioned on a continuum, but encompasses the inferior types of friendship, that of utility and pleasure. Because of this, a true friendship is both pleasurable and useful, but these complementing qualities are not the foundation of the relationship (VIII, 4, 147). The virtue of temperance, rather, is neither self-indulgent nor insensible, because these vices are opposing states of character. In addition, temperance does not require interaction with others, while friendship presupposes social interaction. A person can be deemed temperate if he works on the state of character within himself, but one person cannot establish friendship alone.

It seems that friendship, then, more closely resembles the virtue of justice than any of the other virtues in form and function. Both friendship and justice require a social context. There can be no friendship nor justice with a single person. Moreover, neither justice nor friendship can be exhibited towards an item or unsuspecting person; there must be a mutual recognition of justice or friendship between those involved, otherwise the virtue being shown is simply goodwill. Friendship, like justice, is a virtue for the virtuous, because it requires individuals to have virtue within themselves before they can apply it in relation to others. However, friendship, by definition, includes justice, “the actual exercise of complete virtue,” (V, 1, 81). True friends, unconditionally loving each other for the other’s sake, “have no need of justice… and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality,” (VIII, 1, 142). Because of this, legislature aims to build friendships within the polis, for when friendship is established, justice undoubtedly accompanies it.

Justice directly relates to friendship, and the two virtues “have an equal extension,” (VIII, 9, 153). The truer the friendship, the more justice is expected out of the relationship. Therefore, governments strive to foster the truest friendships in order to maintain justice to the fullest extent. Friendships exist between father and son, husband and wife, or brother and brother, but the manifestation of the friendships and the actions performed by each pair differ depending on the nature of the relationship. In the same way that different relations of friendship form, different constitutions of effective government form as well. The effective government appropriates justice “in every case according to merit, for that is true of friendship as well,” (VIII, 11, 156). Of the effective governments, three constitutions—monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy—exist, each mirroring one of the friendly relations.

Monarchy is the type of government in which a king rules over his subjects. This king is “sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things,” making him virtuous (VIII, 10, 154). His virtue and independence enable him to fully look after the interests of his subjects, and because of his virtue, the subjects trust and honor him completely. Monarchy correlates to the friendship between father and son, in which the father is “responsible for the existence of his children… for their nurture and upbringing,” (VIII, 11, 155). Through monarchy, the citizens grow in virtue and wisdom according to the direction of the king, and the king in turn receives honor and glory from his subjects. The perversion of this constitution is tyranny, in which the tyrant rules over his subjects based on his own interests, and mirrors the relationship between master and slave. In this relationship, “there is nothing common to the two parties; the slave is a living tool,” and friendship—as well as justice—must be mutually recognized (VIII, 11, 156). In a tyrannical political system, as in the master-slave relationship, no justice or friendship exist, for one cannot be friends with a tool. Because of this, Aristotle considers tyranny “the worst deviation-form,” and monarchy—as the opposite of tyranny—the best constitution (VIII, 10, 154).

In an aristocracy, a group of qualified nobility rule “in accordance to worth.” The aristocratic form of government closely resembles the husband and wife relationship, because the husband rules “in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters that befit a woman he hands over to her,” (VIII, 10, 155). In this way, the aristocracy shares the powers with the general public, each working for the success of the polis. Aristocracy degrades into oligarchy when wealth and power, instead of virtue, determine the law. People undeserving of authority are exalted, which leads to the destruction of a functioning political system. Because of this, the amount of justice found in an oligarchy is reduced, just as the pure friendship between husband and wife can be reduced to a friendship of utility.

A timocratic government is the political form in which property owners rule “taken in turn, and on equal terms.” Equality and fairness determine the laws in this type of government, which stem from the fact that the rulers are “like in their feeling and their character,” (VIII, 11, 156). Timocracy mirrors the friendship found between brothers, for “two things that contribute greatly to friendship are a common upbringing and similarity of age,” which help the brothers develop similar beliefs and values (VIII, 12, 157). The distortion of timocracy is democracy, in which all have equal share of the ruling power. Although the legislation may not always be based on virtue, the democratic government is the least distorted version of friendship and justice, because “where the citizens are equal they have much in common,” (VIII, 11, 156).

Considering these forms of government and their corresponding forms of friendship, Aristotle would consider the philosopher king as the ideal head of government. In The Republic, Plato explains what he sees as the most pure and effective form of government: a monarchy with a philosopher king—constantly seeking truth and filled with virtue and phronesis, or practical wisdom—who determines the laws and gives them to guardians to implement and enforce (Plato, V, 473d, 153) . In Plato’s regime, the guardians are stripped of their individualism in order to more fully serve the city (VIII, 543a-c, 221). All of the citizens, except the philosopher king, would be raised believing in the noble lie, a lie intending to direct people towards virtuous action (III, 414a-415a, 94). In order for this type of government to begin, children would be taken from their parents, raised with a curriculum to foster wisdom and virtue, and a new city would be established with the children (VII, 541a, 220). Although Aristotle—from his discussions of justice and friendship—agrees with the philosopher king as a monarch, he would have a much different approach to the foundation of such a political system.

Aristotle believes that monarchy establishes the truest form of justice, because it parallels “the friendship of children to parents, and of men to gods.” The god-man relationship represents true father-son friendship, because the gods “are the causes of their being and of their nourishment, and of their education from their birth,” (Aristotle, VIII, 12, 158). The friendship between gods and men is the purest form of friendship, for gods are “above all other beings blessed and happy,” (X, 8, 197). Because the gods exemplify happiness, they are also the most virtuous and contemplative. Fittingly, the king would be a philosopher, a man whose life is also directed towards the contemplative and virtuous. The king—who has the greatest sense of virtue and justice—helps his subjects grow in virtue beginning at the establishment of the city. The subjects, based on their love and respect for the king, abide by his laws, which serve to foster virtuous action and discourage vice. Because virtue develops from habitual action, eventually, the laws will make the citizens of the city virtuous.

Aristotle does not find a noble lie or a blank slate necessary to create a virtuous city and, in fact, may view it as detrimental to the end-goal. In Plato’s system, the general public would have no true sense of virtue but would simply follow the laws established (Plato, V, 474c, 154). Though this would help the public achieve virtuous action, they would not be virtuous by Aristotle’s standards, because they lack the practical wisdom and right motivations. Additionally, Aristotle’s philosopher king would utilize, rather than destroy, the friendship between children and their parents as an extension of his virtuous laws into the household, further training children in the habits of virtue. In these ways, Aristotle would found and maintain the truest political system.

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The manners in which Plato and Aristotle would form and preserve their ideal governments reflect their approaches to philosophy. While Plato in The Republic applies the rules of the polis to the human condition, Aristotle asserts that one must cultivate virtuous personal character first before a political order can be established. Because of this, Aristotle’s approach to establishing an ideal government focuses on the people, creating friendship between the ruler and his subjects first, which in turn creates justice and encourages more virtue. In Aristotle’s ideal city, the subjects actively participate in the political system and in the development of virtue, rather than blindly follow legislation. The virtue of friendship enables the foundation of a just society and the cultivation of virtuous people, and Aristotle’s ideal polis depends on the maintenance of true friendship. Friendship, then, provides the basis of Aristotle’s political philosophy, in that same way it provides the grounds for human life.

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The Virtue of True Friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics. (2018, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from
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