Archive for April, 1996

In order to try to better understand the different ways in which the moral virtues are exhibited and understood, on the one hand, by the person pursuing the theoretical life, and on the other, by the one who seeks the practical life, I propose to briefly look at the specific moral virtue of courage as understood by Aristotle.

A) Practical Courage and Its Complexities

In a lengthy section of Book III, Aristotle lays out his basic tenets regarding courage. The courageous, in order to truly exhibit her virtue, must know what she is doing, choose it for its own sake, and do so from a fixed and permanent disposition (1105b33). Moreover, her choosing involves aiming at the mean lying between rashness and cowardice as determined rationally by the prudent man (1107a1).

Practically speaking, the truly courageous are those who face the greatest terrors that humans can face, those of the battlefield where the dangers are “greatest and most glorious” (1115a30). City-states honour their dead; presumably then we would expect Aristotle to base the choosing of courageous actions as the means to the, more important, survival of the community by safeguarding the conditions for the common good. But Aristotle wants instead to investigate the viability of choosing the moral life for ITS own sake, not for anything external to it (only later to be considered under the banner of justice). This is the reason why for Aristotle civic courage, though the most akin to moral courage, is not quite it. The civically courageous yearns to receive something in return for what she knows involves the greatest of self-sacrifices, death. What moves her to act is truly something outside the action itself, namely the honour bestowed on those who are remembered as martyrs of the community. Now, if the greatest courage involves death in the battlefield, and such actions cannot be grounded on one’s own love of one’s country, then one is puzzled and led to ask, what precisely is the courageous rationally choosing, in choosing to die for its own sake?

According to Aristotle, having negatively characterized what courage is not, it should not be difficult to grasp what courage actually is (1117b22). But, if our target is that of happiness, at the core of which lie the moral virtues in a complete life (1101a16), and which is pleasant in itself because virtuous actions are pleasant in themselves (1199a14), it looks as though courage as virtue stands quite at odds with such a goal.

Aristotle tells us that the pleasurable in courage lies in the end obtained, just as boxers who receive punches, but in the end gain glory (if they win). So, and if the analogy holds, the courageous human will endure death and wounds “because it is a fine thing OR because it is a disgrace not to” (1117b8). (The ‘or’ revealing the tension between choosing it for its own sake, or for something else).

In the case of the happy human the conflict reaches its peak for his life is pleasurable and supremely worth living; “he will be distressed at the thought of death” (1117b10). However, as morally virtuous, she will choose, and more bravely than any other, to give up his life “because in preference to these blessings he chooses a gallant end in war” (1117b14)

B) Contemplation and courage

In Book X, *6, Aristotle reminds us that happiness involves activity chosen for its own sake; in it nothing is required beyond the exercise of the activity. (1176b9). Strikingly, it seems he still maintains that happiness consists in activities in accordance with virtue (1177a9, reminding us of 1098a16 in BK. I).

Chapter *7 therefore is quite illuminating in that it points to a reconsideration of the possibility of human happiness through the activity of contemplation; the “highest virtue” in us corresponding to the best in us (1177a12). Not only is this activity the most continuous, the most perfect and self-sufficient, one seeking no end beyond itself, but that which is most akin to the divine. The gods are the supremely happy beings, and we ought therefore to aim, not simply at living according to mortal thoughts, but instead, “so far as in us lies, to put on immortality” (1177b33).

Herein lies “the perfect happiness of man” (1177b33), not simply the secondary kind of “happiness” associated to the actions of the morally minded human. Politics and warfare (courage being as central virtue to both), lack the necessary leisure (1177b9) and are chosen for something external to themselves (1177b16). Moreover, all the virtues cataloged by the morally minded, are unworthy of the gods (1178b15), who instead are dearest to those engaging in the contemplative life (1179a28).

Given all this, in the case of a courage demanding situation, how will the contemplative human act? Will he run away leaving his friends and the city which is worthy of defending? Will he not seek to preserve himself instead?

Although the contemplative human is the most self-sufficient, he can practice contemplation by himself, Aristotle is quick to point out that “he does it better with the help of fellow-workers” (1177a33). Besides, like the moral human, the contemplative is in need of external necessities such as that of a healthy body (1178b31), and friends (1170b12). But in excess these can even become a hindrance (1178ba). Aristotle quotes both the man of practical affairs (Solon) and the man of wisdom (Anaxagoras) as agreeing on the  limited importance of such external accessories. The happy human might turn out to be “an oddity in most people’s eyes, because they judge from outward appearances” (1179a12). But how precisely would this human regard courageous action? Who could be such a courageous human?

Perhaps one ought to consider a being such as Socrates whose courage was displayed both in words and in deeds. He was courageous, not only in the battlefield, where particularly in retreat he shone like no other in the defense of his worth-while city and worth-while friends (Symp. 220 , Laches 181b), but also in the world of the struggle for articulation and clarification. The contemplative Socrates tries to get clearer on the nature of courage in the Platonic Laches. Although the dialogue seemingly ends in Socratic aporia, for he tells us “what I don’t advise is that we allow ourselves to remain in the same condition we are now” (201a), it carries the seeds to move beyond aporia in the very picture of Socrates. Socrates’ quest is one of self-understanding and courageous questioning of his and other’s way of life. Socrates will fight, but he will do so nowhere better than in the realm of understanding. Perhaps even deaths will follow and new re-births from a wise human who leads us “into giving an account of (our) present life-style and of the way (we have) spent it in the past” (187e). However, unlike Socrates, Aristotle, whose work so questions us while at the same time aiding us in clarifying our perplexities, did not choose the hemlock.

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 The very fact that Aristotle dedicates two complete books to the issue of friendship, coupled with the strategically important positioning of the discussion —–suspiciously close to the final considerations on the supreme value of the contemplative life and its relation to happiness—— immediately lets it known to the reader that she is entering what is both difficult and decisive territory. It is no small wonder, then, to see many questions flourishing as one pursues their reading: why are they situated in between two discussions of pleasure? Why are they broken down into two Books  separated by a seemingly untruthful “so much for our discussion of this topic” (1163b28)? Why did Aristotle not simply write one single Book, however long it might have turned out to be? Is he simply giving us a friendly break so that as listeners of his lectures we can digest all the information and gather our minds? Is there something to the fact that the discussion on friendship as expressed in the household and in the city is taken up in the first book? Is Aristotle pointing towards a form of friendship which somehow goes beyond all conventional links, just as natural right went beyond, or better, completed, its legal or conventional counterpart?

  These questions are indeed puzzling and difficult. But to begin to get clearer on some of them, however imperfectly and indirectly, I would like to center this essay on the difficult and sometimes obscure relation between the most perfect form of friendship, the noble variant, and the possibility of self-love. What exactly does Aristotle consider to be the characteristics of the former? Is the noble friend simply a selfless being intent of benefiting his friend over everything else? Is the self-lover identical to the happy human? Is Aristotle pointing towards a new form of self-love which goes beyond its conventional understanding?

  Although the issues I will explore in addressing some of these questions are still very undeveloped, in order to do so I propose to divide the essay into three sections. In the first I will begin by focusing on the three kinds of friendship as outlined in Book VIII; in particular by paying attention to the problematic relation between the inferior kinds based on utility and pleasure, and how still in the higher form these two elements seems to persist though perhaps modified to a great extent. In the second section I propose to look more closely at some of the aspects found in Book IX, particularly by looking at what kind of agent Aristotle has in mind when speaking of self-love, and contrasting her to the happy human being from which, if I understand the chapters involved correctly, she is quite distinct.. Finally, and all too briefly, I will take up some of the differences between Montaigne’s understanding  of friendship and Aristotle’s own position, particularly by centering on the death of one’s friends, and the consequent impossibility of attaining the fullest happiness achieveable by human beings.

   However, even before taking up the issue more closely, one must remind oneself continuously that Aristotle only once, in the whole of the Nicomachean Ethics (except of course for the very title itself),  refers to his friends. He does so early on in the complex discussion on the nature of the Good and the Platonic Forms. There he tells us: “yet, surely it would be thought better, or rather necessary (above all for philosophers) to refute, in defense of the truth, even views to which one is attached; since although both are dear, it is right to give preference to the truth” (1096a11-14). That among Aristotle’s friends one finds a Plato clearly sets quite a high standard on the nature of friendship, but that even in such a case there is something which goes beyond the allegiance to friends ——namely, a friendship of the truth—– is more telling indeed.




  Having extensively praised the value of friendship as necessary to us humans even at the levels of the family and the political community, Aristotle proceeds to question the different views on what friendship has been taken to be (1155a32). In so doing once again Aristotle tries to clarify for us the internal workings of something we take to be central to our human self-understanding.

  Divergent answers have been given regarding the question “Who are friends?”, and in order to clarify where the possible nobility of friendship lies, Aristotle is led to ask among other things, whether there is one kind of friendship or several ones. Without even waiting for a reply Aristotle immediately tells us: ”those who think that there is only one, on the ground that it admits of degrees, have based their belief on insufficient evidence, because things that differ in species also admit of difference  in degree”. (1155b13ff) Now, if I understand this passage correctly, Aristotle seems to be arguing that there exist different kinds of friendship just as there are different kinds of fruits: apples, peaches, and even sour lemons. So it would be odd, for instance, to compare apples and oranges. But moreover, even within each distinct kind of friendship there seem to be varying degrees of perfection, so that some apples are more fully developed apples than others. And some lemons much more bitter than others.

  In order to begin to understand what these different species of friendship are, Aristotle asks us in chapter 2, to consider what is and how many are the objects of affection. Not everything is loved by us, Aristotle argues, but only the good, the pleasant and the useful (1155b16). Seemingly it is these three things which set us going, which somehow are sought as satisfying in different ways the needs we as humans have. However, Aristotle sets a sharp demarcatory line between the first two, the love of the good and the pleasant,  and the love of the useful. Only in the loving of the good and the pleasant do we aim at ends in themselves; in contrast, the love of the useful seems to involve a relation purely of a means towards an end. The latter, one could say, requires a relation of pure instrumentality. Now, given this sharp separation it seems not odd to ask: if all benefit is fundamentally the use of another to further one’s own good and pleasure, then, can there really be a truly selfless friend? Moreover, are not the good and the pleasurable, the things which are particularly “beneficial” to the soul, to the furtherance of its intellectual strength and emotional health?

  We know, having read on, that Aristotle will ground his three kinds of friendship upon these different objects of affection (which suspiciously do not include in them the beautiful), but instead of immediately listing these, Aristotle instead reminds us of something already asked before: do we humans love the Good simply/absolutely,  do we not love the good as somehow good for us? What would it mean to love the Good if loving it involved somehow transcending our bodily desiring nature, our human neediness? Would this not be a desire to end all desire, an objective which paradoxically ends human longing as we actually know it? Cautiously Aristotle answers our questions by telling us: “It seems that each individual loves what is good for himself; i.e. that while the good is absolutely lovable, it is the good of the individual that is lovable for the individual” (b24). The good, it seems, cannot be see independently of its being good for someone.

  (This discussion, of course, reminds one of the critique held against Plato’s conception of the Good. There, although Aristotle accepted the plausibility of the Platonic argument about whether it is not necessary to gain knowledge of the good  in order to attain the goods of practical life (1097a2-5), he criticized it primarily because in the realm of ethical and  practical affairs involving human conduct, one deals with particular individuals. So too the doctor centers his activity not so much on achieving health for human beings but rather the health “of a particular patient, because what he treats is the individual” (1097a12-14).)

   It looks as if  because the good is good for someone, Aristotle is led to remind us also that we humans do not in reality love what is good, but what appears  to us to be so (1155b24). This would seem to imply that our needy nature can at times go radically astray, missing the mark. This perhaps because many a time we may not be clear on ourselves, on what and why we desire what we do. Would not our friends, and our friendship to others, precisely allow us to clarify ourselves so as to get clarity on this appearance?

  However, be that as it may, it is only after having provided us with the tripartite division of the objects of affection, and reminded us of two earlier  central points, that Aristotle finally returns to his discussion of friendship (1155b27). We speak of friendship where we sensibly can expect some return of affection. As humans it seems as though friendship gives us something which inanimate objects (perhaps even the books we love) cannot provide. This is so because in the case of inanimate objects we cannot wish for the good of the object. In  contrast, it is characteristic of friendship, Aristotle tells us ‘they’ say —–it is not clear precisely who this ‘they’ are—– that we “ought to wish (our friend) good for his own sake” (1159b30). Friends are truly friends when such a wish becomes reciprocal and mutual affection sets in.

   But after having heard this one cannot but be puzzled. Did not Aristotle say just a few lines before that what the individual loves is precisely what is, or at least appears, good for himself? Is it possible then to simultaneously seek the good for ourselves while at the same time arguing that what we really do in seeking friends is actually to do the good for the other? Moreover, if the lovable objects upon which the different kinds of friendship will be based, involve not only the good but also the pleasant and the useful, then how precisely do we, for instance, ‘use’ our friends as means, while almost contradictorily at the same time claiming that when we do so we are actually seeking their good  and not ours? Will good friends not have to redefine the foundations of their mutual benefit? However, did Aristotle not say that the different forms of friendship were different in KIND, not in degree?

  Having quietly alluded to these puzzles Aristotle finally  gives us his famous tripartite division of the kinds of friendship.  The three forms correspond neatly to the three objects of affection: there is a friendship based on utility, another on pleasure, and the final, most perfect friendship, on goodness. All of these, Aristotle claims, are characterized by involving not only mutual affection known to both parties, but also a wishing “for each other’s good in respect of the quality for which they love (each other)” (1156a7). Bewildered we are led to ask once again, does Aristotle seriously entertain the idea that when we enter into relationships of utility we are actually doing a good to the other? This is particularly problematic in view of the fact that Aristotle points out, when we desire the good of the other in terms of utility or pleasure, we are primarily motivated by our own good, not that of our friend: “these friendships (being)  accidental, because the person loved is not loved on the ground of his actual nature, but merely as providing some benefit or pleasure” (1156a17-8). Now, if this is true, then how do good humans ever end up feeling a need for the other?

  Having said this Aristotle now proceeds to characterize each friendship. The friendship of utility is of an impermanent nature and found primarily among the elderly and middle aged, specifically those centered on seeking their own advantage. This allusion to the elderly, who are continuously regarded as difficult to be friends with and even linked to the sour (1158a5),  reminds the reader of Cephalus’ concern for money in the beginning of the Republic. No wonder then that, as the Book progresses, we will be told that it is these relationships which for the most part “give rise to complaints because since each associates with each other for his own benefit, they are always wanting the better of the bargain, and thinking that they have less than they should, and grumbling because they do not get as much as they want, although they deserve it” (1162b17ff) (see also 1157a14).

 Friendships based on pleasure, in contrast to the utilitarian ones, are characteristic of the young of whom, from the start of the book, we are told tend to follow their feelings (1095a4ff). Although this might sometimes lead them astray, this too makes them much more capable of having a more generous nature (1158a22). In this they differ from the instrumentalist. However, they share with them the fact that their friendships are anything but long lasting: their erotic impermanence proves ground even for some Aristotelian humour: “that is why they fall in and out of friendship quickly, changing their attitude often within the same day” (1156b3-4). What kind of friendship would prove both much more permanent and agreeable?

  It looks as though to find such characteristics we have to turn to the third form of friendship, the one founded on the goodness of both (or more) parties. At first we are told that this friendship stands in stark contrast to what we have been told about the other two. It seems as though only until now do we come up with a real selfless mutual regard. It is the friendship “of those who are good and similar in their goodness” (1156b5) who alone are capable of wishing their friends good for what they are essentially, and not simply accidentally (1156b9).

   However, as the discussion moves on Aristotle proceeds to make a very puzzling remark, one which seems to run counter to what was argued before. According to him at this level “also each party is good both absolutely and for his friend since the good are both good absolutely and USEFUL to each other. Similarly they PLEASE one another too; for the good are pleasing both absolutely and to each other” (1156b13-16).  (see also 1157a1-3) Saying this seems to imply that the three forms of friendship are then not really like different fruits, but rather like one fruit capable of perfection in all its constituent elements. Does this not come closer to the way we perceive friendship? If so, would this not allow us to better comprehend how it is that the good humans, which are desiring beings like all of us, by somehow transforming what they take to be pleasurable and useful, nonetheless see in the pleasurable and the beneficial the starting ground for the full-fledged formation of mutual goodwill?

   Aristotle explicitly stresses the fact that even at this level both parties receive a benefit (11565b9). And moreover each provides the other, through his healthy outlook and flourishing nature, the possibility of pleasure: for “everyone is pleased with his own conduct and conduct that resembles it” (1156b17). And this is much more so of those who are good. However, if this is so why does the good friend not simply turn out to be a mirror of self-satisfaction, rather than a window for self-comprehension and that of the world? What if this mirror, as we shall see in Book IX, ends up being somewhat stained?

  Of course Aristotle goes on to tell us that such relationships are extremely rare among us humans, not only because these friends need intimacy and time to know each other —— Aristotle uses the example of eating salt together which seems to portray the idea not of happiness but rather of making it together “through tough times”—— but also because of the fact that these good men only become friends once they have proven, and know each other is worthy of their love (1156b23-29). But if this is true, how is it possible then for some good humans to actually be deluded, thus falling into utility or pleasure based friendships? (1157a15).

  It seems then that the good humans are not blind to the pleasure and the benefits that accrue from engaging in conversation and spending time  with each other. But what they seem to find pleasurable and beneficial seems to be radically different from what is normally taken to be so. Perhaps part of the answer starts to develop in Chapter 5 where Aristotle reminds us that friendship involves not only a state and a feeling, but primarily an activity. Likewise it seems as though it is not a chance affair  that,  here for the first time in the whole discussion of friendship, Aristotle mentions the happy human being. We are told that nothing is so characteristic of friends as spending time together because they are agreeable to each other. And in an oddly situated parenthetical remark we are told “those who are in need are anxious for help, and even the supremely happy are eager for company, for they above all are the least suited by a solitary existence” (1157b20-20).

  Happiness comes back onto the stage, but it does very indirectly, silently. Happiness too, we were told in Book I involved activity, it was precisely the end of all actions. (1097b19-21) Perhaps only later on will it become clearer what this activity, in the case of friends, might involve. However, we are reminded too that friendship involves a state, a permanent disposition from which good choice emerges in accordance to moral virtue. Particularly in the highest form of friendship, the good friends choose each other, and choice we know “is either appetitive intellect or intellectual appetition” (1139b3-4). When choosing a friend then desire has a say, and this Aristotle clearly argues as we read on: “for when a good man becomes a friend to another he becomes that other’s good; so each loves his own good, and repays what he receives by wishing the good of the other and giving him pleasure” (1157b30-31). In the case of the happy human too that pleasure is central, for she would not even pursue the Good “if (s)he found it unpleasant” (1158a24).

   Now,  also in the case of the happy human being the paradox we alluded to in friendship, seems to recur. The friends of the happy human seemingly are not Gods, for Aristotle tells us friendship with the gods is impossible because between us and them there lies too great a gulf (1159a6). This is why it seems that in the case of the happy human, if she acts for the sake of the good of the friend, he must wish for his friend to remain human: “so if we were right in saying that a friend wishes his friend’s good for his friend’s sake the latter must remain as he is, whatever that may be. So his friend will wish for him the greatest goods possible for a human being. And presumably not all of these; because it is for himself that everyone most of all wishes what is good” (1159a 10-12). Now this seems unproblematic except for the fact that in Book X we will be told something quite striking, true happiness lies in contemplation and this kind of life involves a move beyond the merely human “for any man who lives it will do so not as a human being but in virtue of something divine within him .. and we ought not to listen to those who warn us ‘man should not think the thoughts of man’” (1177b26 and 31-32). The happy human too seems to be caught in the tension between seeking his own good, and at the same time, seeking the good of his friends. However one is led to ask, is the divine self-sufficiency towards which the happiest and healthiest of humans strive, comprehensible to us in our human terms which precisely involve needy friends? Will Book IX, in which the problematic relation between friendship, self-love and happiness is discussed allow us to, however faintly, get clearer on these questions?




 Aristotle resumes his discussion of friendship in Book IX by placing particular emphasis on the motives that underpin the mutual affection between friends. Again he reminds us once more that the highest form of friendship, that founded on character, is reeally disinterested (1164a13). This is an assertion which would seem to take us back to the paradox to which we alluded in the previous section. However, already in chapter 1 new information is given to us. In speaking of the relationship between what is due to a benefactor Aristotle suddenly, out of the blue, mentions philosophy. An activity which in its very name alludes to a kind of friendship, a friendship of wisdom; the useless activity in which Anaxagoras and Thales were engaged (1141a5). In contrast to the Sophists who require a pay back in monetary terms for their services, the benefits accrued by philosophy involve a strikingly unique payless payback: “presumably it is enough if (as in the case of the gods or one’s parents) the beneficiary makes such a return as lies in his power” (1164a5). Perhaps the highest possible form of friendship between humans is founded on such a perception of mutual benefit. But, according to Aristotle this view is inconceivable for most who tend to see the relation between beneficiary and benefactor as analogous to the relationship between a creditor and a debtor. They do so because they are looking at things from the “dark side”, something which Aristotle tells us “is not inconsistent with human nature, because most people have short memories and are anxious to be well treated than to treat others well” (1167b26). Generosity seems not to be the order of the day amongst most.

  To this sudden unexpected appearance Aristotle adds in chapter 2 a reminder about the methodological difficulties involved in dealing with practical affairs. In considering the actual complexities of the problems involved in our friendships —–in particular our conflicting allegiances, our friends, the household, the city—– Aristotle reminds us that “it is perhaps no easy matter to lay down exact lines in such cases, because they involve a great many differences of every kind” (1164b27-8) (see also 1165a12). One is led to ask, why does Aristotle wait until this point to remind us of this? Why not mention it at the beginning of Book VIII with its contradictory assertions? Is Aristotle letting us know here that the classificatory divisions set in place are somehow in Book IX more closely tied to actual practical conflicts such as the grounds for dissolving friendship?

  It is by focusing on the latter that it becomes clear that the clear cut divisions and assertions found in Book VIII, are revisited and enriched. Take for instance the, perhaps all too frequent, cases of deception and self-deception among friends. Even though previously we have been told that friendship among the good makes  slander an impossibility (1157a21), it seems as though sometimes things can, and do go wrong. This is particularly so when “when the basis of their friendship is not what (friends) suppose to be” (1165b6). This is puzzling, particularly in the case of good friends, whom we were told only become friends precisely after they know that each other is worthy of their affection. How then does it happen that sometimes they can be deceived by the other so that in such case it is correct to protest  “even more than if it had been a case of uttering false coin, since the offense concerns something more valuable than money” ? (1165b11).

  We would expect Aristotle to somehow tell us that in such cases the good must somehow run for cover and protect his own good. However, astonishing as it might seem, Aristotle tells us that even if the other turns out to be, or even appear like a villain (one here is somewhat confused and is led to ask, what does ‘appearing like a villain’ mean?),  the good friend ought to stay and, as far as possible, help out. This is of course not in cases of utter depravity (but how would a good man ever end up with an utterly depraved one?), but in those cases where a transformation of the situation is possible: “those who are capable of recovery are entitled to our help for their characters even more than for their fortunes, inasmuch as the character is a higher thing and more closely bound up with friendship” (1165b18-20). Here, one could think  of a friend of ours who due to difficult circumstances has sought, or had sought, refuge in drinking or worse. It seems as though sometimes friendships do involve sacrifices, but in  surpassing them there lies too the strongest of goodwills possible. (Perhaps we know this because we have found ourselves in difficult times, and yet have not failed to remain our own best friends).

 Perhaps then, by looking at the feelings we have towards ourselves, we might understand why it is that it is possible both to seek our own good while at the same time that of our friends. In chapter 4 Aristotle claims that not only the feelings we have towards our neighbors, but also the characteristics of the different kinds of friendship, SEEM to be derived from our feelings to ourselves (1166a1-3). He then proceeds to do three things: i) to tell us how it is people define friends (1166a3ff), ii) to tell us how the morally good man defines himself (a11ff), and finally, iii) to tell us, not exactly how the bad human defines himself, but how the good man, as standard, sheds light on the torn nature of the bad humans; who, besides, according to Aristotle are the majority (1166b2).

  Will we finally arrive at an easing of the tension between the seeking for our good and that of our friend. It does not seem so. This is so for if one looks at the lists characterizing the definition of a friend and that of the feelings we hold towards ourselves, not only do they vary in order and are actually transformed as Aristotle goes through them, but more importantly, seem to  stand in outright conflict at times.

  The first and most obvious tension is that to which we have alluded throughout: while we define a good friend as one who first of all wishes to effect the good or apparent good for us, the healthy feelings towards ourselves involve seeking the good for us, not for another. But, another more striking tension seems to come to light when we realize that a good friend is he who wishes the existence and preservation of his friend for his friend’s sake. Now, in the case of our friendly feelings towards ourselves we desire not only our preservation and safety, but Aristotle goes on to say, the preservation of the highest part in us. What to do then in the case of life-threatening situations in which the life of our friend and ours is at stake? Precisely in such extreme situations the tension between our preservation and our friend’s comes to light. However that may turn out to be, after looking at the different characteristics, Aristotle concludes that self-love “it would seem from what we have said ….. IS possible” (1166b1-2).                                           

   But, exactly what is involved in this self-love which leads to goodwill towards our friend? As we have seen it seems to imply a reconsideration of what is to be understood as beneficial between the strongest and healthiest human beings. And not only that, but a reconsideration of what is beneficial to ourselves, that is to say, in what self-love lies. According to Aristotle “the author of a kindness feels affection and love for the recipient even if he neither is nor is likely to be of any use to him”. The theme of disinterest comes to the surface once again. This time it is exemplified most clearly in the works of the poets who regard their creations even as their children (1168a1). Aristotle allows us to see what is going on in the creative activity of the poets. A poet’s creations provide the artist no other benefit than that of a self-clarification which never ends, but is a continuous process founded on a rare and strong openness, few have, towards the world and themselves. Just as in the case of the poets the benefactor loves his handiwork better than work loves the maker. As to why this is so is explained in a complex way, one which prefigures the discussion of the need for friends of the happy human: “The reason for this is that existence is to everyone the object of choice and love, and we exist through activity (because we exist by living and acting); and the maker of the work exists, in a sense, through his activity… the maker loves his work, because he loves existence. This is a natural principle for the work reveals in actuality what is only potentially” (1168a4ff). Benevolence allow friends to mutually make themselves into beings who delight in their seeing what is potentially in them flourish in different forms. However both in the case of poets and benefactors somoething is lacking; neither of them is “loved” back by their work, which is precisely what we somehow expect from our friends.

  Presumably if we look at the issue of self-love we will start to move beyond this paradox. In chapter 8, where the discussion of self-love finds its climatic formulation, Aristotle mentions two conflicting views. The first view of self-love seems to involve a two-sided coin. Under this view people believe that the self-lovers are truly bad men whose chief concern is only with their selfish motives. And simultaneously, on the other side of the coin, these same people view the good man as the complete opposite, namely the purely self-less individual who acting from fine motive does everything “for sake of his friend and neglects his own interest”  (111168b2). As regards this two-sided camp founded on the view “that a man should love his best friend most”, Aristotle is quick to tell us that it is not surprisingly, not borne by the facts (b3-4).

  To this position, I think,  Aristotle counters another starting at  (b4) with the following words “But a man’s best friend is the one who not only wishes him well but wishes it for his own sake (even though nobody will ever know it); and this condition is best fulfilled by his attitude towards himself” (1168b5). Unlike the previous camp built on absolute self-sacrifice, and perhaps getting something in return for it, this new camp is seemingly not so interested in what others might think. It is primarily concerned on what the person thinks about himself for  “a man’s best friend is himself” (1168b9). These two broad camps inevitably stand in conflict with each other, and Aristotle is quick to point this out: “naturally it is hard to say which of these opinions one should follow since each has some plausibility” (1168b10).

  In order to clarify what underlies each camp, Aristotle tells us that we ought to get clearer on the different ways that people view self-love. One way, which is that of the first camp, is to link it to the irrational cravings of humans seeking more than their share in goods such as money, public honours and bodily pleasures: “because most people have a craving for these, and set their hearts on them as the greatest goods, which makes them objects of fiercest competition” (1168b18ff). Immediately after having mentioned this first side of the coin, Aristotle points out that on the other hand the person performing just (which implies acting for the sake of the good of another) or temperate acts and in general acting honourably (which seems to involve a desire for public recognition), of this exceptional kind of person, “certainly nobody would reproach him for being a self-lover”. (1168b27).

  It seems to me that Aristotle is here still taking us for a voyage in the geography of the first camp, the one in which selflessness is the basis of true self-love. This person “might be considered to have a better title to the name” (1168b28). Why so? This is so because just as was argued in the feelings towards oneself he wishes what is good on account of the intellectual part in him (1166a18) and  this human being assigns himself what is most honourable and most truly good (1168b32). Moreover, this human acts voluntarily through reasoned acts so that in comparison to the self-lovers who incur reproach he is “far superior … as life ruled by reason is to life ruled by feeling, and as desire for what is fine is to desire for an apparent advantage” (1169ba7)

  It seems then that we have found the true self-lover, who in loving himself actually does the good thing for his friend. However, is the self-lover Aristotle speaking of here really that selfless, benefiting the other without himself seeking some kind of return? Would this human act as he does even if ‘nobody will ever know it’? Or does this human really bring to an end the paradox of friendship alluded to in section I, as Aristotle seems to argue “and if everyone were striving for what is fine, and trying his hardest to do the finest deeds, then both the public welfare would be truly served, and each individual would enjoy the greatest goods, since virtue is of this kind” (111169a12).

 It seems as though we have reason to be rather optimistic. However, this optimism seems to collapse once Aristotle tells us a little more about the kind of actions in which this selfless self-lover is engaged. According to Aristotle this morally good man, presumably engaged in moral and noble friendships, “performs many actions for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary even dies for them. For he will sacrifice both money and honours and in general the goods that people struggle to obtain, in his pursuit of what is morally fine” (1169a19). The most noble of friends seems to desire even death before upsetting the recognition of others. This becomes more evident yet if one looks closely at the actions in which this self-lover is involved. In reality, if I understand it correctly, his disinterest seems to hide a craving for something more, some kind of payback for his activities. This would seem to account for the fact that this human would rather have intense pleasure for a short period of time rather than quiet pleasure for a long period of time, live finely one year rather than indifferently many and, more strikingly yet, do one glorious deed rather than many petty ones. 1169a23-5). Do this actions not evidently involve something beyond pure  selflessness, so that even the most selfless act is done out of a need for public recognition: “this result is presumably achieved by those who give their lives for others; so their choice is a glorious prize”? (1169a25).

  Somehow these words ring a bell. They stand, I believe, as a striking reference to the portrait of the magnanimous or high-spirited human “who does not take petty risks, nor does he court danger, because there are few things that he values highly; but he takes great risks, and when he faces danger he is unsparing of his life, because to him there are circumstances in which it is not worth living” (1124b6). The magnanimous human in his actions clearly disrupts two of the fundamental factors involved in the possibility of achieving human happiness: first, the fact that  happiness involves a complete life time (1100b20 and 1098a20), and second, the fact that the happy human is, of humans, the most self-sufficient (1097b21). Moreover this form of self-lover, who is ready to give up his life for recognition, clearly is tied to an inferior view of courage namely, that of civic courage which, though the closest to real courage, is not courage precisely because of its linkage to public recognition (1116a28). It is worth recalling too the few words dedicated to the happy human in that specific discussion, the happier he is “the more he will be distressed at the thought of death. For to such a man life is supremely worth living; and he is loosing one of his greatest blessings and he knows it and this is a grievous thing” (11711ff). Happiness seems to require a new view of what self-love is all about.

  In this sense it is really illuminating to find that the chapter which follows the discussion of  self-love (which I take has really moved only in the field of the first camp), deals directly with the happy human and the question as to whether she needs friends or not. Why introduce this question precisely here? Does Aristotle intend us to consider what a new conception of self-love with a view to happiness would require? What would be the “needs” of this most complete human type?

  As was the case with the discussion on self-love, also here Aristotle finds two conflicting camps. According to the first, the happy human needs no friends for she is wholly self-sufficient, needing nothing further to complete his existence (1169b7). To this position Aristotle immediately counterargues that this position seems quite odd for it is strange not only not to assign the happy human friends, who are the ‘greatest of external goods” and allow her to confer benefits upon them, but also  because it is paradoxical to have the happiest human living in solitude while humans are characterized by being social creatures. These two “arguments” thus point to the need for the happy human to have friends. (1169b23).

  Having said this, Aristotle goes on to look more carefully at the first camp: “what then, is the meaning of those who uphold the first view, and what truth is there in their argument?” (1169b23). The idea that the happy human needs no friends stems from the erroneous popular conception of friendship conceived solely in terms of utility or pleasure. (1169b26-28). Of the first, the happy human has no need, of the second “only to a limited extent”. It is because of this that the happy human is thought not to need friends, “but this is presumably not true” (1169b29)

   The happy human seems to need friends, but friends of a particular nature. In him the need for another seems to have been so transformed that a new kind of benevolence shines forth. But how exactly is this so?  It seems that some of it has to do with a process towards our self-formation. In trying to make it clearer for us Aristotle returns to the very beginnings of the Nicomachean Ethics.   

  Although the arguments put forward by Aristotle are extremely complex and difficult to follow, I will try to understand in what general direction they are moving. Happiness, Aristotle told us way back, (1098a7, 16, b31) is a kind of activity. Now, if friendship brings about the possibility not of extreme self-sacrifice, but of mutual enrichment then it too involves a kind of activity. Both friendship and happiness then involve not a possessing of something already given, but more precisely a task and a work which must be given time to grow its fruits and reproduce them both in oneself and in others. Happiness, Aristotle tells us, consists  in living and being active, but not just living for the sake of preserving life; more importantly living so as to bring to light those activities which stand as highest possibilities for us human beings. Now, among the multiple and concentrated arguments put forward by Aristotle in what is a weird rush, he alludes to the value of a friend as guarantor against the possibility of self-deception: as Aristotle puts it in an important conditional statement, “if we are better able to observe our neighbors than ourselves, and their actions than our own” (1169b33-4). Presumably we do not only delight in sharing in the birth and rebirth of another human being intent on exploring his capacities, but we do so primarily because we too, to an extent have sworn allegiance to this never ending process of change. As Aristotle puts it, in order to fully enjoy life, the happy human needs others for it is difficult to “keep up continuous activity by oneself” (1170a6). Friends stand as references and guides towards mutual goals.

   Finally, and in order to defend the view that happy humans do need friends, Aristotle provides his reader with a set of very complex and scientific arguments. (Only twice has Aristotle used scientific arguments previously: in his critique of Plato, and in his reference to Socrates’ doctrine concerning the impossibility of weakness of the will). In what is a tidal wave of intricately interconnected arguments, I would like to signal some in particular. First of all one finds in them a position which stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the self-lover of chapter 8. Here in contrast we are reminded that for the happy human “Life is in itself good and pleasant (as appears from the fact that it is sought after by all, especially by those who are virtuous and truly happy, because their life is in the highest degree desirable and their existence the truest felicity” (1170a26). Second, and in contrast to the exclusive reference to the  rational part which the self-lover gratifies (1168b34), here in contrast the highest involves much more than this: “hence it appears that to live is primarily to perceive or to think” (1170a17) and furhter down “to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our existence” (1170a33). Third, we are reminded that this capacity for perceiving or thinking is a “capacity relative to its activity, and its realization is dependent upon the activity” (1170a17); in other words, it is a determinate activity, one in which a potentiality is capable of  being actualized. But how, more precisely, can such activity be brought to the fore in all its strength?

  As a conclusion to his long and complicated scientific argument, Aristotle points out:

            If all this is true, it follows that for a given person the existence of his friend is desirable, or almost as desirable as his own.. But as we saw, what makes      existence desirable is the consciousness of one’s own goodness and such      consciousness is pleasant in itself. So a person ought to be conscious of his             friend’s existence, and this can be achieved by living together and conversing            and exchanging ideas with him — for this would seem to be what living    together means in the case of human beings; not being pastured like cattle in             the same field (1170b5-13).


The happy human’s type of self-love is primary, and from it flows his goodwill towards others whose existence is “almost as desirable as his own”. But though clearly of the most self-sufficient kind, this human nevertheless knows quite well of a strong bondage which becomes redirected with another’s presence towards higher pleasures and benefits. This  is why although Aristotle, unlike Plato is puzzingly silent about erotic love, he nevertheless sees in its passionate force something akin, though distinct from the strongest friends. (for the strength of the desire as compared to that of lovers see 1171a8ff and 1171b30).

   These happy human beings realize that the consciousness they aim at is not itself a given, but must “be actualized in their life together” (1172a1). All humans know of this desire to share in the occupations and activities which “constitute… (their) existence or makes life worth living”. Some, Aristotle goes on to tell us, seek each other simply to drink, other to play dice, yet others to engage in athletic competitions. But some see in the philosophical way of life that which provides them with the highest satisfaction (1172a5). As contrasted to the friendship of what Aristotle considers to be the “worthless”:

            the friendship of the good is good, and increases in goodness because of their         association. They seem even to become better men by exercising their      friendship and improving each other; for the traits that they admire in each       other get transferred to themselves. Hence the saying: From good men goodness     (11728-13).


Engaged in the mutually enriching activity of good happy humans, these friends together,, but without having become one, come slowly to perceive and act on that terrain within which goodness is nourished and flourishes by some for us to try to emulate.






  To conclude this already too extensive essay, in this final section I would like, briefly and very sketchily, to hint at some of the striking differences one finds between Montainge’s views on friendship and the one’s already addressed in Aristotle.  However, rather than being a fully developed section, I take this final words to be more like an incomplete appendix which, perhaps later on, might be delineated and completed much more fully. In trying to make sense of the differences between both authors I propose to follow a numerical ordering. Of course the different themes  interact in deep ways, but for the sake of clarity such ennumaration may end up proving helpful.

   But before looking at Montaigne himself one can always remember Freud’s own words, found in Civilization and its Discontents, regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered on a strong bondage between lovers. For him “the weak side of this tehnique is that we are never so defenceless agaisnt suffering as when we love, never so helpelessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love“ (Penguin, 270). Words which seem to fit quite perfectly the whole underlying position of Montaigne.

  Now, some of the striking differences that one finds between the Greek and  French thinkers are:


1) Montaigne begins his essay by attempting to imitate  a painter who fills a wall with grotesque and fantastic pictures “having no other charm than their variety and strangeness” (161). He himself perceives his own works  as “grotesque bodies, pieced together of sundry members, without definite shape, having neither order, coherence or proportion, except by accident” (161). This imitation, not of nature, but of the grotesque, stands in outright conflict with the whole Aristotlian position which sees in nature a teleological ordering of which we form a part, and without which the highest form of happiness seems inconceivable.


2) Montaigne throughout his essay frequently refers to, either the intervention of chance or god’s will, in his attempt to comprehend how incredible it seems to him that a person such as de la Boétie somehow came to be part of his life. As he puts it: “preparing the way for that friendship which we cherished, so long as it was God’s will, with such entirety and such perfection …. It needs so many concurring factors to build it up that it is much if fortune attains to it in three centuries” (162) (or elsewhere: “I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought this union …. I believe it was by some decree of heaven” (166)) However, according to Montaigne himself it is this God which has taken the friend away from him: “which I/ Shall ever hold, for so ye gods have willed/ sacred to grief and honour without end” (171) In contrast, as we saw, for Aristole, not only is there a gulf between us and the Gods (which are of a very different nature than Montainge’s), but likewise friendship involves choice, not simply an inarticulate fate.


3) Montainge’s emphasis on the type of bond which comes about among friends reflects a loss of self in which one even turns out to have the other in his power. This position cannot but remind one, to what occurs to Aristophanes’ half creatures permanently looking for their other halves in order to achieve true completion (though it is not by any means identical for Aristophanes speaks of erotic lovers; and ‘eros’ is strangely absent froom Aristotle’s account). As Montainge puts it: “in the friendship I speak of they mingle and unite one with the other in a blend so perfect that the seam which has joined them together is effaced, and can never be found again”  (166). (or elsewhere “It is I know not what quintessence of all this mixture which, having seized my whole soul, brought it to plunge and loose itself in his” (167); ”the complete fusion of wills” (168); “one soul in two bodies” (169)). This particular outlook seems to deny the view that, as we saw, for the happiest most self-sufficient human, the existence of his friend is “almost” as desirable as his own; ‘almost’, but not quite the same.


4) From Montaigne’s emphasis on a strong fussion between friends, follow demands which perhaps to others, who have not experienced such proximity, appear wholly irrational. As Montaigne puts it: “this answer carries no better sound than mine would do to one that should question to me in this fashion: “If your will should command you to kill your daughter, would you fdo it?. and I should answer that I would. For this carries no proof of consent to such act, because I have no doubt of my own will, and just as little of the will of such a friend. No action of his, what face soever it might bear, could be presented to me of which I could not instantly find the moving cause” (167). (and elsewhere: “should trust myself more willingly with him than with myself” (168)) For Aristotle it would seem odd that a friend would even make us entertain such thoughts. And as we know, Aristotle criticizes even friends of the caliber of Plato precisely because their outlooks might prove, in the realm of pratical life, to have diverse shortcomings. Likewise, Aristotle struggles as we saw above with the possibilities both of deception and self-deception among what amy appear to be even the noblest of friends.


5) Tied to the previous remarks, one finds a difference regarding the actual number of friends one can have. For Aristotle in the case of the happy human: “presumably there is no one correct number (of friends), but anything between certain limits” seems reasonable (1170b30). It is true that Aristotle does remind us that in friendships “the celebrated cases are reported as occurring between two” (1171a14). But his understanding of the helathiest friendships is not limited to two beings fused together by the power of a Hephaestus. In contrast, Montaigne tells us about his most perfect form of friendship: “(it) is indivisible; each one gives himself so entirely to his frriend that he has nothing left to distribute to others; on the contrary, he is sorry that he is not double, triple or quadruple, and that he has not several souls and several wills, to confer them all upon this ONE object” (169). Montaigne had one friend in his life, and now he has departed.


6) Yet another striking difference partially alluded to above, lies in the actual reference to particular individuals in the analysis. We know exactly who Montaigne is talking about, though we are not so clear as to the character of his friend. But this seems to be not a fundamental problem for him because he speaks only to those who have actually experienced such a mutual belonging:: “so I also, could wish to speak to such as have had experience of what I say. But knowing how remote a thing such a friendship is from common practice and how rarely it is found, I do not look to meet with any competent judge. For even the discourses of antiquity upon this subject seem to me flat in comparison with the feeling of it. And, in this particular, the facts surpass even the precepts of philosophy” (170). The attack on writings such as that of Aristotle seems to be  very poignant and clear. However, it is likewise true that Montaigne fails to see that in Plato something like what he speaks of can be seen not only in the confrontation between Alcibiades (and in a different sense Aristophanes) and Socrates in the Symposium, but also in the type of “symbolic” pederasty found in the beautiful Phaedrus.


7) And this brings us to another discrepancy between both writers. There seems to be in their view of friendship a struggle between poetry and philosophy. Montaigne finds in the poets the only words to express the force and strength of what he as needy human being feels. Thus he persistently quotes writers who have experienced what he, right now feels burdens his heart with an overwhelming weight: “Why should I linger on, with deadened sense/ and ever-aching heart/ a worthless fragment of a fallen shrine?/ No, no one day hath seen thy death and mine” (172). Now, this tragic overtones, though comprehensible to Aristotle, nevertheless are precisely what stand in the way of actual human self-sufficiency and the completeness required in order to pursue the contemplative life. Thus is speaking of whether we need friends in good or bad times, Aristotle tells us: “a man of resolute nature takes no care to involve his friends in his troubles ….; and in general does not give them a chance to lament with him, because he himself does not indulge in lamentation either” (1171b6ff).


8) The previous difference brings us to the last and most fundamental clash between both perspectives. Just as in Freud, for Montaigne it is painfully clear that the death of his friend has so marked his life that it is a blow from which he cannot nor sees how it is possible to recover. Life without him is a life of nebulosity in which all lights have been exhausted, and consequently all consciousness fades. If it were not because of the grace of God such condition would truly be unbearable:: “For in truth, if I compare the rest of my life, though with the grace of God it has passed sweetly and easily and, except for the loss of such a friend, free form any griveous affliction and in great tranquility of mind, seeing I was content with my natural and original advantages without seeking others, if I should compare it all, I say, with the four years that were granted to me to enjoy the sweet company and society of that man, it is nothing but smoke, nothing but a dark and irksome night” (171). Montaigne is now only half of what he once knew was possible, namely a oneness of unspeakable strength and beauty. In contrast to such a life devoid of happiness and concentrated on “tranquility”, Aristotle tells us, as part of the “scientific argument” to which we alluded at the end of our second section: “we must not take the case of a vicious life and corrupt life, or of one that is passed in suffering, because such a life is indeterminate, just as are the conditions that attach to it” (1170a22-4). The happy human is not content with what is given her, but seeks as far as possible to allow and foster, with the desirable presence of others, the growth of what as humans, and more than humans, we are capable of.





A) Primary Sources


Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, Penguin Books, London, 1rst- 1953, 1988. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson.


Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1934, Translated by Jacob Zeilin. Volume I, Essay 28,  pgs 161-173.

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