On The Value of Friendship....

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Remember what you said, about being a friend?

The value of friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics has long been connected with his interpretation of virtue, largely because to maintain a good friendship, both parties have to be virtuous. Aristotle believed that, people by nature are social and seek philia (which roughly translates from Ancient Greek to mean friendship, though Aristotle often uses this in its most broad sense), the relation Aristotle examines in friendship, includes any impetus a person has toward associating with others. The Aristotelian conception of friendship is interpreted through three different forms: Pleasure, Utility and Goodness. Where the first two are friendships of accident and tend to deteriorate easily, the last form Goodness is the only form of friendship that is virtuous and thereby worthy of virtuous man/woman. According to Aristotle, friends want to spend time together, share similar tastes, and desire to share in each other joys and sorrows as if they were their own.

Though Aristotle’s conception of friendship has been thoroughly examined, the value of friendship has been left open for criticisms. I believe the Aristotelian value of friendship does not address questions of Intersubjectivity[1] and Misanthropy. Finally, though I believe Aristotle provides a good analysis of the essential properties of friendship[2], I will, briefly, argue that there is an inherent utility function to all forms of friendships.  

“Another disputed question is whether a happy [person] needs friends or not. It is said that those who are blessed and self-sufficient have no need of friends; for they are already supplied with good things: as self-sufficient, then they need nothing more, while a friend is an alter ego who procures for you what you cannot procure yourself; whence the saying—When the god favors you, what need of friends? But it seems strange, while endowing the happy man with all good things, to deny him friends, which are though to be the greatest of all external goods. ” (N.E. IX 1169b) Here, Aristotle questions the value of friendship, believing friendship to be an external Good and, thus, highly sought by virtuous people. Following this logic, this suggests that if one is a virtuous person, then one will seek friendship because it is one of the highest Good and all virtuous people seek that which is Good. This raises the question, among many: If one does not seek friendship (i.e. misanthropic individuals), can one still be considered virtuous?

Aristotle goes on to say that “the good [individual] will need friends to receive benefits from [the other]” (N.E. IX 1169b). This interaction serves as the second self; the relation of a person and her friend is very similar to the relation a good woman as to herself. Aristotle emphasizes that friends pursue the same ends for their own sake, and would not alter any aspect of their friend or friendship. Here, the self is extended beyond one’s own body, and so the happiness or misery of another becomes one’s own. Friendship acts as a bridge between two lands that remain separate but connected.[3] This concept can be, palatably, understood through contemporary sayings like “you are the company you keep” and “tell me about a man’s friends and I will tell you about the man.”

Friends share and magnify the value of virtuous activity (friendship).  “Each admires the virtue of the other, and because this is virtuous also, it adds value.  Each also admires the other’s admiring of his virtue.  And so on.  The indefinitely ramifying love of virtuous activity adds a mutually resonating value as each reflects back the value of the other and is, in turn, the object of resonating valuable attitudes.”[4] Aristotle emphasizes the intersubjectivity between friends. At one polarity, this can be thought of in terms of the Hegelian “Struggle for Recognition” (via Fichte). Where the value of friendship reverts back to a utility function.

 Interesting paradoxes arise from Aristotle’s logic of the value of friendship. “If [her] existence is desirable in itself to the good [woman], being naturally good and pleasant, and if [her] friend’s existence is also desirable to [her] in nearly the same way, it follows that a friend is a desirable thing for her.”(N.E. IX, 1170b) Aristotle reasons that desiring companionship is an extension of desiring the self. However, this reasoning begets the question/paradox of the Misanthrop (understood in Ancient Greek as, mīsánthrōpos.) Though Aristotle insinuates that desiring friendship is a quality natural of a virtuous person, he does not fully articulate the nature of a virtuous person who does not desire companionship. “Now, if he is solitary, life is hard for him; for it is very difficult to be continuously active by one’s self, but not so difficult along with others and in relation to others.” (N.E. IX 1170b) Again, there is a level of truth to this statement, but it can also be said that there exists people who do not wish you interact with others. Meaning, that some people consider solitude a virtue. Aristotle may have chosen not to delve deeper into this criticism because, misanthropic individuals were, and still are, considered outcasts of society (both out of their own will and through the “othering” of society). Consider contemporary, infamous misanthropes: Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and even Moliere’s Alceste. Society is deeply skeptical and abhorrent of misanthrops as much as misanthrops are skeptical and abhorrent of Society and human interactions.

 If we are “naturally” social beings, then can we truly expect to enter into friendships selflessly? Could not this be considered self-refuting? I iterate these questions, not because I wish to impose judgment should it be the case that all friendships have a utility function; but rather, to assess Aristotle’s belief that social interactions are inherent to the human condition. It seems to me, a utility function is required of authentic intersubjectivity. Furthermore, I do not consider this utility function to be necessarily intentional. It may be the case, that the subject is unaware that there is utility function to their friendship, but it is so. “But that which is desirable for [her, she] ought to have, or in that respect [she] will be incomplete…[she] who is to be happy must have good friends.”[5] Here again, Aristotle purports an innate happiness that is tied to ‘having’ friends, believing one to be incomplete otherwise; however, as asserted in the previous section, it seems as if this sort of intersubjectivity allows for a Fichtean definition where self-consciousness is dependent on the resistance of something outside the self. Should this be the case, we can say with certainty that utility is the foundation of human interactions.

 Aristotle offers a good account of the value of friendship. One that logically fits within his framework of ethics; however, through my critique of Aristotle’s analysis of the value of friendship it is unclear whether or not he, truly, completes his task of analysis or if he is, merely, giving a descriptivist theory of the value of friendship. Which leads me to conclude that I might have erred in my analysis or that Aristotle’s character virtue of friendship leads to the discrepancies detailed earlier in this paper.

[1] In the Fichtean sense.

[2] In the Descriptivist sense.

[3] Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics”. Barnes & Noble edition: New York, 2004.

[4] Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics”. Barnes & Noble edition: New York, 2004.

[5] Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics”. Barnes & Noble edition: New York, 2004.