Friendship in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Books 8 & 9

Friendship . . .is a virtue and is besides most necessary with a view to living.

Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods;-Aristotle

Friendship is perhaps the highest summit of the moral life. in which virtue and happiness are united. Friendship is a worthy outlet for the talents and energies of great-souled people. Friendship likewise completes and goes beyond justice. The goodness shown in noble friendships seems higher than justice because it is entirely dependent upon one's own character and choice and is not defined or compelled by law. Acts of friendship seem both more truly generous and more conducive to one's own happiness than acts done strictly because they are moral. Acting for the sake of what is good means having primary regard for one's own virtue and the good of one's own soul, whereas acting for a friend seems to be self-forgetting. And spontaneous acts of friendship tend to be more pleasant than impersonal acts of virtue for the doer as well as for the recipient.

--Lorraine S. Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship, p. 7.

Good relationships, and especially friendships based on admiration of the good qualities of one's friend bring the best out in people.

-Gerard Hughes, Aristotle on Ethics, p. 176

Aristotle is concerned about individual happiness, but he devotes a great deal of time to discussing how individuals can live well with others, how they can be good citizens and good friends.

First, remember that

a) we are social animals. Our good is the good of a being that lives with others and so must in some way be bound up with the good of others.

b) the prime virtue is justice: the expression of other virtues insofar as it brings about good for others.


c) finally there is the major social virtue of philia (“friendship”): the virtue of getting along with others in a number of different ways.

Aristotle distinguishes philia/friendship from other related virtues:

Goodwill is to recognize what would be good for someone else and to wish that it come about. We are capable of recognizing what is good for someone and then to wish that good for him or her.

Love/eros, on the other hand,

Aristotle further distinguishes three kinds of friendship:

these reasons differ from each other in kind; so, therefore, do the corresponding forms of love and friendship. There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable; for with respect to each there is a mutual and recognized love, and those who love each other wish well to each other in that respect in which they love one another. Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant. Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.

Friendships of pleasure are those relationships where we hang out with people because they amuse or entertain us. Pleasure friends wish each other pleasure. These friendships are not based on the other's character but on his wit or attractiveness and they can change rapidly. Pleasure friends cease to be friends when one becomes bored with the other, e.g.

the friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure; for they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and what is immediately before them; but with increasing age their pleasures become different. This is why they quickly become friends and quickly cease to be so; their friendship changes with the object that is found pleasant, and such pleasure alters quickly. Young people are amorous too; for the greater part of the friendship of love depends on emotion and aims at pleasure; this is why they fall in love and quickly fall out of love, changing often within a single day.

Friendships of use are those relationships based on mutual advantage, where we hang out with people who do us some good; business acquaintances, e.g. Use-Friends wish each other something of use. Like pleasure-friends, use-friends can easily stop being friends; they do whenever one is no longer of any use to the other. Such friendship can be criticized, says Aristotle. The members of a drug ring might be use-friends, e.g.

It would probably be more accurate to call these friends “acquaintances.” They are not “friends without qualification,” but only resemble true friendship.

Good men will be friends for their own sake, i.e. in virtue of their goodness. These, then, are friends without qualification; the others are friends incidentally and through a resemblance to these.

I want to focus on True Friendships: relationships based on mutual admiration of character.

Philia, while ordinarily translated as “friendship,” isn’t quite the same as our ordinary concept of friendship.. Philia is a wider term than friendship; it includes some relationships that we would not call friendships. Aristotle says that to qualify as a friendship a relationship has to

I. The Nature of True Friendship

Julia Annas says:

A friend, then, is one who (1) wishes and does good (or apparently good) things to a friend, for the friend's sake, (2) wishes the friend to exist and live, for his own sake, (3) spends time with his friend, (4) makes the same choices as his friend and (5) finds the same things pleasant and painful as his friend.

True friendship thus requires:

though this is consistent with occasional periods of dislike or irritation. But the dominant tone must be one of affection and even love, of attraction to (even sexual attraction), of wishing to spend time with the other and to share things

To care about something is generally to find it worthwhile or valuable in some way; caring about one's friend is no exception. A central difference among the various accounts of mutual caring is the way in which these accounts understand the kind of evaluation implicit therein. Most accounts understand that evaluation to be a matter of appraisal: we care about our friends at least in part because of the good qualities of their characters that we discover them to have. . . Other accounts, however, understand caring as in part a matter of bestowing value on your beloved: in caring about a friend, we thereby project a kind of intrinsic value onto him. . .

Of course, within friendship the influence need not go only one direction: friends influence each other's conceptions of value and how to live. Indeed, that friends have a reciprocal effect on each other is a part of the concern for equality many find essential to friendship,

Friendship,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

friendship is not merely an attitude of liking for another, even if that attitude is mutual. Like all virtues, friendship must be active. So friends must do things together, share experiences. And the point of sharing these experiences must be because one enjoys being with one's friend.

friends engage in joint pursuits, in part motivated by the friendship itself. These joint pursuits can include not only such things as making something together, playing together, and talking together, but also pursuits that essentially involve shared experiences, such as going to a concert together. Yet for these pursuits to be properly shared in the relevant sense of “share,” they cannot involve activities motivated simply by self interest: by, for example, the thought that I’ll help you build your fence today if you later help me paint my house. Rather, the activity must be pursued in part for the purpose of doing it together with my friend, and this is the point of saying that the shared activity must be motivated, at least in part, by the friendship itself.--Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I have an acquaintance who used to be a friend: 30 years ago we were together constantly; but for the last 20 we have lived far apart and spend very little time together. Despite the fact that we still like each other and think of each other as friends, Aristotle would say that we are no longer friends because we no longer share experiences.

Those who live together delight in each other and confer benefits on each other, but those who are asleep or locally separated are not performing, but are disposed to perform, the activities of friendship; distance does not break off the friendship absolutely, but only the activity of it. But if the absence is lasting, it seems actually to make men forget their friendship

with friends men are more able both to think and to act . . . character friends live together, not in the way animals do, by sharing the same pasture, but “by sharing in argument and thought.”

The point is that the friends “share” a conception of values not merely in that there is significant overlap between the values of the one friend and those of the other, and not merely in that this overlap is maintained through the influence that the friends have on each other. Rather, the values are shared in the sense that they are most fundamentally their values, at which they jointly arrive by deliberating together.

Given these necessary elements one can see why one will not have many true friends.

It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word “friendship,” any more than it is to be in love with many people at once.”


It should be clear that Facebook friendship is not true friendship by Aristotle's standards.

Thus we see why Aristotle thinks friendship is so important to living a good life: it includes many of the social relationships we find ourselves in and provides us with occasions for exercising virtue of a high sort towards others.

II. Duties to Friends

the gravity of an unjust act increases in proportion as the person to whom it is done is a nearer friend. It is, for example, more shocking to defraud a bosom companion of money than a fellow citizen, to refuse help to a brother than to refuse it to a stranger, or to strike one's father than to strike any other person. It is natural that the element of justice increases with the nearness of the friendship.

We have, that is, special moral relationships to friends (which remember includes lovers , spouses, parents/children, and many family members).

This is clear enough in some cases of friendship. We all recognize that parents have duties toward their children that strange adults don't have.

In friendship, there is a mutuality of affection, sharing, concern and trust. This mutuality is the basis of special responsibilities. It isn't merely that it is nice for friends to help, to provide psychological support, but that we expect friends to act this way, are surprised if they don't, and frequently feel betrayed. . . if they intentionally let us down.” Annis p. 5

Part of these special duties of friendship stem from the responsibilities caused by expectations. A friendship creates expectations that one's friend will help in certain ways and those expectations create a responsibility in one's friend to do so.

Friendship involves various voluntary and consented-to interactions and shared activities. As the friendship develops, an intricate web of reciprocal and mutual dispositions, beliefs, understandings, feelings, etc., develops. The understandings frequently are not even explicit. The pattern of interaction and understandings give rise to legitimate expectations about caring, support, honesty, etc. This is true of particular friendships, but also true of friendship as a general pattern of interaction. Given our understanding of typical interactions in friendship, this reinforces and plays a role in the development of understandings in particular friendships. When a friend doesn't live up to those expectations, we feel that there has been a breach of understanding.

--Annis p. 7

Notice that these are special responsibilities that go over and above the normal moral responsibilities we all have toward each other.

Consider the example of your car not starting when you need to get to a job interview. You would expect a friend to drive you to the interview and would be disappointed in a friend who did not. To not help seems to be inconsistent with the claim to be one's friend. But if a stranger or a mere acquaintance were to refuse to help we wouldn't feel betrayed or disappointed to the same degree. And if a stranger did help we would think he had gone out of his way, had done something above and beyond his moral duty to us, whereas the friend who helps merely does what we would expect.

If we consider the content of the duties of friendship, we see that they are constitutive of the relationship in the same way that the duties of parenting are. We expect friends to be trustworthy, open and honest, loyal, to be concerned for our welfare, to comfort, help and support us, etc. These are constitutive of being a friend.

Annis, p. 5

That is, Annis says, to go above and beyond the moral duties one has to strangers is part of what makes someone a friend, it is “constitutive” of friendship.

III. The Value of True Friendship

What would a world without friends be like? Annis says this:

It would be a world of cool, thin, and somewhat disinterested relations. We would have acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors ... but with whom would we share our lives, our joys, our innermost feelings? With whom could we be ourselves, spontaneous, open and fully trusting? It usually isn't important to us that some people don't like us. But being liked by some "significant other" is important to us. The kind of caring, concern, and understanding exhibited in friendship affirm our worth and enhance self-esteem. It may be possible to have a community of acquaintances and no friends, but what is lost would be sorely missed. Friendship, it must be admitted, adds an important element to our lives. It isn't merely that having friends promotes utility; instead our lives would be significantly less full

1. The first value of friendship is that it is a necessary constituent of a thriving flourishing life.

For a trait to be a virtue, it must tend to foster human life in extensive and fundamental ways. It must be a trait that connects with a variety of human goods in such a way that its removal would have a significant detrimental impact for good human life, that is, for living well the sort of life that is characteristic of human beings. Thus honesty, truthfulness, fairness and restraint are virtues, since they make possible activities and institutions necessary for people to live in communities. Aristotle adds that friendship is indispensable for human life and happiness.


So friendship is a necessary part of human flourishing. Given that we are social creatures, building relationships with others is a natural function, and friendships occur when we build these relationships well. Aristotle seems to believe, in fact, that someone without any true friends, would not even be truly human, much less a thriving human leading a good life.

The sort of shared activity characteristic of friendship is essential to one's being able engage in the sort of activities characteristic of living well “continuously” and “with pleasure and interest” Such activities include moral and intellectual activities, activities in which it is often difficult to sustain interest without being tempted to act otherwise. Friendship, and the shared values and shared activities it essentially involves, is needed to reinforce our intellectual and practical understanding of such activities as worthwhile in spite of their difficulty and the ever present possibility that our interest in pursuing them will flag. Consequently, the shared activity of friendship is partly constitutive of human flourishing.

2. The second value is that friendship gives one a kind of necessary self-knowledge.

Aristotle claims that living well requires that one know the goodness of one's own life; however, given the perpetual possibility of self-deception, one is able accurately to evaluate one's own life only through friendship, in which one's friend acts as a kind of mirror of one's self. Hence, a flourishing life is possible only because friendship gives one a certain kind of information, necessary for moral growth.

3. The third value lies in friendship being the incubator of virtue

Friendship is the sphere of social relationships where it's easiest to be virtuous. Since one's friend is “another self” so that what hurts them hurts you, what helps them pleases you, doing the right thing with respect to one's friends is bound to be more pleasant than doing the right thing toward strangers or even friends of pleasure or use.

Finally: Can we have flourishing lives?

Let's look at some examples of happy and not-so-happy lives.

One Aristotle scholar says that eudaimonia is like a desert flower; it blooms only briefly but is very beautiful when it does.

It does seem that Aristotle believes that truly thriving lives are going to be somewhat rare. Why should that be?

  1. It's hard. It requires a lot to thrive, says Aristotle. One must have a certain amount of knowledge about oneself and about human nature which means one must battle ignorance and self-deception. One must understand what the true ends of life should be. One must be capable of arranging one's life as a rational pursuit of the final end. One must cultivate the good judgment to make the appropriate choices of what to do and one must master one's emotions. Not everyone may be up to the challenge. And even if one manages to do all this:

  2. Bad luck can prevent us in any number of ways

    1. We may be deprived of a good enough education to develop the intellectual skills necessary.

    2. We may be raised to be vicious without a sufficient store of natural virtues upon which to build. Our community might be vicious with no good role models from which to learn and in which good people are laughed at as suckers or fools.

    3. We might not have the resources to do anything but just live. If one is homeless and hungry, if one has to spend all one's time and energy just staying alive, one is not going to be able to do what is necessary to live well.

    4. One can be struck down by catastrophes: one's family could die, one could find oneself in the middle of a civil war or an epidemic of horrible disease. One can get terminal cancer.

    5. One's moral responsibilities can prevent the realization of one's dreams. Sometimes being happy, that is, pursuing one's own dreams requires a certain amount of selfishness but Aristotle says that we should not be selfish in this way; we should put the good of others first. You may be asked to give your fulfilling life to take care of one’s aging and dependent parents