Nicomachean Ethics - Book VIII Summary & Analysis

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Book VIII Summary and Analysis

Aristotle begins a lengthy discussion of friendship that will take up the next two major sections of the work. He notes that friendship seems to be a naturally desirable thing among humans as well as among other animals of the same species. Bonds of friendship seem to be holding communities together and are linked closely with justice. While all seem to agree that friendship is a good thing, there are some points about it that people disagree on, he states. Some believe that people who are similar are likely to become friends. Others note that people who are too similar are often quarreling with one another. Some think that friendship is a higher force that also applies to other natural phenomena. Aristotle puts aside the questions of friendship as a natural force as it does not apply to human activity, which is his subject. He asks whether all people are capable of being friends. He mentions that some think there is only one kind of friendship and that it exists in greater or lesser degree. Aristotle suggests that this belief is incorrect.

Before further examining this question he has posed, Aristotle takes up the subject of what is lovable. He returns to his three "objects of choice" from Book II (p. 21). These are goodness, usefulness and pleasure. These are the three reasons humans have for loving an object or a person. Aristotle removes the love of objects from the discussion, since we do not call that friendship. Friendship is partly love of another person, and wishing what is good for that person, but it is not really friendship unless the love is returned. However, even people wishing well for each other are not called friends, Aristotle continues, unless they are aware of each other's feelings.

There are three kinds of friendship, Aristotle claims, each corresponding to one of the types of love. Those who love each other out of usefulness or pleasure do not love each other for the sake of the other person, but a separate thing that the person provides. These friendships easily dissipate, Aristotle says. If a person loves someone because they are useful to him, he will no longer love him if he no longer is useful. The same is true of those who love for pleasure. If a friend ceases to be pleasing, the friendship will disappear.

Only friendship based on loving goodness is "complete" friendship, Aristotle argues. It is between two people possessing similar virtues who wish well to each other for the sake of the other and not for some benefit they receive themselves. These kinds of friendships take time to develop, he notes, but they also last. They are not common. Aristotle still considers the other two types of friendships to be friendship but only by coincidence. Thus, he has addressed the point he partially dismissed in the opening part of the section that some believe there is only one kind of friendship, but that it varies in degrees. He seems to suggest that there is indeed only one kind of true friendship, but that it does not vary. What others call variations in the level of one kind of friendship, Aristotle calls different types of incomplete friendship.

Friendship is a state, Aristotle says, not only an action. Friendship is not dissolved only because friends are far apart and not actively engaged in friendliness toward one another. It is different from love, since love can also be directed toward non-human objects. It is a kind of equality between good people, Aristotle explains. Even the incomplete kinds of friendship are between equals, Aristotle adds, but the friendships do not last because they are incomplete. Because of this equality, a person who offers friendship is also doing what is good for himself, for he receives back what he gives.

It is possible for those who are not equal to have friendship, Aristotle explains, and indeed these are often good friendships, as those between parents and children and between rulers and the ruled. To maintain an equality, however, the amount of loving in these friendships is proportionate to the difference in equality between the two parties. A ruler must be loved more than he loves, Aristotle claims, for the friendship to have proper balance and be complete.

This notion of equality between friends addresses Aristotle's earlier question of whether similar people are most likely to become friends or not. He has already defined complete friendship as being between good people of similar virtue, so it is clear that he thinks similar people attract. The incomplete kinds of friendship are more likely to be between people who are different, he explains. A useful friendship between a rich person and poor person, for example, or a friendship based on erotic pleasure between two people where one loves the other more than he is loved. These friendships do not last, he reiterates.

Aristotle once again speaks to friendship and justice. They are similar in ways, and related to one another. This is shown by how we commonly judge the severity of an unjust action when it is considered in light of friendship. It is considered far worse to steal from a friend than from a stranger, for example. Friendship is tied closely to community, with different types of communities, such as soldiers, sailors and families, based on particular forms of friendship. All of these communities aim at some benefit for their members, Aristotle remarks, and all are part of the larger political community, which aims for the benefit of all.

Thus, Aristotle moves into a discussion of political systems and the role of friendship in them. He defines three primary types of political systems, each with its own variant, or "deviation." The first is kingship, the second aristocracy, and the third timocracy, or rule based on property. The deviation from kingship is tyranny. The deviation from aristocracy, or rule by the best, is oligarchy, or rule by the few. The deviation from timocracy is democracy. Both are similar in that they are rule by those considered equals. Aristotle notes that families seem to have these kinds of political arrangements as well.

In each of these systems, friendship exists in proportion to justice. In a kingship, a worthy king rules to benefit his subjects, which is a form of superior friendship. This is also the kind of friendship shown between a father and his children. In aristocracy, each person is given the task he is best suited for. This is similar to the friendship between a husband and wife, Aristotle claims, with each taking on the role in the family best suited for them. The friendship between brothers is like the friendship between equals in a timocracy or democracy. There is little or no justice in the deviant forms of tyranny and oligarchy, Aristotle states, hence there is no friendship. Democracy, however, allows for the strongest friendships because everyone is equal and has much in common. Aristotle expands on the subject of friendship within families, noting that it is natural and good. Because friendship is so closely linked to justice, these familiar types of friendship provide a model for acting justly toward one another.

Aristotle takes up the matter of disputes that arise between friends where both are equals, or where their friendship has been equalized in some way. Disputes are most likely to arise in friendships based on usefulness, as these involve getting something of worth from the other person. Friendships based on pleasure to not result in disputes so often, but many times lead to accusations, he says, based on jealousy. Complete friendships between equals do not lead to disputes or accusations, however. In the matter of friendships between those who are not equal, these friendships usually dissolve because each person has an aim that is contradictory to the other. Aristotle will explore this further in the next section.

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