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Know well your Friends

Friendship and self-knowledge in Aristotle’s Ethics.

by David Foss

Within the Nicomachean Ethics, friendship appears relatively late in the game. In some ways it may appear to be something of an appendix to the main topics of consideration there: human excellence and the flourishing life. Its treatment, in many places, assume a sort of “applied” feel. ‘Here is where our previous work may be seen in action, with respect to a few topics close to our hearts.’

There are two reasons Aristotle discusses friendship where and how he does. First, friendship is that domain of the good life least likely to be misunderstood in a selfish light. That is, friendship is a sort of activity which not only fosters and sustains ones own virtues, but directs our attention, while still with respect to the good, away from oneself. Friendship is one of the only virtues (or human excellences) dealt with in the Ethics which does not directly concern the (moral) prosperity of the individual: here, on no uncertain terms, we ought to be concerned with the well-being of another.

Second, friendship lies at the intersection of the Ethics and the Politics. The treatment of friendship, more clearly than any other single portion of the text (including, surprisingly, justice), speaks from a picture of human flourishing also found at the core of Aristotle’s Politics. Where else, but in friendship, is the essentially political or social nature of the human animal more readily apparent? At the very least then, the treatment of friendship must show us how the Ethics and the Politics concern the same human life, even where they may speak of different aspects (or levels) of that life. This will not merely be a matter of weighing his treatment of justice in the context of friendship; but will more importantly be a matter of examining his treatment of the role of friends (in all of their forms) in the life of the good and excellent person.

What is more, with friendship we finally have a glance at the way in which we might obtain or cultivate knowledge of the good for ourselves. Elsewhere knowledge of the good through practical wisdom, or the character/habit of choosing well under specific circumstances, is lauded, even defined, in itself. But the actual vehicle for gaining insight into one’s own nature, such that the good for one’s self becomes clear, is never directly investigated. How does the runner come to know, as he should, the appropriate distance for him to run? We are told what it is like for him to know his good with respect to running (or more pointedly: with respect to the particulars of his physical person in the context of running); but stop short of discovering how he comes to possess such knowledge. How do we come to know ourselves: our limits, our talents, our habits good and bad; and not merely think we know these things? Friendship, it is proposed, gives us the missing key: our friends (of a specific sort) are the keepers of the self. It is in the context of a friendship, arising from a mutual recognition of virtue (or excellence) in the other, that our eyes open to the particulars (about ourselves) that our choices must reflect.

Friendship, then, occupies a doubly important position in the ethics. Not only does the matter of justice lead us to the ramifications of our being social animals; but phronesis itself demands a pedigree of sorts in our friendships. Being a social animal, then, is not merely a matter of finding pleasure in the company of persons like ourselves, with whom we may converse and cooperate, for the survival of our kind; but also a matter of finding in companionship of a certain sort, the tools for opening an eye upon the ends appropriate to oneself. Friendship (of the perfect sort), being a special kind of partnership, is not necessary with a view to living; for, as Aristotle would say, what is necessary for this is [merely] living in a political community. Rather, the perfect friendship, or a friendship which strives toward this ideal, is necessary for living well.


Aristotle begins his treatment of friendship with an itemization of the most immediate or common sense reasons one would do well to have friends. In brief, he names friendship as (1) a meritorious context for beneficence; (2) good for the maintenance and security of prosperity, in terms of both wealth and power; (3) a refuge from hardship; (4) the context best suited to guard the young from error; (5) and most able to counter the deficiencies of age (facilitating, as it does, the actualization of our will, where our constitution is overly weakened by age or illness); (6) prompting noble actions at the prime of life; and finally (7) enhancing ones own intellectual and behavioral powers beyond the limits imposed by individual natures (I can, with a friend, exercise a greater variety and reach of both thought and action, such that together we may achieve a more lasting and profound effect upon the world).[1]

It is clear from the start that he considers friendship central to making life a thing one would choose.[2] Presumably this has something to do with the way in which friendship enables the good person to be good. Each of these initial points speaks to some respect in which the friend will help us exercise our virtue were such virtue exists, and will help us find such virtue were it does not yet exist. But we must be careful, even from the start, not to paint the portrait of friendship such that its usefulness becomes its dominant feature; nor even that its capacity to make life pleasant comes to dominate our image.

Aristotle famously divides friendship into three kinds: those founded by a recognition (with respect to, and by virtue of, the companionship of the friend) of the good; those founded by a recognition of usefulness or utility; and those founded by a recognition of pleasure.[3] With each, certainly, there is both wishing for the sake of the friend (in each of the three regards), and knowledge that this wishing is reciprocated by the friend towards oneself. Nevertheless, this preliminary sketch of friendship seems to locate the value of having friends instrumentally in the degree to which they may enable to good person to exercise her virtue. And this should immediately be seen as a mistake: the friendship of the good (called variously “perfect friendship”, “character friendship”, “virtue friendship”, and so on), while useful and pleasurable to the virtuous person, is not brought into being or sustained because it (or the friend) is useful or pleasurable. Thus, the same error might occur were we to stress too forcefully the degree to which perfect friendship brings pleasure or happiness to the good person.

So, in what respect will a friend make life choiceworthy? Or shall we rather say: in what respect or respects is the activity of friendship essential to the choiceworthiness of life? Stated this way, it is clearer how Aristotle might respond without sounding as though he is reducing the desirability of friendship to a utilitarian or pleasure principle with respect to living. That is, engaging in friendships of the appropriate sort — directed at the appropriate ends and springing from the appropriate motivations — is an activity without which life would scarcely seem valuable; not because friendship makes it so, but because the sorts of activity which does make it so (pursuing one’s nature, or refining one’s virtue) are not possible without it.

This is a bold claim, and it is a claim which Aristotle must be seen to support; for the alternative [interpretation] entails not only a weak defense of friendship, but an analysis that is very likely incoherent. For how are we to understand the difference between the three kinds of friendship, if the final justification for friendship of the perfect sort rests on its being pleasurable and useful to the good person? Perfect friendship may be these things (i.e. useful and pleasurable) for the good person. But it cannot be important or essential to the life of the good person for these reasons. We are left, then, with the claim (from the start of Aristotle’s treatment of friendship) that friendship (stated plainly, though clearly referring to its “purest” form) is necessary to make the possession of every other kind of good meaningful and relevant to the life of any person: “For nobody would choose to live without friends, although he were in possession of every other good.”[4]

But how can friendship do this? To this point in the Ethics it seems as though the pursuit of virtue is a matter of internal struggle to and for the individual. Friendship, innocently enough, is introduced as a topic relevant to virtue, maybe even being a certain virtue. It is quickly revealed as an activity of a fundamentally different sort than previous virtues, but the language remains committed to a picture of friendship as just one more good and pleasant activity. This is even true to some extent throughout the extended discussion of friendship and the state; where the kinds of rule, and the types of justice, are delineated according to the different sorts of friendship possible among people. On the surface at least, it is not until we are asked to “examine the question more from the point of view of nature,”[5] that we finally receive something of a full analysis of the link between this activity called [perfect] friendship, and the good (i.e. characteristically human) life.

At first glance, we might be tempted to give this story a rather self-centered reading.[6] Friendship is a sort of worldly echo of the good that is in oneself. If a woman be good, she will find pleasure in the company of another, so that the good which is in her may appear in the world: bringing a greater pleasure both by the good in her friend, and by the manifestation of her own good in the friendship. This might at first seem a description of friendship which positions the friend outside of the initial goodness of the virtuous person. The friend enables us to see our own good in a special light; but, it seems, we are only thereby seeing a goodness which was already within us. We are happy in our goodness, and made even more happy by the presence of a good friend.

The argument, if it is to tell us how friendship is necessary, would seem to demand a more careful reading: We live to the extent that we think or perceive such. Furthermore, the good of such living resides in its being “determinate”: in it possessing integrity of a certain sort, or being directed to a certain end. The good life, then, will consist in activities which aim at definite goals, or consistently pursue certain ends. Nothing is more readily definite with regard to its goals, or certain with respect to its ends, than the ordering of chosen means (in action) to chosen ends. And no activities are more directly open to scrutiny in this regard, than those of the self. With my self, I can see not only that life occurs, or that it is in some manner determinate, but I can see precisely how it is determinate (which it will be to the extent that I am good or virtuous). And this, presumably, brings a pleasure and value to living in itself. But, again, where is the friend? As another individual — with respect to whom I may have insight, seeing the ordering of desires, motives, chosen ends and means, and see the actions that arise from these things — I may, in a manner faintly resembling my own case, see more clearly than anywhere in the world the determinateness of life (assuming again the virtue of my friend).

We might remark, rather flippantly: the friend, after all, is a “second self”, and it is not the case that the self is a “first friend” properly speaking. The friend remains in the rather interesting, but incidental, light of merely providing another lense through which one might see the good in living; a view one always has, or appears to always have, in the context of one’s own actions. Indeed, Aristotle continues:

Now his being was seen to be desirable because he perceived his own goodness, and such perception is pleasant in itself. He needs, therefore, to be conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place.[7]

But what does “being conscious of [my] friend as well” have to do with perceiving my own character? Notice that here we are not speaking about mere existence. For it is not merely the good person’s being which is mentioned, but her goodness. Notice also, that the sort of “living together” appropriate for friends suggests that there is a kind of self-recognition involved in intimately shared activities. The good person “needs” to realize her goodness in the existence of a good friend; a friend in whose company one shares (praiseworthy) thought and activity.

Too much can be made of this comment. And it may seem that I am trying presently to make too much of it. The general tone seems to remain one in which the friend only enters the picture after one has begun to appreciate one’s own character or existence. But let us continue, leaving this aside for now:

If, then, being is in itself desirable for the supremely happy man (since it is by its nature good and pleasant), and that of his friend is very much the same, a friend will be one of the things that are desirable. Now that which is desirable for him he must have, or he will be deficient in this respect. The man who is happy will therefore need virtuous friends.[8]

Now we have a problem. John Cooper suggests that we not take Aristotle literally here, when he says of the good man “that which is desirable for him he must have.”[9] Certainly, there will be many things desirable (in some sense) which we may never experience, or have the opportunity to experience, simply because there are so many of them (as there are many [particular] activities which are both good absolutely, and pleasant to the virtuous person), and because we only live for a finite amount of time. There is just so much one might do, and do from virtue, that one could not possibly hope to do everything “fine” one might be able to do. But the problem for the present argument is not the questionable nature of this claim per se. The problem is that this seems to radically recast the course of the argument preceding it.

The principle aim of that argument now seems to have been to show that friendship is merely a thing desirable. While we might be inclined to agree in most instances (friendship being in general pleasant and good), this hardly seems sufficient grounds for the claim that friendship is necessary for or needed by the good person.

But here we may be misinterpreting what Aristotle counts (in this context) as desirable for the good man. For certainly he is not thinking of such things as particular games, or particular friendships, but rather of the category of activity which falls under the name friendship. Here, it might certainly be the case that failure to engage in a sort of desirable activity will count as a deficiency. To fail to have friends, or to fail to engage in friendship for the good, one is not being active in a way in which persons qua persons must be. Certainly, it would be ridiculous for Aristotle to assert that ‘being a friend of Gloucon’ (or insert the name of your favorite “fine” individual) is necessary for the happiness of the good man; even if it were true that such a friendship were desirable, and absolutely so. He must, therefore, have in mind the activity of ‘friendship with virtuous persons’, and the desirability of this sort of being, which is necessary to the good person.

But why is it necessary? It is necessary, here, because it is desirable. But it is a desirability that arises not from a larger class of activities of which friendship is a kind: like chess, which may be desirable (and even absolutely so — i.e. desirable to the good and fine individual, or as a function of the person’s being) for the way in which the mind is stimulated and engaged, but whose desirability resides in it being an activity of a certain sort, and not in it being chess. Friendship is desirable in itself, absolutely. It is a sort of activity natural to the political animal, and which cannot be actualized without the participation of another, as a partner in virtue.

... friendship is a partnership, and as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case the consciousness of his being is desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend’s being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so it is natural that they aim at this.[10]

But, again, this is not (or cannot be) somehow an assertion that it is by perceiving the being of our friend, we perceive ourselves. Only that the pleasure of self-awareness applies also (by analogy) to my awareness of another person like me. The minor premise remains: self-awareness, or the awareness that I exist, is choiceworthy; and this, we might suppose, can occur even without a friend. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the current analysis), the text appears to be ambiguous here. Irwin translates, “Perception is active when we live with [our friend],” and Ross, “the activity of this consciousness is produced when [the friends] live together.” It is at least possible that the consciousness or perceiving in question is not merely the awareness of my friend’s being, but also the awareness of my own.

How could this be? The text here seems particularly open to abuse; and it would appear quite easy to be mislead in one’s interpretation by wishful thinking. Still, from the tone of Aristotle’s overt use of various “second-self” analogies concerning the perfect friendship, it would seem that something like this is going on. How else are we to make sense of the need of the good person for friendship, or even what an expression like “second-self” is supposed to mean, if it is not both the consciousness of our friend and the consciousness of ourselves (as good or virtuous) which are at stake here? And if it is both of these things which are at stake, then it would seem that self-awareness (of some important sort) does substantively depend upon our awareness of a friend; for merely saying both are at stake, or even that friend-awareness depends upon self-awareness, will not show that friends are necessary for the good life.

Still, even under the best light, it is difficult to push the argument in this direction. In every case, Aristotle only speaks directly and clearly about one’s awareness of the friend: that a friend (of such a sort) exists. And while it is clear that this awareness impacts upon the appreciation one has for her own existence, it is only vaguely indicated how it effects such an appreciation.


It might be tempting to refer, as Cooper does, to the texts of the Magna Moralia and Eudemian Ethics, in an effort to settle these ambiguities convincingly. With these texts, at least, the argument for friendship might be contrasted with that offered in the Nicomachean Ethics, and by their convergence or similarity, we might draw out the true meaning of Aristotle’s language. Indeed, it appears to be Cooper’s conviction that the argument, as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics, must be seen as abortive: Consciousness of the other simply cannot provide a justification of friendship, above the mere companionship of fellow citizens.[11] That is, even if we can construe the primary argument for friendship outlined above as demonstrating a positive link between other-awareness and self-awareness, all we will have shown is the necessity of living in community: any other, or any sort of friend, will do.

Unfortunately, the questionable authorship of these texts presents only the first obstacle to such a project: the matter of friendship is not considered in a consistent light between these various works — and it would seem in some cases to be taking too great a liberty with the argument to suggest that “Aristotle” has the same thing in mind in every case.

For this friendship — that to oneself — is, in a way, friendship by analogy, not absolutely. For loving and being loved requires two separate individuals. Therefore a man is a friend to himself rather in the sense in which we have described the incontinent and continent as willing or unwilling, namely in the sense that the parts of his soul are in a certain relation to each other; and all problems of this sort have a similar explanation, e.g. whether a man can wrong himself. For all these relations require two separate individuals; so far then as the soul is two, these relations can in a sense belong to it; so far as these two are not separate, the relations cannot belong to it.[12]

It would be nice to read this as Aristotle’s take on the issues of friendship and self-love. For here, there is a clear priority of other-awareness, and seeking good for the sake of the other (in friendship), over self-awareness and seeking the good for one’s own sake. It is the model of other-regarding friendship which overlays the phenomenon of self-love; friendship to oneself is a weaker echo of the primary occurrence of well-wishing and concord in perfect friendship.

But it should be clear that such a reading will not fit comfortably in the context of the Nicomachean Ethics. Admittedly, this passage is chosen for the particular degree of its divergence from the tone and content of the prior work. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the priority between self and other (with regard to the determination of the form of primitive friendship) is not so confusedly cast in favor of perfect friendship:

The defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbours would seem to be derived from features of friendship towards oneself. For a friend is taken to be (1) someone who wishes and does goods or apparent goods to his friend for the friend’s own sake; or (2) one who wishes the friend to be and to live for the friend’s own sake — this is how mothers feel towards their children, and how friends who have been in conflict feel [towards each other]. (3) Others take a friend to be one who spends time with his friend, and (4) makes the same choices; or (5) one who shares his friend’s distress and enjoyment — and this also is true especially of mothers. And people define friendship by one of these features.[13]

The template for friendship (i.e. the psychological model from which the form of friendship is analogously drawn) is found in the self, and extended outward, to the context of one’s friends in the world. This is clear from the Nicomachean Ethics; whereas the Eudemian Ethics, in the passage cited, seems to invert the priority: stating that the template for appropriate self-love is found in one’s relationship to one’s friends. The reversal is preserved in the Magna Moralia, although it is more easily glossed over here, as being confined to the matter of personal integrity (For the analysis is not extended to a mirroring of friendship with oneself and friendship with others; but is rather confined to the topic of ‘being at one with oneself’, in a manner similar to the way in which perfect friends act and think without inner strife).[14]

Turning directly to our present concern, and ignoring for a moment the implications of the E.E. divergence from N.E., we notice immediately that the language of consciousness and perception is supplemented by widespread talk of knowledge.[15] Knowledge, under such conditions, certainly requires more than mere perception or simple awareness: whereas the activity of any agent, sufficiently translucent with respect to the correspondence of her thoughts and actions (which requires at least a minimal degree of friendship), will deliver self- and other-awareness according to the argument in N.E., knowledge of the other, and the self, requires more than a passing acquaintance with the psychological lives of others.

... to wish to perceive one’s self is to wish oneself to be of a certain definite character, — since, then, we are not in ourselves possessed of each of such characters, but only by participation in these qualities in perceiving and knowing — for the perceiver becomes perceived in that way and in that respect in which he first perceives, and according to the way in which and the object which he perceives; and knower becomes known in the same way — therefore it is for this reason that one always desires to live, because one always desires to know; and this is because he himself wishes to be object known.[16]

The Magnum Moralia appears to deepen this analysis, and clearly locates the capacity of the virtuous person (as with any person) to satisfactorily know herself in the friendly embrace of another, who must be a friend of the most perfect sort.

... the question being whether the self-sufficing man will require friendship or not. If, then, when one looked upon a friend one could see the nature and attributes of the friend,... such as to be a second self,... Since then it is both a most difficult thing, as some of the sages have said, to attain knowledge of oneself, and also a most pleasant (for to know oneself is pleasant) — now we are not able to see what we are from ourselves (and that we cannot do so is plain from the way in which we blame others without being aware that we do the same things ourselves; and this is the effect of favour or passion, and there are many of us who are blinded by these things so that we judge not aright); as then when we wish to see our own face, we do so by looking into the mirror, in the same way when we wish to know ourselves we can obtain that knowledge by looking at our friend. For the friend is, as we assert, a second self. If, then, it is pleasant to know oneself, and it is not possible to know this without having some one else for a friend, the self-sufficing man will require friendship in order to know himself.[17]

It is dangerous to set too great a store in these passages, however, when attempting to come to terms with the analysis of friendship in N.E.. First, the role played by pleasure in the analysis offered by M.M. seems excessive: the pleasantness of knowing oneself is derivative in N.E. to the goodness such knowledge facilitates or manifests. The pleasantness of knowing one’s friend, in the context of perfect friendship, is likewise derivative to the friendship being one which reflected the good, both absolutely and with respect to each friend. Second, while it is of undoubtable importance for Aristotle to identify the circumstances under which self-knowledge might reliably be obtained, these passages make it no clearer than N.E. in itself how we are to move from awareness or knowledge of our good friend to awareness or knowledge of ourselves. This is not to say that Aristotle fails to make this connection; only that the case is not made any better in M.M. or E.E. (or at least is not improved in a way which might be consistent with the remainder of the work in N.E.).

Fortunately, we can return to the discussion surrounding the “scientific” discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, and find there the resources for making the more substantive claim: the good person, perhaps even more profoundly than any other, needs perfect friendship.

Immediately prior to the discussion treated above, Aristotle states:

... happiness is an activity; and activity plainly comes into being and is not present at the start like a piece of property. If (1) happiness lies in living and being active, and the good man’s activity is virtuous and pleasant in itself, as we have said at the outset, and (2) a thing’s being one’s own is one of the attributes that make it pleasant, and (3) we can contemplate our neighbours better than ourselves and their actions better than our own, and if the actions of virtuous men who are their friends are pleasant to good men (since these have both the attributes that are naturally pleasant)[18] — if this be so, the supremely happy man will need friends of this sort, since his purpose is to contemplate worthy actions and actions that are his own, and the actions of a good man who is his friend have both these qualities.[19]

This is plainly close to the comments found in both E.E. and M.M., with at least one important difference. This brief introductory analysis concentrates cleanly and directly only on the relative ease with which one might view (indeed, contemplate) good and fine actions. It is not stated, at least initially, that the good person can only contemplate good and fine actions in the context of a perfect friendship; but only that a friend of this sort offers the good person a particularly clear view of such activity. The curious fiat at the end will bear considerable fruit in a moment, but first let us continue:

Further, men think that the happy man ought to live pleasantly. Now if he were a solitary, life would be hard for him; for by oneself it is not easy to be continuously active; but with others and towards others it is easier. With others therefore his activity will be more continuous, and it is in itself pleasant, as it ought to be for the man who is supremely happy... A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good, as Theognis has said before us.[20]

The argument here is supplemented in several respects: (1) friendship enables a more continuous sort of [fine] activity, both by (1a) making one’s activities directed toward [the benefit of] persons one considers pleasant and fine, and by (1b) joining with others [cooperatively] in fine activity one would otherwise be incapable of engaging in; (2) friendship provides “training” or adequate motivation for a more sustained ‘hardening’ of praiseworthy habits: for by the example and support of good friends one may longer remain attentive to the virtues (or burgeoning virtues) she shares with them. Finally, the previous citation indicated at its conclusion that “[the good man’s] purpose is to contemplate worthy actions and actions that are his own, and the actions of a good man who is his friend have both these qualities”; that is, (3a) a friend’s actions are open to the good peron’s contemplation (not mere awareness), (3b) a friend’s activity is worthy and fine (thus able to partially satisfy the natural desire of the good person to witness such a phenomenon), and (3c) a friend’s actions are, in some essential sense, one’s own.

The importance of those claims I have numbered (1) and (2) may be missed if the full impact of (3) is not fully felt. The matter of training, or sustenance in the good, of (2) may be taken seriously without realizing the degree of occlusion between friends in matters of moral behavior (either good or bad). Friends (or the characters of friends) do not mirror each other in a sort of matter of fact sense, where the habits and talents of one find immediate and sensible analogues in the other. Rather, they mirror each other in the sense in which they reason, judge, and choose alike. They are of one mind, not with regard to everything (for one may like chocolate and the other vanilla ice cream the most), but with regard to how one goes about measuring the good with respect to them. Claim (3), in its three parts, presses this mirroring into the realm of perception, contemplation, and the natural desire of persons (or shall we say the natural need of persons) to see the actualization of their own mind-set in the world: a friend of this sort is, more than one can be to herself, a demonstration that one’s goals and habits work.

There is a certain stewardship [of the self] passed on to others by the activity of friendship. This not only stabilizes the self — in terms of broadening the scope of what counts as one’s own activity, sustaining the level of good achievable by one’s character by supplementing whatever physical deficiencies might appear (through the contributed efforts of those one loves and is loved by), maintaining the seriousness and vigour with which one remains committed to fine and praiseworthy activity by the agreement of foreign powers (i.e. friends) in the value of your character, etc. — friendship also opens an eye on the self; an eye that may see not only the activity of one’s character, or the motives for one’s actions, but all of these together in one embodied movement. It is in [perfect] friendship that one sees the success [or failure] of one’s own character; and to the degree that a friendship approaches the ideal form, this will be the case. Friends are necessary for Aristotle, in this sense; for without a friend the self would be lost: seeing only that this or that choice brings about pleasure or pain — and never knowing whether it be a result essential to the choice made, or the time and place which made it; never knowing, in other words, what a character such as I would look like in the world.

Aristotle’s Ethics
PHIL-742-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1993
(© David Foss, December 1994)

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Last modified June 13, 1998

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