It may not be exciting to hear that a philosopher has decided to boil down friendship to virtue. We conceive of friendship as a set of rich and diverse experiences, as different as the friends that accompany us throughout the course of our lifetime. But then again, to delve into Aristotle's theory of friendship is to discover how deep and meaningful those bonds can be. It is no surprise that Aristotle's treatment of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics subordinates this relationship to the great goal at the heart of the book: the development of a valuable capable human being in possession of a full set of virtues. The purpose that friends serve is to develop and reinforce virtues in their companions as well as to support the practice of already acquired virtues.

What Qualifies as a Genuine Friendship

The downside of Aristotle's seeing such enormous value in terms of what friends can offer to each other is that relationships that do not fulfill these high standards are viewed as substandard. Let's imagine the situation of a person who regularly meets with his friend to hear the latter engage in a humorous discussion about his family and the various conflicts and dilemmas he faces in his interactions with it. Now suppose this person finds all of the stories regarding his friend's family entertaining, funny, or just interesting for whatever reason. Despite listening to these stories on a regular basis, the person does not offer his friend any advice on how to deal with his family. Aristotle would conceive of this relationship as an unsatisfying friendship. The listener in this case is simply deriving pleasure from his friend's presence; however, he is not doing anything to help his friend develop or exercise virtue. 

In fact, Aristotle defines a genuine friendship in terms of the very factor missing in the case described above: loving the person for their own sake and acting to promote their good. In his view, promoting someone's good and well-being regardless of the benefits accrued to oneself is the true test of a friendship. This of course has the side effect of disqualifying very casual friendships/acquaintances. The two buddies who always go bowling together and share that as their most frequent common activity are as far from Aristotle's criterion of friendship as possible. Because, if one of the two were acting as a true friend, he would have enough insight into his companion's needs to help him live a more virtuous life. For example, he could advise his friend on how to best handle a tricky business matter, or to resolve a long-standing conflict with a business rival. 

One other case that doesn't qualify as a genuine friendship involves two acquaintances that do mutual favors for each other. Let's say one friend does a few small repairs for another friend, and then that other friend may invite the first friend to a party or give him some valuable presents as a way of thanking him for his help. Aristotle would say that the relationship above is based on considerations of usefulness. It is perhaps even more of a limited friendship than the one based on pleasure/entertainment. In that case, the person in question at least has some idea of his friend's dilemmas, and could potentially help him deal with them in a virtuous way. But here, no such possibility exists as the friends have only a vague sense of what they could do to advance each other’s good. Thus, the exchanged favors do not help either friend lead a better life.

Self-Love as a Model for Friendship with Others

According to Aristotle, in order for a genuine friendship to take place, where each person loves the other for the other's sake and is willing to promote the other person's good, four conditions must be satisfied: assistance, joy, association, and sympathy. When we combine these conditions with Aristotle's idea that friendship is essentially derived from self-love that is applied to another whom we treat as valuable as ourselves, we begin to finally understand his conception of an authentic friendship. It is simply the work of self-development and self-reflection extended to another person. Nowadays, many of us would be able to validate this claim for the parent-child or teacher-student relationship, but Aristotle's application of it to the domain of friendship may seem out of place for some. (Parents and closely-involved teachers or mentors are often intimately involved in the lives of children and offer them guidance to foster their personal growth and coping skills.)

Aristotle believes that the four ways in which a person can be a friend to others are dependent on the four ways he can manifest self-love. Let us know analyze these four ways one by one. The first one is self-assistance. Self-assistance is all about the practical reason part of our personality taking reins of the irrational/animal-like part so that its actions are wise. Think here of an athlete or a warrior whose competitive and warlike instincts are shaped by the strategy he has learned over the years. This means that in addition to his physical prowess and superb intuition, he is also equipped with the techniques and principles to coax his more primitive side into employing tactics and maneuvers.

This leads the athlete or the warrior to experience what Aristotle calls self-joy, which is the second way of loving oneself. Aristotle defines self-joy as the pleasure that the self takes in its own existence by identifying with its rational part. This joy is associated with the achievement of virtue or the good that comes with the domination of one's animal/irrational part. The third way of loving oneself is self-association. It is the ability to identify your own past thoughts and analyze your past perceptions, motivations, and ideas. Finally, the fourth way of manifesting self-love is through self-sympathy. Self-sympathy occurs when the animal/irrational part of the self feels the same pleasures and pains that its rational part does. This ability cannot be taken for granted. When you give a present to someone, you cannot assume that your irrational/emotional part will respond with joy at your rational/practical part's idea of being generous. (That's why it's not unusual to see children reluctant to share their toys despite the encouragement of their parents. The child may understand he is doing a good thing by sharing, but his emotional reaction to it is still negative.)

How Self-Love is Extended to a Friend

You also cannot take for granted that any of these four features present in self-love can be equally offered to our "other self" in a commitment of friendship. However, in Aristotle's view, it is impossible to be a good friend without them. Let's examine how these four features--association, sympathy, assistance, and joy--apply to friendship. To to be a good friend requires spending time with another person to be able to identify their developmental needs ( association1) so that you would genuinely care about their emotional travails and tribulations (sympathy.) That would give you the motivation to take concrete actions to help the friend achieve a virtuous life (assistance - wishing and helping the accomplishment of the good by encouraging the person's rational part to dominate his irrational one.) You also take pleasure in observing the friend accomplish a great deal in his life through consistent rationally-guided action (joy.)

But there is an unexpected implication of extending your self-love to other people. The beneficiary of this act of apparently selfless generosity is as much the giver as the receiver. Why would an elderly former athlete, far from the peak of his career, analyze a younger athlete's game and give him tips on how to play better? Why would a scientist, many years after the discoveries that brought him into the spotlight, help out graduate students with their research projects that will bring them credit and renown but not him? Why would a woman with grown children give a young mother the benefit of her own parenting experience? Because, as Aristotle says, personal development is satisfying even beyond the self. After years of joys and sorrows at developing our own coping skills and strategies, we take pleasure in tuning into the joys and sorrows of others and helping them learn what we already know. We feel elated at their victories and distraught about their defeats. We are at the sidelines, but we cheer them on and give them pointers.

It's quite selfish after all, because the other person's life engages us so deeply as if it were our own. We are very involved in perceiving the other's situations and circumstances, reflecting upon his strategies, and caring about the developments in his life. The self lives through the other. That very phrase reveals the paradox at the heart of friendship. The commitment to the other is both a self-sacrifice and a self-expansion. Through his generosity to a friend, a person redirects a part of his time and soul to tending to the interests of a third party. However, this strong identification and involvement with the third party turns it into "an other self" so that the developmental accomplishments, emotional experiences, and joys of the original self come to encompass those of the friend.


1.) The point of association is to spend time with the other person in order to be able to get an insight into how he or she perceives and thinks about life. Whatever you do with a friend at any moment is accompanied by his or her perception that is articulated by actions or words.

Works Cited:

Pakaluk, Michael. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts Ser.

Note: Given that the source cited is but one of many interpretations of Aristotle, it is expected that other scholars would advance diverging opinions.