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, 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 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 repeated 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 listening friend 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. The friend receives no advice as to how best handle or resolve a conflict in a virtuous way so that he can become a more virtuous person.

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. Promoting someone's good and well-being regardless of the benefits accrued to oneself is the true test of a friendship. This is of course has the side effect of excluding very casual friendships/acquaintances. The two buddies that 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 was acting as a true friend, he would have been able to have enough insight into his companion's needs and wants to propose other activities that would be of more benefit to him. Perhaps he would accompany his friend to the mall to help him pick out a birthday present for his wife when her birthday was coming up. Of course, one other case that doesn't qualify is two acquaintances that do mutual favors for each other. One does small repairs for the other one, while the other one may invite him to a party or bring some valuable presents to compensate him for his labor. 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 the case of the listening friend, at least he had enough sense of his companion's issues in life that he could have potentially taken the steps to help his friend deal with them in a virtuous way. In this case, no such possibility exists as the friends have only a vague sense of what they could do to advance each other’s good.

Friendship with Yourself 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 combined with his idea that friendship is essentially derived from self-love that is applied to another whom we treat as valuable as ourselves, we begin to understand what he takes to be 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 guidance to the younger ones with the view of fostering their personal growth and coping skills.)

Aristotle defines the work of self-development and self-reflection within the self so as to show that the four ways that one can be a friend to others are dependent on the four ways one can be a friend to oneself. Self-assistance is the work of the practical reason part of our personality guiding the irrational/animal-like part so that its actions are wise. Think here of an athlete or a warrior whose competitive and warlike instinct and desire is shaped by the strategy he has learned over the years so that above and beyond his physical prowess and superb intuition, he is also equipped with techniques and principles to channel his more primitive side to employ tactics and maneuvers. Self-joy is the pleasure that the self takes in its own existence with the self being identified with its rational part. It is the affirmation of the self as the good self, a self that exerts control over its animal/irrational part. Self-association is one's ability to identify with his earlier self's thoughts and therefore analyze the previous self's perceptions, motivations, and ideas. Self-sympathy is the primive/animal part of the self's ability to feel the same pleasures and pains that his rational part does. This ability cannot be taken for granted; in giving a present to someone or preparing someone his or her favorite dish, you cannot assume that the irrational/emotional part will respond with joy at the rational/practical reason's idea of being generous. (That's why it's not unusual to see a kid angry at sharing a toy even if he has a huge collection of them.)

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, self-love as defined above is an important requirement in order to be able to be a good friend. For one, the ability to identify your own needs and to promote them will allow you to take this skill practiced on the self and extend it to the other by perceiving his or her needs and helping him or her to reflect and act upon them. So to be a good friend requires spending time with another person to be able to identify their developmental needs (association1), to genuinely care about their emotional travails and tribulations (sympathy) to be therefore motivated enough to take actions to help them achieve a virtuous life (assistance - wishing and helping the accomplishment of the good.) Watching the friend shape his life according to the principles of wisdom should equally inspire enormous satisfaction at an accomplished being in the full possession of his powers, at his developmental peak, much like one would be proud to see a sapling become a towering full-grown tree. (Aristotle is a teleological philosopher who was fascinated by biology and the way it assured the development of life. He marveled at how the whole blueprint for a plant is contained in its seed, its fully developed form already given to it at the very beginning. He saw life as a progression of a frail and limited biological entity towards a mature one with more functions and powers.)

But the most interesting implication of extending your self-love to other people, making them a recipient of as much love and care as the self, is that the beneficiary of this act of apparently selfless generosity is as much the giver as the receiver. Why would the 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 grandmother, visiting a young mother, talk with her about her routine and give her the benefit of her own 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 develop their coping strategies. We feel joys at their victories and sadness at their defeats. We are at the sidelines but we cheer them on and give them pointers. It's quite selfish after all. We perceive situations and circumstances, reflect upon strategies, and care about the developments. 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.