Aristotle outlines the course of perfect friendship. Good will is the germ of it but not equivalent to it. True friends must be near equals, significantly lower wealth or status must be balanced by superior virtue. There must be love in adequate measure, and the person loved must be one in whose company one wishes to live and upon whom to confer benefits in any way possible. Each friend helps the other realize their potential. Aristotle returns us to others as the externalization of inner purpose – perfect friendship expresses the very end served by human associations hence is the ground of virtue itself.
Aristotle admits one can have kinship friends, particularly siblings of the same parents since they have greater likeness and involve relationships that have withstood the test of time. There is more pleasure and utility in family friendships then is typically possible for strangers. Spouses too can achieve perfect friendship if both are virtuous; otherwise those relationships are limited by what utility and pleasure can sustain.
Aristotle also addresses the issue of self-love in the setting of friendship. He feels the two are compatible as long as self-love does not mean selfishness, but rather love of oneself as noble and a person of virtue. That form of self-love will seek and aid the friend in also being noble.
Last Aristotle takes on the question of the ideal numbers of friends. For friendships of utility the limit is imposed by the burden of reciprocal utility or obligations. For friendship of pleasure the limit centers on the appropriate level of pleasure desirable in a good life or as he he says “a few are enough, as a little sweetening is enough in our diet.”3 The number of perfect friends possible also tends to be constrained because of the time required, the ability of multiple friend to befriend each other, and the limited capacity to devote oneself to numerous friends. Aristotle notes that historically true friendship is limited to one other as for example Achilles and Patroclus. He also offers a warning, “People who have a host of friends and take everybody to their arms seem to be nobody’s friends…”4
Aristotle’s positioning of friendship stretches all the way to politics. Friends as we have noted do not require justice to ensure virtuous conduct. But since individual friendship is limited to one or a few, society depends on politics or governance to establish justice among non-friends. The good government also has a second fundamental role, that is, to create an environment which encourages virtuous citizens capable of perfect friendships.
I believe Aristotle offers key insights on how inner purpose is externalized in true friends – as the instantiation of virtue, as a means to self-perfection, and as a contributing factor in our happiness. Next time we look at Montaigne on friendship.
3Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 221.
4Ibid., page 222.