True Friendship and Happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Biese, Notre Dame

In the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls his investigation one “of social and political matters,”[1] whose “end [telos]… is the good for man.” The work’s focus, then, is on the good for man, which is inseparably tied to politics, which in turn envelops each and every kind of relationship.[2] Friendship, as one of those relationships, is thus tied to “the good for man”—Aristotle goes so far as to call it “some sort of excellence or virtue [that] is… most indispensable for life.” Not only is friendship essential, but it is itself a virtue, and an indispensable one at that. The telos of politics, Aristotle says, is “the good for man,” and “the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions” (NE, I.9:1099b30-32). Friendship, he claims, is necessary for man to perform good actions and so to be good and thus live a supremely happy life.

In Books VIII and IX of his work, Aristotle expounds upon friendship’s role in making men good in a specifically active sense. He explains that friendship, which is a virtue (activity in accord with right reason) and an external good, is not just helpful but essential to the good and happy life.[3] This paper will explore Aristotle’s writings on friendship in Nicomachean Ethics by defining the scope of philia (“friendship”), explaining the human desire for friendship, and detailing the three types of friendship. Then will follow a discussion of true friendship (Books VIII and IX) and how it brings about the good (happy) life that Aristotle describes in Book I. Perfect friendship, Aristotle argues, is intrinsically tied to the good and is necessary for supreme happiness. Through continuous virtuous activity, two good men, in each other’s company, can bring each other to permanent happiness.

The scope of philia, Aristotle’s Greek word for “friendship,” is similar to that of politike (“politics”): both Greek words have a wider semantic range than the narrow connotations that we modern readers attribute to their translated English counterparts. For Aristotle, “Philia… designates the relationship between a person and any other person(s) or being which that person regards as peculiarly his own and to which he has a peculiar attachment… [it] constitutes the bond which holds the members of any association together” (NE, VIII.1:1155a, note, p 214). As politics also deals with society, friendship also deals with states: it “seems to hold states together, and lawgivers apparently devote more attention to it than justice” (NE, VIII.1:1155a20-25). In keeping his terminology broad, Aristotle allows for an easy transition between these two concepts and his definition of the happy and good life. In his conversations about friendship, he focuses on the relationship between two persons; this experiential approach—for nearly every reader has had a friend—grounds his claims and brings a sense of familiarity to his “rough and general sketch” (NE, I.3:1094b20).

Aristotle appeals to what he considers the common experience in Book IX, asserting that

No one would choose to have all good things all by himself, for man is a social and political being and his natural condition is to live with others. Consequently… it is obviously better for him to spend his days with friends and good men than with any stranger who comes along. It follows that a happy man needs friends. (NE, IX.9:1169b15-22)

Interacting with others is man’s “natural condition,” so the desire for friendship naturally occurs within man, who desires above all else to be happy. While in Book I Aristotle describes “the final and perfect good” as “self-sufficient,” he clarifies that this does “not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being” (NE, I.7:1097b5-12). The philosopher takes care to emphasize the need for other people, the need for friends, which he claims is instilled in every human person. He continues to define “self-sufficient” as “that which taken by itself makes life something desirable and deficient in nothing. It is happiness, in our opinion, which fits this description. Moreover, happiness is of all things the one most desirable” (NE, I.7:1097b14-18). For Aristotle, to be self-sufficient is not to be alone; to be happy, therefore, requires friendship.

Happiness should be devoid of deficiency, but it is common experience to have a deficient friend. Aristotle fittingly lays out the three different types of friendship to account for this experience; each type is based on “the motive of the affection” (NE, VIII.3:1156a5-10) towards the other person. The first motive is usefulness, under which Aristotle generally places friendships between the elderly, ambitious young men, and the host and his guest (NE, VIII.3:1156a25-32). The second motive is pleasure, under which Aristotle places most friendships between young people.[4] Either of these types can be executed by two bad men, or by a bad man and a good.

However, the third type of friendship can only be executed by good men; they “alone can be friends on the basis of what they are, for bad people do not find joy in one another, unless they see some material advantage coming to them” (NE, VIII.4:1157a15-20). The third motive is for the sake of the other and what the other is, and it necessitates joy in the other. Aristotle continues to describe this third kind of friendship, in which “the good are friends in the unqualified sense, [while] the others are friends only incidentally and by reason of the similarity they bear to the former” (NE, VIII.1:1157b1-5). The first two motives are not enough for true friendship; they are merely a distorted echo of the unqualified, true friendship Aristotle describes in Book VIII. Likewise, the goodness of these good men “is something intrinsic, not incidental”; they “wish alike for one another’s good because they are good men” and “are alike in excellence and virtue” (NE, VIII.3:1156b5-10). Each man, who is good in and of himself, wishes for the good of the other good man, for the other’s sake.

Perfect friendship, as Aristotle has so far described it, fits both of his meanings of the term “good” (which he outlines in his discussion of happiness in Book I): “(1) things which are intrinsically good, and (2) things which are good as being conducive to the intrinsically good” (NE, I.6:1096b10-15). Perfect friendship is good in and of itself (as it relies implicitly on the intrinsic goodness of its participants) and is good insofar as necessitates “excellence and virtue,” which themselves are conducive to the good and happy life, the final end towards which all men gravitate. In Book I, Aristotle plainly asserts that “the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue… ‘in a complete life’” (NE, I.7:1098a15-20). The good of man must involve virtuous activity; by insisting that true friendship includes such activity, Aristotle skilfully links this kind of friendship to ultimate happiness.

He creates this link by specifically placing friendship under at least two of his three types of good things:

“(1) external goods, (2) goods of the soul, and (3) goods of the body. Of these, we call the goods pertaining to the soul goods in the highest and fullest sense. But speaking of ‘soul,’ we refer to our soul’s actions and activities… We are also right in defining the end as consisting of actions and activities.” (NE, I.8:1098b11-20)

True friendship is type (1) and (2); it may also be type (3). Aristotle calls friends “the greatest of external goods” (NE, IX.8:1169b5-10); this is crucial because in Book I he says that “happiness… needs external goods as well” (NE, I.8:1099a32-34). Thus friendship is a type (1) “good thing.” While true friendship is not type (3)—a bodily good—per se, friendship does sometimes involve such goods (e.g. provision of bodily needs). The “soul’s actions and activities,” which are crucial to Aristotle’s description of perfect friendship, are what determine type (2). Thus true friendship could qualify as an Aristotelian “good thing” in all three ways; it already does qualify in at least two of these ways.

How does Aristotle describe the activity of the soul (see type (2), above) in regards to friendship?[5] Firstly, this activity is pleasant; the philosopher recommends finding “friends who are good as well as pleasant, and not only good, but good for them; for in this way they will have everything that friends should have” (NE, VIII.6.1158a25-28). He reiterates the need for inherently good friends and adds the need for pleasantness, which itself is attributed to “actions in conformity in virtue.”[6] This echoes Aristotle’s assertion in Book I, “that happiness is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing, and these qualities are not separate” (NE, I.8:1099a24-26). That friendship possesses the third quality, pleasantness, has been detailed above. In Book VIII, Aristotle attributes to friendship the first quality, since “the best works done… are those that are done to one’s friends” (NE, VIII.1:1155a9-11, emphasis mine). Finally, he asserts that “a man of high moral standards,” i.e. a good man and the only kind that can engage in true friendship, will do many actions “in the interest of his friends and his country… He will freely give… all good things… while he gains nobility for himself… he chooses nobility at the cost of everything else… in everything praiseworthy a man of high moral standards assigns himself the larger share of what is noble” (NE, IX.8:1169a20-35, emphasis mine). In these ways Aristotle relates the activity of friendship directly to happiness, “the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing;” all three qualities are united (not separated) in this kind of relationship.

For Aristotle, happiness is virtue, lived out: “The proper function of man, then, consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle [virtue]… it is the same in kind as the function of an individual who sets high standards for himself… the full attainment of excellence must be added to the mere function” (NE, I.7:1098a5-12). When two good men are friends, both set “high standards” for themselves and attain excellence in an active, fully-attained, beyond-functional way. The philosopher explains that the activity of perfect friendship is helpful because each of us can more easily watch another’s actions than our own and because “The actions of persons who have a high moral standard are pleasant to those good men who are their friends… it follows that a supremely happy man will need friends of this kind. His moral purpose or choice is to observe actions which are good and which are his own, and such are the actions of a good man who is his friend” (NE, IX.9:1169b27-1170a3). True friends will find pleasure in watching the other’s actions because they are virtuous. A man can only be “supremely happy” if he and his friends have high moral standards. Perfect friendship entails “living in each other’s company” (NE, VIII.5:1157b18-20) in order to live more virtuously, “For it is not easy to be continuously active all by oneself; it is easier in the company of and in relation to others” (NE, IX.9:1170a5-6).” Ultimately, Aristotle claims that such friendship will support and increase its participants’ existing virtues.[7]

Perfect friendship brings about not just happiness, but supreme happiness. “We may conclude,” says Aristotle, “that a friend is something desirable. But what is desirable for a happy man he must have, or else he will be deficient in that respect <and, consequently, not supremely happy>. It follows that, in order to be happy, a man needs morally good friends” (NE, IX.9:1170b15-20). To be fully and supremely happy, one needs to have morally good friends for a long time (thereby performing virtuous activities repeatedly).[8] Aristotle’s analysis of the three types of friendship claims that true happiness lasts the longest. This is in turn supported by his discussion of permanence in happiness, which is a result of repeated virtuous activities:

For no function of man possesses as much stability as do activities in conformity with virtue… And the higher the virtuous activities, the more durable they are, because men who are supremely happy spend their lives in these activities most intensely and most continuously… The happy man will have the attribute of permanence which we are discussing, and he will remain happy throughout his life. (NE, I.10:1100b10-20)

Repeated activities in conformity with virtue provide permanent stability and supreme happiness. Therefore, Aristotle’s definition of perfect friendship brings both parties to supreme happiness, which is the end towards which man himself is oriented.

Friendship, of course, is a part of politics; politics, of course, is crucial to Aristotle’s conception of the good in Nicomachean Ethics. True friendship indeed “engender[s] a certain character” in its participants, who through friendship can maintain supremely happy lives. This is done through virtue, which is activity in accord with right reason. Aristotle skillfully describes true friendship—which all men, social beings as we are, desire—in terms of this activity. The self-sufficiency of happiness is not that of one isolated; on the contrary, such isolation would go against man’s nature. By grounding his discussion of virtue in small-scale human experience, Aristotle makes his claims, particularly that of the three types of friendship, more comprehensible. The third type of friendship, only available to good men, is true friendship. It is grounded in persons’ mutual joy and mutual intrinsic goodness; each wishes for the good of the other good man, for the other’s sake.

Aristotle’s description of this perfect friendship in Books VIII and IX corresponds wonderfully with his (Book I) explanations of the term “good,” the three types of good things, and the characteristics of happiness as “the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing.”[9] In Book IX, he outlines how true friends (who have high moral standards), through the continuous mutual practice and observation of virtue, bring each other to supreme and permanent happiness, which he first details in Book I. In short, Aristotle affirms that true friendship is necessary for true and lasting happiness, for the good “at which all things aim” (NE, 1.1: 1094a1-4).


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Martin Ostwald (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987), I.2:1094b5-12. Hereinafter cited as NE.

[2] “Note about the scope of “politics” as Aristotle uses it: Politike is the science of the city-state… and its members, not merely in our narrow ‘political’ sense of the word… politike involves not only the science of the state, ‘politics,’ but of our concept of ‘society’ as well” (NE, VI.2, note, pg 4). Aristotle’s definition of “friendship” likewise includes both relationships between states and between individuals.

[3] “The virtues in general… follow the dictates of right reason” (NE, VI.5:1114b30).

[4] This echoes his evaluation of young men in Book 1, where he claims that “a young man is not equipped to be a student of politics; for he has no experience in the actions which life demands of him… Moreover, since he follows his emotions, his study will be pointless and unprofitable” (NE, I.3:1095a1-10). In Aristotle’s discussion on friendship, he asserts that pleasure-focused friendships also will be short and, overall, “pointless and unprofitable.”

[5] For the remainder of this paper, “friendship” is taken to imply perfect / true friendship.

[6] Full quote: “actions performed in conformity with virtue are in themselves pleasant” (NE, I.8:1099a20-22).

[7] “We may also get some sort of training in virtue or excellence from living together with good men” (NE, IX.9:1170a7-12).

[8] “Such friendships are of course rare, since such men are few. Moreover, time and familiarity are required” (NE, VIII.3:1156b25).

[9] (NE, I.8:1099a24-26)

One Response

  1. The fatal flaw in all of this is that it is not possible to be supremely happy without God. This is because, without the Redemption, we are dragged down by the law of sin, which is the human weakness that we are all born with (see Romans 7:14 thru 8:2). It thwarts all of our best efforts.
    When our peace and contentment come from God, we can have well-ordered horizontal relationships. Virtue is the dynamis power of the Spirit that facilitates the outward expressions of virtue.
    The things of God are received by humility towards Him (see 1Peter 5:5-7, James 4:6-10, Proverbs 3:5-6, Philippians 4:6-7, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:6-9, and Galatians 5:22-23).

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