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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 8 | Summary



Section 1

Friendship is essential to the virtuous life. Even if someone had everything else they needed, they would not want to live without friends. People can share their prosperity with friends during good times, and friends can help guard their riches. In hard times, people take refuge with friends. Young and old people, who are especially vulnerable, need friends to help them. Moreover, people "in their prime" need friends to enrich their own capabilities.

Friendship extends to many units of society. Families provide natural friendships. "Members of the same species," particularly humans, share a natural kinship. On a political level, Aristotle thinks legislators of cities are more concerned with friendship than with justice. In fact, friendship is "the justice that is most just." Not only is friendship necessary, it is a virtuous quality; good people make good friends.

However, what kinds of people can be friends with one another? Do friends need to be similar, or can they be opposites? Moreover, how many types of friendship exist? Aristotle says he will be skipping the questions about friendship rooted in natural science to discuss the topic in relation to human nature.

Section 2

Before Aristotle examines friendship, he needs to discuss love. What does it mean when someone or something is "lovable"? People love what's "good or pleasant or useful." People can love universally good things, which are "lovable without qualification," and people can love goods that are more specific, that are good only for themselves.

How do friends experience love? Someone can love an inanimate object, like wine, but this is not friendship. Wine cannot love anyone back, and no one wishes "good things to wine." Similarly, if someone wishes another person well but their wish is not returned, they feel only goodwill, not friendship. Friendship is "reciprocated goodwill." Someone wishes good things to a friend for the friend's own sake, and receives good wishes in return. Friends must also be aware of the mutual goodwill.

Section 3

On the basis of the three types of love defined in the previous section—love for the good, the pleasant, and the useful—Aristotle defines three types of friendship.

The first type is friendship for utility. Friends for utility focus on what they can gain from the other person. Since people's needs change, they will dissolve a friendship for utility once their need is met.

The second type is friendship for pleasure. Friends for pleasure have fun being around the other person but do not really appreciate their character. Like a friendship for utility, a friendship for pleasure lasts only as long as the benefit of pleasure lasts. Older people tend to make friends for utility, since older people tend to seek advantage more than pleasure. Young people, who live according to their feelings, make friends for pleasure and change friendships quickly.

The third type of friendship is complete or virtuous friendship. These friends wish good to each other for the other person's own sake, not for any kind of gain. These are lifelong friendships, which last as long as both people remain good. Virtuous friends are both "good without qualification" and good for each other. These relationships are rare and take time to develop, but they are the most rewarding.

Section 4

How do the three types of friendship compare? There are some overlapping traits. Virtuous friends are also pleasant and useful to each other. Moreover, the two incomplete friendships—pleasure and utility—last the longest when the two parties each get the same benefit from the same source. An erotic relationship, for instance, may dissolve easily if the participants find different sources of pleasure in each other—if one is courting and one is being courted. However, friends for pleasure who truly come to enjoy each other's personalities may remain friends for a longer time.

Good or "decent" people can have incomplete friendships with bad or "base" people. In addition, base people can have incomplete friendships. Only good people can have truly virtuous friendships with trust and without slander. Trust requires belief that a friend "would never do injustice" and evidence of the friend's reliability over time.

Incomplete friendship types can still be useful. Diplomatic alliances between cities, for instance, can be considered friendships for utility. Nevertheless, incomplete friendships rely on only the similarities between the two parties, not on a friend's goodness.

Section 5

Friendships, like virtue, can be expressed through a "state of character" or through "activity." Although friends frequently participate in activities together, they can often remain friends during a short absence. The distance changes their activity but not the character of their friendship. Since a pleasant character is important to any kind of friendship, "older people and sour people" do not usually have friends.

People who are friendly to each other but do not spend much time together have "goodwill rather than friendship." The happiest people will want to increase their happiness by spending time with true friends.

The truest kind of friendship is "the friendship of good people." These relationships are choice worthy in their own right or "without qualification." They are pleasant for each individual too.

Aristotle classifies friendship as a state rather than a feeling. The "reciprocal loving" needed for friendship "requires decision, and decision comes from a state" not from an emotion. True friends wish good to each other regardless of their personal feelings or emotions. True or virtuous friends benefit themselves as much as they benefit each other, and the relationship is based on "equality."

Section 6

Aristotle goes more in depth into various kinds of friendships and the activities that accompany them.

Although older people and "sour people" are solitary and have few friends, they may extend goodwill to others in times of need. People can have only a few true friends at once, since complete friendship requires "excess" of mutual regard between people who are also both good. It is hard to find and get to know truly good people, and it takes time to put in true friendship's effort.

Incomplete friendships, on the other hand, are easier to find and take less time to develop. Of the two incomplete types of friendships, the friendship for pleasure seems more complete than the friendship based on utility. It is based in enjoyment—an essential component of a good life—and shows a generosity lacking in older or "mercenary" people who make friendships for utility. A powerful person will be able to maintain a group of useful friends and a group of pleasant friends, since it is rare to find someone who has both qualities. The excellent person does have the ability to be "both pleasant and useful," but they are unlikely to befriend a powerful person, since they seek a friend who is "superior in virtue" as well.

Incomplete friendships, like virtuous friendships, involve equality in exchange. However, these relationships, unlike virtuous friendships, change quickly and do not tend to last.

Section 7

Friendships can arise between people with different levels of power. A father's relationship to a son, a man's relationship to a woman, and an older person's relationship to a younger person all "rest on superiority." For this friendship dynamic to work, the love must be proportional to each person's worth. The "better" and "more beneficial" person must be loved more. This proportional feeling will achieve a type of equality.

Equality in justice is distinct from equality in friendship, since worth is more important to justice, and "quantity" or proportionate equality is more important to friendship. If two friends become separated by a gap in "virtue, vice, [or] wealth," their friendship will dissolve. Ordinary people do not befriend kings, and "worthless" people do not befriend wise people.

However, if friends wish each other the greatest good, shouldn't they wish for their friend to "be a god," since divinity is the highest good humans can aspire to? If one friend achieves a divine level of goodness, they will no longer have any human needs, including friendship. Even true friends will not desire this change in status. They will wish each other the greatest good as a human being.

Section 8

Unlike honor and flattery, friendship "[consists] more in loving than being loved." Average people or "the many" want to be loved and honored more than they want to love and honor others. However, they do not want honor for its own sake—they hope honor will bring them good treatment from powerful people, or help them "confirm their own view of themselves." Love, though, is something people desire for its own sake. Friendship, like the love it brings, is "choice worthy in its own right."

Aristotle compares the love of true friendship to a mother's love for a child. A mother will love a child regardless of whether the child loves her as much as she loves the child.

Friends who love and praise each other according to the other person's worth have the most enduring relationships. This explains "how unequals as well as equals can be friends"—appreciation based on worth is a way for the uneven relationship to be "equalized." Aristotle emphasizes the importance of "equality and similarity" in friendship, particularly similar levels of virtue. Virtuous people strengthen each other and discourage each other from base actions. Their friendships are based on equal exchange, unlike a friendship for utility, which may involve two people finding what each one lacks, such as a poor person befriending a rich person. However, two "contrary" or opposite people cannot be friends in their own right. They are only seeking whatever they lack themselves.

Section 9

Community dynamics are also based in friendship. Each community, small or large, requires both friendship and justice. Nevertheless, since community members do not have as much in common as two close friends might, the appropriate type of justice will differ depending on personal relationships within the group. Justice between parents and children, for instance, is different from justice between siblings. Moreover, people treat their close friends differently than they treat other community members. It is considered worse to treat a friend or family member unjustly than it is to treat a stranger the same way.

Each small group—family members, groups of friends—is part of the larger political community. Smaller sections of a city, such as soldiers, neighborhood or deme residents, and religious societies, seek "partial advantage" or what is good for their group; legislators seek the "common advantage" for all. The political community is the most important, since it helps the most people. Civic festivals sponsored by the government, for example, give everyone a chance to relax and honor the gods.

Section 10

After Aristotle discusses the importance of political community to human relationships, he defines the three types of political systems, and a "deviation" or corruption of each one.

Kingship, which Aristotle regards as the best system, can be corrupted by tyranny. A king considers the good of his subjects, while a tyrant considers only his own good.

Aristocracy, the second-best system, is the rule of the most decent people. Its corrupt version is oligarchy, the rule of the most vicious people.

Timocracy, which Aristotle sees as the weakest system, is majority rule in which everyone with an equal amount of property has an equal voice. Its corruption is democracy, or majority rule without regard for class. Democracy is still similar to a "[genuine] political system" and is the "least vicious" corruption.

Household power structures resemble governments in miniature. A father's rule over his house is similar to kingship. In fact, kingship is designed to be "paternal rule." A father can also be a tyrant if he "treats his sons as slaves."

A union between a man and a woman resembles an aristocracy, since the man, considered superior, "commits to the woman what is fitting for her." This union can become an oligarchy if the man grows too powerful. A community of siblings close in age resembles a timocracy, since all members are equal. In addition, "dwellings without a master" have democratic rule.

Section 11

Different friendships result from each political system. A king is a beneficial, superior friend to his subjects, and a father is a friend to his children in a similar way. A father gives children greater benefits, since he brings them into the world. In both kingships and parent/child relationships, justice is based on individual worth.

Men and women have friendships in which each one receives goods according to their worth. Siblings have friendships based on equality, similar to the friendships found in a timocracy.

Corrupt political systems or deviations do not have justice, so these systems do not tend to encourage friendships. "Ruler and ruled" do not have enough in common to be friends. Where inequality is too great, like between a tyrant and his subjects or between a master and a slave, friendship and justice are impossible. Nevertheless, every human being does have "some relation of justice" with every other human being in a community, and this broad relationship slightly resembles friendship.

Section 12

The family unit has special types of friendships, all stemming from "paternal friendship" or a father's fondness for his children as a part of himself. A child's bond to a parent relies on need, pleasure, and utility. A child's friendship with a parent is "friendship toward what is good and superior." Siblings and cousins close in age have more companion-like friendships. Siblings have the similarity required for friendship because they are from the same blood, nurtured and educated together, and able to trust each other over time.

Humans form couples more easily than they form larger communities, and the family bond extends beyond childbearing responsibilities to mutual benefits. For instance, a husband and wife can perform different functions and fulfill different family needs, contributing both pleasure and utility. Family members can even cultivate virtuous friendships if both individuals are virtuous themselves.

Knowing how to treat friends and family members with justice is essential to living a just life, Aristotle explains. However, each relationship requires an appropriate kind of justice.

Section 13

What about disagreements between equal friends? The best way to handle these disagreements will depend on the type of friendship. Friends for virtue want the best for each other, whether these friendships have a foundation of equality or superiority. In each case, the friends will aim to benefit the other person in all their actions. Friends for pleasure have simple expectations and spend time with one another only if they enjoy it. So virtuous friends and friends for pleasure are not likely to fight. Friends for utility are most likely to get into arguments, since they expect benefits from the friendship. Arguments arise when one person does not get what they feel they are owed.

To explain how disagreements in these friendships can arise, Aristotle mentions two types of justice: "one unwritten, and one governed by rules of law." Similarly, some friendships for utility rely on an unspoken understanding of the other person's character, others on previously established rules or "explicit conditions." When the terms of the friendship change, then accusations begin. For instance, a friendship for utility based on rules may involve a debt one person owes to the other. The lender can require immediate repayment or agree to postpone the debt, trusting the other person to pay. In a friendship for utility based on character, a lender may give his friend money but expect to be repaid with interest, although he will not make this expectation clear.

Aristotle says accusations happen because most people want to do the right thing, but they will do what benefits them instead. If the other person is a willing party to the friendship, the right thing to do is "make a return worthy of what we have received." Someone who didn't expect to have to repay a friend's loan, for instance, should act as if they "received a good turn on explicit conditions" whether they did or not. Anyone who owes money should repay if they can. Nevertheless, it is best to consider the terms and conditions of a favor at the beginning.

Should the return be measured by the recipient's benefit or by the worth of the benefactor's gift? A recipient might think a financial gift was "a small matter" for a rich benefactor, while the benefactor thinks they gave as much as they could. In these cases, Aristotle thinks the return should be measured by the recipient's benefit, since the recipient was the one who received a gift—and because of the equal terms of the friendship, the benefactor expected "an equal return."

In a virtuous friendship, however, the measure should be the benefactor's decision. This decision is a sign of their "virtue and character" and should be respected.

Section 14

Disagreements between friends of unequal power usually result in the dissolution of the friendship. A wealthier person may consider a gift to be "a public service" rather than a friendship, since the poorer friend contributes nothing in return. Meanwhile the poorer person thinks a good friend would gladly share his wealth. They are both right—they should each get what they need in the correct proportion. The richer person should get more honor, and the poorer person more profit.

This principle also applies in political communities. A politician receives honor for holding office, so he should not accept monetary gifts. Friends of unequal power, like equal friends, should return gifts appropriately by giving honor in exchange for a gift of money or virtue. Friendship, unlike political justice, "seeks what is possible, not what accords with worth." Some gifts cannot be fully repaid, like what children owe their parents or what humans owe the gods, so the inferior party should do the best they can. Moreover, the more powerful party can change the agreement's terms. A creditor can discharge a debt, for example, and a father can disown a son, although he is not likely to do so unless the son is "far gone in vice." However, a debtor cannot discharge his own debt, and a son cannot disown a father.


Aristotle sees friendship as part of any livable human life. He defines it broadly. A lover or a family member can be a friend. The questions he raises in Book 8 apply to a wide range of human interactions, from daily civility in social settings to family loyalty and political participation. Do people gravitate toward people like themselves, or do they search for someone who has qualities they lack? Can "base" or "vicious" people be saved by strong friendships? What happens when friends have different expectations for the relationship?

The lovable, similar to the good, can be either "lovable without qualification" (what the excellent person loves) or lovable to some people and not others. By love, Aristotle means philia or friendship: the affection, devotion, and concern of "reciprocated goodwill." This is not always love in the romantic sense, but it can be part of romance.

He acknowledges that each type of friendship has its place, although some can enrich lives more than others can. The incomplete friendship types, based on utility or pleasure, have things in common with the complete and virtuous friendship. All friends should please each other and help each other in times of need. Nevertheless, the devotion of virtuous friendships depends on loyalty, not circumstance. Virtuous friends stay together even if one person is not useful or fun to be around at the time. Incomplete friends may wish the other person well, but their primary interest is in what the friend can offer them.

Like cultivating virtue, establishing virtuous friendships takes work, time, and effort, and it is not possible for just anyone. People who want truly complete friendships should improve their own characters first. It also requires, like virtue, the right state, decision, and activity. By "living together" Aristotle means participating together in life's activities, not living in the same house. True friends deliberately invest time in each other and make a decision to love the other person. A good person can still have friends for utility and pleasure, but these friends will not be their focus.

Sections 7 through 13 take the basic discussion of friendship and move it into the realm of political life. Like politics, friendship needs to perform the delicate task of balancing equality with the power and status differentials in a community. Some provisions in Section 7 ensure the division between unequal friends will not be too great. The more beneficial party is repaid with more love. Friendships do not bridge huge gulfs in economic status or mindset. However, in the rare cases when they do, these relationships still are not as stable as friendships between equals.

In Section 8 Aristotle examines the currencies of friendship, which are love and honor. Although a flatterer can get insincere honor, it is hard to find insincere love. In complete friendship, Aristotle implies, equality will not even come up as a concern. Genuine love, offered according to worth, can be an equalizing force.

In larger communities, love translates to justice, or selfless actions for the common good. These social groups can come in diverse forms, like families, clubs, professional associations, religious societies, neighborhoods (a deme is a neighborhood or village), and most importantly, the city or polis. Aristotle relates friendship to the devotion people have for their fellow citizens and ultimately their governments.

Which governing systems will be best for the city? Aristotle compares each type of government to a household relationship, since even readers without much political experience are more likely to know the dynamics of a family. In his view, families mirror political systems in their organization, expectations, and uses and abuses of power. A good father, like a good king, will rule benevolently and selflessly.

In ancient Greece, the father of the family had a great deal of power over his spouse and children, so the "kingship" analogy would make sense to the audience attending Aristotle's lectures at the Lyceum. Men were seen as superior to women by definition, and slaves inferior to free men. Elsewhere in the text, he acknowledges that slaves have souls and that they have standing in the eyes of the law, but he questions the extent of their humanity. Aristotle's reservations about democracy may stem from his belief that some people are more suited to rule than others. Freedom, he thinks, can easily be abused. Similarly, deviant systems affect the welfare of their citizens, leading to a decline in trust and friendship.

His description of the family unit in Section 12 shows how he views families as models for cities. Like a father, a good king should love his subjects sacrificially and selflessly, and see their welfare as identical to his own. Parents are children's earliest model for human relations to the gods, one of the most sacred relationships Aristotle acknowledges. Spouses model ideal political relations by assigning goods in proportion to worth.

In Sections 13 and 14, Aristotle considers the inevitable difficulties in incomplete friendships, difficulties he thinks are rooted in justice. Political justice, like friendship, requires humans to follow certain guidelines in their behavior. For Aristotle, political relationships were a natural extension of other human interactions such as family relations and friendships, probably because Athens was governed by a small, tightly connected group of men. Without the central ingredient of trust, friendships are liable to fall apart. Most of the examples Aristotle uses in these sections have to do with money. He knows money is a contentious issue, often intersecting with need, and people may find it difficult to display virtuous character when money's involved.

Aristotle traces disputes in friendship to unmet, unknown, or undisclosed expectations. A gift turns out to be a loan, or a wealthy friend does not donate enough to a struggling friend. Many relationships have unspoken expectations. Nevertheless, virtuous friends have more reasonable expectations of each other and more skill at assessing their friends' ability to meet them. Virtuous people are also more likely to follow through with a desire for right action. They may forgive a debt or do a favor without expecting one in return. Most people will wish to act selflessly until human need and greed comes into play. Then they will base their decision on their own pleasure or benefit.

Even friends with unequal statuses can make a fair return for benefits. As in distributive justice, Aristotle thinks the key is proportion rather than equality. He also applies the principles of justice in exchange. Honor can be exchanged for profit; although the currencies are different, each member of the community gives what they can. Moreover, in special circumstances, like disagreements between fathers and sons, or cases in which a friend cannot possibly pay back a debt, people should let decency, prudence, and wisdom guide their actions. Although disowning sons was a practice allowed in Athenian law, Aristotle holds the father/child relationship sacred and feels disowning should be a last resort.

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