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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 9 | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

This section continues Aristotle's discussion of friendship. He begins by discussing friends with different aims, where "proportion equalizes and preserves the friendship" like proportionate worth in goods and services keeps political friendships or economies of exchange together.

However, arguments may arise when one friend expects utility and another expects pleasure. For instance, a young lover may find an older companion useful, and the older companion may find the young lover pleasant. Arguments begin when someone does not get what they want or expect in a friendship. Aristotle gives the example of a musician who expected his listener to pay him, while the listener said he gave "pleasure in return for pleasure." The musician did not expect pleasure in return—he expected profit.

Aristotle believes the recipient, not the giver, should judge whether a benefit is worthwhile. Givers "entrust [the judgment] to the one who has received." The thinker Protagoras, for instance, asked his students to pay based on what they felt the knowledge was worth.

However, in virtuous friendships the giver should fix the worth of the benefit. Their virtuous character allows them to make the right decision. There will not be any accusations in these friendships, since virtuous friends give because they want the best for each other.

If a gift is made "on some specified condition," and two people cannot agree on its value, the value should be determined by "the party who benefits first." They can give the other person as much benefit as they have received. Buying and selling, Aristotle says, operate on this principle. Some cities do not even allow "legal action in voluntary bargains." Instead, the law encourages the recipient to fix repayment, since the giver, believing his gift to be "worth a lot," will naturally fix a higher and perhaps inaccurate price.

Section 2

Friendships come with other puzzles. Should people obey or support authorities in all circumstances? Should they always favor their friends over other people?

Generally, Aristotle thinks people should repay a creditor before lending to a friend, and return a favor before helping a friend. However, if general ethical guidelines conflict with doing the right thing, people should follow principles of virtue before following rules of repayment. For example, donating to a friend may be "finer or more necessary" than repaying a debt to a vicious person.

In any interaction people should accord others "proper and suitable" respect based on worth, status, and relationship. They should attend the weddings and funerals of family members, support and honor their parents, and honor elderly people.

Section 3

Friendships tend to dissolve if friends "are not friends in the way they think they are." Someone may think a friend likes them for their character, when the friend is only using them for pleasure or utility. If the friend has indeed misled them, the friend is guilty of "[debasing] something more precious" than currency, and should be accused.

Friends should not deceive each other about the type of friendship they have. Nor should a good person continue to love a vicious person, although they should try to improve their friend's character if possible. Virtuous people should love only the good, since bad character is not lovable. Similarly, a friend who becomes more virtuous than a companion will not have much in common with the old friend anymore. This dissolution sometimes happens when one friend reaches emotional maturity before the other one does. These friends should respect the former relationship, as long as it is not dissolved because of vice.

Section 4

Many features of friendship are also features of self-love or "friendship toward oneself." The "excellent person" is in harmony with the self and wishes the best for the self, as they do for their friends. They want to achieve the highest good in their actions and consistently choose the good of self-preservation, particularly preservation of their rational, understanding side. The excellent person enjoys spending time in their own company, since they have good memories and high expectations for the future. The excellent person finds out what experiences are "painful or pleasant," so these things do not vary in their life, and accordingly, they almost never have regrets.

These traits are all characteristic of how virtuous friends feel toward each other—they share each other's pains and pleasures, enjoy each other's company, and want the other person's best good. The closest friendships between virtuous people resemble self-love.

Vicious people, by contrast, form friendships full of self-loathing and misery. They "shun themselves." A vicious person is full of regrets when left on their own; and their friends help them pass the time and avoid self-hatred. They do not enjoy their own company, since "[their] soul is in conflict." The vicious person is pleased by base actions and "distressed at being restrained." After indulging a base pleasure, they may be tormented with regret—pulled in too many directions. The vicious person's misery is yet another reason for people to "earnestly shun vice."

Section 5

Goodwill is a feature of friendship, but it is not the same as friendship. People can have goodwill toward strangers, but they do not befriend or love every stranger. Goodwill lacks the "intensity and desire" of love, as well as the familiarity required for love. An audience member can feel goodwill for a contestant in a game, for example, but this fondness arrives and leaves quickly. Goodwill does not mean sharing activities with someone or going to great lengths to help them.

Goodwill, however, is "a beginning of friendship," since all virtuous friendships start with feelings of goodwill. Time and investment can turn goodwill into true friendship. Mutual goodwill is not necessary in friendships for utility or pleasure, since the goodwill someone feels in those friendships is toward only themselves and the benefit they can receive from the other person.

Section 6

Concord is another feature of friendship that involves agreement about questions of action. For a city to be in concord, its members should agree on a common solution to civic problems. Concord is evident when cities tackle "large questions" like decisions about elected offices or national alliances. Specific agreement is required for concord—all parties should "have the same thing in mind for the same person." Aristotle defines concord as "political friendship." Good people can be in concord with one another, since they have a common wish for justice. Vicious people do not desire justice, only selfish benefit, so concord is impossible for them.

Section 7

Benevolence also has similarities to friendship, since there is love between the benefactor and the beneficiary. To explain this affection, Aristotle distinguishes between benefactors and creditors, since most people do not consider debtors and creditors to have any mutual affection.

Although both benefactors and creditors have made a gift to someone else, the creditor cares only about their loan being returned, while the benefactor wishes the best for the beneficiary no matter what. A benefactor is similar to a craftsperson who feels affection for their creation, or a poet who loves their poetry. The beneficiary is a "product" the benefactor has created, in a sense, and the benefactor will love when the beneficiary actualizes what the benefactor enabled the beneficiary to do or be, almost as if it were "[the benefactor's] own being." The benefactor also enjoys the act of giving. A benefactor will consider both the gift and the beneficiary "fine" or virtuous, and hope they endure. Aristotle compares a benefactor's love to an activity, which requires effort and produces a tangible reward—like earning an income or raising a child.

To the beneficiary, however, the gift is only useful, not good in itself; things that are only useful do not last, and it is not as pleasant to be "acted on."

Section 8

Aristotle returns to the idea of self-love, addressing the common misconception that self-love equals selfishness. He thinks the misconception may arise because people have the wrong idea about "self-love." Many people think that those who give themselves more goods and pleasures than they give others, and who gratify their appetites at others' expense, are examples of self-love in the reproachful sense of being "a self-lover," but this is not to Aristotle. Vicious people do "go to every length for [their] own sake" and consistently seek to reward themselves. Nevertheless, good people can also show themselves love by seeking the highest good in their actions. Aristotle reminds the reader that excellent people treat themselves the way they would treat a close friend, since "the features of friendship extend from oneself to others."

Those who love the self appropriately, Aristotle says, are those who find joy in fine actions. People may not think of a good person as a reproachful type of "self-lover," since no one blames them when they do virtuous actions and receive a virtuous life in return. However, they have actually awarded themselves the best life possible. The continent person, who has mastered their appetite through reason, is happy because they are gratified in "the most controlling part of [themselves]"—the guidance of reason and truth. Their actions increase the common good and increase their personal good even more. Because they understand what is best for themselves they never have internal conflict. However, Aristotle says the vicious person "must not love [themselves], since [they] will harm both [themselves] and [their] neighbors" because they do not know the right actions to do.

An excellent person will sacrifice for friends and country if necessary, but will get a greater reward. A year of being virtuous, for instance, is better than "many years of undistinguished life." In addition, if they donate to their friends, they give themselves virtue in return, which is better than money. They will always choose "the fine" or more virtuous path, even if they sacrifice honors.

Section 9

Does a truly happy person even need friends, since being self-sufficient is linked to happiness? Aristotle argues that friends are "the greatest external good." Since the happiest person has the best external goods possible, why wouldn't they have friends? Humans are not meant to be solitary, Aristotle thinks, but to live in community. Moreover, in "good fortune" virtuous people will have a need to benefit others.

Aristotle reminds the reader that happiness is an activity, the kind that "comes into being," not like something someone can own. If being happy involves "living and being active," then the activities of friendship, both giving and receiving good things, will only improve a happy person's life. Further, the virtuous person will benefit from seeing the virtuous deeds their friends perform. In addition, having friends is natural. Virtuous people always choose what's "good by nature" for themselves, and excellent friends are among these natural goods.

Humans also need "perceiving or understanding" to have a full life. Part of the joy of living, for the excellent person, is being aware they are alive. Since the happy person enjoys life, and is fully aware they are enjoying it, they will want to share this joy with others. Moreover, if "a friend is another himself" a good friend's virtuous life will cause the excellent person as much joy as their own life does.

Section 10

Aristotle has established that friendship is an essential good. However, how many friends should a virtuous person have?

People do not need many incomplete friendships like the ones based on utility or pleasure. It is time-consuming to keep up with the expectations of friendships for utility, so people can handle only a few of these relationships at once. Moreover, a few friends for pleasure, like "a little seasoning," should satisfy anyone's needs.

What about virtuous friendships? Aristotle cannot give an exact number of virtuous friends to aim for, but there is a limit. A good friendship involves a commitment to spending time together and sharing joy and grief. Sharing activities with more than a few people at once becomes "hard work." Responding appropriately to others' joy and distress takes work too.

Ideally people should not develop close friendships with more people than they can commit to "living together" with (spending time with regularly). A few close friends are all most people can accommodate, just as most people cannot have more than one passionate lover. In fact, Aristotle observes that most people already choose only a few close companions. Those who try to cultivate friendships with everyone are considered "ingratiating" and are not admired. People can be decent to their fellow citizens without being everyone's friend.

Section 11

Do people need friends more in good or bad fortune? Although people seek friends in both situations, it's "finer" or more virtuous to share good fortune with friends. Seeing good friends does help in times of pain, especially if they know the right things to say. However, good people do not want their friends to suffer distress, and when anyone shares their sorrow with a friend, the friend will be sad too. Aristotle urges readers to "imitate the better person" and be discreet in sharing pain with friends. Nevertheless, if their friends are suffering misfortune, they should come to provide support without being asked. As long as they do not act too eager to "receive benefits," they should also come eagerly to share in friends' joy.

Section 12

Friendship is community, Aristotle concludes. If a good person finds it "choice worthy" (ideal) to be aware they are living a good life, then awareness of a friend's good life makes them even happier. Friends seek each other's company and share the activities they both enjoy. While vicious people only make each other worse by spending time together, good friends make each other better—more and more as time goes on. They learn from each other and help each other grow.

Analysis

Aristotle uses this section to expand on the concept of friendship. He describes the reasons friendships succeed or fail as well the benefits they bring to all parties, including the community. He talks about how many friends a person should have, and when and how to end a friendship. In addition, he defines concepts that are similar to friendship, such as goodwill, benevolence, and concord.

He highlights the importance of clear communication for stability. Friends should agree in advance on the value of their services. Their transactions should follow the principles for economic justice or justice in exchange as described in Book 5, Section 5. Justice in exchange creates a harmonious community, and friendships are a smaller version of this community. Givers should know the worth of their gifts and clarify their intentions. When gifts are exchanged in a complete friendship, the giver's intent is more likely to be pure, unconditional, and "because of the friend himself."

In all friendships, Aristotle thinks it is up to individuals to make fair, honest compromises in transactions not covered by law. He points out that many cities will not even allow "voluntary bargains" to be taken to court. In addition, he understands friends may not communicate terms clearly to each other because they falsely trust these terms to be understood. In these cases, it is hard to prove a violation. He returns to his Book 5 point that only reason and right action, not human law, should be a moral compass. Again, he mentions the Sophists as examples of admired but unjust community members who swindle students out of money by making promises they cannot keep.

Always aware that life presents scenarios outside the boundaries of his guidelines, Aristotle discusses exceptions in Section 2. Previous loyalty and friendship trumps justice in exchange whenever the two conflict. You should forgo repaying a debt to save your father or help a friend. Despite the devotion generally owed to parents, sons should not "render everything to ... fathers" if it would be wrong to do so. Prudence or practical wisdom is key in these situations, as it is when the brave person decides which dangers to face.

As most members of a community know, different relationships require different levels of loyalty in social and interpersonal situations. People attend the weddings and funerals of family members, but not those of strangers. People speak more freely with their close friends than they do with acquaintances.

In Section 3 Aristotle explores the limits of friendship. Both complete and incomplete friendships require a mutual understanding of the relationship's boundaries and limitations. Complete friendships especially need both people to have similar goals and values. Aristotle offers the example of childhood friends where one grows into intellectual and moral maturity more quickly than the other does.

Sections 4 through 7 expand on what a friendship requires to be truly complete. They also give more detail about the virtuous person's self-image and attitude toward life. Good people will know how good their lives are. They will seek friends to enhance their happiness, while vicious people seek friends to forget their misery. Good people know how to relate to everyone in their sphere of influence. They can extend goodwill to strangers and acquaintances, and concord to fellow citizens through civic participation. Concord involves following both written and unwritten guidelines for the common benefit of the polis, even if they are personally inconvenient. It is not just being politically active but being a good neighbor. Benevolence, like generosity, may not be applicable to everyone. However, parents who raise children, or friends who give money to a struggling friend, cherish the recipient's success as much as their own. The best friends have the same selfless attitude.

In Section 6, Aristotle remarks on the inner stability of good people. They will know their priorities. They have mastered decision and deliberation, and they understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Section 8 distinguishes appropriate self-love from the selfish, greedy, or vain reproachful idea of "self-lover." Aristotle understands why someone might confuse these vices with healthy self-love. However, Aristotle has the reader recall the goal of reaching an intermediate state. Greed wants more than its share of honor or money. Self-love wants just enough—and the good kind of self-lover will use their resources to help others.

Section 9 begins to prepare the reader for a more thorough discussion of pleasure and happiness in Book 10. Anyone who is living fully will have an accurate perception of the world, seeing and understanding more than others do. This complete understanding and perceiving leads to the fulfillment of the human telos or ultimate purpose, which is a life guided by reason and wisdom.

Still, Aristotle acknowledges that friendship remains a complicated relationship between people who have conflicting needs. In Section 11, Aristotle discusses the delicate balance between considering that your friend has needs and meeting your own. Good friends say the right things in the right circumstances, respecting the feelings of everyone involved. Knowing how to comfort or console a friend, or even how to celebrate with a friend, requires dexterity and cleverness—both forms of prudence.

In Section 12 Aristotle brings his discussion of friendship full circle. Good people need friends because a good friend will only improve their character. The virtuous person will recognize ways he can learn from his friend; if the friend has good qualities he is still developing himself. Arete, or excellence, involves continuous self-improvement—just as happiness is a constant activity, involving choices and actions.

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