Aristotle's understanding of the relation between virtue and friendship

Germaine Paulo, Fordham University


There is intense debate among scholars studying Aristotle's "political" works regarding his understanding of the nature of happiness. While all agree that Aristotle defines happiness as the exercise of certain human virtues, there is considerable controversy as to whether the happy life involves some integration of moral and intellectual virtue, referred to as the "inclusive interpretation," or rather consists primarily in the exercise of intellectual virtue, specifically, theoretical thinking, referred to as the "contemplativist" interpretation. Through an analysis of the relation between virtue and friendship, I enter into this debate, and argue in support of the "inclusive" interpretation. In examining each of the virtues Aristotle identifies as candidates for "highest" or "most complete," namely, magnanimity, justice, prudence, and theoretical thinking, I argue that Aristotle depicts each, when taken in isolation from each other, as defective or limited in some sense. Aristotle's position on the need to integrate the virtues becomes clear when one envisions what kind of friend a person who embodied any one of the particular virtues would be. Although Aristotle does not provide any unambiguous solution as to how the various virtues fit together, he points toward friendship as providing the best resolution. One of the chief problems involved in the exercise of moral virtue, Aristotle indicates in his discussion of continence and incontinence, is experiencing the practice of moral virtue as intrinsically pleasurable. In the face of this difficulty, Aristotle suggests that the only truly pleasurable life may be one devoted to the apolitical activity of theoretical contemplation. However, in his account of friendship, Aristotle explicitly argues that friendship is necessary to happiness, and that it involves both moral and intellectual virtue. Moreover, in the context of the shared life of friends, Aristotle claims, the exercise of both moral and intellectual virtue is inherently pleasurable. Hence through examining Aristotle's account of friendship, we see that his understanding of happiness is "inclusive."

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Paulo, Germaine, "Aristotle's understanding of the relation between virtue and friendship" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9715519.