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Love your self as your friend

September 8, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (which consists of notes from his lectures on moral psychology) does not set out to teach its audience to be good. No one, he says, will get anything out of his lectures who is not already good; all he can do is help those in his audience who are good understand what they’re being, so that they can be it better. But the Ethics are nevertheless continually cited for their moral advice. I do not think this is entirely inappropriate; though he’s surely right that ethics cannot be taught in a classroom, that does not mean that language is irrelevant to learning it. Exhortatory maxims can have play a useful role.

If we were to distill the Ethics down to such a maxim, or at least down to two, we might do worse than “seek the mean in all things,” and “love your self as your friend.”

The first maxim is fairly self-explanatory. Aristotle analyzes of virtue as the mean between extremes: for any action, sometimes it should be done, sometimes it should not be done. To be virtuous is to do it whenever it should be done, and not do it whenever it should not. Discussion of such matters takes up roughly half of the Ethics, Books II-VI.

The second maxim is more opaque, but also, I think, more interesting. It means to invoke the train of thought found in the other half, Books I and VII-X. If we think of the Ethics as proto-psychoanalysis, then Books II-VI are the catalog and case studies of the various neuroses and psychoses, while I&VII-X are the model of soul. It is in them that Aristotle develops his theory of the self, its desires, and their fulfillment.

The theory begins with the question: What is good for us? To be happy.

What is happiness? Not pleasure–that’s brutish. Not wealth–that’s a means to an end. Not honor–that’s just a way of reassuring ourselves of our own virtue. Not virtue–only a philosopher would call a virtuous man undergoing torture “happy.” More generally, each of these could be added to in a way that made the possessor better off, but happiness must be final and complete: one you are happy, nothing more should be desirable.

Well, what is good for anything? It is good to do well: playing the flute well makes one a good flautist. We should ask, then, what action makes one a good human. Humans are distinguished from other animals by their intellect, and so to act distinctively human is to use one’s intellect: to apply practical wisdom to one’s affairs, and to contemplate. (How are these to be balanced against each other? Aristotle does not say.)

How can we tell whether we are exercising practical wisdom? It’s difficult. We very easily deceive ourselves; we’re better at evaluating other people. But we also know that people tend to be friends with people they resemble, both because they seek each other out, and because they influence each other, each trying to help the other do better. The best way to ensure we do well, then, is to make friends who are wise. By observing them doing well, and by observing that we desire them to continue doing what they’re doing, we learn what it is to do well, and learn to desire it for ourselves. And so the good man is, in a sense, friends with himself:

For he is at unity in himself, and with every part of his soul he desires the same objects; and he wishes for himself both what is, and what he believes to be, good; and he does it (it being characteristic of the good man to work at what is good), and for the sake of himself, inasmuch as he does it for the sake of his Intellectual Principle which is generally thought to be a man’s Self. Again, he wishes himself And specially this Principle whereby he is an intelligent being, to live and be preserved in life, because existence is a good to him that is a good man.

In a deeper sense, however, a man’s self is not another friend, but rather a friend is another self. Man is friends with himself from the beginning, before he has other friends; he is the only person he cannot avoid spending time with. He must look outside of himself, to another self, a friend, only in order to learn how to be a good self-friend. We seek happiness for ourselves, but the best way to learn what happiness is, is to ask what we would want for our friends. We train our desire (orexis) through our friendship (philia).

Note that love in the sense of eros does not play an important role here, being just another instance of orexis (if for the sensation) or philia (if for the person). This is perhaps the greatest difference between Aristotle and Freud. I do not think it’s just a matter of vocabulary.

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