Aristotle, distance, equality, ethics, friendship, Greek philosophy

The Distance of the Gods : A Note on Aristotle and Friendship

In one of the more singular passages of the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII, Chapter 7), Aristotle makes several claims about the nature of friendship.  One of these claims is that friendship arises out of (or, we shall say, strives for) equality. Similarly, friendship has a reciprocal nature insofar as the more useful or better of the friends (a father in relation to his son) deserves more love and thus owes less, so to speak. It is in this sense that friends would strive to be equal to one another, all things considered. Yet this is to take friendship only in its ideal cases: all of our friends are particular, and thus they play a variety of different roles (which are not reducible to being useful, helpful, beneficial, etc.). On the other hand, Aristotle seems to be saying something more profound than this: he stresses that friends are good things, and this does not have to consist in them simply being good to us. They are good for us and also help to intensify and actualize the good in us. Though this is not simply a question of prepositions: Aristotle poses to us that if friends are good, and we want good for our friends, can we want our friends to be gods, insofar as this would diminish (the proportionality of) the friendship, and thus not be a good for us? Can friends be gods and goods (1159a 1-7)?

                But Aristotle rephrases himself: we want the greatest goods for our friends, but not all the greatest goods (perhaps). This is because Aristotle is not so sure that we always wish the best things for our friends—what would prevent us from wishing the best for our friends? Obviously, wishing the best for ourselves! But back to the more important question, one that does not go away so easily for all that: if our friends could be gods, or aspire to such a status, they would “surpass us most decisively in all good things” (1158b 34-35). Aristotle’s more fundamental question is: to what point can friends remain friends?

                Instead of going to the side of the negative (bad vices, bad habits, hygiene, culture, style, attitudes, etc.) as a reason for breaking off a friendship, Aristotle goes to the other extreme of virtue and excellence. At what point are friends too unequal in terms of “goodness”, insofar as they base their relationship in that quality? But if we take this as an absolute abstract social value, virtue-in-itself, then we can say that friendship will be broken when one of the friends cannot stand the embarrassment of being inferior (ressentiment), or when one of the friends is too embarrassed by the other (contempt). Neither of these two states of mind or attitudes has to be real per se—they can still have negative effects if they are believed to be real by one or the other. Or it could be more subtle: becoming a god changes the value of things, including friends. There could be a relative displacement of systems of valuation: in other words, becoming a god affects the friendship negatively when the proportionality of the love between friends (in Aristotle’s terms) is broken because the love is considered too minimal to produce a noticeable effect—or the effort required to obtain recognition from the beloved is considered “not to be worth it.” Aristotle calls this distance. Another tie to Nietzsche: there is Zarathustra’s love of the farthest as a virtue—this would befit a noble or great soul—and Aristotle’s megalopsychia. As for our friends: if they become gods or overmen, we only hope that somehow some of that increases our belief in ourselves to recreate ourselves in such a manner as to continue to compete and struggle with them, in order to further develop the dimensions of a common godhood.

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