Friendship and the State

comments 6
Aristotle / friendship / justice / Politics

 In chapter 9 of book III of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the general relation between justice and the state. In the course of examining the relation of equality and inequality, Aristotle proposes that the state “exists for the sake of a good life, and not the sake of life only” (1279b31-32). Notice that the good is already predicated of the state in this statement, and it is because of this bias that Aristotle will conclude: “if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness in a life based on choice” (1279b33-34). Although happiness as an end for the virtuous life is one of Aristotle’s primary concerns, the emphasis on the choices that the political situation makes possible seems to conceal the fundamental lack of choices for the individual as well as the a priori nature of any state whatsoever. This assertion stems from Aristotle’s misunderstanding that the political arrangement of a state (whether constitutional or otherwise) has very little to do with the will or mood of the multitude, even if, in the last analysis, they are given priority in power because of their total quantity of property (cf. 1282a37-40).

 In other words, since Aristotle theorized earlier that the state precedes any individual which would constitute it (just as the whole precedes the parts), it seems to be false that the state would only consist of individuals for whom life was founded on a choice. Moreover, when Aristotle claims that the state is a community of families whose goal is self-perfection and self-sufficiency, he seems to undercut the primordial character of the state that would subordinate families for its own ends (i.e. his previous position). More fundamentally, he also seems to negate his earlier statement that political life had anything to do with a choice. He writes: “Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence there arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for to choose to live together is friendship” (1280b36-38 my emphasis). It then follows that our political environment is contingent and that friendship is only a choice in terms of choosing to live virtuously; only then could we call “living together” a choice, insofar as we choose not to live or strive against one another.

 The concept of friendship, which is analyzed in depth in the Nicomachean Ethics, in relation to political choice can be better illustrated in reference to the pre-eminent individual (1284a10-15). The pre-eminent individual is a person whose excellence, especially in political affairs, overshadows that of anyone else. In fact, Aristotle admits that they are “God among men” and that “legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are equal in birth and in capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent excellence there is not law—they are themselves a law.” In this sense, they are above the law simply by being at the very center of it. Men of this caliber may find it difficult to find friends because of a lack of equals suitable for them, but the important point is that the example of the man above the law logically leads to the counterexample, i.e. that of the ostracized man, the outlaw, those beneath the law (1284a34-36). 

What is characteristic of these singular positions in society is the fact that they have nothing to do with a political choice, at least in the straightforward sense in which Aristotle presents his argument. If we were to agree that these positions could be characterized by choice, we would be forced to look at the more fundamental phenomena at work in the unconscious of the society as a whole. In other words, ostracizing someone from political life and incarnating them in the very fabric of the law constitute the extreme forms under which the balance of justice and friendship in the state come to take on their most dissymmetrical distributions of equality and inequality. But it is also here that justice as friendship, as the (anonymous) perpetuation of noble deeds in the absence of a telos, can illustrate the very inconsistency of the social bond (Badiou).

The Author

Please feel free to email me about anything and everything that's on the site. I love every chance I get to engage in stimulating conversation. Email:


  1. The artwork is off the hook on this site. Also, the content is a welcome stretch of the conceptual imagination… Semantics on a completely interstellar, completely über-conscious level. Keep on keeping on guys.

    Bad Lovely

  2. Reminds me of the middle ages in which vassals would fledge loyalty to the king out of an honest pact as free men. Overtime the relation became very different of course-the iron law of oligarchy.

  3. Thank you for all the positive comments recently.


    It’s interesting that you mention vassals because Aristotle’s first book of the Politics begins by describing the master/slave relationship. It’s almost a contradictory account insofar as he claims that people are either slaves or masters by nature, even though the only real evidence he gives of how people become slaves is through warfare…which means that if you push Aristotle on this issue, everyone can become slaves despite whatever their “nature” may be.

    On the other hand, I had to return to Aristotle’s concept of friendship. I had written a short piece on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, but this is completely different and the emphasis on this “life based on choice” struck me as something more or less out of place in the Politics.

    Also, have you guys noticed that Joe’s titles for posts keep getting shorter and shorter, while mine keep getting longer? I feel like my titles are always like those cheesy conference paper titles that have to have a full colon to sort of have two titles…

  4. I think it’s a classy contrast.

    Nice work, by the way! I wonder how all this fits in with contemplation being the purest form of happiness, and with his assertion in III.2 (of the Nicomachean ethics) that we deliberate only about means, and not about ends…

  5. There is a strong resonance with Agamben’s discussion of
    ‘form of life’, cf. his essay of same name, in _Means Without End_. The question of how we can go beyond ‘just existing’, and the danger of predicating a political system or a state on the ability to either give life or take it away is key today as unprecedented, largely invisible epistemological horizons erase any chance to posit value as a critical and/or enthusiastic part of thought itself. Agamben situates this problem squarely in the space of the ongoing ‘state of emergency’ which forms the rationale for military and legislative behaviors that reduce all life to simply the life that can be taken, the state thus denying any value beyond that ‘bare life’ as he terms it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.