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Friendship and θυμός in Aristotle

Paul Ludwig

Politics 7 claims that the self-assertive and defensive faculty of soul, the thumos, is “the faculty by which we love” (philoumen; 1328a1). Interpreters have been slow to credit this claim, in part because Aristotle’s treatises on friendship in the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics attribute no such function to thumos. Other places in the corpus corroborate it, however, and the passage and its interpretation illuminate a crux in Aristotelian friendship: whether an initial self-love “extends to others” (EN 9, 1168b5-6). The problem is one aspect of the confrontation between Aristotle and modern ethics, especially the modern dichotomy between egoism and altruism.

For one school of thought, in which thumos is our faculty of passionate response to the fine (e.g. Cooper 1999), the Pol. 7 claim is unproblematic. Pearson (2012) argues that thumos is essentially angry and retaliatory, and this conclusion forces him to regard its connection with friendship as isolated and atypical for Aristotle. Blössner (2006), too, finds the claim singular, a provisional reaction to an unresolved problem in Plato; he identifies Republic 2 as the subtext to which Aristotle reacts. Building on Blössner’s identification, I argue, against Pearson, that thumos aims at more than retaliation; however, contrary to Cooper, the apparently disinterested aspects of thumos actually stem from a kind of higher self-assertiveness, for Aristotle. On this basis, I argue that the claim is more than provisional and may be Aristotle’s considered opinion. 

Pol. 7 criticizes Rep. 2 for saying that thumos will make the Guardians harsh toward strangers but mild toward their own (1328a8-10; cf. Rep. 375c). In reality, Aristotle says, we get angrier at intimates than at strangers because it hurts more when intimates belittle us. His observation that greater love gives rise to greater anger then becomes evidence for the claim under investigation. Aristotle regards restraining vulgar desires, when they conflict with reason, not as self-abnegation but a higher form of self-love, loving the real self (EN 9, 11666a16-17; cf. Rep. 4’s continuation on thumos, 439e-440b). Similarly, Aristotle’s friend who gives his life for his friends is a self-lover (philautos): he “allots the better portion to himself” because the friend gets money; he gets nobility (9, 1169a19-21; 1169a28-29). But while the ethical treatises downplay complaints in virtue-based friendships (e.g. EN 8, 1162b5-7), Pol. 7 shows how disappointed friendship flips naturally into injured self-regard. The great-souled (megalopsuchoi), he says, get especially angry when wronged by intimates, whom they have benefited: the anger is understandable, he claims, because in addition to the injury of injustice, they feel deprived of a benefit by people who owe them one (1328a1-5; a10-15).

The paper’s conclusion corroborates this view of friendship and thumos with other places in the Aristotelian corpus and speculates about how such a self-assertive view of philia could be reconciled with the requirement that a friend be loved “for his own sake” (ekeinou heneka, e.g. EN 8, 1155b32; Rh. 2, 1380b36-37). For example, illustrating how “the same thing admits of contraries,” Topics 2 asserts that the question of whether hatred accompanies anger “in the thumoeides” can be answered in the affirmative only if hatred’s contrary, philia, is also in the thumoeides (113a35-b3). In the Rhetoric, Aristotle classes philia with passions that go beyond desires for pleasure and utility, each concerning itself with something “for its own sake”; for example, not only do friendship and graciousness exhibit this feature (Rh. 2, 1381b36-37; 1385a19) but also shame (1384a21-23), insult (1378b24-25), and envy (1387b24-25; cf. 1388a35-38). The gratuitousness of Aristotelian friendship may thus be a specific instance of a more general class.

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Friendship and Affection

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