You are here

Political Friendship in Nicomachean Ethics IX.6

Paul W. Ludwig

St. John's College, Annapolis

Can philia stretch to include an entire polity? Commentators have wondered whether political friendship involves emotion. For example, EN IX.6 seems more cognitive than affective, equating “the civic sense” of friendship with likemindedness (homonoia; 1167b3). The latter is a “feature of friendship,” and another, related feature, goodwill, is “definitely not friendship” (1166b30). Might civic friendship, too, lack something essential to friendship? After a preliminary argument, my paper concentrates on IX.6, contending that even this ostensibly least emotional description of political friendship is in fact emotional, for Aristotle. The passage illuminates a difference between Aristotelian and modern ethics and gains in interest from recent polarization and hostility in many liberal democracies.

Allen 2004 removes affection from political friendship, tracing the latter to Book IV’s unnamed social virtue that is only “like friendship” but “aneu pathos . . . kai tou stergein” (1126b20-24). Christ 2012 separates likemindedness from the kind of affection that leads to altruism, limiting the latter, among Athenians, mainly to close friends and family. For Pakaluk 1994 and Pakaluk 2016, altruism fails to capture the favoritism of friendship, which is not disinterested benevolence but identification with the friend so far as to be biased in favor of him, a feeling that could occur in any shared scheme of cooperation, including politics. Konstan 2018 detects in IX.6 an awkward, perhaps politically-motivated compromise between a belief that vulgar people cannot be likeminded (“just as they also cannot be friends”; 1167b9-11) and a wish to accommodate a newer, democratic ideology that extended friendship to include all Athenians. Yet Aristotle’s position may not be so awkward: Cooper 1999 points out that even modern citizens in large commercial societies (comparatively untroubled about virtue) are typically quite a bit more concerned about fellows citizens than they are about foreigners, in part because such citizens feel involved with, almost responsible for, each other’s behavior. Could such concern exemplify, or result from, Pakaluk’s favoritism?

To build on Cooper and Pakaluk, I begin with the utility-basis of political friendship (EE VII.1242b22-27). Utility-based friends genuinely like their friends but explicitly fail to like them “in themselves” (kath’ hautous; EN VIII.1156a11; Cooper 1980). That is, by liking each other qua useful, they fail to like each other for who they truly are. Nevertheless, such utility-based friends are explicitly said to be affectionate (stergousi; 1156a11-16). This implies that the social virtue of friendliness, which lacks to stergein, must differ from utility-based friendship, and thus differ from IX.6’s species of it: political friendship. The remainder of the paper analyzes the treatment of likemindedness in IX.6. Does Aristotle think likemindedness causes citizens to identify with fellow citizens and thus to favor them? How would utility provide a basis for this likemindedness and favoritism?

Of the three features of friendship (ta philika), only likemindedness is equated with a type of friendship. It differs from the more cognitive sameness-of-opinion or sameness-of-judgment, neither of which is philikon (1167a22-26). Cities are said to enjoy concord when citizens agree on large matters of practical importance (a27-30). Examples include agreement about the regime (“that the offices should be elective”) and agreement on foreign policy (“that an alliance should be made with Sparta”). Enough agreement to act in concert is required (prattōsi; a28-29)—as opposed to dividing into factions (a34). Such agreements, particularly that offices be elective, are shared schemes of cooperation, I argue. Such cooperation makes citizens useful to one another, in implicit contrast to oligarchic and democratic factions’ refusal to cooperate. I speculate that citizens with this moderate position on elections (as opposed to lottery, the more democratic way of allocating offices) might identify with each other and genuinely wish the "best people to be in office" (1167b1-2)—a possible way of overcoming the invidious contrast Konstan noted and one way of generating, in citizens, the concern noticed by Cooper.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Ethics

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy