A remarkable passage in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics dismisses friendships based on utility (to chrÄ“simon) as characteristic of “market hucksters” but after a brief interval suggests that people in positions of power could, and should, combine utility with nobility by seeking out friends “useful for noble purposes” (chrÄ“simous eis ta kala; 1158a22-31). The passage and its interpretation shed light on a perennial problem of Aristotelian friendship: How much admixture of utility is permissible in friendships based on virtue without effacing the distinction between virtue- and use-friendships? The problem is one facet of the confrontation between Aristotle and modern, especially Kantian, ethics.
In the view which has become standard, use-friends (as opposed to mere users) genuinely feel affection for one another and even harbor goodwill towards their friend “for his own sake,” thus passing Aristotle’s litmus test of friendship (e.g. Cooper 1980, Broadie 2002, cf. Konstan 1997). Use-based (and pleasure-based) friendships differ from virtue-friendships in the accidental nature of their affection and goodwill. If a person had not happened to be useful (or pleasing) to such friends, they would never have come to like him or her. Virtue-friends, on the other hand, are attracted to the ethical character of their friend, i.e. they are attracted to their friend’s very being rather than to accidental qualities. The paper argues that this view of utility does not handle well the distinction between ethical and intellectual virtue. None of these scholars looks at utility in philosophic friendship, where it takes a more leading role. The varying degrees of discomfort with utility in the highest friendships exhibited by these scholars stem from an overly reductive, un-Aristotelian view of utility.
Intermediate between marketers and potentates in the passage are “the blessed” whom Aristotle describes as being “continuously” in the presence of “the Good itself.” I argue that these blessed are contemplatives, identifying them by the reference to the Platonic form and by later references to activities friends help each other to achieve “continuously” (sunekhÅs), including the most continuous of all, contemplation (e.g. 9.1170a5-8, 10.1177a21-22). Aristotle initially says the blessed have no need of useful friends, but he quickly qualifies that statement, saying they do need friends good “for them,” as opposed to friends who are good simply. This distinction between goodness-for and good-simply is recapitulated from the 8.1155b18-24 discussion of the three lovables: the good, the pleasant and the useful, where Aristotle first dismissed the useful as merely instrumental to the good before reinstating it, at first under the rubric of goodness-for. I argue for a similar tripartite division among types of utility, first distinguishing between crass, market utility and the surprising utility Aristotle wishes potentates would partake in—a utility which makes such an unusual combination with ethical nobility. Based on the identification of one form of utility with goodness-for, I argue that the contemplatives, as intermediate between the marketers and potentates, partake of a utility intermediate between these two kinds, a philosophic utility that is closer to market utility in its insouciance toward nobility.
The paper concludes by corroborating this expansive view of utility with several passages in the Nicomachean Ethics and from elsewhere in Aristotle’s works. These include EN 6.1144a1-5, where theoretical wisdom is useful for producing happiness, and EE 2.1219a14-18, where in intellectual endeavors, which produce no work beyond themselves, the use (chrÄ“sis) is identical to the work (ergon).
- Broadie, Sarah. 2002. "Philosophical Commentary" in Christopher Rowe and Sarah Broadie, trans. and ed., Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cooper, John M. 1980. "Aristotle on Friendship" in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. Berkeley: University of California, pp. 301-340.
- Konstan, David. 1997. Friendship in the Classical World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.