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"Philia" (Greek: φιλíα) in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is usually translated "friendship",[1] though in fact his use of the term is rather broader than that. As Gerard Hughes points out, in Books VIII and IX Aristotle gives examples of philia including:

"young lovers (1156b2), lifelong friends (1156b12), cities with one another (1157a26), political or business contacts (1158a28), parents and children (1158b20), fellow-voyagers and fellow-soldiers (1159b28), members of the same religious society, or of the same dining club (1160a19), or of the same tribe (1161b14), a cobbler and the person who buys from him (1163b35)."[2]

All of these different relationships involve getting on well with someone, though Aristotle at times implies that something more like actual liking is required. When he is talking about the character or disposition that falls between obsequiousness or flattery on the one hand and surliness or quarrelsomeness on the other, he says that this state:

"has no name, but it would seem to be most like [philia]; for the character of the person in the intermediate state is just what we mean in speaking of a decent friend, except that the friend is also fond of us." (1126b21)

This passage indicates also that, though broad, the notion of philia must be mutual, and thus excludes relationships with inanimate objects, though philia with animals, such as pets, is allowed for (see 1155b27–31).

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines the activity involved in philia (τὸ φιλεῖn) as:

"wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him" (1380b36–1381a2)

John M. Cooper argues that this indicates:

"that the central idea of φιλíα is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself). [... Thus] the different forms of φιλíα [as listed above] could be viewed just as different contexts and circumstances in which this kind of mutual well-doing can arise"[3]

Aristotle takes philia to be both necessary as a means to happiness ("no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods" [1155a5–6]) and noble or fine (καλόν) in itself.

Types of philia

Aristotle argues that there are three kinds of philia, for "not everything is loved, but [only] the lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful" (1155b18–19). We can thus distinguish between:

  • Philia based on mutual advantage (love for what is useful).
  • Philia based on mutual pleasure (love for what is pleasant).
  • Philia based on mutual admiration (love for what is good).

These types are not mutually exclusive, but can overlap. The third kind will usually involve the other two kinds too, and is, he argues, the best of the three. Mutual admiration involves the nature of the other person, not simply how they affect you (being useful or fun to be with), and is also, therefore, more likely to last ("for if someone is no longer pleasant or useful, the other stops loving him" [1156a21–22]). Moreover, philia of the third kind is good in itself, whereas philia of the first two kinds might involve the mutual advantage between those involved in business or the mutual pleasure of those involved in child abuse — relationships that are bad in themselves.

"Now it is possible for bad people as well [as good] to be friends to each other for pleasure or utility, for decent people to be friends to base people, and for someone with neither character to be a friend to someone with any character. Clearly, however, only good people can be friends to each other because of the other person himself; for bad people find no enjoyment in one another if they get no benefit." (1157a18–21)

Self-sufficiency and philia

Aristotle recognises that there is an apparent conflict between what he says about philia and what he says elsewhere (and what is widely held at the time) about the self-sufficient nature of the fulfilled life:

"it is said that the blessedly happy and self-sufficient people have no need of friends. For they already have [all] the goods, and hence, being self-sufficient, need nothing added." (1169a4–6)

He offers various answers. The first is based on the inherent goodness of acting for and being concerned for others ("the excellent person labours for his friends and for his native country, and will die for them if he must" [1169a19–20]); thus, being a wholly virtuous and fulfilled person necessarily involves having others for whom one is concerned — without them, one's life is incomplete:

"the solitary person's life is hard, since it is not easy for him to be continuously active all by himself; but in relation to others and in their company it is easier." (1170a6–8)

Aristotle's second answer is: "good people's life together allows the cultivation of virtue" (1170a12). Finally, he argues that one's friend is "another oneself", and so the pleasure that the virtuous person gets from his own life is also found in the life of another virtuous person. "Anyone who is to be happy, then, must have excellent friends" (1170b19).

Altruism and egoism

For Aristotle, in order to feel the highest form of philia for another, one must feel it for oneself; the object of philia is, after all, "another oneself". This alone does not commit Aristotle to egoism, of course. Not only is self-love not incompatible with love of others, but Aristotle is careful to distinguish the sort of self-love that is condemned (ascribed to "those who award the biggest share in money, honours,and bodily pleasures to themselves. For these are the goods desired and eagerly pursued by the many on the assumption that they are best" [1168b17–19]) from that which should be admired (ascribed to one who "is always eager above all to perform just or temperate actions or any other actions in accord with the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine [noble, good]" [1168b25–27]). In fact:

"the good person must be a self-lover, since he will both help himself and benefit others by performing fine actions. But the vicious person must not love himself, since he will harm both himself and his neighbours by following his base feelings." (1169a12–15)

Aristotle also holds, though, that, as Hughes puts it: "[t]he only ultimately justifiable reason for doing anything is that acting in that way will contribute to a fulfilled life."[4] Thus acts of philia might seem to be essentially egoistic, performed apparently to help others, but in fact intended to increase the agent's happiness. This, however, confuses the nature of the action with its motivation; the good person doesn't perform an action to help a friend because it will give her fulfillment; she performs it in order to help the friend, and in performing it makes both her friend and herself happy. The action is thus good both in itself and for the effect it has on the agent's happiness.[5]


  1. And also sometimes as "love".
  2. Hughes, p.168n.
  3. Cooper, p.302
  4. Hughes, pp 173–174.
  5. See Hughes, pp 175–176. For an alternative view, see Kraut, chapter 2.

Sources and further reading

  • John M. Cooper, "Friendship and the Good" (The Philosophcal Review 86, 1977; pp 290–315
  • John M. Cooper, "Aristotle on the Forms of Friendship" (The Review of Metaphysics 30, 1976–1977, pp 619–648
    References in the article are to a reprint of the preceding two papers, as "Aristotle on Friendship", in Amélie Oksenberg Rorty [ed.], Esays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1980) ISBN 0-520-04041-4
  • Gerard J. Hughes, Aristotle on Ethics (Routledge, 2001) ISBN 0-415-22187-0
  • Richard Kraut, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton University Press, 1989) ISBN 0-691-02071-X
  • Alexander Moseley, "Philosophy of Love", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

See also

  • Love
  • List of words ending in -philia

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