Aristotle asks good human beings to be self-lovers, devoting special attention to virtue’s most fundamental groundwork. With all individual actions, it is the intellect which must determine the course of proper morality and strength of character; the path of right action elucidated in Nicomachean Ethics thus grounds itself in that personal aim for moral excellence. Given that the basic esteem one has for oneself inevitably precludes any concern for another, ideal friendship (friendship in its most perfect form) exhibits the larger activation of self-love’s most notable qualities. Friendship on these grounds then provides a fine arena for just action and good works. Aristotle’s analysis of this seemingly ill-united pair – the love for the self and the love for another – rather substantiates the intrinsic alliance of these two functions, posing further the impossibility of extrapolating friendship from self-love or self-love from friendship. Through an extensive survey of self-love’s capacity to cultivate a just civilization, Aristotle discloses the fundamentally private origin of civil justice and social concern.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “friends enhance our ability to think and to act” (Book VIII, 1155a). As friends provide a motivation and a receiving end for good works, they are, in this sense, “indispensable for life” (VIII, 1155a). Yet, although Aristotle claims friendship to be ideal for the practice of habitual virtue, the allure of comradeship inevitably beckons the wicked along with the good. Aristotle in turn prescribes neither friendship nor self-love for the wicked individual, lest that degenerate should use friends merely to escape the burden of his own corruption – an act that would threaten to “harm both himself and his neighbors in following his base emotions” (IX, 1169a). Ethics therefore puts forth that only the good man deserves the guidance of self-love, for only he deliberates respectably (with rightly-ordered desires) and discerns his environment through the scope of his own intelligence – a being’s most sovereign faculty. A wicked man’s unbridled self-love readily becomes clout, fueling his depravity and jeopardizing civil society’s moral stature in one fell swoop.
According to Aristotelian ethics, although self-love and love for another complement each other in making a habit of virtue, self-love must be of primary concern in light of its expansive benefits. In section four of Book IX, Aristotle dictates self-love to be “the basis of friendship” (1166a), and expands on this in section eight, stating that “all friendly feelings toward others are an extension of the friendly feelings one has for oneself” (1168b). In this way, friendship and self-love are complementary though not equivalent; perfect friendship must expand upon and realize the incomparable friendliness that an individual feels toward himself. Aristotle designates the self-love of the virtuous person as one quintessential departure point for any society that seeks to be just. The good man operates from such a mold of customary concern and care for the soul – it is within the workings of this solitary yet amiable fellow that Aristotle finds the seed from which perfect friendships, and thus, a justly-ordered society, can be borne.
While it is of concern that Aristotle’s virtuous self-lovers might dwarf in the shadows of society’s loftier figures – the spontaneously just, the noble in virtue, the perfect friends with their binary selflessness – what must be retained is self-love’s enduring indispensability despite its lack of broad, public recognition. Intent love of oneself, Aristotle supposes, is the veritable lifeblood for a just individual. In other words, the best way to learn to want good for another person – and for their own sake – is to consider the rational measures taken in an individual setting to cultivate one’s own goodness. However, while Aristotle emphasizes the positive nature of friendship and other grand-scale expressions of the noble at heart, he favors still the individual pursuit of excellence and virtuous self-love above all. Such “activities of the soul” in the private domain, albeit contained and secluded from the public forum, surpass (in their greatness) the reach of common social goings-on and most powerfully affect all planes of life. Closing section eight of Book IX, Aristotle concludes that “in everything praiseworthy a man of high moral standards assigns himself the larger share of what is noble” (1168b), and so grants the individual permission to act out of self-interest at times, assumedly in instances where the priority of personal well-being must be recaptured. Aristotle recognizes the ways in which individual actions affect the good of all; all society’s needs could only be met if each person’s deliberation was guided by intellect and the goal of far-reaching happiness.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle enumerates the ways in which virtuous action and characteristic morality provide the means for achieving life’s ultimate goal. As happiness proves to be this good at which all earthly things aim, Aristotle devotes Books VIII and IX to the ways in which self-love makes up the foremost ingredient for fostering virtuosity and grasping true happiness. Importantly, Aristotle emphasizes humanity’s disposition toward friendship of all sorts, due to what he supposed is the natural interconnectedness in our physical existence. However, humanity’s greater task is to acquire friends for reasons higher than pleasure or utility, recognizing that the practice of willing good for another, for the sake of the other, embodies the greatest virtuous opportunity. Each participant of a perfect friendship enters that arena with the footing of self-love; as such, it is only through the self-love of a virtuous man that widespread good works can prevail.
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