This week I had the opportunity to spend 12 hours discussing the topic of friendship with my students, guided by Aristotle’s work on the subject. While we found much that he says to be rich and helpful, one particular insight led to hours of fruitful discussion. The claim is as follows:
“The defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbours would seem to be derived from features of friendship towards oneself.” (Ethics, 1166a)
Before discussing this passage, I had asked for stories about my students’ best friends, and amid a banquet of reminiscences and qualities shared about past and present friends, no one ventured to speak about themselves. However, this is precisely what I take Aristotle’s insight to be: that to be a good friend to others requires first and foremost that we be our own best friends.
The key is the relation in question – a relation in which one kind of friendship derives from the other. One is the ground, source, foundation or impetus for the other, and the surprising thing is that, for Aristotle, friendship with oneself is this basic feature of life from which other friendships (with a spouse, child, colleague, fellow-citizen, etc.) flow. With this thesis in mind, we are invited to ask the question of whether and how one can be a friend to oneself?
The basic answer seems to be that one can, in fact be in a healthy relation with oneself for a variety of reasons. Thanks to our memories, we can look back on ourselves, observing ourselves as if observing another. Because of the different faculties of the soul—for instance, our desires, spiritedness and reason—we can question and interact with ourselves, fretting over a pressing decision or various courses of action. Most importantly, our minds are capable of self-critique, internal dialogue, and sustained creative interaction with oneself, including one’s thoughts, memories, and responses to one’s thoughts. As a result, Aristotle suggests that we can be our own friends – we can enjoy being with ourselves (rather than hiding from ourselves in constant interactions with others), wish ourselves goods (such as existence, pleasures, and virtues), and wish things with constancy across our whole being, without experiencing internal division or schism.
This seems to me a fascinating thesis, calling for a level of careful introspection seen very rarely, as in Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, which has so many rich commonalities with Aristotle’s thought in this regard. One way this thesis would seem to work is negatively, allowing us to do retrospective work based on failed relationships: what do my failures and weaknesses as a friend tell me about the failures and weaknesses of my friendship with myself? For someone who has experienced significant pain in friendships and relationships this would seem to offer an important avenue for self-understanding and growth in self-friendship and self-love. On the other hand, this thesis opens a variety of more purely constructive opportunities. A question Aristotle would want us to ask ourselves would be: given my desire to better love my friends, what are some of the ways in which I can be a better friend to myself, that I might extend this friendship I have with myself to others?
And this brings us to the very heart of the Christian life, as Jesus understands it:
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk.12:31)
My general inclination in the past was to understand this command to mean something along the following lines: “Given that you love yourself a good deal, love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.” But Aristotle challenges me in this regard. While Jesus may mean this, he might also mean to push us towards loving ourselves better, for we once again find our love or friendship for ourselves to be the root of our outward relationships—of how we love our neighbors.
The root, of both friendship and a full Christian life, seems to be loving ourselves well. This cannot be a matter of self-indulgence, of course, for loving ourselves poorly would naturally result in loving others poorly, and being a bad and damaging friend. We must be good and true friends to ourselves, loving ourselves well, which means seeking the best things in life. What are these best things? For that, we must return to Aristotle’s account of the virtues, or better yet, to the Good God who desires to share Himself with us, the God through whom all other goods, which He freely bestows, are rightly ordered.