Friendship as the Othering of Self

[Originally posted on Facebook, 9 March.]

Does a person need friends to be happy?

In the last session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate program, we spent much of our time exploring Aristotle's chapters on friendship from the Nicomachean Ethics. I had not planned it thus, but the topic of friendship (especially as ramified into civic friendship) took hold of me as essential to our meditation on the deep conditions for a pro-life subjectivity, as well as for a rejuvenation of our Republic.

One of the many striking things about Aristotle's treatment of friendship is his way (as with his ethics as a whole) of setting it within a political context, but also within an ontological context—remembering that Aristotle's notion of happiness commits us to being more (being good), through virtuous activity. Being, being-with, being-more: friendship is essential to human development and political health.

In a particularly fascinating passage from Book IX.9, Aristotle explains the necessity of friendship for happiness with reference to what Kant would call the transcendental unity of apperception, or which we might call spirit's reflexivity. Spirit (the power to know and love, the rational power) is for communion, therefore wants communion, needs communion. Being in us wants to be more, and a friend is another self, so friendship is ingredient in the fecundity of being.

"But if life itself is good and pleasant (which it seems to be, from the very fact that all men desire it, and particularly those who are good and supremely happy; for to such men life is most desirable, and their existence is the most supremely happy) and if he who sees perceives that he sees, and he who hears, that he hears, and he who walks, that he walks, and in the case of all other activities similarly there is something which perceives that we are active, so that if we perceive, we perceive that we perceive, and if we think, that we think; and if to perceive that we perceive or think is to perceive that we exist (for existence was defined as perceiving or thinking); and if perceiving that one lives is in itself one of the things that are pleasant (for life is by nature good, and to perceive what is good present in oneself is pleasant); and if life is desirable, and particularly so for good men, because to them existence is good and pleasant for they are pleased at the consciousness of the presence in them of what is in itself good); and if as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also (for his friend is another self): if all this be true, as his own being is desirable for each man, so, or almost so, is that of his friend. Now his being was seen to be desirable because he perceived his own goodness, and such perception is pleasant in itself. He needs, therefore, to be conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place."

The friendly sharing of life is an exigence of the human spirit: the rational animal is the political animal. Or, the human person cannot find him or herself except in the sincere gift of self. The sentiment of existence urges towards a shared sentiment, and we know that that sentiment must come to feel as proper to itself the agonies and the joys of every other.