restricted access 2. Taking Friendship Seriously: Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life
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For present-day readers, Aristotle’s discussion of friendship (in Greek, philia)1 is both intriguing and perplexing—intriguing because of his unique emphasis on friendship as an essential topic for moral and political theory, perplexing because his lengthy discussions of friendship do not result in any clear moral or political principles. Anyone coming to Aristotle from modern philosophy must wonder why he cares so much about friendship, devoting much more time and attention to it than any modern philosopher. Friendship is the topic of a large portion of both the Nicomachean and the Eudemian versions of Aristotle’s Ethics (books 8–9 of the NE and book 7 of the EE), and is central to the Politics (especially in book 3), the Rhetoric (book 2, ch. 4), and to his account of tragedy in the Poetics as well.2 Our thoughts about friendship, shaped by the post-Aristotelian philosophical tradition, incline to the view that friendship should be treated as a relatively minor subject for philosophy, 53 2 Taking Friendship Seriously Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life Stephen Salkever 010 pt 1 (19-112) 3/20/08 12:47 PM Page 53 either as a sub-philosophic afterthought (as in Kant),3 or as superphilosophic transcendence (as in Montaigne and Rousseau),4 or as both (as in Heidegger).5 For us, to think philosophically about ethics and politics is first of all to reflect on the individual, the family, the political community , and then, if we inquire more deeply, to turn our attention to more universal ways of being together, to communities of all believers in a certain faith, or of all human beings or of all rational or all sentient beings. The job of practical philosophy, we generally think, is to bring these various identities to our attention and to supply us with solid and clear principles that will tell us how to understand and to weigh the diverse and often conflicting claims such identities make on us. Against the general expectations formed by this background, Aristotle, undoubtedly a philosopher,6 is an odd duck in two respects: he asks us to pay serious attention to a kind of relationship that appears on the surface to be much less important or much less intelligible than others we can name, and at the same time he fails to provide a clear and precise definition of what friendship is or of the principles he thinks should govern our friendships. Aristotle’s stress on the problem of friendship is out of step not only with modernity but with some of the leading ideas of his own time. Like Plato, Aristotle is writing against both the philosophical and the political current of his day, against what he calls the endoxa or the most widespread and influential opinions. No other Greek philosopher comes close to foregrounding philia as Aristotle does. As for political endoxa, the central moral questions facing his fourth-century BCE audience are more like the ones posed by Glaucon and Adeimantus to Plato’s Socrates about the best, most choiceworthy way of life: which should I choose, the life of the good and just citizen, or the life of the all-powerful tyrant? In the Republic, Socrates tries to reorient his interlocutors away from the choice between citizenship and tyranny and toward the cultivation of eros and the attempt to understand the universal good; similarly, in the Ethics and Politics, Aristotle’s project is to reorient his readers and auditors away from a focus on the choice between pleasure or power seeking on the one hand and good citizenship on the other, and toward a concern with their own friendships and an accurate perception of the human good.7 For Plato’s Socrates in the Apology, the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being; the Aristotelian equivalent is the prohairetic life, the life marked by 54 T Stephen Salkever 010 pt 1 (19-112) 3/20/08 12:47 PM Page 54 thoughtful reflection on our goals and our ways of achieving them, a reflection that depends on an accurate conception of both the universal human species good and our own particular context. Aristotle’s substantive account of philia in particular is similarly counter- or transcultural. While his discussion does not follow in the footsteps of any previous philosopher, neither does he simply reflect or systematize standard non-philosophic Greek opinions about philia. As Lorraine Pangle notes, speaking of the Greek endoxa concerning...