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Aristotle asks at the close of Book VIII, Chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics: Can one wish their friend the highest good, namely, to be a god? He seems to provide several reasons to think not.

First, Aristotle claims that if x wished for y to be a god, then x would lose a good, namely, that of friendship. This presumes humans cannot be friends with gods. This is plausible, since Aristotle also suggests friendship requires need, and gods don't need anything, so they don't have friends.

However, in Chapter 12 Aristotle seems to count it as possible that humans can be friends with gods, claiming this is on par with friendship between children and parents. Friendship requires proportionality. Children can never repay parents for bringing them into existence, but they can honor them in other ways to maintain proportionality. Similarly, we can honor gods to maintain proportionality. See also Chapter 14, "Friendship seeks what can be done, not what accords with merit, because it's not possible in every case, such as honor to the gods or one's parents."

Second, Aristotle claims that x must always wish for the good of y with respect to whatever y is, "whatever that may be." The sorts of cases he considers include 'kings' and 'the wise', i.e. a king's friend wishes goods befitting a king for the king, rather than, say, goods befitting a merchant. But this seems to entail that paupers who're friends can't wish each other to be kings, since that'd be a good befitting a king rather than a pauper. That seems mistaken.

I'm a bit perplexed here. On the one hand, Aristotle seems to be claiming we can't wish our friends be gods because we can't be friends with gods, then taking that justification back later without returning to the question of whether we can wish our friends be gods. On the other hand, he seems to constrain wishing goods for our friends too narrowly, and so that seems flimsy justification for dismissing wishing one's friend the highest good.

Please do help this fly out of the bottle...

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Welcome, John Beverley.

You raise interesting points about a relatively neglected area of Aristotle’s ethics.

First there is in VIII.7 the question of wishing the best – the greatest good - for one’s friend. The paradox is that what would be best is for the friend to become a god but his/ her becoming a god would end the friendship because, while friendship can admit of inequality, there are limits to the degree of inequality compatible with friendship. Ideally friendship exists between persons of complete virtue. It can survive one person’s being more virtuous than his/ her friend - having superior moral goodness - but only within limits. Aristotle does not specify these limits but plainly supposes that the inequality of virtue, not to speak of wisdom or power, between gods and humans is too great to allow friendship.

Is it possible to reconcile wishing the best for one’s friend and not wishing one’s friend to become a god? Only, I think, by means of an unstated caveat. One wishes the best for one’s friend but not all the greatest goods. That of becoming a god is excluded. There is a breach of consistency here, caveat or no.

The second point concerns passages in which Aristotle recognises friendship between humans and gods – the passages in VIII.12 & 14. In the first he refers to ‘The friendship of children with parents, like that of humans with gods, is as with something good and superior’; and in the other, we read ‘For friendship seeks what can be done, not what accords with merit, because it is not possible in every case, such as honour to the gods or to one’s parents.’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, tr. R. Crisp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009: 159, 163.)

It is impossible to resist the impression of inconsistency: in VIII.7 Aristotle rules out any human friendship with the gods and in VIII.12 & 14 such friendship is referred to. In VIII.7 friendship cannot exist between humans and gods; in VIII.12 & 14 it can.

We need to remember, however, that the Nicomachean Ethics probably had its origin in lecture notes and that the text does not bear the imprint of revised and careful composition that marks, say, the Organon. Aristotle may have not have kept his notes up to date - it’s possible - or the references to friendship between humans and gods (e.g., VIII.12’s ‘like [or ‘and’] that of humans with gods’ - kai anthropois pros theous) may spurious, an editor’s interpollations or a copyist’s slips.

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Why did Aristotle claim we can't wish our friends be gods?

Because we'd thereby lose a great good.

Aristotle himself (Ethics bk. 8 ch. 7) poses the objection:

From this a doubt arises that men do not perhaps wish their friends the greatest goods, for example, that they become gods; for then the friends will not benefit them.

ὅθεν καὶ ἀπορεῖται, μή ποτ' οὐ βούλονται οἱ φίλοι τοῖς φίλοις τὰ μέγιστα τῶν ἀγαθῶν, οἷον θεοὺς εἶναι· οὐ γὰρ ἔτι φίλοι ἔσονται αὐτοῖς, οὐδὲ δὴ ἀγαθά· οἱ γὰρ φίλοι ἀγαθά.

And answers it with two reasons:

  1. If it was correctly stated that a man wishes good things to a friend for his sake, we must suppose that the friend remains much the same person as he is. One wishes the most excellent goods to his friend as he is a man;
    εἰ δὴ καλῶς εἴρηται ὅτι ὁ φίλος τῷ φίλῳ βούλεται τἀγαθὰ ἐκείνου ἕνεκα, μένειν ἂν δέοι οἷός ποτ' ἐστὶν ἐκεῖνος· ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὄντι βουλήσεται τὰ μέγιστα ἀγαθά.

  2. but perhaps not all goods, for every one wishes good to himself most of all.
    ἴσως δ' οὐ πάντα· αὑτῷ γὰρ μάλισθ' ἕκαστος βούλεται τἀγαθά.

St. Thomas Aquinas commentates, explaining

#1:

  1. […] A person wishes the most excellent goods to a friend as he is a man, not as he is changed into a god.
    vult enim maxima bona amicus amico tamquam existenti homini, non tamquam translato ad deos.

#2:

  1. […] it is not reasonable that a man should wish a friend those goods by which he will lose that friend who is a great good.
    unde non oportet quod velit amico illa bona, per quae ipse perdet amicum, quod est magnum bonum.

Our friend who becomes a god does not bear the same relationship to us as parents do to children or God does to humans.

Ethics bk. 8 ch. 12:

  1. Children have friendship for their parents—and men for their gods—as for something transcendently good. The reason is that parents are in a special way the causes of their children’s existence, upbringing and training.
    ἔστι δ' ἡ μὲν πρὸς γονεῖς φιλία τέκνοις, καὶ ἀνθρώποις πρὸς θεούς, ὡς πρὸς ἀγαθὸν καὶ ὑπερέχον· εὖ γὰρ πεποιήκασι τὰ μέγιστα· τοῦ γὰρ εἶναι καὶ τραφῆναι αἴτιοι, καὶ γενομένοις τοῦ παιδευθῆναι·

  2. Such friendship contains more pleasure and utility than an outsider’s friendship inasmuch as parents and children live more in common.
    ἔχει δὲ καὶ τὸ ἡδὺ καὶ τὸ χρήσιμον ἡ τοιαύτη φιλία μᾶλλον τῶν ὀθνείων, ὅσῳ καὶ κοινότερος ὁ βίος αὐτοῖς ἐστίν.

St. Thomas Aquinas commentates, explaining

#1:

  1. […] children have friendship for their parents as to a kind of superior good. The reason is that parents are special benefactors-the cause of their children’s existence, upbringing, and training. Man’s friendship for God is also of this nature.
    filii habent amicitiam ad parentes, sicut ad quoddam bonum superexcellens, quia ipsi sunt maxime benefactores, inquantum ipsi sunt filiis causa essendi et nutriendi et disciplinae; et talis est etiam amicitia hominis ad Deum.

#2:

  1. […] Friendship between children and parents has pleasure and utility in a greater degree than outside friendship in proportion as they live a life more in common. Because of this they become especially useful and pleasant to one another.
    amicitia quae est inter filios et parentes habet etiam delectationem et utilitatem, tanto magis quam amicitia extraneorum quanto magis communem vitam gerunt. Ex quo provenit quod sunt sibiinvicem maxime utiles et delectabiles.
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  • Hi Geremia, would you mind elaborating? I'm familiar with what Aquinas says about Aristotle on this point, but I feel my question isn't exactly addressed. That is, it still seems to me Aristotle is talking past himself. Forgive me if I'm just being dense. Jun 17 '20 at 0:50
  • @JohnBeverley Does my friend becoming a god mean he becomes "the causes of" my "existence, upbringing and training"?
    – Geremia
    Jun 17 '20 at 3:16
  • @JohnBeverley cf. also Aquinas on Friendship.
    – Geremia
    Sep 26 '20 at 18:52

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