Audio file

Self-Love and Friendship

By Dr. Gregory L. Froelich
Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
West Coast Meeting of the Society for Aristotelian-Thomistic Studies
June 18, 2015


I want to begin with a question that Aristotle entertains in the eighth book of the Nicomachean Ethics. The aporia, as he calls it, presents itself in considering how different or unequal people can be, and still be friends. If your friend becomes king and you become his subject, will things always pan out as they did, say, for Falstaff? Aristotle says it is not easy to determine a general rule here. But although there may be no exact way of defining in general the deal-breaking difference — given all the possible differences that can arise between people — if the friend were to become a god, let’s say, while you remain a lowly human, it is pretty clear that friendship is over. So, the question arises: since a friend is one who wishes good things for his friend, does he wish him the greatest goods? On the one hand, supposing it would indeed be good for the friend, it seems since, as a friend, we wish good things for his sake, then we should wish that, even if it means the end of the friendship. On the other hand, since friends are supposed to be good for each other, then why would one wish for something that would mean the end of that good? So, for example, when I saw many years ago it would be a good thing for my wife to be back up in her home state of Alaska, I knew I had to wish it for her. But then of course I knew I couldn’t remain a Virginian, as I was at the time. So I became an Alaskan ... for quite a few years. Likewise, when my wife realized it would be a good thing for me to become a Californian (again), well, let’s just say in becoming Californian at least she became more divine.

If then Aristotle is right, we do not wish our friends just any good things, even the very best, if it means the end of the friendship. And what that comes down to saying seems a little strange: I wish my friend a good for his sake for my sake. I wish my friend a good for him ... for me. I love him simply for him ... for me. That unconditional love is tied to a very important condition. There lies the puzzle. It seems like friendship — good, perfect friendship — is to serve two masters, an impossibility.

So this is the knot I’d like to tease out. But before I try that I think it might help to make it a little more knotted. For an objection occurs to me to this being a knot worthy of an hour of teasing. One might say that a friend is like any other “bonum honestum” worth choosing for its own sake. Just as we love virtue for its own sake, so we love a virtuous friend. If virtue is its own reward, so is a virtuous friend. We do not have to look any farther than a good friend in our love for him — unless we are loving out of the supernatural virtue of charity, of which I am not speaking now. So there is no need to turn the good a friend is back to ourselves, as if there is some other good of mine that my friend is ordered to. That is the case in friendships based on utility and pleasure, but let’s exclude these too for the time being.

Does this parallel that seems to exist between love of virtue and love of friend unravel our knot? I don’t think so. Consider this passage from St Thomas, question 60, article 3, of the Prima Pars:

Since love is of the good, and the good is either in substance or in accident, as is evident in the first book of the Ethics, it follows that there are two different ways things are loved: in one way as subsisting good and in another as accidental or inhering good. What is loved as subsisting good is so loved that one wishes good for it. But what is loved as accidental or inhering good is that which is desired for another, just as knowledge is loved, not that it might be good, but that it might be possessed. And this latter mode of love some have named concupiscence, but the former friendship.”

The friend is not like a piece of speculative knowledge (e.g., a well worked out demonstration for God’s existence), which we indeed desire for it its own sake. But it’s hard to see what sense it makes to say that we should exhibit good will toward the demonstration, that is to wish good things for it, to honor it, for its own sake. Isn’t the legend that Pythagoras sacrificed oxen to the gods when he came to understand his theorem? Knowledge and virtue are good insofar as we can acquire and possess them. But when we say we have or possess friends, of our own, we must mean something different. Here I think is the difference: We can’t possess a friend if the friend does not love us back. My “having a friend” is really the friend “loving me.” Plato puts it nicely in the Lysis: “There are no horse-friends unless the horses befriend them back, and no quail-friends, dog-friends, wine-friends, or exercise-friends. And no friends of wisdom, unless wisdom befriends them in return” (212e). If we have generous feelings toward knowledge at all, it is so that others might enjoy it. But a friend is not loved that way. We wish him well for his own sake without looking toward anything that might come from it. St. Thomas goes so far to say that we love our friends even though nothing should come from it (In III Sent., d.29, art.3, ad2). In his commentary on John’s Gospel he describes friendship in general as an extension of ourselves outward to others, “communicantes eis quodammodo nosmetipsos,” sharing our very selves in some way with them (c.15, lect.4, n.2036). Love it would seem terminates in the friend without seeking a return. It is much less about acquisition, if at all, and more about giving away.

So I think the parallel between love of virtue and love of friend finally doesn’t hold. Thus we are left still tied up in Aristotle’s knot.

In dealing with this difficulty I propose considering St Thomas’s claim that self-love is the form and root of friendship. He makes it in the Secunda Secundae 25.4 and refers back to the Ethics. We will see I hope that not only does the love of friendship parallel the love of self, but more importantly, that it depends upon it in two ways. As the form of friendship, self-love determines the character of the love of a friend. We love our friends the way we do because of the way we love ourselves, as if love of self were an exemplar, like the idea in the artist’s mind. As the root of friendship, self-love is a generating cause of the love which we bear our friends. In fact, friendship naturally arises from true self-love.

Along the way we will see how the love of the friend is distinct from the love of the common good. That is, we will see that we love our friends just as we love ourselves and because we love ourselves. But the love of the common good does not stem from self-love. On the contrary, love of self depends on one’s participation in the common good.

So by understanding 1) first how self-love is the form of friendship and 2) second how it is its root, we will also understand how one can love a friend both as a good for oneself and for his sake. But for an easy approach to these points I want first to turn to what Aristotle and St. Thomas say concerning the per se cause of friendship.

1. Similitudo, the per se Cause of Friendship

Aristotle considers similarity at the beginning of his treatment of friendship in the Ethics, in particular, when he speaks of how naturally friendship occurs between parent and offspring of many species, not only among men but also birds and other animals. And even beyond these familial friendships, Aristotle observes, people find themselves naturally drawn to feel friendly toward those of the same nation or “ethnic,” to use the Greek. But most natural of all is the friendship that exists among us simply because we are fellow humans, or to put it in the words of St. Thomas commenting, “propter similitudinem naturae speciei,” on account of the similarity of the nature of species. Now this suggests that similarity based on predictably common attributes is a sufficient cause of friendship and that seems born out in the way we use the word “community” today. Almost any shared attribute among people will qualify them as members of the same community, even if they never meet or know each other or otherwise interact. Maybe some day, in addition to the anarchist community, the recluse community will arise to take a stand against standing together.

Now before we become clearer on whether every kind of similarity gives rise to friendship (cf ST 1-2 27.3 for the twofold distinction), let’s consider, as does Aristotle, an obvious objection, for it seems that similarity often breeds discord instead of benevolence, while on the other hand, contrariety often seems to be a reason for befriending another. Aristotle wants us to think of the example of two of a trade who are competing for the same share of the market. We might think of two political candidates pursuing the same voting bloc. Because they after the same thing one will often try to hinder the other. This very well could entail some level of interaction, but swarming locusts also interact — each is trying to feed on the one in front and flee the one behind (according to recent scientific study), an apt metaphor perhaps for the rush of political candidates around election year.

On the other hand, we often find that people of opposed qualities and dispositions are dear to each other, usually from some utility they hope to gain. “For like is useless to like,” as Aristotle puts it. So the poor search out the rich, the ignorant pursue the wise. But in aiming at what he needs, he offers something else in exchange. A beggar renders a service to his benefactor, the student pays tuition to his instructor. Thus an attachment may form, but for the sake of utility, not simply because of the contrariety. For the friend who is loved on account of utility is loved for something incidental to his person. The same is true among those of opposed temperaments who form friendships of pleasure. “Sometimes dissimilar people take delight in each other, as the stern in the witty and the lively in the lazy, for they are brought by one another into the mean” (Eudemian Ethics 7.5 1240a1-4). Each is loved not for himself but for the effect he has upon the other. The formal object of desire is the mean, just as virtue is in the moral life, even though some may have to go to the extreme opposed to their inclinations in order to attain it. In these cases then contrary does not aim at contrary as such but only per accidens. If this is true then it would also seem true that similarity is a cause of hatred only per accidens, that is, insofar as it is an impediment to an unshareable good. In St Thomas’s words, the similar, per se loquendo, is lovable (In VIII Ethic. lectio 1).

Any two things that are similar, as it were having one form, are themselves one in that form. So we say we are united in our humanity. Now if someone has an affection for himself, he will also have it for whoever is one with him, since to deny them his affection is to deny himself in some way. If the affection he has for himself is natural, then so will his affection for his fellow man. A sign of this is the friendly feelings and delight travelers show each other upon learning they are from the same place or country. By all indications, people who are similar in this way seem as such to augment each other’s good rather than impede it.

Similarity as the cause of love therefore suggests two things: first, one loves another as he loves himself, for the other by the similarity is another self; second, one loves another because he loves himself. How could he love his second self if he fails to love his first?

2. Self-Love, the Form of Friendship

There are three distinct marks of friendship: beneficence, benevolence, and concord. Each of these has its parallel in the friendship one has toward oneself. That is, someone seems to be the friend of another if he acts toward the friend in the same way he acts toward himself. Scripture describes the friendship between David and Jonathan in just this way: “And it came to pass ... the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).

To begin then with the friend. A friend is one who:

1) gladly performs favors for his friend, for the friend’s sake and not his own; beneficence

2) wishes his friend to exist and live, for the friend’s sake; benevolence

3) lives with him, chooses the same things, and grieves and rejoices with him for no other reason than because he is grieving or rejoicing. concord

Now the good and virtuous are preeminently this way with themselves.

1) First, they consistently wish and do what they think is truly good for themselves. But because their character has been so formed that they habitually choose in accordance with reason, those things to which they incline are in fact good. And each of them wishes and does these things for his own sake, for their lives are most choiceworthy in choosing and acting for the sake of what is best and principal in them, namely, the intellectual part.

2) Second, the desire to live and perpetuate one’s own existence belongs above all to the virtuous, for life is exceptionally good and delightful to them. And if life is most dear to such people, then the thought of losing it must be most painful. Now a coward might seem to possess a greater love for life than anybody else and the greatest fear of losing it. But this is an inordinate love, since he prefers his physical existence to his moral life. The virtuous, by contrast, prefer the existence of the best part of themselves, namely, the intellectual part, the life of which consists in right and noble action.

3) Third, because of this harmony of soul, the good man finds it pleasant to live with himself, by turning inward to his heart and reflecting within himself. For he delights in recalling his past deeds, which were pleasant to him at the time, and in considering what the future holds, since he is confident that he will do good even then. The present too contains much that the virtuous man finds pleasant to behold and consider. Having devoted himself to the best use of his reason, he is filled with true and useful objects of contemplation. The unity of his soul also allows him to sorrow or rejoice in his own matters with his whole self. The same things are painful or pleasant, not sometimes painful and sometimes pleasant. Reason so rules his soul that he slips only with difficulty, as St. Thomas puts it. Or in the words of Aristotle: he has nothing to repent of, so to speak.

But the base and wicked typically fail to perform the works of friendship, even to themselves. The incontinent, for example, by doing what they judge is shameful and damaging to themselves and avoiding, through fear or sloth, what they know is their duty and beneficial for them, obviously do themselves no favors.

Nor do such people wish themselves well. This is most evident among those who have committed many serious crimes and made themselves odious. Knowing that they are insufferable and frightful to others, their lives disgust them and they have no desire to exist and live. Dostoyevsky sketches a compelling portrait of such a person in Smerdyakov, who hated his birth, hated the land of his birth, wished the French had won, killed his father, framed his brother, and then killed himself.

So they cannot even stand their own company. Rather, at every opportunity they seek to lose themselves in distractions with others. Thus suicides for the most part occur in seclusion. Without others to draw them out of themselves they become overwhelmed by their sorrows and despair. The company of others keeps them so occupied with externals, that they have no occasion to view the poor state of their hearts. Once their misery is forgotten life becomes endurable.

Moreover, they are constantly thwarting themselves insofar as one part of their soul, the pars sensitiva, is at odds with their reason. For sometimes they abstain from certain malicious deeds to the delight of their reason, which judges that such things should be avoided, but to the pain of their appetite, which hankers after them. At other times just the opposite happens: their passions gain the upper hand and drive them to act contrary to their reason. Such people, we say, are their own worst enemies. Because there is so little in them worthy of friendship, they are not disposed even to themselves in a friendly manner.

One might object, however, that this is an extreme case and that for the most part people are bad precisely because they love themselves too much. It is this inordinate love of themselves that moves them to become grasping, ungrateful, complaining — those more ordinary vices. But both Aristotle and St. Thomas argue that this is not a real love of oneself. It is a preference of the lower nature over the higher and essentially more human nature, i.e. reason, and thus is better described as self-hatred, rather than self-love, insofar as they harm what they principally are.

We find a parallel to this in friendships based on pleasure. For in them the friendship often is carried on to the detriment of one or both of the friends. Because such friends have their sights set principally on bodily pleasures, it is not surprising that they act contrary to one another’s true good, as do those who pursue sexual pleasure at the expense of family and health. Likewise, therefore, those who succumb under the buffets of their passions, inverting the proper order of their souls, cannot be said, proprie loquendo, to wish themselves well.

Thus in the virtuous we find a complete likeness to true friendship. Because the virtuous man chooses above all the good of reason, he, in contrast to the base or vicious man, wishes himself well according to his true self, does what is truly good for himself, and delights in his own actions. In loving himself rightly the good man is his own true friend.

If then the good man loves himself for the good present in him, will he not also love those similar in the life of virtue? As he is with himself, so he is with his friend, if the friend is a second self. He wishes him the same good that he does for himself, and in the same way, that is, for no other motive than his friend’s sake.

But Aristotle and St. Thomas’s claim is larger than that there is only a parallel here.

3. Self-Love, the Root of Friendship

When Aristotle discusses why friends desire most of all to live the same life, he gives a vivid account of how self-love gives birth to friendship. We see, he says, that men wish to do those things with their friends which they themselves find most enjoyable, and for the sake of which they choose to live (Nicomachean Ethics 1172a). Those who enjoy good drink seek others with whom they can share their delight; those who are like to participate in tournaments seek partners with whom they can regularly compete; and those who find contemplating the truth the essence of life seek others with whom they can philosophize. There are as many different kinds of friendships as there are different kinds of human activities enjoyed for themselves.

The reason why we seek companions in our favorite pursuits seems to be that we find in them something like a mirror of our own lives. Our lives and hence our good are extended in a common life with those of similar interests. As a second self, the actions of the friend are, as it were, one’s own. So, if we love ourselves and our own actions, we will love the person and actions of the friend. It is difficult to conceive of someone who loves another like him, but does not first love himself. I am speaking here principally of friendship between equals. Friendship between unequals, as such, is another matter.

Thus it would be a mistake to infer from the command to love another as oneself that the love of a friend is on an exactly equal footing with the love of oneself. As St. Thomas says in the Disputed Question on Charity, “We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves but not however as much as ourselves” (10 ad9). Self-love, Aristotle says, is the hyperbole of friendship (Nicomachean Ethics 1166b1). St. Thomas commenting on that line says the kind of love characteristic of friendship belongs in all its fullness, superabundanter, to the relation of a man to himself. Whether or not that relation should be called friendship is another matter, though St. Thomas does argue in the Summa that one really does not have friendship with oneself, but something greater than friendship.

“Friendship is a kind of union. As Dionysius says love is a unitive power; but between the individual and himself there is unity, which is greater than union [potoir unione]. And so just as unity is the principle of union, so self-love is the form and root of friendship…. Similarly, there is not science of the principles but something greater, namely intellectus” (2-2 25.4).

Because we are more one with ourselves than with our friends, we naturally incline to perform the works of friendship toward ourselves first in the order of love, and then toward those who are bound to us in one way or another. Just as unity is greater than union, so one’s own chance at happiness is a greater reason for loving than that another is associated with oneself in this pursuit.

A sign of this is that no one should forgo the moral health of his own soul to save his friend’s life or even to prevent him from falling into sin. For by committing a base act himself, he not only repudiates the friendship (if it is based upon virtue) but more importantly he sacrifices the love of his true self. By choosing the base over the noble, the apparent over the real, such a one deprecates not only himself but his friend as well, for whom he makes the sacrifice. Because he chooses to love himself less, he cannot but love his friend less.

An analogy of this can be seen in the case of the individual himself. There are some actions so base and evil that no violence can justify someone doing them. A man should sustain the harshest torments, perhaps even suffer death, rather than perform such works, “as blessed Lawrence suffered the red hot grill rather than worship idols,” St. Thomas says while commenting on Aristotle (In Ethic. III lectio 2). At stake is the life of the soul, namely, virtuous action, as distinct from the life of the body. To the extent that these two are separable, the good choose the former over the latter, even though they may know little or nothing of the life of the soul after death. Their life is principally the life of the rational part, such that to act against it is to suffer a far worse death than bodily death. In the same way, the good avoid the vicious deed even though the friend may die. The love of self measures the love of another.

Now in arguing that all the love in friendship is based on self-love, Aristotle and St. Thomas may seem to make friendship into egoism, where everything besides oneself is loved for the sake of oneself, where in the words of Aristotle in the Eudemian Ethics, friends are for the benefits, not the benefits for friends. If we always prefer ourselves to our friends, it seems we will treat them not as partners but more like tools we shape by smiles and favors to do our will, while recognizing that they will do the same to us (1237b30-35). This is our original problem. And it may seem the knot hasn’t loosened at all, but I promise the loosening is at hand and lies in considering at a little more length the works of friendship.

Benevolence, beneficence, concord, and a common life are the marks or works of friendship, all of which would be impossible without the foundation of a shared good. “Amicitia enim fundatur super communicatione.” But egoism, like tyranny, privatizes all goods by ordering them to the individual. Thus, even though bad people can like each other for their similar characters, so long as there is no impediment to their private good, nevertheless they cannot love each other. Similarity is indeed the per se cause of friendship, but they are attracted to each other per accidens, only in the context of use or pleasure. In other words, there can be no friendship between them for what they principally are — miserable characters shaped by bad choices. Besides, a bad man has no reason to believe that his companion does not harbor evil intentions toward him. As Aristotle says in the Eudemian Ethics, “The base and malicious man is distrustful towards all, because he measures everybody by himself” (1237b29). What he sees in himself, he projects onto others. To the extent that he hates or shrinks from himself he also hates or shrinks from others like him, unless he finds some use in them. Among such people benevolence, or rather what may look like benevolence, is always a love of concupiscence.

Thus they are blamed for the way they try to love themselves. They seek for themselves most of all the goods that belong principally to the body — money, honors, and the bodily pleasures of food and sex. But these are the kind of goods that men naturally fight over since they cannot be possessed in their integrity by many. When many people desire for themselves more than reason requires of wealth, honors, and bodily pleasures, fights and contentions are inevitable. This is one way to begin to see how inordinate self-love is the root of all sin. In contrast, the virtuous can truly love one another and participate in perfect friendship. They seek for themselves the good of reason, which can be had in its integrity by many. There is no division among those who seek such goods.

It would be strange for someone to complain that another has knowledge of some truth which is just as available to him. Of course men do fight over the possession of secrets and even become jealous of somebody who knows a bit of delicious gossip, but they never think that the very fact that someone has knowledge of a particular truth precludes anyone else from knowing it. Truth is not something that can be divided and parceled out. The same holds true for other goods, such as the common goods present in friendship. Each of these in itself can be possessed in its integrity by many, unlike material goods, the possession of which diminishes what remains available to others. It seems to me Virgil tells Dante something similar in Purgatorio Canto 15, when he answers Dante’s perplexity about why people fight so much. Virgil answer that fighting happens because people pursue divisible goods. But there is another kind of good, the good of the soul. With this good, Virgil says “the more there are who possess it, so much the more of that good does each possess.”

Now bad men cannot become friends in the true sense because they are immersed in the sensual and particular. They are unable to raise themselves to what is common, for this belongs to reason. Chained, as they are, to their passions, which are seated in their sensitive appetites, they remain within the sphere of the private good. Here is one reason why it is important to define friendship as a habit and not a passion.

On the other hand, because the virtuous man wishes most especially to acquire the good of reason, he acts for what is common. As St. Thomas argues in the Disputed Question on Spiritual Creatures, affection follows upon knowledge, such that the more universal the knowledge, the more that the consequent affection will have as its object a common good. Likewise, the more particular the knowledge, the more the consequent affection will be about a private good (Article 8). Thus, since the good man attends principally to the integrity of his mind, by cultivating and obeying it, he will incline to goods that are in one way or another common. But the bad man dwells on what his senses convey to him. He therefore seeks most of all those goods that belong to him privately, since these alone appear good to him.

The Magna Moralia neatly captures this difference between ordered and disordered self-love:

[The good man] is a lover of good, not a lover of self. For if he loves himself it is only because he is good. But the bad man is a lover of self. For he has nothing on account of which he can love himself, such as some noble quality, but rather in the absence of it he will love himself merely because of himself. Hence he may be called a self lover in the principal sense (1212b18).

This at first may seem contradictory to what I was just saying, namely, that the vicious cannot be self-lovers since they order the principal part to the passions. But the argument here is that the vicious man loves what is peculiarly himself, not what is principally himself. That is, such a one desires goods for himself precisely as he is distinct from others. Because he loves first of all what is material and particular about himself, he loves himself simply for his individuality, so to say, and nothing else. He cares little for what he may have in common with other men, because he cares much for what sets himself off from others. As St. Thomas puts it, he has turned inward, intent upon himself alone, as is most evident in the case of unpleasant and surly people.

So, whereas the vicious man loves himself secundum quid, according as he is this material individual, the virtuous man loves himself simpliciter, according as he is a being with this kind of nature, that is, as an animal endowed with understanding and as achieving the perfection of his nature. For this reason, those in possession of virtue, who value primarily the life of their soul, will incline toward each other in friendship. What they love in themselves, they will see and love in others. For since they are not distinguished from each other in their nature, the love of self is not made into a private affection for themselves. To be sure, the virtuous love themselves more than their friends, but not in the sense that they order the friend to themselves, as do the wicked. Just the contrary, the more he loves himself, by desiring to do noble actions, the more he will act for the sake of his friends. He measures himself by what is good and noble; the bad man measures all others by himself.

Thus the good man can desire a superabundance of such goods without restricting anyone else’s opportunity. Indeed, if all were zealous in their desire for virtue and, as it were, contended against each other, seeking to excel one another in good actions, all would have what they need. For it is an act of virtue to come to the aid of another, to succor their wants, and especially to forgo certain things good for oneself even perhaps one’s own life in order to help someone else.

Let me try to bring this point out more clearly by considering, as Aristotle and St. Thomas do, why the good seek to perform great sacrifices for their friends, even to the point of laying down their lives.

4. On Beneficence

Why does a friend wish to do good to another? How exactly is the act itself of benefiting a friend one’s own good, not considering good things that may come from such an act, like receiving a favor in return or keeping the friend in debt and hence attached to oneself?

We can glean an answer in Aristotle’s arguments that the benefactor loves the beneficiary more than the beneficiary loves the benefactor. Two of his four arguments bear on our question.

1) First every artisan is in some way affectively attached to the product of his own mind and hands. Poets are a good example of this, for they love their own poems superabundanter, excessively, both Aristotle and St Thomas say [hyperagaposi, superdiligunt], just as parents love [stergontes, amant] their children. One thinks of the opening lines of Don Quixote in which Cervantes expresses anxiety about his novel typical of a father expecting the birth of his child. Now this also holds true for the benefactor who loves those he has treated well, for the one who has received a favor from someone is as it were his handiwork. This is obvious in the case of the teacher, especially those we think of as intellectual fathers or mentors (being perhaps like Homer’s Mentor the surrogate father of Telemachus). So if the benefactor is like the parent or artist, he loves his work more than the work loves him.

Now Aristotle goes further and adds in making this argument the common reason, as St. Thomas says. Here is St. Thomas’s gloss (In Ethic. IX lectio 7). Everyone loves and chooses his own existence, for each thing, insofar as it exists, is good. But human existence consists in activity, specifically in the activity of life and work. St. Thomas emphasizes Aristotle’s striking synecdoche: “To exist is to perceive or think” (Nicomachean Ethics 1170a35). Thus it is in the activities of conscious and thoughtful life that we find pleasure and desirableness. But since the operation or act of the mover is in the moved, the product of work is also desirable as an extension of the mover himself. Therefore artists, poets, and benefactors love their work, because they love their own existence.

2) Second, beneficence is an act good in itself, intrinsically excellent. Hence the benefactor takes delight in the one he benefits as in one in whom he finds his own excellence, whereas the beneficiary as such is not exercising an excellence. But why is it an act of excellence for the benefactor? One reason seems to be that there is an excellence in being able to help others as well as oneself. In general, it is a greater perfection to be able to perfect others as well as oneself, just as teaching is an excellence and a fulfillment of learning, and ruling an excellence of the moral virtues. These lines from the opening of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure seem to get at this:

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves: for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.

A related reason is that by doing favors for one’s friend one gains admittance into the friend’s life. Friends do for each other what each would have or could have done for himself. Thus if one’s friend lives a good life, to do good to him is to participate in a life intrinsically worth living, to perform in fact a virtuous deed. Beneficence in this regard is a kind of suzein or “acting together.” It should not be surprising then if friends of this kind want to be more and more useful to each other, for in so doing they participate in the other’s life more intimately, knitting their common life even more strongly together.

Consider Lily Dale’s profession of love to her betrothed in Trollope’s fifth novel of the Barsetshire Chronicles:

I pray God that I may be of use to you, to work for you, to do something for you that may have in it some sober, earnest purport of usefulness; that is what I want above all things. I want to be with you at once that I may be of service to you. Would that you and I were alone together that I might do everything for you. I sometimes think that a very poor man’s wife is the happiest, because she does do everything.

Now, this is a passionate outburst, to be sure, but nevertheless it is remarkable that Trollope’s favorite heroine in no way sees her service as a burden or kind of servitude. Her happiness, as she sees it, is found in being useful to her husband. To be useful is to be virtuous and good and, evidently, happy.

How are we to understand this sublimation of utility? Admittedly, it is only within the context of marriage that such an avowal of exclusive and lasting devotion could ever make sense. But to an extent this love of service is evident in every friendship based on virtue. For friends like to do favors for each other, to be of some use (though not necessarily to define their lives by service to each other). And in being useful to each other they participate in each other’s lives more intimately.

In the Summa St. Thomas makes it clear that the point of benefaction is to participate more closely in a common life with one’s friend, not only in action but even in affection (1-2 28.2). He argues that friends are present in each other’s heart when they wish and do something good for one another in the way that they would do it for themselves. For each considers the other, just so far as they are friends, to be another self. Moreover, when one friend judges that the good or evil that befalls the other is like his own, he seems to delight in or suffer those same things in the same way. Thus friends naturally wish the same things and also sorrow and rejoice in the same. Insofar then that one judges that his friend’s things are his own, one lives in the friend, “as if made the same with the beloved.” This union of wills, which is essentially love itself, comes to its fruition in the real union of lives, in living together, speaking together, and other such actions in which friends are joined.

5. On Self-Sacrifice

This discussion of beneficence would be lacking without a word on the ultimate act of beneficence, namely, self-sacrifice. It is first of all well to note that a belief in an afterlife, in a reward after death for good deeds, is unnecessary to see the good in sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of a friend. Indeed, it is somewhat irrelevant, since being rewarded after death presupposes the goodness of the action. As it is, there have been those who, without the hope of a future life, have risked their lives for the sake of another. For by doing all they can for the sake of their friends or homeland, they choose for themselves a great good, to perform a perfect work of virtue.

The reason why one who performs this kind of act achieves the highest form of excellence is I think that he becomes the cause of his friend’s life. Just as it can be better and more virtuous that one friend concedes to the other the opportunity to achieve something great, instead of doing it himself, likewise it can be greater that one friend saves the other’s life instead of his own. But even though it is a great good to preserve the life of a friend, the true friend will not seek to do it simply as his own good. On the other hand, neither will he seek to do it simply as his friend’s good. For in the first case the friend is treated as a mere occasion for oneself to achieve a splendid act, whereas in the second case one has become ordered to the friend as to an end. But no one is ordered to his neighbor as to an end; that is slavery. In either case one would be seeking happiness in a strictly private good, which pertains principally to the sensitive appetite. Rather, friends come to one another’s aid because their lives are so united that when one is delighted, pained, or even threatened, so is the other. Thus, one friend rushes to save the other’s life because he is saving his own, which he shares with his friend. What such friends desire to possess and promote most of all is a common life, a common good. Apart from this kind of analysis, one would be left attempting to explain these extreme situations in terms of a kind of inconsistency or shifting of preferences between another’s good and one’s own.

A compelling example of just the sort of thing I am talking about is the case of Arland Williams, who in 1982, at the expense of his own life, saved the lives of the five survivors of Air Florida flight 90’s winter crash into the Potomac river. He had been passing the lifeline on to his fellow travelers to help them escape from the sinking plane, but when the rescue copter returned for him, last of all who were clinging to the jet’s tail section, he had already succumbed to the elements and slipped under the icy water. What Roger Rosenblatt wrote in Time magazine that year about the incident is, I think, a confirmation of what I have been arguing. While the elements were exercising their death-dealing natural powers, Arland Williams was exercising his own: “He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.”


Among the good, self-love is not exactly love of the self. They love themselves propter aliud — because of the goodness they find in their souls and deeds. They measure their worth by the standard of virtue. Thus such a one loves another like himself because the other participates in that life of virtue and enjoys the same kind of good actions that he does. To be more accurate, it is because the other has some share in the same common good, the same common action and life, in which each finds his perfection. Only in this shared life of friendship can the good of one become the good of another. And only in this can one seek his own good in seeking the good of another. For Arland Williams it was sufficient that the others were fellow humans and so shared in the common good of the species, which because of its natural excellence makes those who cause it to endure at risk to themselves — makes even them “the best we can do.”