The phenomenon of friendship, with its richness and complexity, its ability to support but also at times to undercut virtue, and the promise it holds out of bringing together in one happy union so much of what is highest and so much of what is sweetest in life, formed a fruitful topic of philosophic inquiry for the ancients writes Lorraine Pangle in her introduction to Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship. The fullest and most probing classical study of friendship is to be found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which devotes more space to it than to any of the moral virtues, and which presents friendship as a bridge between the moral virtues, and the highest life of philosophy. Pangle contends that it is precisely in the friendships of mature and virtuous individuals that Aristotle saw human love not only at its most revealing, but also at its richest and highest.
Philosophy since Kant has largely followed him in understanding truly moral, praiseworthy human relations to be based on altruism, a wholly selfless benevolence towards others, guided either by absolute moral law or by a utilitarian pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. When compared to friendship, altruism directed to the good of humanity seems higher, more selfless, more rational, and more fair Today we reasonably assume that the enemy of morality is selfishness. Starting from self-interest, we would find acquisition, pleasure, and selfishness the primary threats to, and alternatives to, virtue. But is altruism really possible? How are our altruistic motives, related to our self-interested motives? If we normally act with a view to our own good, but sometimes choose actions that have nothing to do with our own good, or even oppose it — is there any higher, unifying principle or faculty of the soul that decides between these contrary principles of action, judging them by a common standard?
Ayn Rand rejected altruism, and in fact, blamed it for the plight of human civilization, and with the presumed backing of Aristotle, wrote fervently in support of self-interest and rational egoism in The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and in her other writings. Aristotle assumes neither the possibility nor the impossibility of what we would call altruism, but instead offers a sustained and sympathetic exploration of what is really at work in the human heart when an individual seems to disregard his own good to pursue the good of others. Aristotle does not assume that the concern for a friend is necessarily tainted by partiality; he argues that friendship can be rooted in a true assessment of the friends’ worth and as such can be the noblest expression of human relationship. He nonetheless insisted that self-love was the highest love and maintained a conception of selfishness, such that it not only contributed to, but was requisite for, virtuous living. This particular understanding of selfishness is best explained in his chapters on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, but it is also referred to in numerous other writings, such that there can be no doubt that he sincerely held this belief. Ayn Rand holds Aristotle in the highest regard and utilizes his conception of selfishness as the philosophical underpinning for her version of egoism and objectivism. While I agree that there are certain Aristotelian ideas of selfishness which might lend support to some aspects of her theory, for the most part, she has taken Aristotle out of context or has been represented to have done so by authors elaborating upon Rand’s ideas. My primary objective here, then, is to refute Rand’s claim of Aristotelian support for her beliefs and demonstrate how and where her interpretation went astray through a careful analysis of Aristotle’s conception of virtue and friendship