Aristotle on Egoism

It is also in The Nicomachean Ethics, book 9, that one finds Aristotle’s reasoning on egoism. Objectivists are probably already familiar with this reasoning; but I find it interesting from one particular aspect: it explains why egoism has gotten a bad name – why most people cannot even fathom the idea of rational egoism and think that egoism by its very nature has to be predatory. One can explain to them that “predatory egoism” is just the other side of altruism’s false coin – but if you have had any experience with discussing Objectivism with non-Objectivists, you will probably have found that they don’t get it anyway.

Speaking for myself: When I hear that egoism is “predatory” – that it is all about “ill-gotten gains”, swindling others out of their money, wanting to become a dictator, and all that kind of jazz – I usually ask: “From where did you get that idea? From introspection? Well, it has to be – for the only ego you have direct contact with is your own ego. So speak for yourself! Just because your ego is predatory, this does not mean that all egos are predatory.”

But I say this only because I get very mean when I have to polemicize against bad ideas. There is another reason people think this way about egoism: there are actually very few truly rational egoists around. So the only kind of “egoism” people are actually subjected to is the “predatory” kind.

Enough of my own musing on this subject; let’s see what Aristotle says. But first a semantic remark: The Greek word for “egoist” is “αυτοφιλος”, which literally means “lover of self”, and this term is used in the English translation. Now to the text:

The question is also debated, whether a man should love himself most, or someone else. People criticize those who love themselves most, and call them self-lovers, using this as an epithet of disgrace, and a bad man seems to do everything for his own sake, and the more so the more wicked he is […] while the good man acts for honour’s sake, and the more so the better he is, and acts for his friend’s sake, and sacrifices his own interests.

But the facts clash with these arguments, and this is not surprising. For men say that one ought to love best one’s best friend, and a man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it; and these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined; for […] it is from this relation that all the characteristics of friendship have extended to our neighbours. […] [A man] is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best. It is therefore a reasonable question, which of the two views we should follow; for both are plausible.

Parenthetically, this way of reasoning is very characteristic of Aristotle: presenting two opposite views and then carefully weighing the arguments pro and con. End of parenthesis.

Perhaps we ought to mark off such arguments from each other and determine how far and in what respects each view is right. Now if we grasp the sense in which each school uses the phrase “lover of self”, the truth may become evident. Those who use the term as one of reproach ascribe self-love to people who assign to themselves the greater share of wealth, honours, and bodily pleasures; for those are what most people desire, and busy themselves about as if they were the best of all things, which is the reason, too, that they become objects of competition. So those who are grasping with regard to these things gratify their appetites and in general their feelings and the irrational element of the soul; and most men are of this nature (which is the reason why the epithet has come to be used as it is – it takes its meaning from the prevailing type of self-love, which is a bad one); justly, therefore, are men who are lovers of self in this way reproached for being so. That it is those who give themselves the preference in regard to objects of this sort that most people usually call lovers of self is plain; for if a man were always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general were always to try to secure for himself the honourable course, no one would call such a man a lover of self or blame him.

Many words to make a simple (but important) point: that the egoism or self-love of a bad man is something bad. Now, over to an equally wordy explanation of why the egoism or self-love of a good man is something good:

But such a man would seem more than the other a lover of self; at all events he assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself and in all things obeys this; and just as a city or any other systematic whole is most properly identified with the most authoritative element in it, so is a man; and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self. Besides, a man is said to have or not to have self-control according as his reason has or has not the control, on the assumption that this is the man himself; and the things men have done on a rational principle are thought most properly their own acts and voluntary acts. That this is the man himself, then, or is so more than anything else, is plain, and also that the good man loves most this part of him. Whence it follows that he is most truly a lover of self, of another type than that which is a matter of reproach, and as different from that as living according to a rational principle is from living as passion dictates, and desiring what is noble from desiring what seems advantageous.

Notice how close Aristotle is to Objectivism here: good men follow reason; lesser men are driven by their emotions or passions. (I’m tempted to say that Aristotle must have read Ayn Rand carefully.) You may also notice how far he is from David Hume – who infamously wrote that “reason is, and should be, a slave to the passions”.

Those, then, who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be for the common weal, and everyone would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods.

In other words, there is no conflict between a good man’s egoism or self-love and the “common weal”.

And now we come to Aristotle’s conclusion:

Therefore the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbours, following as he does evil passions. For the wicked man, what he does clashes with what he ought to, but what the good man ought to do he does; for reason in each of its possessors chooses what is best for itself, and the good man obeys his reason. (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 8; translation David Ross.)

Or in my own shorter formulation: The egoism of a good man is good; the egoism of a wicked man is wicked.

I mentioned in my earlier blog post, Aristotle on friendship, that only good people can be true friends, because a good man could never want to be “bosom friends” with somebody bad – which raises the question: Could bad men, then, be friends with one another? This question has to be answered in the negative; I will quote some more from Aristotle:

Such a man [a good or virtuous man] wishes to live with himself; for he does so with pleasure, since the memories of his past acts are delightful and his hopes for the future are good, and therefore pleasant. His mind is well stored too with subjects of contemplation. And he grieves and rejoices, more than any other, with himself; for the same thing is always painful, and the same thing always pleasant; and not one thing at one time and another at another; he has, so to speak, nothing to regret.

Therefore, since each of these characteristics belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self), friendship too is thought to be one of these attributes, and those who have these attributes to be friends.

So this is why there can be friendship among good men. But what about wicked or evil men? Those men seek company, but they basically do it because they are afraid of being alone:

Wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed, and anticipate others like them, when they are by themselves, but when they are with others they forget. And having nothing loveable in them they have no feeling of love to themselves. […]

Therefore the bad man does not seem to be amicably disposed even to himself, because there is nothing in him to love […]. (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 4.)

And here is a nice rounding-out quote:

Thus the friendship of bad men turns out an evil thing (for because of their instability they unite in bad pursuits, and besides they become evil by becoming like each other), while the friendship of good men is good, being augmented by their companionship; and they are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other […] (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 12.)

(My Scandinavian readers can also read an essay I wrote several years ago: The Historical Roots of Anti-Egoism.)


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