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The Social Achievement of Self-Understanding: Aristotle on Loving Oneself and Others


The discussion of philia (“love” or “friendship”) occupies a central place in Aristotle’s ethical works. And yet it is hard to see how philia could play a correspondingly significant role, on Aristotle’s view, in the best possible human life – a life devoted to the fullest expression of our nature as rational animals. In the activities of contemplation and understanding, Aristotle tells us, we are maximally self-sufficient, least susceptible to the incursions of ill-fortune and least dependent on the help of others. The value of such rational self-sufficiency seems to be in tension with the value of philia; our nature as rational animals, on the one hand, and our nature as social or political animals, on the other, appear to place conflicting demands upon us.

My dissertation addresses this apparent tension in Aristotle’s conception of the happy (eudaimōn) human life. It does so by exploring the ways in which philia itself is an expression of, and enables the fullest possible realization of, our nature as beings possessed of reason and understanding.

In the first chapter, I explore Aristotle’s moral psychology of love in general. To love something in itself, as opposed to loving it because it pleases you or is useful to you, is to love it on the basis of one’s rational recognition that it is kalon (“fine” or morally “beautiful”) and good in itself. To love something in itself, in other words, is a manifestation of our love for what is good as such. It is to love something with our rational soul.

The next two chapters consider Aristotle’s account of self-love, for in genuine philia, one loves another as one loves oneself. Self-love, Aristotle tells us, is derived from one’s love of the good; it is only insofar as one sees one’s activity and one’s life as a whole as something kalon and good in itself that one can exhibit self-love. In its fullest form, it is available only to the truly virtuous or excellent (spoudaios) individual, and to others only derivatively, insofar as they can see themselves as such.

The goodness of the excellent person’s life is the result of its order and intelligibility – it is, so to speak, a life that she can make sense of. But such intelligible order comes about not by pursuing intelligible order as such; it is the result of guiding one’s life by a conception of the good. In this, there emerges an important theme that runs through what follows: Part of what it is to be a rational being, on Aristotle’s view, is to act with practical self-awareness and to desire understanding of what one is up to – to be able to see the activities that constitute one’s life as intrinsically good and kalon. Aristotle is famous for his claim, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, that the human being, as a rational being, desires by nature to know. I might describe my suggestion by saying that he also thought that the human being, as a practically rational being, desires by nature to understand themselves. But the intelligibility of one’s life is not merely a matter of learning certain facts about it; it is the result of pursuing the good in action. Thus, the desire for self-understanding affects not just how you view your life, but how you live it. Since this understanding is, necessarily, framed in terms of the agent’s own conception of the human good – her own conception of what it is to live a truly human life – according to which she both guides and judges her life, one might also say that, for Aristotle, to be rational is to be autonomous.

In the final chapter, I turn to Aristotle’s account of genuine friendship, and, in particular, to the interpretation of a difficult and complicated argument in which Aristotle seeks to explain, on the basis of his account of self-love, why friendship is good and choiceworthy in itself. (In genuine friendship, Aristotle says, one is related to one’s friend as one is related to oneself.) I argue that we should understand Aristotle’s argument as appealing to the way in which, through genuine friendship, we deepen our perceptual and cognitive engagement with the world – by being confronted with a distinct perspective on our shared objects of experience, we enrich that experience itself. In this way, rather than standing in tension with the exercise of reason and understanding, friendship makes possible a fuller realization of our nature as rational beings.

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