In such statements as these, Aristotle comes rather close to sayingthat relationships based on profit or pleasure should not be calledfriendships at all. But he decides to stay close to common parlanceand to use the term “friend” loosely. Friendships based oncharacter are the ones in which each person benefits the other for thesake of other; and these are friendships most of all. Because eachparty benefits the other, it is advantageous to form suchfriendships. And since each enjoys the trust and companionship of theother, there is considerable pleasure in these relationships aswell. Because these perfect friendships produce advantages andpleasures for each of the parties, there is some basis for going alongwith common usage and calling any relationship entered into for thesake of just one of these goods a friendship. Friendships based onadvantage alone or pleasure alone deserve to be called friendshipsbecause in full-fledged friendships these two properties, advantageand pleasure, are present. It is striking that in the EthicsAristotle never thinks of saying that the uniting factor in allfriendships is the desire each friend has for the good of theother.
Equally central to Aristotle’s thought is his four-causalexplanatory scheme. Judged in terms of its influence, thisdoctrine is surely one of his most significant philosophicalcontributions. Like other philosophers, Aristotle expects theexplanations he seeks in philosophy and science to meet certaincriteria of adequacy. Unlike some other philosophers, however, hetakes care to state his criteria for adequacy explicitly; then, havingdone so, he finds frequent fault with his predecessors for failing tomeet its terms. He states his scheme in a methodological passagein the second book of his Physics:
Aristotle would be on stronger grounds if he could show that in theabsence of close friends one would be severely restricted in the kindsof virtuous activities one could undertake. But he cannot present suchan argument, because he does not believe it. He says that it is“finer and more godlike” to bring about the well being ofa whole city than to sustain the happiness of just one person(1094b7–10). He refuses to regard private life—the realm of thehousehold and the small circle of one's friends—as the best ormost favorable location for the exercise of virtue. He is convincedthat the loss of this private sphere would greatly detract from awell-lived life, but he is hard put to explain why. He might have donebetter to focus on the benefits of being the object of a closefriend's solicitude. Just as property is ill cared for when it is ownedby all, and just as a child would be poorly nurtured were he toreceive no special parental care—points Aristotle makes inPolitics II.2–5—so in the absence of friendship wewould lose a benefit that could not be replaced by the care of thelarger community. But Aristotle is not looking for a defense of thissort, because he conceives of friendship as lying primarily inactivity rather than receptivity. It is difficult, within hisframework, to show that virtuous activity towards a friend is auniquely important good.
Aristotle attempts to answer this question in IX.11, but his treatmentis disappointing. His fullest argument depends crucially on the notionthat a friend is “another self,” someone, in other words,with whom one has a relationship very similar to the relationship onehas with oneself. A virtuous person loves the recognition of himselfas virtuous; to have a close friend is to possess yet another person,besides oneself, whose virtue one can recognize at extremely closequarters; and so, it must be desirable to have someone very much likeoneself whose virtuous activity one can perceive. The argument isunconvincing because it does not explain why the perception ofvirtuous activity in fellow citizens would not be an adequatesubstitute for the perception of virtue in one's friends.
Aristotle’s attitude towards explanation is best understoodfirst by considering a simple example he proposes in Physicsii 3. A bronze statue admits of various different dimensions ofexplanation. If we were to confront a statue without firstrecognizing what it was, we would, thinks Aristotle, spontaneously aska series of questions about it. We would wish to know what itis, what it is made of, what brought it about,andwhat it is for. In Aristotle’s terms, inasking these questions we are seeking knowledge of the statue’sfour causes (aitia): the formal, material, efficient,and final. According to Aristotle, when we haveidentified these four causes, we have satisfied a reasonable demand forexplanatory adequacy.
We may mainly pass over as uncontroversial the suggestion that thereare efficient causes in favor of the most controversial and difficultof Aristotle four causes, the final cause. We should note before doing so, however, that Aristotle’s commitmentto efficient causation does receive a defense in Aristotle’s preferredterminology; he thus does more than many other philosophers who takeit as given that causes of an efficient sort are operative. Partly byway of criticizing Plato’s theory of Forms, which he regards asinadequate because of its inability to account for change andgeneration, Aristotle observes that nothing potential can bring itselfinto actuality without the agency of an actually operative efficientcause. Since what is potential is always in potentiality relative tosome range of actualities, and nothing becomes actual of its ownaccord—no pile of bricks, for instance, spontaneously organizesitself into a house or a wall—an actually operative agent isrequired for every instance of change. This is the efficientcause. These sorts of considerations also incline Aristotle to speakof the priority of actuality over potentiality: potentialities aremade actual by actualities, and indeed are always potentialities forsome actuality or other. The operation of some actuality upon somepotentiality is an instance of efficient causation.
But his complaint about the political life is not simply that it isdevoid of philosophical activity. The points he makes against itreveal drawbacks inherent in ethical and political activity. Perhapsthe most telling of these defects is that the life of the politicalleader is in a certain sense unleisurely (1177b4–15). What Aristotlehas in mind when he makes this complaint is that ethical activitiesare remedial: they are needed when something has gone wrong, orthreatens to do so. Courage, for example, is exercised in war, andwar remedies an evil; it is not something we should wishfor. Aristotle implies that all other political activities have thesame feature, although perhaps to a smaller degree. Corrective justicewould provide him with further evidence for his thesis—but whatof justice in the distribution of goods? Perhaps Aristotle would replythat in existing political communities a virtuous person mustaccommodate himself to the least bad method of distribution, because,human nature being what it is, a certain amount of injustice must betolerated. As the courageous person cannot be completely satisfiedwith his courageous action, no matter how much self-mastery it shows,because he is a peace-lover and not a killer, so the just personliving in the real world must experience some degree ofdissatisfaction with his attempts to give each person his due. Thepleasures of exercising the ethical virtues are, in normalcircumstances, mixed with pain. Unalloyed pleasure is available to usonly when we remove ourselves from the all-too-human world andcontemplate the rational order of the cosmos. No human life canconsist solely in these pure pleasures; and in certain circumstancesone may owe it to one's community to forego a philosophical life anddevote oneself to the good of the city. But the paradigms of humanhappiness are those people who are lucky enough to devote much oftheir time to the study of a world more orderly than the human worldwe inhabit.
For these reasons, Aristotle intends his hylomorphism to be much morethan a simple explanatory heuristic. On the contrary, he maintains,matter and form are mind-independent features of the world and must,therefore, be mentioned in any full explanation of its workings.
Although Aristotle's principal goal in X.7–8 is to show thesuperiority of philosophy to politics, he does not deny that apolitical life is happy. Perfect happiness, he says, consists incontemplation; but he indicates that the life devoted to practicalthought and ethical virtue is happy in a secondary way. He thinks ofthis second-best life as that of a political leader, because heassumes that the person who most fully exercises such qualities asjustice and greatness of soul is the man who has the large resourcesneeded to promote the common good of the city. The political life hasa major defect, despite the fact that it consists in fully exercisingthe ethical virtues, because it is a life devoid of philosophicalunderstanding and activity. Were someone to combine both careers,practicing politics at certain times and engaged in philosophicaldiscussion at other times (as Plato's philosopher-kings do), he wouldlead a life better than that of Aristotle's politician, but worse thanthat of Aristotle's philosopher.
It may seem odd that after devoting so much attention to the practicalvirtues, Aristotle should conclude his treatise with the thesis thatthe best activity of the best life is not ethical. In fact, somescholars have held that X.7–8 are deeply at odds with the rest of theEthics; they take Aristotle to be saying that we should beprepared to act unethically, if need be, in order to devote ourselvesas much as possible to contemplation. But it is difficult to believethat he intends to reverse himself so abruptly, and there are manyindications that he intends the arguments of X.7–8 to be continuouswith the themes he emphasizes throughout the rest of theEthics. The best way to understand him is to take him to beassuming that one will need the ethical virtues in order to live thelife of a philosopher, even though exercising those virtues is not thephilosopher's ultimate end. To be adequately equipped to live a lifeof thought and discussion, one will need practical wisdom, temperance,justice, and the other ethical virtues. To say that there is somethingbetter even than ethical activity, and that ethical activity promotesthis higher goal, is entirely compatible with everything else that wefind in the Ethics.