An Aristotelian Examination of Friendship in Homer's Iliad
It is strange to label any friendship a success or a failure; it is stranger still to call the friendship between Achilleus and Patroklos a failure, especially when it has long been celebrated as one of the greatest friendships in antiquity. After all, friendship is called a success when friends remain just that, and a failure when they part ways with diffidence. How else could we possibly judge friendship? I suggest, however, that the good of the friend is the end of true friendship, and that this principle can guide critical inquiry into the nature of friendship. The basis of this statement is Aristotelian. The Nicomachean Ethics defines true friendship as the mutual appreciation of the intrinsic good in the other, and the desire to will the other’s good. The critique of true friendship, in Aristotelian terms, should consider not only whether the parties loved each other for their intrinsic good, but also the extent to which they were successful at promoting the good of the other. The tragedy of Achilleus and Patroklos is that, despite their love and desire to promote the good of the other, they may have ultimately failed. Their friendship may have failed not because of a lack of good will or capability, but because of the conflicting obligations placed upon that friendship by society, circumstance, and the unyielding character of Achilleus.
For Aristotle, the perfect form of friendship "is that between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue" (Ethics 8.219).1 Indeed, both Achilleus and Patroklos are foremost amongst the Achaians, and both are commanders and warriors of the first rank. Yet, theirs is not exactly a friendship between equals either; Patroklos is clearly in a subordinate position to Achilleus. It is striking that the most commonly repeated phrase in The Iliad relating Patroklos to Achilleus is: ". . . so he [Achilleus] spoke, and Patroklos obeyed his beloved companion" (Iliad 1, 9, 11).2 From these phrases, their relationship seems more like that between a leader and a trusted retainer, or right-hand man, than that between true friends. Indeed, while Patroklos is alive, we see Achilleus treating him as a foremost companion, but not necessarily as a true friend in the Aristotelian sense. In light of this, it becomes tempting to dismiss Patroklos as, at best, the henchman of Achilleus, and not a fully realized character and friend in his own right. This is, of course, as equally incorrect as the premise that theirs is a completely ideal friendship: the truth, as in the Ethics, lies somewhere in the mean.
Perhaps we can make some headway towards integrating these conflicting models of friendship if we look at Menoitios’s advice to Patroklos:
My child, by right of blood Achilleus is higher than
you are, but you are the elder, yet in strength he is
far the greater. You must...