Mark Vernon writes interestingly today about the Politics of Friendship a subject that has received little attention throughout modern political thinking. Going back to the ancients, Aristotle and Cicero perceived an important role for friendships within politics- friendship for Aristotle was the enemy of justice. Aristotle revelled in the affection that friendship offered to people and the way forwards it offered to rational individuals. In Plato's Symposium both Pausanius and Socrates discuss the idea that a young boy ought to befriend older men in a homosexual but also friendly relationship in order to gain wisdom and discuss life. There is a profound sense in Plato, say in the Republic, that men and women can slip in and out of family and sexual relationships but that the most intense and rewarding relationship is that based on reason, friendship.
Friendship though was seen as one of the more difficult social relationships to define. Vernon is right to argue that my friend is special to me but as C.S. Lewis stated in the Four Loves some time ago, friendship also is different in quality to other loves. You could argue that as opposed to my family I choose my friends. Some might suggest that friendship represents in this sense a kind of rationality in our relationships that is absent in the fury of sexual love or the instinct of familial regard. Friends according to this highly intellectual model come together based upon a certain shared interest and conversation- indeed Lewis makes the whole model for his friendships civilised conversations and whilst he can imagine a friendship say based around football, the friendship he thinks about most naturally is one based around discussion. In a sense Lewis here is very interesting because as usual, as an intellectual magpie, he is picking up a number of threads from more ancient writers. There is a sense in which his own experience, together with a reading of Plato's dialogues- some of the best literature which demonstrates friendship as opposed to discussing it, comes together.
What though is the political use of all this literature about friendship? If we share this model of friendship- which has its identifiable flaws (where is the biology and this is incredibly intellectual)- where does it take us. In many ways it doesn't take us very far. The societies that are modelled upon the relationship of friendship are often socieities at whose basis is an exclusivity that we are unwilling to tolerate. Societies where membership of the political community is based on a common quality like the ability to reason are societies in which friendship finds a large part to play. In some ways the neo-roman revivalists of the 17th Century fit into this category- comparing the frankness of the relationships within a Senate to the secrecy and lies found within a court. In a sense as Sami Savonius has argued, its this kind of advocacy of friendship that puts John Locke into the neo-roman camp of seventeenth century political theorists.
The other significant way of thinking about friendship in politics though is as a way of reducing the anomie of life in a huge bourgeois society, of providing meaning to people's lives in a society where the Aristotelian justification of participating intimately in government is no longer available. Edmund Burke's little platoons march together out of friendship- they are voluntary self governing associations and in that way fulfill what Aristotle deemed to be the basic fundamental of human nature, sociability, without disturbing the equipose of a distant government. Friendship in this sense is a means of coping with the increased complexity and numbers of modern society- political philosophy moves out of the polis but political psychology remains in the invented non-polis of groups of friends.
Mark Vernon is right to argue that for Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, friendship was a crucial component of the state. However Vernon wants to move on, and asks
Is it not time for us to do likewise and re-establish a high place for friendship?
The problem with such a question is that it evades what has changed within politics since the era of the ancients. Their politics concerned communities based around the city state, ruled by the rational (whether in a Platonic society or indeed a Ciceronian aristocracy). We live in vastly different societies- vast democratic polities which stretch their sovereignty over millions of souls. You can hear in the renewed calls for localism, in the endorsement by the British comedy Yes Minister of street democracy and in the idyllic imagery of village life popularised by John Major a kind of popular angst about the huge size and scope of modern government but there are problems in using friendship to solve those questions. As tempting as it might be, friendship doesn't gives us the answers about how we relate to strangers.
What it does do though is provide a more Burkean answer to how we find meaning within our own lives- if friendship is important to us then its important within the kind of organic, self grown communities that Burke endorsed and like Burke envisaged, the role of government is sustaining those bodies must be to guarentee us all the competence to find them and to be secure (friendship is an ideal of the leisured) but it can't do more. Mark Vernon calls for a renewal not of the personal ideal of friendship but of the politics of friendship- I'm not sure what the second means- but if it means government action as opposed to government facilitation then I think it mistakes the organic nature of friendship for something that can be induced. If what he means though is a cultural endorsement of friendship then he might be on to something.
There are I'm afraid lots of confusions in this piece. But friendship is a subject worth discussing, because it is a way that human beings are able to cope with the increasing distance of government and wealth from them. Friendship in that sense remains crucial to politics but whether can't be stimulated by government, it can only be stimulated by individuals. Burke's little platoons are more relevant to the modern world than the friendly cosy world of polis politics- they are what distinguish the human city from the ant colony.
As a postscript, here is Jacques Derrida talking about friendship and democracy- this speech is not that opaque unlike most of Derrida and is worth a read.