January 01, 2007

The politics of Friendship: A first draft and highly incomplete idea

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.

9 comments:

花崗齋之愚公 said...

Two quick points:

1) A timely piece for us here in the States. With President Ford's passing, there has been much discussion of his decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Some believe that one reason he did so, among many, was his feelings towards Nixon as a friend and a genuine fear that the disgraced president would harm himself should a trial go forward. Tellingly, when this motive was discussed on a talk show yesterday, Jay Carney of Time Magazine suggested that of all possible motivations for the pardon, friendship was the least honorable or palatable to the general public.

2) In Confucianism, broadly speaking, there are the five relationships: ruler/subject father/son elder brother/younger brother husband/wife friend/friend.

Of these, only friend/friend is considered a non-hierarchical relationship.

Just some random thoughts and best wishes for a Happy and Healthy 2007!

Gracchi said...

Best wishes returned.

1 Good point yes the Nixon-Ford relationship is useful- Aristotle's distinction between friendship and justice works very well there.

2 Fascinating- the problem with a short post is the lack of context- I was actually thinking I've missed out Smith's sympathy as well. But that is fascinating and the point about heirarchy is very interesting- from memory I think Lewis has a similar point where he argues that friendship is a relationship of equality.

This is a theme I want to develop over the next couple of months and think through. Very interesting response.

james higham said...

Having read this through, I still don't see in any practical sense how politics and friendship can be interwoven.

If one takes the definition of one of my ex 'friends' that friends are to use - he uses me and I use him - then politics can easily be accommodated here.

But if one believes that acquaintances can become familiar and in some cases, due to something we like in the other, friendships, then this produces things like Blogpower.

Is that politics? Is it friendship?

dreadnought said...

Happy New Year and all the best for 2007.

Emma said...

Hey. Found your blog from The Guardian's comment bits. Just thought I'd drop a random comment.

Happy New Year!

Gracchi said...

Thanks for all the happy new year comments can I reciprocate- and I'll pop round people's blogs.

I suppose James friendship did have an impact on politics because it governs the behaviour of politicians. Also because it forms the ideal of a political commonwealth- some people like Robert Filmer based their ideas of commonwealth on the family others like Locke on the idea of friendship and conversation. I don't think that's a very good description and I need to work this out more and whether there is anything in it- there is definitely something in it when we come to look at earlier political thinkers like John Locke.

A Jacksonian said...

Who are your friends? I took a look at that a bit ago on with relationship to modern political outlooks. You are born into family, and you choose acquaintances for many things. Your friends are close and few and the ones that will bail you out when things go wrong because they value *you*. And you are damned if you do not repay that in kind without offering some reason as to *why*. While blood is thick and families are close, your *friends* are the ones that will not discount closeness between you and them. We have abused that terminology of 'friend' in the modern age so we even question its meaning... and then see people walking around with scads of acquaintances, but no friends, and ask why they are not happy in life.

Politically that means sticking *up* for your friends and shoulder to shoulder with them. You can disagree and bicker about things later, but when you get into a tight spot you *help* without question.

On the Nation State level the Friends of a Nation are those that stand by and help and assist and grow close with your Nation and yours with their by common agreement that goes beyond mere Treaty. Very, very few are the Friends of a Nation and those friendships built up over decades, not months or years.

When I look at my own Nation I am deeply ashamed and dishonored that we, as a People, do not honor one Friend that has stood by us since the beginning. There is no honor in that and shame must be felt to treat a true friend like that, would that the rest of the Nation have some shame in this day and age. A very simple and straightforward Foreign Policy can be based on that, in which Friends grow stronger together to face the problems common to them. Friendship is in the proof of the standing and giving, not in the kindness of the words or attitude. Friends can disagree and *agree* to disagree, there is no dishonor in that. And you would still be friends.

This is not from the Greek or Roman viewpoint, although many would understand it as it is simple and harsh. It comes from that *other* root of the Anglo-Saxon tradition from the Norse and Vikings who brought that as their mainstay. They had their own form of democracy and even Kings realized they were answerable to it. Just ask the Vasa of a later age. That infused through the Scots-Irish into America and gave the deep meaning of friendship and commonality that helped put a Nation together. A system of working together for the common good and respecting the differences between various people in different regions which were States. Ideology would drive us apart, but only friend and family keep us together.

A very simple view... but *that* scales from individuals to Nations with harsh judgement involved. Befriend those who reach out to you in friendship. Help those saved from oppression and offer them friendship and a hand up so they may stand on their own. A simple and honorable way to view life and live it. Perhaps wrong, but one can rest well at night knowing that they have honored their friends as best as able and that there is a bond there that is solid.

And I will take *any* good night's rest that I can get.

May you have a Happy New Year and may those you care for have health and good cheer throughout it.

Emmie Johnson said...

I think it is a very new concept... infact it is a very thought provoking thing!!

robert said...

I liked most of ur posts...especially the new one is quite heart-warming...but one thing dear...when politics gets involved into friendship...its no more a friendship...it turns into rivalry! thats all I can say :) visit my blog sometimes