Friendship and Politics
SYDNEY PEN LECTURE
23 AUGUST 2013, STATE LIBRARY OF NSW
(REPEATED 5 SEPTEMBER 2013, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA)
Professor Michael Fraser, President of Sydney PEN
Very much in the spirit of friendship, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I also would like to acknowledge the board of Sydney PEN. I was honoured to have received the invitation to speak this evening. And a special thank you to Miriam Cosic, the Vice-President of Sydney PEN. It is perhaps only fitting that this lecture on friendship and politics was instigated by Miriam. She is a friend with whom over the years I’ve had the pleasure of many conversations, quite often about politics.
When I had accepted the invitation to deliver this lecture, I had been in the process of embarking on what I thought would be my next major academic research project. I had just started a fellowship at the University of Sydney and found myself thinking about the meaning of friendship: how it had developed over time, its ethical significance, and its relationship with politics.
Now I am an erstwhile political philosopher. I’ve always been interested in the subjects of liberal reform and social democracy. I was naturally drawn, therefore, to studying groups such as the Fabians or the Bloomsbury set or the social liberal tradition as shaped by British idealism. But I had a hypothesis I wanted to test.
Namely, is friendship a pre-condition of social change and political movements? For example, was there something in the notion that Fabianism was a product of its web of friendship (as it were) – Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ed Pease, Bernard Shaw? Or that Bloomsbury could only flourish in the company of friends such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M Forster, Maynard Keynes? Was there running in the philosophical tradition established by T.H. Green a thread of affinity that could be traced through figures such as Herbert Asquith, G.D.H. Cole, William Beveridge, Richard Tawney?
My interest in such matters wasn’t merely historical or literary. At the sharper end of politics, why is it that so many friendships or partnerships in the sphere end in tears? Why is there so often such bitter betrayal or lingering resentment? Think here of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Or of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. John Howard and Peter Costello. And, of course, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
There were more contemporary analytical questions, as well. For instance, to what extent does political stability in a liberal democracy require civic friendship? Do democracies require what sociologists and political scientists call “social capital” in order to function properly? And is the meaning of friendship in our brave new digital world changing in a way that has negative consequences on our ability to conduct democratic politics? With the relentless march of Facebook, is the bond of friendship being transformed from a relationship to a mere sense of connectedness?
Friendship and racism
These were some of the political and philosophical questions I had in mind. A few things have intervened since I began this new project, not least my appointment as Race Discrimination Commissioner. But in my role as Commissioner, I still very much believe that the idea of friendship will continue to animate my work. If you will indulge me a moment, I should like to explain how.
During the next five years, my challenge will be that of shaping the Australian Human Rights Commission’s response to racism. Among other things, I believe there is a need for a new conversation about racism in Australian society.
It must be said at the outset that this country has come a long way in this area. Decades ago, it may have been commonly assumed that some races were superior to others; few would have batted an eyelid at racial abuse in public places. Today, things are much different. For the most part, old attitudes about race have largely given way to more progressive sensibilities.
And yet, many would say there remains an element of the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the case especially with so-called casual racism. We all know the sort of racism I’m talking about: the frequently unintentional way in which people may belittle or denigrate others on the basis of their race or ethnicity or origin. After something indecent has been said or done, someone will explain it was all just a harmless bit of fun, or an expression of Aussie humour, or that nothing racist was intended. There may be a denial that the rules of civility have been breached. Perhaps the most widely remarked upon incident of casual racism has been the one involving Sydney Swans footballer Adam Goodes. As you will all know, he was called an ape during an AFL match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – an insult compounded by subsequent remarks by Eddie McGuire about Goodes as a candidate for promoting the musical King Kong.
So when I say that there needs to be a new conversation about racism, it is this variety of prejudice that we may need to be more honest in talking about. There needs to be a recognition that the most serious harm of racism doesn’t reside in it causing offence or hurting someone’s feelings. It’s ultimately about the denial of respect and equality. Its harm lies in how it reduces its targets to second-class citizens, and how it empowers perpetrators to humiliate others.
Coming to such an understanding requires us to think about racism in a certain way. To recognise that countering racism is about defending a value of equality. To recognise that racism needn’t always be overt for it to count as harmful. To recognise that racism is as much about impact as it is about intention. I suspect that all this may require a generational shift in attitudes.
Of course, any shift in our attention to casual racism shouldn’t mean ignoring racial prejudice of a much nastier, and more deliberate kind. Racist violence still exists. About 5 per cent of Australians have experienced physical attacks based on their race or ethnic origin. And the past twelve months demonstrate that racist violence hasn’t withered away on the vine of social progress. Take last year’s attack on Fanny Desaintjores, a French woman who was threatened by some thugs on a suburban Melbourne bus after she began singing French songs with her friends. Or take ABC newsreader Jeremy Fernandez’s encounter this February on a Sydney bus, in which he was threatened with violence.
Away from such high-profile cases, there are signs that racism may be on the rise. I should caution that the evidence on this is still not definitive. But at least in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s work, there has been a 59 percent increase in the number of complaints made about racial hatred during 2012-13, compared to 2011-12. Most strikingly, there has been a sharp rise in the number of complaints about racism on the internet – otherwise known as cyber-racism.
Does this mean that we’ve had a fundamental deterioration in our social cohesion? That would be a premature conclusion. Without in any way trivialising the rise in the number of formal complaints about racial discrimination, I wish to put forward a cautiously optimistic view.
If we take the long view, Australia has proven itself to be a remarkably successful multicultural society. Since the postwar immigration program began, Australia has taken in a million new arrivals from overseas every decade. That we have done this without significant social fragmentation or division is nothing short of a social miracle. As I am frequently reminded whenever I speak to friends and colleagues from Europe, we are regarded as an exemplar of multicultural integration. Many others in the world look to us as a model for how to live amid diversity.
This is where friendship enters the picture. Australia has proven itself to be an open and accepting country, which has welcomed new arrivals in the spirit of civic friendship. Those who have come here as immigrants – whether from Europe or Asia or Africa or the Americas – have been transformed from foreigner to fellow member, from stranger to citizen. As the experience of some European countries has demonstrated, it isn’t necessarily the case that liberal democratic states have extended the hand of civic friendship in this way to those who arrive as immigrants. In Germany, for example, as late as the year 2000, you could only be eligible for German citizenship if you had a grandparent who possessed German ancestry.
The ideal of civic friendship will inform my work as Race Discrimination Commissioner. And there is much in the work of the Human Rights Commission that is about civic friendship. It is among the Commission’s priorities to encourage respect and good citizenship; to tackle cultures of violence, harassment and bullying. In the area of race, we have established the “Racism. It Stops with Me” campaign – which invites individuals and organisations to demonstrate their support in combating intolerance and discrimination. So far, in just over a year, more than 170 organisations in business, sport and civil society have signed up as official partners in the campaign.
Admittedly, sometimes as a society we can verge upon thinking of such work only in negative terms: it is about fighting prejudice, confronting bigotry. But I believe there is a positive aspiration as well: one that can be thought of as being about the cultivation of civic friendship; about the idea that a political community can extend the rights and status of membership to all those who want to become members, regardless of their skin colour or origin. Eliminating racism and enabling friendship, at least for me, are things that go hand in hand.
Ancient conceptions of friendship
Let me say a little more, now, about what friendship must mean. The task here is naturally a historic one. As it is understood in the Western tradition, the idea of friendship has its philosophical roots in Aristotelian ideas of virtue and the good life.
For Aristotle, there was a singular importance to friendship. As he explained in the Nichomachean Ethics, friendship is necessary to a good life: “without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods”. Friendship was, if anything, most necessary for those who possessed wealth or who had acquired office or power. The more prosperity or power one has, he argued, the more precarious it is.
There was also a political requirement of friendship. Aristotle’s idea of the polis was, of course, very different to a modern conception of a political community. But Aristotle believed that friendship was something that “holds cities together”. More precisely, any city required something resembling friendship – namely, a certain like-mindedness among its people.
By like-mindedness, Aristotle didn’t mean to suggest there must be unanimity of opinion. Rather, “cities are like-minded whenever people are of the same judgment concerning what is advantageous, choose the same things, and do what has been resolved in common”. To be like-minded was to be committed to a certain life that was led together with others.
Where such common sentiment didn’t exist, Aristotle believed there were civic dangers. For a city may then be populated with people who merely wish to take more from others, but who aren’t willing to give more of themselves. When people fail to keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed. And the result is that “they fall into civil faction, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves”. A just city, in other words, needs more than justice – it also needs friendship.
What was memorable, of course, about Aristotle’s formulation was his distinction between three kinds of friendship. And here Aristotle referred not to civic friendship – a sense of general like-mindedness – but to friendships among individuals.
The first was friendship based on pleasure. This, he said, was the friendship of the young, for the young live “according to passion and most of all pursue what is pleasant to them and at hand”. Two individuals may share a passion for some particular activity, or enjoy each other’s wit and humour. Aristotle also categorised erotic love as part of this category of friendship, “for the greater part of erotic love is bound up with passion and is based on pleasure,” which is why, in his view, the young “love and swiftly cease loving, often changing in the course of the same day”.
The second kind of friendship was based on utility. These are friendships in which friends associate with each other because it is advantageous. They may not even necessarily be pleasant to each other – they may not enjoy each other’s company. But they are friends because they wish to obtain something good from the other. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
In Aristotle’s view, these two sorts of friendships were inferior to a third kind. This was because a friendship based on either pleasure or utility is easily dissolved. If a friend is no longer pleasant or useful, the reason for the relationship’s existence no longer exists. We have all found friendships that have outlived their usefulness. We have all found that we may have outgrown some friends or perhaps simply grown bored with them.
But the third kind of friendship avoids this problem. This is friendship based on virtue. This was a complete or perfect friendship. Such friends are good and alike. In such a relationship, friends have reciprocal love and concern. They wish for good things to happen to their friends not because it will bring them pleasure or advantage, but because they wish the best for their friends.
Such friends are not susceptible to the kind of envy that Gore Vidal described when he said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” This is because a friend of virtue regards a friend as themselves: “to perceive a friend […]is necessarily in a manner to perceive oneself, and to know a friend is in a manner to know oneself”. The friend, in other words, is a mirror of one’s own self. This was a demanding view, as Aristotle recognised. It isn’t possible to be a friend to many when it comes to complete friendship: one can only acquire a few and not many.
Cicero also took up the idea of friendship as virtue, or as something that is accompanied by virtue. Between Aristotle and Cicero, you have arguably an exhaustive statement of the classical conception of friendship. Cicero echoed Aristotle in believing that friendship was something so intense that its bonds of affection could unite “at most two or just a few”. This was because “friendship is nothing other than agreement about divine and human affairs, accompanied by good will and affection”. It was something that “arises from nature rather than from need” and “from the inclination of the soul accompanied by love, rather than from calculation of a relationship’s potential usefulness”.
But a clear ethical line was drawn under friendship. It was something that existed only among good, virtuous individuals. “Seek only good from friends, do only good for the sake of friends”, Cicero wrote. Good friends, moreover, should be attentive and ready to give advice freely and cheerfully, though never harshly. Good friends should also accept advice patiently, and not reluctantly. Giving and taking criticism – this was “the mark of a true friendship”.
Modern conceptions of friendship
What then of the modern conception of friendship? The classical ideal of friendship was clearly one imbued with a spiritual quality. It was bound up with abstract values of the good and the noble. As one scholar of friendship explains, “modern conceptions of friendship are concerned more with fidelity, solidarity and trust”.
Yet there is more ambiguity in the modern conception than this view might permit. There has always been an ambivalent quality about what friendship must involve in a commercial-industrial society.
Sociologists would say that there was a historic shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. A shift in sensibilities from the thick codes of community to the thin norms of society. Our sociologist friends would say, whereas there may have once been solidarity with others in a community in which everyone knew everyone else, there was now a more transactional logic to relationships. Everything one did for another – perhaps done with all the graces of altruism, perhaps accompanied by impeccable pleasantness – was done with a contractual expectation that it would be returned in kind.
According to the philosophers of early market society, this wasn’t a pernicious development; far from it. The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in fact argued that the rise of market relations were what led to the development of new forms of benevolence and social trust. It wasn’t a case of the market replacing old bonds of solidarity with newer, weaker bonds.
For the social relations that preceded the growth of commercial society were typically cold and unfriendly. One thinks here of the kind of life that lurks in the background of Montaigne’s Essays – a life where disease, war and conflict were never far away. The historian Lawrence Stone has written that our modern minds can’t comprehend just how at all levels men and women from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries were “extremely short-tempered” and prone to frequent violence. Little wonder that Thomas Hobbes would describe the state of nature as one marked by “continual fear and danger of violent death”. One in which the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
For philosophers such as Adam Smith, David Hume and Adam Ferguson, the market had a revolutionary effect. The rules of commercial society were giving room for a new form of friendship to flourish – one based on “natural sympathy”. They freed people from the rules of feudal dependence, medieval hierarchy and religious doctrines of natural order. Friendships weren’t simply relationships that one cultivated in order to deflect enemies, as may have been the case during the darker days of Hobbes. At the same time, commercial society meant that you didn’t have to treat friends as though they might turn out to be your enemies.
Put another way, commercial society had two significant consequences. First, the prevalence of strangers in this society, with whom one would interact from a distance, governed by the laws of supply and demand – and without expectation that they would be either friends or enemies – meant that a clear distinction could be made between those relationships based on interest and those relationships based on sympathy and affection. Second, commercial society brought a new autonomy to people who were once captive to guilds and lords; what the market did was bring into being a system of cooperation based on the independence of ordinary people. Friendships were now therefore relationships born of free choice and autonomy.
If such freedom were a prerequisite of modern friendship, it would also, in time, become its justification. Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view of friendship: “We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables.” Emerson, of course, was a transcendentalist, a romantic of the New World – a prophet of radical individualism. For him, “I do with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”
Elsewhere, however, Emerson did admit a certain value to friendship. But friends existed not as a mirror to oneself – as they did for Aristotle and Cicero. Nor did they exist as objects of natural sympathy and affection – as they might have for the likes of Smith and Hume. Rather, friendship existed as an instrument for self-improvement; it was in the service of a sovereign individual will that must transcend everything that it encountered. As Emerson explained, “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-eloquence or solitude.” We have friends in order to remind us that the highest form of life is to live not with them, but without them.
A less radical, but nonetheless modern conception of friendship can be found in C.S. Lewis. Much is made these days, of course, about Lewis’s muscular Christianity, which indeed shaped his view of friendship. For Lewis, friendship was one of “the four loves” – along with affection, eros and charity. But he was concerned, among other things, with ensuring that St John’s precept of “God is love” should not be transformed into the subversive idea that “love is God”. (It was a good thing that Mr Lewis didn’t live to see too much of the ‘60s.)
Whether you subscribe to his Christian view or not, Lewis nonetheless says a good deal worth revisiting. Not least, he captures what I believe is at the heart of modern friendship. As he explains it, friendship arises from companionship – namely, “when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’.”
The shared activity, Lewis said, could be a common religion, common studies, common profession, or common recreation. But while all who share that thing in common will be our companions, only one or two or three will be our friends. It is when they share their common vision that friendship is born. And it is then, according to Lewis, that “instantly they stand together in an immense solitude”. Note here, the difference between the Emersonian understanding of solitude – this is a solitude that exists among friends, rather than from friends.
But it is still a distinctively modern view of friendship. There is, for example, no straightforward celebration of friendship as virtue; Lewis is far too modern for that. As he notes, while friendship can be a school of virtue, it can also be a school of vice.
There is also the affirmation of friendship as a “non-natural” sentiment. It is the least natural of loves, in that it is “the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary”. In the context of a modern commercial, late-industrial society, friendship was an exercise of individual expression. Here’s how Lewis explains it:
Friendship … repeats on a more individual and less socially necessary level the character of the Companionship which was its matrix. The Companionship was between people who were doing something together – hunting, studying, painting or what you will. The Friends will still be doing something together, but something more inward, less widely shared and less easily defined … still travelling companions, but on a different kind of journey. Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.
It has been over fifty years since Lewis wrote The Four Loves. And some of the social matrix of friendship has changed. For example, the rise of the internet and telecommunications technology has changed the way we communicate with friends. On this, I will have more to say very shortly. But for now I want to remark upon what I see as some of the continuities and discontinuities with the modern conception, particularly as represented by Emerson and Lewis.
This may be a bald claim, but it is hard to find contemporary voices that speak or write with eloquence on friendship. We may need to look to sources other than literary or intellectual for some representative insight into what friendship today must mean. So let us look at the representations of friendship in contemporary popular culture. If we are interested in what friendship does mean today, there are fewer more telling sources.
What follows, I should add, may have something of an American and New York bias. But such is the weight of bias in our consumption of popular culture. Or maybe that just says something about my own popular cultural biases.
I wish to look at three examples, all television programs, which have had significant cultural impact. First, consider Seinfeld – that hit sit-com that aired from 1989 to 1998. I will assume that you will be at least vaguely familiar with its characters: Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian with a penchant for beautiful girlfriends, Superman and cereal; Elaine Bennis, a former love interest of Seinfeld’s who works in the publishing industry; George Constanza, a neurotic and pathological liar who moves from job to job; and Cosmo Kramer, a big-haired eccentric buffoon who lives opposite Seinfeld in his Manhattan apartment building.
Second, consider Friends – another sit-com, though from the 1990s and 2000s. Again, I will assume you may have some knowledge of the cast: Ross Geller, a paleontologist at a New York university; Monica Geller, Ross’s sister and a chef; Rachel Green, Ross’s on-and-off love interest and a waitress; Chandler Bing, a wise-cracking statistical analysis executive; Joey Tribbiani, a minor soap opera actor with somewhat low intelligence; and Pheobe Buffay, a hippy musician naïve in the ways of the world.
And then consider Sex and the City, a show which ran from 1998 to 2004, and regarded as capturing the friendship zeitgeist when it came to single professional women in New York during those millennial years. The show documented the adventures of Carrie Bradshaw, a sex columnist with a newspaper, and her three friends. There was Samantha Jones, a sexually confident public relations businesswoman; Charlotte York, a romantic optimist who worked at an art gallery and constantly dreamed about her perfect wedding day; and there was Miranda Hobbes, a cynical career-minded corporate lawyer (is there any other kind?).
Now, without seeking to be too frivolous about all this, I think there is something interesting in the way that these shows depict the bond of friendship. For a show about nothing, Seinfeld epitomises the possibility that friendship may morph from a relationship into just about nothing. Well, perhaps except for a certain amorality or nihilism – often a shared interest in either deceiving or manipulating the truth so as to get their desired ends (though with hilariously ironic consequences). Did anyone say Vandalay Industries?
While not as extreme as Seinfeld, often it seemed that the characters of Friends had very little to share among themselves except for some vague sense of a shared journey during youthful adulthood. These were not friends who necessarily shared the kind of interest that C. S. Lewis would have found to be central to friendship – I’m not sure there was that much in common between the characters that made them friends rather than merely companions. They certainly didn’t share what Cicero referred to as a shared understanding of divine and human affairs. Maybe it was my cursory or partial viewing of Friends, or my lack of appreciation for the wisdom of Joey Tribbiani or Pheobe Buffay, but I don’t ever seem to have encountered any treatment of divine or human affairs on the program. We’re not talking here about the Sopranos – or even Murphy Brown.
Part of the Friends dynamic was replicated in Sex and the City – though the program was perhaps one which explored the boundaries of friendship with the most subtlety and insight. There was certainly a great deal of energy and richness in its characters. As Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker described it, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte were “jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures … simultaneously real and abstract, emotional complex and philosophically stylized”. As Nussbaum continues, “the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives”, mapping along emotional, ideological and indeed sexual terms – the romantics versus the cynics; egalitarian second-wave feminists versus third wave feminists focused on the power of femininity; and the prudes versus the libertines. One thing you couldn’t accuse the program of doing was to be blind to the dividing line between friendship and eros, between love and attraction.
This, I believe, is a very generous reading of Sex and the City. Again, this may reflect my imperfect viewing of the program, but I do wonder whether it was perhaps less to the show than what the Nussbaums of the world would argue. I wouldn’t say, for instance, that Sex and the City had the same insight or poignancy as, say, The Wire.
Indeed, if taken as somewhat representative of late western cultural representations of friendship, we discern from Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City a contemporary conception of friendship. We are seeing friendship move increasingly into the realm of mere companionship – friends these days are really just fellow travellers in some vague journey of self-discovery. Whereas in C.S. Lewis’s time, companionship was a necessary but not sufficient condition of friendship, today it may actually be sufficient.
In another sense, perhaps we are seeing something of an apotheosis of the Emersonian creed of self-cultivation. We are glimpsing what friendship must look like in a society defined by a therapeutic culture of self-regard and performance. As late moderns – some would say post-moderns – we crave the approval of those around us. We construct our lives and identities in dialogue with others; we need constant recognition of our worth.
The idea of friendship has clearly evolved through time, as the American literary critic William Deresiewicz has outlined. For the ancients, for the likes of Aristotle and Cicero, friendship represented the highest calling in life. Friends would declare their love for each other even if they didn't share beds. Where one called another a friend, one had to be prepared to put one's life on the line for them. Honour demanded such duty and devotion.
This classical view of friendship as a moral bond, dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and excellence, is a world away from Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City. Good friends these days are merely those prepared to take our side: to listen and provide comfort, to massage our egos and validate our self-worth. And these days, as Deresiewicz has written, friendship has taken another turn. With the advent of social networking, "the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself". Friendship hasn't so much evolved as it has devolved "from a relationship to a feeling".
There is the risk that our new electronic lifestyle degrades friendship even further. Embracing social networking can mean we value a friendship only in terms of connection. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, friends become passive observers, members of an audience for another's narcissism.
I don’t mean here to sound like an old fogey complaining about technological change. I understand the many benefits of technological progress – as a means of allowing friends to stay in touch, for instance. If I am stating the downside of technology’s impact on friendship in such strong terms, it is only to counter some of the technological utopianism that accompanies any contemporary discussion of social change. Let us be cautious about what exactly it is that we are doing.
So where does all this leave us? As should be clear, I have a certain sympathy with the Aristotelian or classical view of friendship. I can only agree that a good society needs not only justice but also some sense of fellow-feeling or civic friendship. A good society can’t be built on good laws alone; it requires good citizens who are prepared to make sacrifices for the common good.
But there is nothing natural in believing that friendship and politics must go hand in hand. As illustrated by the human rights work of PEN, there are many places where politics is seen as a means not for pursuing the common good, but to prosecute or persecute one’s enemies, often designated as seditious. The relationship between friendship and politics can also, as alluded to by C.S Lewis, be not one of virtue but one of vice. For when might friendship be transformed into clientelism or corruption? What happens if friends – or mates – collude for private gain over the public interest?
Away from less extreme cases, it is far from clear that the moral bonds of friendship these days can motivate social change and political movements in the way that they once did. Whereas, for instance, the Fabians were united by a moralistic vision of progress, to some extent born of their founding circle’s middle class religiosity and spiritualism, political comrades these days are perhaps united more by a certain instrumental interest as a social class. With the professionalisation of politics, there is now more technocratic rationality than affective sentimentality among confreres on either side of politics.
And even if there should be a positive relationship between friendship and political stability, as I believe there is, we should be careful not to overstate it. Modern political theorists of a communitarian bent have certainly been inspired by Aristotle’s treatment of friendship. They have believed that there must be a revival of a spirit of fraternity or comradeship among citizens.
And yet, it would seem that Aristotle himself would never have gone so far as to define civic friendship in such terms. He was clear that any civic friendship must fall short of that virtuous friendship which he celebrated as the most superior. This was because Aristotle understood friendship among citizens to involve a sort of shared advantage friendship. Rather than a moral ideal, this friendship was a fact of ordinary political life. And as well as being a means of promoting greater cooperation, it was also a source of conflict.
Nonetheless, there is some value to focusing our moral attention on that category of friendship as virtue, which Aristotle so famously celebrated. For the kinds of complete friendships, which we can only enjoy in our private lives, may nonetheless have public implications. If excellence does reside in practice, if good character is cultivated only through habit, then perhaps it may be that friendships remain that most precious of realms: a nursery for the kind of mutual concern and generosity that are the hallmarks of virtuous citizens.