Friendship is the Form of PoliticsFriendship is the Form of Politics

Friendship is the Form of Politics

Why loneliness is always part of tyranny.

John von Heyking
16 minute read
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In his encyclical Deus Est Caritas, Pope Benedict XVI states: "There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love." In recognizing its dependence on love, a decent political regime will give freedom to individuals and to society's "little platoons"—including families and churches—to educate and cultivate moral character, including love and friendship, because the State cannot do this on its own. A decent political society depends on moral practices that the State cannot inculcate on its own. By taking this risk, we are better off allowing these virtues to be taught and practised in civil society, not as a way of avoiding politics but rather to restrain the State and to make political life more humane. These are moral practices that precede the State but that paradoxically take place under the provenance of the State.

Friendship is one of these moral practices because it is a type of love. Or perhaps love is a type of friendship. Even so, citizenship, which is related to friendship but not identical to it, is typically seen as what the State properly cultivates, whether through citizenship guides or through public school curricula. Though opinions differ as to what citizenship consists of, most people agree it is appropriate for government to promote citizenship. Friendship differs because we typically think of friendship in modern terms—that it is a private relationship. Thus, the State goes too far when it infringes upon the private sphere, of which there are numerous examples. The most notorious example of such infringement may be our own Ministry of Love, the human rights commissions, which tell us whom we should love and not love. Part of the problem is that the public-private distinction is a porous one, and who we are in private forms who we are in public.

A recent effort erases this already porous distinction. Moreover, it expresses clearly the hyperegalitarian and cosmopolitan ideal that drives statism. There are several school districts in and near London, England, that have instituted a policy banning children from having best friends. One reason is Hobbesian: they want children to avoid the pain of breaking up. The other reason is also Hobbesian: friends are a form of power, and it is in the interest of the State to ensure we love each other equally, with no preferences—all in the name of inclusion.

In other words, the State bans friendships to teach us to be egalitarian liberals who love all equally because preferential love contradicts the highest moral precept of the State, which is to treat everyone equally. The State embodies and teaches the golden rule, though negatively defined, to ensure we prefer an abstract cosmopolitan principle to loving each other as persons. This teaching only aggravates the atomism and social isolation that observers since Alexis de Tocqueville have noticed is characteristic of democratic attachments. They argue that even though our social circles widen in a cosmopolitan direction, our affections are shallow.

Recent sociological research shows that the number of intimate friends we have has dropped dramatically, and that many of us are hooked on social media sites such as Facebook as an illusory salve for our loneliness. We love to be superficially connected while limiting actual face-to-face connections that depend on having genuine moral relationships with others. Our inability to practise friendship translates into passive citizenship, which suits proponents of statism just fine. After all, why cultivate moral and civic virtue when persons, including us, don't matter?

Another example, closer to home, shows where failure to be habituated to what Aristotle called virtue friendship gets you. Sarto Blais was a victim of Marc Lépine's attack on the École Polytechnique in 1989, though most people haven't heard of him because he's male, and all the victims of the attack are mistakenly believed to have been female. Blais was one of the male students who escaped the gunman. As Gary Caldwell notes in his Canadian Public Culture, this meant that he ran away, as did all the other males that day. Their actions differed from several other instances of mass shootings, including, in 1984, when Denis Lortie killed three people in the Quebec National Assembly but was stopped by Sergeant-at-Arms René Jalbert. No one risked his life stopping Lépine that day. Blais later felt so much guilt that he didn't stop Lépine that he committed suicide.

Caldwell notes that the young men that day did not know how to respond to the killer: "They did not seem to have received an education that inspired any action other than compliance and escape." In short, they acted as Hobbesian rational actors whose standard for moral action is self-preservation: the golden rule but negatively defined. They did not do what they did not want done unto themselves. Or to restate Caldwell's observation, his incapacity for the highest form of civic virtue at the decisive moment may have been the result of Sarto Blais lacking the habits of virtue friendship.

With this critique of democratic attachments in mind, I wish to make the following argument that I fear might make me a laughing stock. Not only is friendship a moral practice that needs to be understood as Pope Benedict suggests. Nor is it only something that enables citizens to restrain the State and make political life more humane. I will make the stronger, and possibly laughable, argument that friendship, properly understood, is the form of politics. This is an ostensibly laughable argument because friends share all things, as an ancient Greek saying goes. Most observers of current parliamentary behaviour would reject my claim as nonsense, and most would regard the notion of sharing things in common as a recipe for the worst form of communism. But as I hope to show, their rejection of my claim is actually predicated on their implicit agreement that friendship is the form of politics.

Friendship as the form of politics is predicated on three Aristotelian insights: 1) the highest kind of friendship, virtue friendship, is a practice whose moral goal transcends politics; 2) a citizenry unpractised in virtue friendship is incapable of habitually practising justice, and therefore, of politics; and 3) politics is a "middling" or composite moral activity that includes all different kinds of friendships, including friends of utility, convenience, allies, acquaintances, party members, and so forth. But all these varying intensities of friendship that compose politics share an implicit aspiration for what Aristotle calls virtue friendship.

Insight no. 1: Virtue friendship is a moral practice superior to the moral good of politics. In sharing things in common, friends not only share their goods in acts of gift giving, but also give of themselves. To use the example of dying for another, which Aristotle treats when he discusses courage and which Jesus of Nazareth says is the highest act of friendship, the logic is the following: in dying for you, my friend, I offer my life to you as a gift that recognizes the emblematic moral excellence that I experience preeminently in you and that I acknowledge in my outpouring of love to you. You and I behold the good and the beautiful together, and our beholding it is unthinkable without also beholding it together and in each other. With the exception perhaps of combat and the requirement that our head of State have no private property, such sharing of all things in common is a high moral standard, mostly inappropriate to the political realm on a daily basis. As Aristotle pointed out of Socrates, such a noble requirement of politics would render the polis no longer political, regardless of the benefits the polis receives from people who are habituated to acting that way.

The other reason virtue friendship is superior to the moral good of politics is that its preeminent form is one in which friends love one another while contemplating the good. Our joint perception of the good, what Aristotle called sunaisthesis, constitutes the very flowering of our intellects, whose nature it is to know and to be known, which can only be fulfilled in friendship. Our capacity to behold the moral character of a friend is based upon a life shared together, "through living together and sharing conversation and thinking." We are most complete, most alive, when, paradoxically, we live for another and when we tell each other stories about our lives lived together.

An example from popular culture illustrates this intellectual and emotional triangulation of sunaisthesis. In a recent interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, Geddy Lee, lead singer of Rush, explained the emblematic experience of musicianship and friendship that he and his band members share onstage:

"Sometimes it is just [that] you've pushed yourself into this moment musically and you're clicking, and you all know you're clicking, and you make eye contact and I'll look at Al, and Al will look at Pratt, and we all look at each other, and we start smiling.... And everybody disappears at that moment, there is, like, no audience. There is nothing on stage but the three of us, and we still feel like we're that band that started, like, 38 years ago in a rehearsal room. And it is just that kind of inside joke that requires no dialogue. We'll just look at each other and, yeah, this feels good."

Lee's description of their mutual and reciprocated beholding of the good (the excellence of their music and of their musicianship) and of one another (reciprocated love and admiration, and recollection of their lives together) contains all the elements of Aristotle's description of virtue friendship. No wonder the band has been together for four decades.

Failure to practise the highest form of friendship also means we lack self-knowledge and are incomplete human beings. Without virtue friendship, we are not fully functioning, comparable to a car with only three wheels. By this measure, Hobbesian democrats are more like cattle than humans. We are in broken lives and broken friendships.

Philosophical contemplation carried out together is superior to political action because, after all, political action is impossible without some understanding of the good and beautiful. In the words of political philosopher Leo Strauss, "All political action has, then, in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or of the good society." Understanding is more complete when it is shared, which we know intuitively when we wish to share our stories with friends after having accomplished something important. Our achievements are more satisfying when we tell someone about them. An action is never complete until it is reflected upon in common. Storytelling is the fabric of community. Our self-knowledge depends on being known by our friends and, reciprocally, their self-knowledge depends on our knowing them.

Insight no. 2: A citizenry unpractised in virtue friendship is incapable of habitually practising justice and, therefore, politics. Justice as giving to another his due requires us to remove ourselves from our self-interest. It requires us to be neutral toward our own interests and to assess our self-interest from that perspective and then to assess the claim to justice of another. This is no mean feat, and our liberal order is designed to avoid us having to make these judgments because it's so difficult to be neutral in one's own case. Even so, we make these judgments every day in our exchanges with others, though more out of obedience to law than out of virtue.

But friendship is higher because in loving my friend I make his good my good, which justice does not. Friendship consists of an expansion of one's good, which justice does not demand. Perhaps Sarto Blais was unjust for fleeing the massacre at the École Polytechnique. But he was certainly unfriendly toward his fellow citizens; a friend would never allow another friend to suffer the terror of being forsaken to such evil. Because friendship is higher than justice, friendship actually helps justice do its work. We know from everyday experience how important it is to make the good of another one's own good, and how this act helps us in our more mundane interactions where we strive to be just. Consider how simple economic exchanges are predicated on people who are capable of trust. I trust that the hotel clerk who takes my credit card uses a legitimate credit card machine and not a skimming machine. I trust the person standing behind me isn't videotaping me with his cellphone as I type in my password at an ATM.

Consider, too, how a salesman practises affected friendship to facilitate his sale. Or consider how statesmen aspire to friendship with other statesmen. We read of Barack Obama "tucking in" David Cameron on Air Force One or of Winston Churchill's response when Franklin D. Roosevelt entered his guest quarters at the White House while he was in the bath. They're friends and have nothing to hide. Whether it is Roosevelt seeing Churchill in the nude, or Socrates advocating nude exercises, friends share all things in common, which has an important trickle-down effect for the activity of justice. Or consider how François Mitterrand viewed international summits as opportunities to develop friendships to lubricate international diplomacy during the process of Germany's unification. He was intensely interested in the character of his fellow statesmen: Who is Reagan? Who is Gorbachev? What is important about (and to) this person? Mitterrand used summits primarily to discern what Aristotle called the inner ethos of other statesmen; and in doing so, he practised a kind of vicarious virtue friendship with them by "sharing conversation and thinking." Tellingly, he left negotiations up to his foreign minister.

Insight no. 3: Politics, for Aristotle, is a "middling" or composite moral activity that includes all different kinds of friendships. I just mentioned François Mitterrand. One can also see this composite nature in Brian Mulroney's friendship with Ronald Reagan. Mulroney recently maintained the importance of his personal friendship with Reagan as having facilitated the promotion of Canadian interests. He told an audience at the Munk School, "Anyone who tells you that personal friendship doesn't count in the conduct of foreign affairs, that nations only have interests and nothing else, doesn't have a clue what he is talking about."

Many find Mulroney's claim full of blarney. Indeed, even while he was in office, officials in the department of foreign affairs produced a written analysis that argued that the importance of Mulroney's friendship with Reagan was exaggerated because national interest trumps everything. There is weight to this claim, but I suggest that even the claim of national interest—which is usually understood as a trump card against my claim that friendship is the form of politics—contains within it a moral aspiration that makes no sense outside the moral framework of friendship.

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"National interest" is a particularly modern and, indeed, democratic term, which distinguishes it from the older term, raison d'état. This term originated after the French Revolution and was meant to distinguish the interests of popular governments from dynastic claims. In other words, "national interest" is a term with vague but democratic meaning that is usually meant to signify things that are necessary to the survival and flourishing of a democracy whose goals are vaguer than dynastic claims. Moreover, "national interest" signifies goods that can be obtained only by Machiavellian realpolitik, and that concerns of justice and friendship are seen to be extraneous and irrelevant to the pursuit of it. Yet what is most necessary for a country's survival is not mere physical survival. That would make the national interest of every State the same as that of Vichy France. It would mean slavery and submission are in a State's national interest. But what is most necessary for a country's survival is not mere biological existence, but the survival of that country's way of life, its regime, or its existence as a polity. And a regime is, as I have been arguing, a type of friendship. Indeed, national interest depends on there being a "nation" over and above competing or warring factions; and "national interest" means there is an interest for the entirety of that nation and not just for a single faction. Otherwise all wars are for oil, as the slogan goes. "National interest" suggests a relationship akin to friendship. Similarly, "national interest" suggests an ethic of preferring friends to enemies: "My nation, right or wrong." Lord Palmerston was incorrect, or at least misleading, to claim that "nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." There are indeed permanent friends, because the very notion of "national interest" presupposes you are at least friends to your own nation.

Let me emphasize that when I argue that friendship is the form of politics, I am not reducing politics to friendship or that politics does not preclude the kind of Machiavellian statecraft needed to protect a country's existence. What I am arguing is that a country that relies on Machiavellian statecraft to survive—all countries—must have statesmen and citizens practised in virtue friendship if that country's survival is to be worthwhile. Machiavellian statecraft for a Machiavellian principate is unlivable.

I conclude by suggesting another way that friendship is the form of politics by claiming that politics is nothing other than the activity of parties of friends interacting in concrete relationships with one another. Politics really is about the myriad of one-to-one relationships among people getting things done; politics is about friends helping friends. I am constantly amazed that the best politicians are also those who are able to make a personal connection with thousands of people in one-on-one interactions and also remember each name. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton can do this, as could former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed.

Governing is the activity of a party of friends who form, in the words of German political scientist Tilo Schabert, a paragovernmental configuration of a second government—an informal web of concrete relations behind the formal capital-G government and its institutions. This is not a recipe for oligarchy so much as it expresses the truism that there are no laws or institutions without persons in politics, and persons relate to one another through networks of friends. Government and its institutions literally do not "exist" until persons exercise their powers. The paradox of political power is that the powerful need friends. The statesman needs friends who can help him and through whom to wield political power.

Tom Flanagan describes Stephen Harper's party of friends in Harper's Team, his well-known account of the process that built the current Conservative Party of Canada. The title of Flanagan's book testifies to this personalist and friendship dimension of politics. His discussion of the "Draft Harper Committee" and Harper's subsequent circle of friends, demonstrates how the logic of political power induces political leaders to create a party of friends and the paragovernmental configurations of a second government. "Harper's team" has undergone numerous changes in personnel and, of course, the informalities of the party of friends have had to give way to the formalities of wielding power. But to paraphrase Quintus Cicero's advice to his brother for being elected Roman consul, "... in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life." Yet these broader terms still retain the categories of friendship. Elections are but the ritual of renewing old friendships and building new ones. Formal political parties are webs of friends. A party's leadership epitomizes this web of relationships and interpersonal associations.

Formal power presupposes the informalities of persons wielding power. When Franklin D. Roosevelt sat down at his desk in the Oval Office for the first time after being elected, he desired to begin governing as the new president, but he was unable to do so. Herbert Hoover had cleared everything out of the office. Roosevelt even lacked a pen and paper—the elementary tools of governing. He had to yell for some time before someone brought him those basic tools. The solitary statesman is not a statesman. Unsuccessful presidents are typically those who lack friends or were artless in the practice of friendship: Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter are recent examples. Bob Woodward's recent book on the U. S. debt crisis, The Price of Politics, seems to blame at least part of the problem on Obama's lack of art in friendship. I'm told the Liberals at least left paper and pens for Harper when he assumed power. However, he had then, and continues today, to rely on his own party of friends to operate the levers of power.

The statesman who lacks experience in virtue friendship also lacks knowledge about the limits of politics. The greatest statesmen in history enjoyed such friendships. Consider friendships like Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, the Founding Fathers of the United States (who collectively risked their lives for each other and for their cause by signing the Declaration of Independence), including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. In Canada we have the example of a founders' friendship with Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, who both stared down a Montreal mob as they awaited the arrival of Lord Elgin at Château Ramezay. John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier were good friends in addition to being political associates whose partnership formed the structure of Canadian politics. Churchill especially stands out as one who didn't make friends easily, but when he did—after years of acquaintance—his friends "could count on a loyalty so all-embracing that it approached love," as historian Kenneth Young puts it. The friendships of great statesmen, especially founders of regimes, place a stamp onto the politics of their regimes, where the differences between those friends frequently prefigure the partisan differences of that regime. Their example of personal friendship also holds out what unifies that regime as a political friendship.

Indeed, ancient literature contains numerous lessons on the art of friendship for rulers because they all seem to agree that a good ruler is also a good friend. The list includes the Epic of Gilgamesh with its friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu; Homer's epics in which bad things happen to those who forget their friends; and let's not forget that the writings of Plato and Aristotle are meant to inculcate habits of friendship. Jesus, too, tells his disciples that He is now their friend. He appeals to the same understanding of friendship as Aristotle does when He tells His disciples that no greater act of friendship is to be found than in dying for one's friend.

Without experiencing virtue friendship, a ruler will want to be friends with everyone. Indeed he will wish to be loved by everyone, instead of understanding that loving is better than being loved. He will mistakenly think his subjects owe it to him to love him. The friendless statesman who wishes to be loved by all is a tyrant. The counterpart to the tyrant and demagogue who thinks it is better to be loved than to love, unfortunately, is the passive subject whose acquiescence to him is made possible by also never having practised friendship.

Thus, without understanding how friendship is the form of politics, we convince ourselves that rulers are responsible for teaching us how and whom to love. Friendship as the form of politics reminds us of the inherent limits of political rule because it reminds us of the dependency of politics upon friend-ship, and of the freedom we have to live a moral life whose crowning achievement is our friendships.

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