Ignored by modern philosophy, maligned by the Enlightenment, friendship hasn’t had a champion since the Greeks

The Enlightenment instantiated a wide-ranging cultural revolution that reshaped western identity. It is the crucible from which modern western societies emerged, and our mental architecture continues to employ the categories, language and concepts of its thought. As the Italian scholar Vincenzo Ferrone memorably put it, the Enlightenment is the “laboratory of modernity.” So while it might take some effort to imaginatively enter, say, the world of Socrates, Aristotle or Augustine, it is relatively easy for us to think ourselves into an 18th-century mindset. And this is for the straightforward reason that the complexity of ideas, institutions and practices that so exercised the philosophers of Paris, the learned societies of Edinburgh or the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia continue to animate and inform our own world.

It is from the 18th century that we have inherited a Kantian morality of rights and duties. Such rights and duties, Kant famously argued, are universally and categorically binding on all peoples everywhere. Hence one of the major strands of Enlightenment thought is a robust universalism that asserts that moral injunctions must hold for all peoples and all times. On Kant’s account, to act morally is to act autonomously, which means to act free from the constraints of history, nature and circumstance: I must will only that which I can will to become a universal law.

Such universalism is opposed to the idea that ethical obligations accrue by virtue of our allegiance to a smaller, more immediate constituency such as friends, family, community or country. The Kantian, universalizing will must necessarily deny that the proximity of some or the distance of others has any moral force. The categorical demand that we detach ourselves from any particular social standpoint ushers in a distinctively modern and novel understanding of moral agency. As the late Bernard Williams noted:

It has been in every society a recognizable ethical thought, and remains so in ours, that one can be under a [moral] requirement … simply because of who one is and of one’s social situation. It may be a kind of consideration that some people in Western societies now would not want to accept, but it has been accepted by almost everyone in the past, and there is no necessity in the demand that every requirement of this kind must, under rational scrutiny, be … abandoned.

It has always remained puzzling how the abstract, disembodied consciousness, such as required by the Kantian ethic, could produce determinate moral principles in the empirical world. Is not the empirical world of family, friends, co-workers, community and state—the world that we encounter in ordinary experience—morally significant? Why, for example, should we omit from our canon of moral reasoning something as crucial to the good life as friendship?

John von Heyking, professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, has written an ambitious book, one that challenges us to rethink many of the assumptions we have inherited from the Enlightenment. He notes that when considering “the grand sweep of historical movements and the great ideas of political philosophy, it is easy to overlook the interplay of personal relationships as the crucible of political and moral decision-making.” Specifically, The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship sets out to recover the understanding of virtue-friendship in Aristotle and Plato, and its relationship to the political order. For von Heyking, “friendships are the highest kind of personal relationships, and they play an important part in shaping our political world.” To understand the place of friendship in the pursuit of the good life, as well as in social and political frameworks, we must go back millennia, to Plato and Aristotle, who have provided us with the richest, most rigorous and most profound analysis of what friendship is, as well as of its larger implications.

It is curious that the concept of friendship, despite its centrality to human flourishing and well-being, has been largely ignored by contemporary philosophers. As the author notes, “friendship has been lost as a category of political analysis for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that we have difficulty even discussing what friendship is. Our popular vocabulary of intimate relations draws almost exclusively from romanticism, which prevents us from even conceiving of such relations other than in erotic and bodily terms.” This volume goes some way to correcting this deficiency. It confirms for modern readers what the ancients understood very well: namely, that friendship is a topic of enduring interest, both in and of itself, and because it has profound implications for much broader political and moral contexts. The ancient Greeks as well as the Biblical tradition agree that “friendship is the pinnacle of the moral life.” The fundamental aim of this book is “retrieving a vocabulary about the moral good of friendship, and considering its significance for the realities of politics.”

In stark contrast to the autonomous, universalizing will of the Kantian moral agent, von Heyking seeks to resuscitate an older form of political allegiance and moral obligation, one that takes seriously the notion that living and dwelling together is, from a moral point of view, deeply significant. As Socrates says in the Apology, “I will do this [engage in philosophic questioning] to whomever, younger or older, I happen to meet, both foreigner and townsman, but more so to the townsmen, inasmuch as you are closer to me in kin.” “Kin” here refers not only to family connections, but to those “with whom we have been brought together, for reasons beyond our comprehension; they are those with whom we dwell and for whom we have the deepest responsibility.” Echoing Socrates, von Heyking argues that our kin are worthy of special moral consideration. The book may be read as a meditation on how, exactly, this special moral consideration arises, and what precisely it entails.

The heart of this undertaking is an exegesis of the concept of friendship in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Poetics, as well as two works by Plato, namely, his dialogue dedicated to friendship, Lysis, as well as the Laws. The author tells us that he decided to write a book about friendship because there is “no other topic in politics, or ethics, that really matters.”

He also offers some penetrating observations about friendship and its relation to the political realm. For example, “the incapacity to practise friendship might explain why one finds lonely individuals looking to politics, in the form of utopianism, solidarity, and other romantic adventures, as a way of experiencing the erotic intensity they lack in virtue-friendships.” Or again, “the extreme of the isolated politician is, of course, the tyrant, whom Plato and Aristotle regarded as incapable of friendship and thus of achieving life’s greatest goods.”

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously distinguished three types of friendship: utility, pleasure and virtue. Utility friendships exist among those who do business together, while pleasure friendships—such as those enjoyed by members of a sports team or by drinking buddies—are ones in which individuals share bodily pleasures of various kinds. But it is virtue friendship that is the highest form, when friends love each other for their character. It is only people who are “serious about their own moral character” who conduct such friendships, and, as friends, encourage each other to make good choices regarding virtue. Critically, such friendships involve sharing the intellect and seeking the common good: “the greatest acts of friendship are those performed by friends seeking the common good together, which includes seeking to understand the common good.”

This joint perception and awareness by friends is the culminating activity of virtue friendship, and is referred to as sunaisthesis. It is sunaisthetic friendship that is the most intense kind of virtue friendship. It is characterized by shared intellectual activity, shared insights and “intellects conjointly knowing and being known,” living together and sharing conversation and thinking. As Hannah Arendt notes, “the presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and of ourselves.”

Sunaisthesis forms the crown of Aristotle’s teaching about friendship, because it “expresses friends’ common activity in perceptions and thought … Friends behold one another, and themselves, beholding the good. The intellectual and moral virtues are fully activated.” According to von Heyking, this is what Aristotle means when he suggests that friendship is not merely a singular virtue, but the entirety of virtues: “As a particular virtue, friendship has its own set of practices and obligations. As the entirety of virtue, friendship is the moral horizon in which the other virtues operate.” For von Heyking, “the more we can leaven political life with our experiences of sunaisthetic friendship, the greater chance we have of bringing decency [and] justice … to politics.” As he notes, “so much of politics … is a history of loyalties and betrayals.” One thinks, for example, of the friendship between Churchill and Roosevelt that sustained the Allied war effort, or the crucial friendship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. And in this country, we can reference the friendship between John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, “the Siamese twins” who were Confederation’s guides.

Somewhat surprisingly, the other Aristotelian text surveyed is the Poetics. In a chapter titled “Political Friendship as Storytelling,” von Heyking demonstrates the importance of mimesis and storytelling for political friendship. Political friendship is, most of all,the activity of citizens, contemplating together, through mimesis, the moral actions of the decent.” Specifically, tragedy is the story form that best teaches citizens to “bear responsibility together for their choices even when they are mistaken.” “Tragedy,” he writes, “silences our ‘prejudices,’ at least temporarily, and puts us into the position of seeing the person … before us as he is.” Tragedies elicit in us both pity and fear, and force us to recognize that “we too can be ignorant of our own identity, and of the manner in which our excellences can lead to our downfall.” Most importantly, the shared stories of the community recollect the shared actions of a political society. This shared understanding of political friendship shows how it constitutes an intermediate space for citizens’ action, between the solitary individual and the universal. For von Heyking, it is festivity that best exemplifies the intermediate space, and that binds citizens to one another in political friendship. In the concluding chapter, he examines one of Canada’s most famous civic festivals, the Calgary Stampede, which “transforms the workaday world of the ranch worker into a playful celebration of universal humanity, our relationship with the animal world, and the cosmos.”

In Part Two of the book, we move from the common sense philosophy of Aristotle to the more ethereal speculations of Plato in his dialogues the Lysis and the Laws. As the scholar Mark Vernon remarks, “the Lysis offers a portrayal of friendship as a way of life in which, at its best, Socratic philosophy and becoming friends are one and the same thing.” With Aristotle, Plato’s focus is on sunaisthesis friendship, and the Lysis shows how our experience of the good makes possible our ability to love our friend. For Plato, friendship is a movement of divine love, in which human beings participate and to which they are reoriented so that they might behold their friend as an individual. For Plato, writes von Heyking, “philosophy is an existential movement of the soul in friendship, reaching out in love to the good and the beautiful. … [In the Lysis] Plato appeals to Hermes—the most human, most creative, and thus the more political of Olympians—to show how we must open ourselves up to the divine in order to fully love our friend as an individual person.”

For von Heyking, Platonic politics is predicated on friendship, and “to act according to reason, to act with moral intent, is to act for the purpose of friendship.” Moreover, “friendship is the telos of the moral act, and … the intellectual act as well.” I must confess that I was taken aback when I read these claims. Surely this is to claim too much for Plato’s account of friendship. Is it not more accurate to say that Plato’s stance on politics and his education of the Guardians is predicated on his contempt for amateurs entering the political arena (what might he have made of Trump!)? Similarly, when Plato wants us to act according to reason, is it really for purposes of friendship? Or is it rather that we act according to reason so that one’s soul accords with the harmony of the cosmos, ensuring that the order without is reflected in the order within the individual self? Nevertheless, even if one is not entirely convinced by his somewhat surprising Platonic thesis, von Heyking presents a compelling ­argument.

Von Heyking writes very well. And one appreciates the catholicity of learning on display. His wide-ranging references (everyone from Montaigne to Aritha Van Herk to Roger Scruton) and his ability to make connections between, for example, the thought of de Tocqueville and Plato, provide the reader with acute, and frequently surprising, insights.

In writing the book (a task that took a dozen years), he came to understand that “the task of understanding a philosopher’s view on friendship obliges one to try to understand nearly everything else about that philosopher.” When the philosophers in question are Plato and Aristotle, that is a daunting task.

Whatever quibbles we might have with the details, in the end the author succeeds admirably, in that his monograph elevates friendship to its rightful place as a topic of proper philosophical speculation. And it strikes me too that in these pages John von Heyking exemplifies that shared insight which is the sunaisthetic moment, and that lies at the heart of his thesis: “Our discoveries of fundamental truths coincide with discoveries about ourselves and each other, done together. This, in essence, is what liberal education is about.”