Friendship and Political Philosophy

By Schall, James V. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Friendship and Political Philosophy

Schall, James V., The Review of Metaphysics

They (the statesmen and lawgivers of old) shouldn't have legislated great ruling offices, or unmixed authority; they should have considered something like the following: that a city should be free and prudent and a friend to itself, and that the lawgiver should give his laws with a view to these things.

Plato, The Laws, 693b(1)

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1155a22-28(2)


When this paper was first proposed for inclusion on the program of a social science conference, concern was expressed where indeed it might fit. The problem was graciously, if not curiously, solved by placing the paper on a panel entitled, "Love, Friendship, and the Great Books," in the political science section of the conference. Needless to say, friendship is an aspect of or kind of love. We are not automatically used to seeing that it is a proper and legitimate topic for consideration in political philosophy. As C. S. Lewis, among others, has pointed out, friendship (philia) is to be distinguished from and related to other kinds of love, to ergs, to storge, and to caritas.(3) Political philosophy, no doubt, may have to deal with every sort of love, including these days the love of animals, but its classical context is amicitia or philia. St. Thomas had already related caritas to amicitia as its natural basis, while the tractates on marriage, even in Plato and Aristotle, bring up the relation of eros to philia, as well as of both to some end or purpose.

Friendship is prominently mentioned, to be sure, in the great books, including very often the great books in political philosophy. In addition to Aristotle, whose treatise on friendship remains unsurpassed as a philosophic examination of this exalted topic, we recall Cicero's great essay De Amicitia, Plato's Phaedrus, plus numerous references in The Republic, The Laws, The Symposium, and many other central dialogues.(4) The Gospel of John contains the great tractate on friendship at the Last Supper just before the Trial of Christ, an intellectual association between politics and friendship that is itself cause of the deepest human reflection. The topic of friendship is most familiar to Augustine and Aquinas and later to Montaigne and Francis Bacon. In short, if we moderns and post-moderns might perhaps have difficulty in associating the notions of friendship and political philosophy, our intellectual tradition did not.

Some systematic reflection about the relationship between friendship and political philosophy seems a worthy one and especially about why we find this topic generally missing as a normal aspect of what we have come to call political philosophy. Initially, let us propose that friendship is missing in political philosophy because in modernity nothing is conceived to be higher than the state. The ancient tyrant, as Aristotle told us, worried lest there be good friendship among his citizens, something on which alone could be mounted a successful attack both on his regime's validity or truth and on its strength.

If we reflect on the reasons that Aristotle gave for including friendship as a more important topic than justice, the political virtue, we should at first not be surprised that Aristotle is most forthright with us. "For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all, for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? …

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