Friendship Matters

By Berenskoetter, Felix | Capital & Class, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Friendship Matters


Berenskoetter, Felix, Capital & Class


Graham M. Smith

Friendship and the Political: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Imprint Academic: Charlottesville, VA, 201 1; 264 pp: 9781 845402464, 17.95 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

Graham Smith has written a valuable book exploring the place of friendship in the work of thinkers ranging from Plato to Carl Schmitt. The tasks the book sets for itself are, first, to review ancient and modern accounts of friendship as part of a discussion of political life and second, to open space for thinking about the connection between friendship and the political. With this agenda, the book belongs to an emerging literature in social and political theory that re-engages the phenomenon of friendship to correct the view that it is a purely private and personal matter, at best irrelevant to the social order, and at worst, a danger to it. Instead, the tenor of this literature is that friendship matters greatly for understanding social life and for thinking about political community (see King and Devere 2000; Van Heyking and Avramenko 2008. Hutter 1978 drew attention to this link decades earlier).

This is an important agenda because, as Smith points out, friendship has been neglected, if not ignored, by Western thinkers of modernity. Given this, the book's aim to discern 'modern transformations' of friendship seems counterintuitive, and certainly makes the reader curious. This curiosity is also fostered by Smith's ambition to trace the link between friendship and the political across the works of thinkers as profound and diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Schmitt. My expertise on these theorists is not sufficient to evaluate the accuracy of Smith's reading of them; but in any case, the interesting question is what we can take from the book's presentation of their engagement with friendship. The short answer is: a lot. While I am not sure the book fully meets its stated objectives, it offers a rich array of thoughtful insights about friendship, emerging from very different bodies of work in a clear and concise (although sometimes a bit too definite) writing style.

The two opening chapters offer a discussion of Plato and Aristotle, respectively. This is a sensible choice given the central role friendship plays in the writing of ancient Greek thinkers. These chapters review how Plato and Aristotle grappled with fundamental questions of what friendship is, why it exists, and in what sense humans find it useful; that is, what 'need' it satisfies, and how it supports political life. This discussion not only serves as a reminder of the importance and complexity of pre-modern thinking on the topic, but also allows Smith to introduce and evaluate some basic approaches to conceptions of friendship and the political. In brief, the Plato chapter puts forward the notion of friends being attracted to a shared sense of the good, allowing for a harmonious life in the polls by those able to see this good. This conception informs many accounts of friendship, yet as Smith reminds us here, it also risks creating a closed sense of unity among friends, with the potential to underwrite elitist and totalitarian views of order. Aristotle's account is more nuanced. Indeed, his careful engagement with multiple forms of friendship and the ways friends can be useful to each other arguably makes him still the most profound thinker on the topic. For Smith, the most promising Aristotelian account is not the 'true' and intimate friendship amongst the virtuous, but the 'political' friendship amongst citizens of the polls, marked by equality and revolving around the concord of a shared constitution. He also usefully points out two (related) weaknesses of Aristotle's otherwise rich discussion, namely its over-emphasis on shared activity and the neglect of emotional bonds underpinning friendship.

Against this backdrop, the book embarks on its main task of discussing 'modern transformations' of theorising friendship. …

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