Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Bringing Friendship Back to Religion and Politics

Friendship: A Central Moral Value by Michael H. Mitias explains how, in Hellenic and Hellenistic times, friendship was “implied in [the] cultural paradigm” as a central way to achieve happiness and the highest good [i]. However, this focus on friendship tapered off through the Medieval Period and up to the present day. The purpose of the book is to both explain why this occurred and why it is a tragedy that it did. Friendship disappeared in Christianity and was replaced by charity, focus on happiness in heaven, and obeying religious authority [ii]. In the public/economic/political sphere, too, friendship was no longer a focus—for example, “Deleuze and Guattari proclaim the idea of the universal market as perhaps the greatest threat to a philosophical notion of friendship” [iii]. Mitias laments that, since the end of Hellenistic times, friendship has been treated as either sub- or super-ethics, either to trivial or too amazing to be critically considered [iv]. This essay considers Mitias’ main points in relation to other philosophers, scholars, and theologians, and how friendship might be best brought back into prominence as a full cultural paradigm that “functions as the actuating principle… in all the domains of human life” [v], particularly in politics and religion.

The world needs “friendship theology” [vi], and Christianity is particularly lacking in this. Christian ethics often replace friendship with charity and focus on loving better and better people as kinds of stepping stones to the eventual one true love of God [vii]. In this way, friends are used as means, not ends. Even after the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism still focused on hierarchy, the pope, and happiness in the next life, while Protestantism focused on individual belief, neither of which were conducive to friendship. However, Christianity does not have to disregard friendship; a moral paradigm shift is possible here, as well. Nehamas describes friendship as an “earthly anticipation of paradise” [viii], and Buber describes “every I-Thou relation” as “at least an indirect reference to God” [ix]. Friendship can be seen as, instead of idolatry by loving a mortal person more than God, a reference to love of God and God’s creation, as well as creating paradise on earth. The Bible, itself, says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” [x]. This implies that preferential love is actually supported in the Bible (at least in this section), since it does not emphasize equal love of both good and bad friends. Furthermore, the statement, “sticks closer than a brother,” acknowledges how truly wonderful and meaningful friendships can be, encouraging finding the best ones. Beyond just Christianity, too, the “determination to see the religious other as an icon of God” and possible friend is a next step that can bring different religions and friendship theologies together [xi].

While friendship was the most important goal of political philosophy in Hellenic times [xii], that is no longer true. However, along with Mitias, many modern thinkers want to bring it back. Schall, for example, says, “Political philosophy in its true sense exists that these deeper questions may properly be formulated… in friendship, beyond politics” [xiii]. In this interpretation, political philosophy exists to uphold and give space for friendship above itself. The idea of any politics or government without friendship seems absurd—Hannah Arendt says that, without friendship, there can be no free conversation, and that free conversation is a precondition for democracy [xiv]. But what kind of friendship could political friendship be that is not utility-based? One great answer is that it could be a “weakened and generalizable form of friendship of virtue” that is capable of including “all citizens” [xv]. This is wonderful in theory, but would require and entire paradigm shift in how friendship is viewed. This shift, though, can be created, at least in part, through “institutions of love” that can “promote learning in and critical thinking about the praxis of love” [xvi]. The Oberlin Friendship Circle and Friendship Festival, and also Wadell’s description of “Warrenton” as a “moral argument” that forged friendships [xvii], are great examples. These kinds of institutions of friendship must be created on even larger scales, and in collaboration with the political sphere, to better bind together the populace in friendship.

One concept I struggle with, though, in the possibility of a large-scale paradigm shift to friendship, is what different scholars have said about altruism. Jeremy Taylor said, “When friendships were the noblest things in the world, charity was little” [xviii], and Hobbes said, “Without altruism no harm is done to society. A society based on altruism cannot sustain” [xix], and Adam Smith implied that “egoism (I-It) is altruism” [xx]. What does all of this mean? Is it saying that with friendship there is no longer need for altruism or charity since friendship is even better at fixing problems than altruism is? Or that altruism isn’t actually real, but consists of people just pretending to care about others more than themselves? Or just a criticism of general altruism as often misguided? Or does it actually mean that altruism and caring about all people, agape, and caring about specific people through friendship, philia, aren’t compatible? Mitias asks this same question about whether or not philia and agape can “flourish together” [xxi], and, while he doesn’t come to a specific conclusion, I do think that holding different levels of love for different people and groups is possible. Friendship is a form of love that is much closer and limited to smaller numbers of people, civic friendship is a broader friendship based on political virtues, religious friendship is the same but based on shared religious beliefs and values, and then love of all human beings can exist as the most general form that encourages helping all people in all places and situations.

With these different possible levels of friendship based on virtue and goodwill towards others in mind, I am perfectly comfortable advocating for efforts to create a paradigm shift towards friendship instead of individualism, unilateralism, partisan-ism, etc. “A cultural shift is a gradual, evolutionary process” that “does not proceed according to a plan,” but is a “spiritual event” that involves all facets of people’s lives [xxii]. While encouraging friendship in religion and politics is an enormous first step, it must become a focus everywhere. Friendship must be “the top-quality peace” and main societal goal [xxiii]. Friendship is part of the good life, and necessary for achieving happiness. It is truly the most important thing, and our moral, cultural paradigm must reflect that.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code of Oberlin College in this assignment.

Emily Cairncross



[i] Michael H. Mitias, Friendship: A Central Moral Value, page 65.

[ii] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 3/12.

[iii] Gregg Lambert, “Introduction,” page 7.

[iv] Mahallati, Lecture 3/14.

[v] Mitias, page 11.

[vi] Mahallati, Lecture 3/7.

[vii] Ibid, 3/5.

[viii] Alexander Nehamas, “Metaphors in Our Lives: ‘I Love You for Yourself’.”

[ix] Clement Akran, “A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in Light of Christian Theology and Capitalism.”

[x] NIV, “Friendship Bible Verses,”Bible Study Tools, Proverbs 18:24.

[xi] Werner G. Jeanrond, “Theological Truth from the Perspective of an Interreligious Hermeneutics of Love,” page 192.

[xii] Mahallati, Lecture 3/12.

[xiii] James V. Schall, “Friendship and Political Philosophy,” page 237.

[xiv] Mahallati, Lecture 3/12.

[xv] Evert van der Zweerde, “Friendship and the Political,” page 45.

[xvi] Jeanrond, page 192.

[xvii] Paul J. Wadell, “Friendship and the Moral Life: Why a New Model for Morality Is Needed,” pages 4-5.

[xviii] Mahallati, Lecture 3/12.

[xix] Ibid, 3/14.

[xx] Akran.

[xxi] Mitias, page 119.

[xxii] Ibid, 15.

[xxiii] Mahallati, Lecture 3/14.


Works Cited

Akran, Clement. “A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in Light of Christian Theology and Capitalism.” LinkedIn, 26 Nov. 2015,

Jeanrond, Werner G. “Theological Truth from the Perspective of an Interreligious Hermeneutics of Love.” The Question of Theological Truth, vol. 46, 1 Jan. 2012, pp. 181–195, doi:10.1163/9789401208284_010.

Lambert, Gregg. “Introduction.” Philosophy after Friendship, by Gregg Lambert, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 1–25.

Mahallati, M. Jafar Amir. Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Course, Oberlin College. Spring 2019.

Mitias, Michael H. Friendship: A Central Moral Value. Rodopi, 2012.

Nehamas, Alexander. “Metaphors in Our Lives: ‘I Love You for Yourself’.” Jesse Floyd Mack Lecture in the Humanities. 1 Mar. 2019, Oberlin, OH.

NIV. “Friendship Bible Verses.” Edited by BibleStudyTools Staff, Bible Study Tools, 18 Dec. 2018,

Schall, James V. “Friendship and Political Philosophy.” At the Limits of Political Philosophy From “Brilliant Errors” to Things of Uncommon Importance, by James V. Schall, Catholic University of America Press, 2010, pp. 218–237.

Van der Zweerde, Evert. “Friendship and the Political.” Friendship in Politics, edited by Preston King and Graham M. Smith, Routledge, 2007, pp. 31–49.

Wadell, Paul J. “Friendship and the Moral Life: Why a New Model for Morality Is Needed.” Friendship and the Moral Life, by Paul J. Wadell, University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, pp. 1–26.


Leave a Reply