Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Let’s Be Less Suspicious of Friendship in Politics – and in Academia

             No one in the modern West is a more eloquent lamenter of unjust bias than Malcolm Gladwell, who in his Revisionist History series digs into the counterintuitive inconsistencies behind conventionally-accepted history and wisdom.  In “The Prime Minister and the Prof,” an episode about “the friendship that changed the course of World War II,” Gladwell asks, “Why don’t we spend more time thinking about friends of politicians?” reasoning, “[W]hen you’re voting for someone, you’re also voting for [their] friend who gets called at two in the morning.…Friends should be scrutinized, the friends [of people running for public office] should all have to debate each other.”  Gladwell makes a compelling argument, but in the context of the 21st Century, it is additionally one more thrown stone in a modern attack on and climate of general skepticism towards friendship.

In the framework of modern identity politics, understanding that everyone is a product of personal experience and that no one is safe from subjectivity which too easily manifests as bias, makes it equally too easy to be cynical about and antagonistic towards the powerful, irrational emotions and attractions we see in friendship.  Thus the study of friendship is of the utmost importance today: to demystify it.  As long as we associate it with irrationality, personal gratification, exclusivity and bias, we hurt ourselves, who must either fight against friendship itself with all these bad characteristics we see accompanying it or live with the feeling of being hypocrites.  Part of what rubs us the wrong way about friendship today is the idea that friendship does not necessarily benefit the most deserving, nor, in the case of democratic politics, those who an elected official has pledged to benefit.  But this worry that the habits of friendship map to habits of prioritizing arbitrary people over rationally-constructed senses of obligation, is by and large a modern one, as we can observe by the contrasting view in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

At the end of its two-book study of friendship, Aristotle summarizes the reason for friendship’s necessity as follows: “if it is more proper to a friend to confer benefits than to receive them, and it is proper to the good person and to virtue to do good, and it is finer to benefit friends than to benefit strangers, the excellent person will need people for him to benefit.  Indeed, that is why there is a question about whether friends are needed more in good fortune than in ill fortune; for it is assumed that in ill fortune we need people to benefit us, and in good fortune we need others for us to benefit” (Aristotle 148).  An excellent case for the reciprocal relationship of friendship and virtue, but one assertion might strike us as odd among these, namely that “it is finer to benefit friends than to benefit strangers.”  At least, I found myself unable to appreciate this claim, even after following Aristotle’s previous arguments.  In the context of democratic politics, and moreover in the context of a globalizing world full of international markets for goods and media produced by people who will never see their beneficiaries, why do those we virtuously benefit have to be the people closest to us?  In my puzzlement, I took this question to a class and proposed it to Professor Jafar Mahallati.  His answer was an excellent taste of the wealth of wisdom ready to challenge modern cynicism with goodwill, as soon as we are ready to engage with it with reciprocal goodwill (Aristotle’s closest attempt at a definition of friendship, Aristotle 121): “Would you like to give $1,000 to one needy person or one cent to 1,000 needy people?”

Professor Mahallati is in the process of publishing a book on friendship, which is exciting, but more importantly his response demonstrates the potency of ongoing discussions, in college classrooms, in conversations, in friendly debate.  Where I felt that Aristotle had left something unanswered, I realized, my obligation was—and is—to pose further questions, to find answers to them, like my professor’s, in still further questions, and to answer those again with more questions.  Should I believe that Aristotle would have espoused a philosophy of friendship which didn’t satisfy him?  No, it is a mistake and often a missed opportunity to confuse unanswered questions with flaws or laziness.  If I cannot find answers which satisfy me in his writing, it is not because he couldn’t think of any and gave up.  If the extent of his writing does not satisfy me, it is up to me to trust that his writing satisfied at least one person, at least he himself, and that if it could do that, it is worth taking it seriously enough to earnestly build from it or in the spirit of it something which comes closer to satisfying me.  To put it another way, insofar as it is illuminating to return to Aristotle after the intervening dearth of philosophical writing on friendship, it is imperative that we not take the subject itself to be an immutable relic of the Ancient Greeks.  Exactly the opposite, as long as we still have friendships and questions about friendship, we have an obligation to investigate further that which Aristotle has not satisfied for us, in fact to be friends with Aristotle by joining him in inquiry.  And we do still have friendships and questions about friendship, which we join a growing conversation of scholars when we begin to ask out loud.

I have twice now compared the process of philosophizing to friendship itself.  What do I mean by this and why do I say it?  Living philosophical conversation encapsulates the primary goods of friendship as described by modern Christian theologian Paul Wadell in his book Friendship and the Moral Life.  His argument for friendship is a moral one, which he introduces through an homage to his seminary high school, at which he and all of his fellow pupils became fast friends through their shared moral mission.  He notes that friendship needs to be championed in large part because both Protestantism and Western cultural traditions praise autonomy and freedom.  This is, he writes, antithetical to “moral wholeness,” which requires an “emphasis…not on values we create [with individual freedom], but on values we discover” (Wadell 15).  As philosophers engaged together in interrogating friendship, we are in this sense on our way to moral wholeness, as long as we are truly engaging in conversation and authentic examination, not arbitrarily conjecturing.  And what would there be to dissuade us from arbitrary conjecturing, from creating our own values, if not the existence of friends?

Besides doing ourselves a favor in seriously studying friendship, we can serve Malcolm Gladwell’s purpose as well.  Those who are suspicious of friendship in the political arena are not so without reason.  The powerful throughout history have understood that one’s “friendliness,” displayed publicly, can be conflated with one’s statecraft to profound effect.  At the same time, this relies on an illusion of total social control, the idea that the powerful person chooses to maintain friendships that are good or advantageous and is never arbitrarily friends with anyone whose friendship could be bad news or disadvantageous.  There is no possibility for values discovered in this, no room to appreciate anything which is beyond the powerful individual’s control, and where is there any authentic friendliness to be found in such an individualistic framework?  On the other hand, in the present era in which world leaders perform their public-friendship-statecraft as an aesthetic of universal distrust toward other leaders, it is clearer than ever by its laughable consistence that this performance is only a thin veneer, underneath which they must still be subject to human attractions and distastes.  And if there has ever been a time in which it has mattered unequivocally to people who their leaders are behind closed doors, in their personal, human lives, it is now, this time, the era of identity politics, concerns of extra-democratic election advantages and #metoo.

In light of these modern political and social concerns, this justifiable suspicion of the entitled biases of friendship, one piece of Aristotle’s very opening ode to friendship in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics rings sour.  The rhetorical questions “[H]ow would one benefit from such prosperity if one had no opportunity for beneficence, which is most often displayed, and most highly praised, in relation to friends?  And how would one guard and protect prosperity without friends…?” (Aristotle 119) seem absolutely wrongheaded when held up against modern definitions of corruption and immorality.  The powerful shouldn’t be sharing the benefits of their power only with their friends!  And no one should rely on their friends alone to keep them in positions of power!  But the answer to this outcry, as Aristotle was well aware, is not to summarily dismiss friendship (nor Aristotle), for no more can we remove friendship from our systems of power than from our full and healthy human lives.  To elaborate on some conventional wisdom that is continuously ready to challenge ignorance, knowledge, not avoidance, is power.  The power to use our friendships morally, even as morality itself, comes from more studious inspection and more serious and creative discussion.


Bibliography and References

Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Trans. Terence Irwin.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “The Prime Minister and the Prof.”  Audio blog post.  Revisionist History.  Panoply Media, July 2017.

Wadell, Paul.  Friendship and the Moral Life.  Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

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