Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Ancient Philosophers on Friendship in Politics

As Aristotle claims in his book 8 there are three kinds of political systems each distinctly based on either: kingship, aristocracy and property. In Aristotle’s mind the best of these systems was kingship and the worst property. Kingship was described as best when the king has a father-son relationship with his subjects. Aristocracy ruling relationships he equated to as a man to a woman with different roles assigned based on who is ‘better’ equipped. Tyranny, in which the tyrant is a father treating his sons as slave’s relationship, seems to be an ultimate crime in the eyes of Aristotle as it is completely for the pursuit of the tyrants own good.

Out of all the deviations of the three original ruling forms of Aristotle he remarks that the property regime’s transition to democracy is the least ‘vicious’ of the deviations from the original three political systems since it deviates the smallest from the genuine political system. This property system he refers to being like a relationship of brothers that differ in age. Like any friendship with too much difference, this democratic relationship can potentially lead to a no longer brotherly friendship if the ‘ages’ differ too much to Aristotle.

It is clear that to Aristotle the amount of friendship within a ruling system equates to the amount of justice in that system as they inherently are linked in his mind.

It seems that to Aristotle when there is no friendship possible when the ruler and ruled have nothing in common and thus there is no justice. Yet also he argues that rulers need to have a moderate level of friendship so as to have ties to society but also not too many to the point of being partial. Thus democracy has the most amount of friendship because the people are the most equal and thus have the most in common.

It seems that there is a balance to be struck in Aristotle’s mind when it comes to political systems and friendship. While he says friendship ought to be the objective of any government he also values kingship as the ultimate ruling political systems despite his statement that democracy would lead to the most amount of friendship due to the equality of all the relationships.

The accounts of Plato seem to unanimously agree that he saw the goals of legislation should be the promotion for friendship among citizens. In other words, rulers should bring reconciliation to their people. Using Athenian democracy and Persian monarchy he describes the best legislation as having both regimes, creating a ‘well ordered’ state in the middle of extreme freedom and repression. He, unlike Aristotle, denounces monarchy ruling systems due to the impossibility of friendship between subjects and ruler.

What is interesting of Plato is his mention of an ideal city still having a hierarchy. Despite civic friendship having a dependence on resemblance, Plato seems to believe that the imposition of the philosopher’s rule over the city as a whole would still foster the necessary friendships. This enforcing the ‘rule of reason’ would supply the perfect grounds for friendship. Philosophers to Plato are the ones that should rule the cities as they are considered to be the most rational citizens.

To both philosopher’s friendship is essential to the wellbeing of a political system. They both see the need for the structured enforcement of friendship within politics to keep the society at peace. Both center political order as having a central goal to maximize friendship as they seem to believe that political order would not exist without friendship.

The two philosophers differ in who and how they believe the ideal political order should politically institutionalize friendship. While Aristotle seems to value having democracy with fewer differences between citizens, Plato seems to believe the need for a hierarchy within the political order. This difference is interesting as both agree that friendship is based on similarity. To me it seems that Plato’s call for hierarchy would threaten and lessen friendships within a society. However, Aristotle too calls for and inequality in society as he states kingship should be the ultimate political system, despite there being a huge gap in relatability between a king and his subjects.

This dilemma brings to mind that of the tension between freedom and friendship that we have discussed in class. With complete freedom we cannot have friendships as they require commitment. Yet without freedom we are not happy either to choose as we want. The two philosopher’s calls for a political order with power/societal difference hints at this underlying fundamental predicament of friendship that requires giving up freedom in order for ultimate wellbeing through friendship.

However, to think that friendship has to be regulated negates the statement that in a society full of friendship there is no need for justice. Instead of striving for the complete friendship of all of the citizens, which requires equality according to the two philosophers, they seem to strive for a partial societal friendship. It seems that they believe in an inherent variance in human intelligence, capacity and ability to justify hierarchical political models. This I think points to the fact that these philosophers are products of their time which is one of inequality- also inherently meaning less friendship. By thinking that citizens cannot rule themselves efficiently and need either a philosopher-king or king to oversee them makes it seem as if they believe certain others have a superior sense of right and wrong. To me I think this makes for a political system that is inherently unjust (and therefore lacking maximal friendships) as there is clear power differentials that speak to inequality.

I believe in a political system that does not give certain people more rights than any others. This makes for a system that is inherently unjust in my opinion and would greatly decrease friendships as there is a variance in autonomy between citizens. Thus to me a true democracy is the highest form of government, maximizing friendship is the most important thing for peace which I believe maximizes well-being. Since there ought to be a power balance among all of the political systems members within a democracy there is more potential also for friendship.


Dimitri El Murr, Phila in Plato. In Gurtler, Gary M., Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

Aristotele, Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1985).

Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Souls Great and Small. In Gurtler, Gary M., Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

Leave a Reply