Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Bureaucracy vs. Friendship

The response to friendship and the view as to whether or not friendship is of crucial importance to one’s life have differed across periods of time. In the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods of western thinking, friendship was considered a crucial moral paradigm. Aristotle, one of the great philosophers who wrote during the Hellenic period, claimed that where there was friendship in a society, there was no need for justice. This belief was held by many and came to characterize Hellenic discourse on friendship, as well as the Hellenistic discourse after it.

As the medieval ages began and Christianity spread in popularity across Europe, friendship soon because a less important paradigm. Because friendship was a preferential love and Christianity emphasized loving everyone, friendship as a dominant moral paradigm declined. People soon began focusing on individuality and self-perfection as a means to obtain heaven, and friendship was, considered by some, only important in that it allowed one to know oneself and thus work towards perfection. This belief was carried into modernity, and as people have continued to hold that perfection and happiness is a solitary venture through time, friendship has not found its way into being a dominant belief important to political and social systems in society.

There are some common threads between ancient and modern values, such as the distinction within friendship between utility and affinity, a shared, common humanity and devotion to the good through knowing the good of one’s friend; however, the main distinctions which set apart modern society from ancient society is the importance placed on individuality and personal freedom1. However, as will be explained, friendship is still crucial to modern society, and there must be a paradigm shift which brings friendship back to the forefront of conduct in the world, a notion which is still possible even with the emphasis placed on personal freedom and individuality.

For Aristotle, the best city is one in which citizens can become friends2. This requires a political structure which is conducive to human interaction and benevolence. Bureaucracy is now the dominant form of governance, and is contended by some thinkers, such as Max Weber, to be the most rational form of government as it organizes both the state and people into a hierarchy which allows the state to operate without favoritism when it comes time for citizens to interact with the state, face to face3. Thomas Hobbes, an important medieval thinker, was also a strong proponent of bureaucracy because of its impersonal nature; he believed humans naturally gravitate towards a mutual enmity of one another, and bureaucracy is the impartial system which would allow for the state to distribute justice without discrimination4. Although Michel de Montaigne, another important medieval philosopher, tended to see eye to eye with the ancient philosophers with regards to friendship, he also questioned whether or not friendship and the potential to be civic and operate within the state because of its unique nature, varying from one set of friends to the next5. Is the bureaucracy, which now operates as the dominant form of governance in modernity, able to be friendly while remaining rational and impartial?

I believe bureaucracy has been a major factor which has guided society away from seeing friendship as a personal goal towards viewing it as a part of life which exists but in its best form simply allows us to become better versions of ourselves. If a state, with its bureaucratic limbs pushing down on citizens, who see the bureaucracy simply as this monolithic and, at times, feared body, is  incapable of seeing the humanity of the individuals who inhabit the state, there will always exist a tension which forces itself into all arenas of life, both political and apolitical. A state which cannot see the humanity in its own subject will surely be unable to recognize the humanity which exists in other states, and surely that is a recipe for war. Perhaps a bureaucracy is ideal when it comes to mediation in everyday affairs and setting norms, but for building relationships with its own subjects it seeks to maintain an objective view which favors no one and has no use whatsoever for friendship. To carry this view into the realm of international relations, a view which only sees objective facts and not subjective lines of reasoning, would surely look upon international conflict as a means to an end and not the destructive mess that it is.

Bureaucracy may be the pinnacle of incorporating rationalization into governance, but it should allow for a blending of state and citizen bodies in which conversation and commonality prevails. If the state remains a faceless monolith, distrust and enmity will prevail and friendship will be harder to attain. A paradigm shift in modernity towards friendship would morph the state into an ally from its current status as a mediator (or even enemy) to its citizens. This shift would help build a state in which citizens would no longer have to worry or fear the governing body and could instead focus on building and maintaining strong friendships. If the individual is striving for perfection within the state so as not to make waves or draw scrutiny for the government, friendships are cast aside. To let people simply be themselves without a fear of the state would surely free them up to explore interpersonal relationships and be content amongst friends.


  1. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/15.
  2. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/15.
  3. Max Weber, Economy and Society, (1922).
  4. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/15.
  5. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/15.

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