Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship in Politics

Rachel Wolchok

Professor Mahallati

RELG 274

February 18, 2019

Friendship in Politics

While political theorists in 2019 might face difficulty relating friendship to politics in our current climate, Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greece find an almost symbiotic relationship between governance and friendship. In their analyses of friendship, both thinkers reach similar conclusions; they realize mutuality and goodwill are of the most importance in friendship. Most evident is that both philosophers believe that the strongest friendships are based on common experiences or similarities. Plato and Aristotle, in their respective works, find the ideal government systems to follow the tenets of friendships. This question then arises: how can friendship, which is most ideal when between like and like, be applied to rulership of kingdoms, countries, and lands full of diverse individuals?

In works such as Republic, Lysis, and Laws, Plato demonstrates his view of friendship in the functioning and governance of societies. Civic friendships, he finds, should be approached similarly to virtuous friendships. Plato believes that virtuous friendships, philia, are the strongest of all three he details, for they arise out of similarity. While Plato never specifically defines philia, he does communicate the necessary components that result in this most virtuous friendship. As aforementioned, a virtuous relationship is a bond formed through common interests. In “Philia in Plato,” Daniel Murr explicates that the similarity is not necessarily of identity but of objective. Relationships that are mutual, based in goodwill and genuine care, and are similar in objective are thus virtuous, and these, according to Plato are the friendships that can inform political relationships and systems.

The Athenian in Laws and Socrates in Republic share many of Plato’s opinions on friendship’s role in politics. The Athenian functions to state Plato’s view of this: legislation exists to promote friendship, and promoting friendship prevents outbreaks of civil war. While the latter half of that statement may be obvious, the former offers a unique perspective. Legislation consists of rules to abide by within a society, but, as Plato argues, laws work to create friendship between citizens. While explicitly stating that friendship cannot be promoted within democratic nor monarchical regimes, Plato writes in Laws that a good legislation combines both forms of governance “to enjoy freedom and friendship allied with good judgment,” (639e). Here, the reader is introduced to the notions of freedom and good judgment; these might seem like opposing ideas. Plato also prescribes “a happy medium between extreme repression and extreme freedom,” (Murr, 19). The friendship that Plato claims to be crucial to good legislation is further detailed in Republic. He defines civic friendship by the same means as virtuous friendship with reciprocation and cooperation (i.e. mutuality). In Kallipolis, the citizens unite over their opposition to the hierarchy, creating a resemblance or similar based friendship. For Plato, civic friendships function to balance the freedom and repression while also maintaining his basic tenets of friendship, being mutuality and goodwill.

Aristotle begins Book VIII of his work Nicomachean Ethics stating that friendship is necessary for life. Interestingly, he also defines friendship as the choice to live together, existing and experiencing life alongside one another. These two statements compliment each other and provide interesting context for Aristotle’s discussion of friendship and politics.

Throughout his philosophical analysis of friendship, Aristotle compares justice to friendship. Justice, while bearing many meanings, can be interpreted as balance or equality. This is already a political approach to thinking about friendship. Aristotle asserts that if one has friends, they do not need justice, yet a just person still needs friendship. The ideal friendship encompasses equality and reciprocity for Aristotle, so those who achieve the most virtuous friendship are inherently just. He then extends this to politics, “…friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship…” (1155a). Later in Book IX, Aristotle elaborates, “a city is in concord when they agree on what is advantageous, make the same decision, and act on their common resolution” (1167a). Togethere, these two quotes inform the reader on Aristotle’s application of friendship to politics.  Two of Aristotle’s four causes of friendship are goodwill and action. Aristotle also believes complete friendships, the highest of his three types of friendship, consist of good people who share similar virtues and mutually wishing good for each other. Aristotle’s definition of a city in concord abides by his causes of friendship as well as his definition of complete friendship. Similar to that of Plato, Aristotle views the ideal civic friendship to reflect his definition of complete friendship.

It could be argued that citizens of the same country or kingdom would qualify as living together. Aristotle uses this language in his basic definition of friendship; however, through further analysis, it seems that living together is a choice. While two members of the same community could technically live together, it is out of goodwill, reciprocity, and action upon their mutual desires that friendship is achieved. It is not enough for citizens to simply exist under the same governance to become friends; it is the mutual action upon their desire to achieve friendship. Aristotle would then seem to believe that political organizations function best when the citizens unite over similarities and chose to work together to achieve their common goals.

In my readings of Plato and Aristotle, I believe the two philosophers agree on the application of their definitions of friendship to well-functioning governments. I find their logic sound in that similarity based relationships can foster communities among diverse groups of people, and action is critical to achieving change and friendship. I fully believe in the power of democracy, which deviates from Aristotle and Plato’s preferences of monarchy. Democratic legislation promotes equality rather than friendship, and, as Aristotle writes, “… if people are friends, they have no need of justice…” (1155a). I do believe that a system of government following the tenets of friendship could be applied to the basic structure of democracy quite well. I am then caused to reflect on how replacing notions of equality with friendship would affect modern America. I could envision a more efficient congress, professional debates during presidential elections, and perhaps a less capitalist influenced legislative system. With a foundation of compromise, respect, and genuine care for the needs of our neighbors, the American political atmosphere would be more like friendship. Returning to the original question posed in the introduction, if our constitution had been built on a foundation of friendship rather than individual equality, I believe we would not be so steadfast in our individual beliefs and would be more aware of partisan beliefs and similarities.

I chose to relate Picasso’s Friendship II and an anti-Vietnam war poster to my analysis of friendship and politics. The bodies in the Picasso interact and overlap in ways reminiscent of Aristotle’s belief that friendship is the choice to live together. The bodies, while clearly two distinct beings, almost become one, particularly in the hands. It becomes difficult to distinguish which hand belongs to which person. in my view, this physical unification symbolizes not only affection but also the oneness and living alongside one another. The poster relates to both Aristotle and Plato in their belief that the strongest or most virtuous friendships are based in commonalities. The poster asks for citizens of the United States to band together in opposition of the war, which mirrors the citizens of Kallipolis uniting to oppose their government. Even further, the Yin Yang sign in the middle of the poster is Taoist concept of balance. This language harkens back to the discussion of justice in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; as I understand it, the poster is calling for a balance of resistance and peace, symbolized by the hands inside the Yin Yang.


Picasso’s Friendship II








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