Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Santiago Roman: Freedom Friendship and Cold Justice

Santiago Roman

Professor Jafar Mahallati

Friendship and Peacemaking

February 18, 2019

Freedom, Friendship, and Cold Justice

The deep running and rapid changes in the last century, instigated by a wave of technological evolutions, has radically impacted today’s western dynamics of friendship and, more recently, politics in ways that give the arguments of the classic greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle a contemporary relevance. Now more than ever their observations on government, friendship, and justice should be dusted off, observed, and evaluated in a new light.


The governing system that encompasses Western nations, I cannot speak for similarities or differences of those that are non-western, is based fundamentally in the greek brainchild of democracy(demos: people, kratos: power.) This system is underpinned by mutual trust and respect, two things that also form the foundations of friendship. However, globalization and the rapid growth of the world population and density in urban centers has led to the prime setting for democracy: a self governing city-state, being rendered unsustainable. This coupled with Americans infatuation with freedom has watered down and fundamentally altered the central ideologies and the effectiveness of democracy.

According to Plato, the core purpose of the legislature is to “allow citizens to live supremely happy lives in the greatest possible mutual friendship.” Or, in other words, the government should act as a facilitator, catalyst, enzyme, to positive interpersonal relations. In the United States, the government mediates freedom, not friendship and as Professor Jafar Mahallati stated in class: in the equation of friendship versus freedom, the the former loses all power to the latter. In this way friendship represents order, love, and mutuality between folks while freedom is based in unilateralism, and individualism, and cold justice. There is no friendship without compromise just as a government and society cannot function without balance, order, and “a touch of tyranny.”


Aristotle states in Nicomachean Ethics Book eight that there are three formations of friendship: difference based, resemblance based, and a mix of the two. He argues that the second and third are inferior to the first and, according to him, true and long lasting friendship can only arise from sameness since there is no inherent need or utility being derived from the other. While Aristotle is correct in stating that there is a permanence within friendship that is based on sameness this is not because it is superior to the other iterations. Sameness is low-stakes, low-risk, and bares no weight and offers no room for growth. We seek similarity when we are afraid of our ideas being challenged. If our belief systems are not questioned and confronted then we will not learn to grow or be pushed to think about why we believe what we do. For this reason, mixed friendships are the most powerful and nurturing.


Using these arguments, the highest and most effective form of democracy is one that institutionalizes Aristotelian mixed friendship. The Oxford English Living dictionary defines “institutionalize” as establishing a practice or an activity as a convention or a norm in an organization or a culture. In modern US radical politics the word “institutionalize” has heavy negative connotations, being associated with insidious governmental systems founded in racism and sexism. Hypothetically or ideally, the institutionalization of friendship would be a positive force within our legislature. However the values and behavior associated with friendship has changed so much with the invention of social media that it has altered the very definition of friendship and how it is practiced amongst each other. The controversies and lack of privacy associated facebook, the followers and likes of instagram, and the transience of snapchat have reduced friendship to something much more shallow that also powerfully dictates our emotions and our social capital.

While the idea of friendship as an activity and not a state of being is inspiring it is twisted and misinterpreted too easily by ideologies of capitalism and by societies lack of understanding and stigmatization of mental health and depression, watering it down to a dangerous simplicity of phrases such as “just smile more” or if you’re not happy “you’re just not working hard enough.” It allows one’s happiness to be measured by their productivity.


This conversation of friendship has pushed me to reflect on my own interests and values, particularly in the field of Environmental justice. Justice without friendship is cold justice. While the two words are not interchangeable they are built fundamentally on the same values and ideologies which is why justice needs friendship but the best kinds of friendship inherently produce the best justice. For this reason I’ve decided to unofficially refer to my major and interest as “Environmental Friendship.” While I don’t yet know the full scope of what that change implies I plan on exploring it throughout the rest of this class.  

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