Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Necessity of Friendship in a Functional Democracy

Aristotle opens Book VIII of his treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, with the statement,

“After that, the next topic is friendship; for it is a virtue, or involves virtue.  Further, it is most necessary for our life, for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods. Indeed rich people and people and holders of powerful positions, even more than other people seem to need friends.”

Despite the fact that they lived in the distant past, Plato (b 424 BCE) and his student Aristotle (b 384 BCE), their writings are still highly relevant to the role of Friendship in today’s politics in the United States. For this, there are two important reasons. First, Athens was one of our planet’s first democracies (even if it was elitist.) Second, Plato’s and Aristotle’s deep philosophical ponderings form the foundation of thought concerning Politics, and in particular the role of Friendship in Politics, for the Western and Middle Eastern parts of the world.   Politics in whatever form it takes is the way the human community regulates itself, and nearly all of the difficulties that troubled that ancient Greek city-state exist in our present American government. Indeed, Aristotle seems to speak directly to the many difficulties of the present Trump administration consisting of rich and powerful people in the top positions of authority.

Plato in Lysis, and Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics work to define what is true friendship, and what aspects of human behavior act against people forming true friendships.   Two aspects of friendship that seem most relevant in the political sphere are the questions of utility and the use of flattery in friendships. Political leaders like most of us common people generally prefer to be loved than to make the effort to offer love to others. Because there is great utility in appearing to be friends with persons in high political office, political leaders are subject to a great deal of fawning flattery even if does not reflect the true feelings of the person offering the flattery. Moreover, Aristotle asserts, “Accusations and reproaches arise only or most often in friendship for utility.” [i] This leads to the conclusion that in governments, which do not foster friendship, both inside the government, and with the population of those governed, will usually be dysfunctional and unstable.

Although all governments of the United States have had their elements of dysfunction, the government headed by President Donald J. Trump shows these problems on a scale seldom seen before. In a February 12, 2018, article, The New York Times reports:

“More than a year into his administration, President Trump is presiding over a staff in turmoil, one with a 34 percent turnover rate, higher than any White House in decades. He has struggled to fill openings, unwilling to hire Republicans he considers disloyal and unable to entice Republicans who consider him unstable.  Those who do come to work for him often do not last long, burning out from a volatile, sometimes cutthroat environment exacerbated by tweets and subpoenas.” [ii]

All this is a symptom of a nearly complete lack of respect and friendship among members of the White House staff. A staff, which should be working together, and advising the President in order to guide the country through the complex domestic and foreign policy issues that face the United States, instead they focus on personal advancement and often private gain. They do this by flattering the President whose ego needs constant bolstering. In turn, he publicly praises staff members who obviously have serious character flaws rather dealing with them in the manner of true friends.   These often unqualified, undisciplined staff people seek to advance their own positions by “leaking” derogatory information about their fellow staffers to the news media.   In this cutthroat environment in which it is every individual for him or her self, there is no time or energy left over for the essential tasks of crafting the creative and desperately needed policies required for leadership of our nation.

Trump’s administration generates a false, nontransitive form of friendship with the American public by generating tensions with other nations such as North Korea and Iran, such that many in the American public will view his administration as saviors from an external enemy. Plato’s Lysis relates this false form of friendship as the use of an evil to create a utilitarian false friendship like that of a patient with a physician because of the threatening disease of the patient.[iii] This very frequent use of heightened external threat to solidify their control by authoritarian regimes is a major source cause of conflict between nations. A regime such as the Trump administration that has invested so little in diplomacy, is almost certain to blunder into conflicts. This is a present danger to our nation and to the world.

In contrast, the story of the contentious, but cooperative deliberations of John F. Kennedy’s White House during the Cuban Missile crisis chronicled in “13 Days ” show how respectful friendship among members of a staff can lead to a satisfactory resolution to complex and extremely dangerous situations. [iv]

The seemingly abstract philosophical notions of friendship in the works of Aristotle and Plato are essential to the very basic functions of a present-day democracy.   The truth of this idea can is illustrated by the contemporary counterexample of the administration of President Trump.   An unstable staff, which is engulfed with cutthroat rivalries simply cannot provide our nation with the democratic leadership that it desperately needs.


—- References —-

[i] Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics, 2nd Ed, trans. Terence Irwin, (Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1999), 134.


[ii] Peter Baker, “A Whirlwind Envelops the White House, and the Revolving Door Spins” New York Times, February 12, 2018.


[iii] Brian Carr, “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis”, in Oliver Leaman, Friendship East and West, (Curzon Press, Richmond Surrey, 1996), 23.


[iv] Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (McCall Corporation, New York, 1968)

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