Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ella Donnelly-Wright: The Role of Friendship for Political Philosophers

Plato and Aristotle present unique ideas about the numerous roles that friendship takes on in political philosophy. They present their own contributions to political philosophy by showing the various forms of friendship that emerge out of differing intentions and goals of political figures. While Plato and Aristotle each have differing definitions of friendship, they both indicate that it is an essential component of diplomatic relationships and establishing political alliances.

Dimitri El Murr argues that Plato’s views on friendship are underappreciated due to this partial lack of distinction between friendship and love. This points to the common underestimation of Plato’s thoughts on the role of friendship in political philosophy, as love and politics are not commonly associated with one another. Plato’s beliefs present a complex way of thinking about friendship as he considered it to be a “primarily political phenomenon” that is utilized to appreciate God’s beauty. Therefore, he sees friendship as a mechanism to achieve a higher understanding of the world that comes in three main forms: difference-based, resemblance based, and a mix of similarities and differences.

As discussed in class, resemblance and mixed based friendships seem to be the most sustainable, since difference based relationships are most often based on need and thus become problematic in their intentions. It is critical in political discourse to establish both the commonalities and differences between humans, but with the underpinning intention of establishing unity through solidarity. This solidarity can be established in many ways, but is most often conveyed through some sort of shared quality or value. Friendship is established through a mutual agreement of closeness, which often emerge from some form of shared goal.    

Aristotle makes the differences between eros and philia quite clear, while also presenting the idea in Nichomachean Ethics of friendship being a choice to “live together” (or suzen). In the realm of politics, this philosophical discussion can apply directly to how established communities (such as states, cities, countries, and beyond) are maintained through commonalities. While these commonalities may not be immediately apparent, they emerge through cultural distinctions.

Aristotle also distinguishes three bases of friendship: that of pleasure, utility, and virtue. Humans have a tendency to desire categorizing things, and Aristotle embodies this through his ideas of friendship and human relationships. Entertaining the idea of friendship being used for utility gives way to a complex conversation surrounding if friendship is genuine when used as a tool to achieve some external purpose. Plato touches on this idea by commenting on friendship’s usage as a way to become closer to God, but Aristotle applies this idea in a way that outlines the sinister intentions behind establishing some friendships, especially in political spheres. The importance of having a favorable social status is critical in holding any form of political power, and thus friendship is something that brings people together in order to achieve various goals.

Socrates’s view on friendship is also particularly compelling, as he argues that it is caused by some endeavor to deflect an evil. Although somewhat focused on the cynical, this concept rings very true for me as someone who has friends through a shared solidarity in racial identity. As a Black woman, I have many friends who also share this identity due to shared experience of racism, sexism, and combinations of both. While this does not constitute the entirety of what forms my friendships with other Black women, sharing frustrating experiences that involve our indisputable identity is something that has helped me to become more accepting of who I am. It has also helped me to understand that being a Black woman is far from a monolithic identity, as there is a continuously growing spectrum of experiences and backgrounds that I have only begun to learn about through forming such friendships. Of course, race is not always the basis of my friendships, but shared experience and identity play a very important factor in forming closer relationships with others. Friendship is something that helps us recognize the humanity in those that hold both similarities and differences from us, and to learn more about what those imply in the grander scheme of things.

Although it can seem difficult to discuss what a friendship means, it becomes even more difficult to discuss what it doesn’t mean. What constitutes “real” or “genuine” friendship is very much up for debate, but something that many people would generally agree on is that friendship is not imposed or forced, it must be something that occurs organically. Therefore, I would say that Aristotle’s views on friendship as potentially being used for utilitarian purposes as reliant on his own opinion. Rather, as El Murr also asserts, Aristotle’s views on friendship are very much based on his ethics, and therefore perhaps not as objective as one may hope. This does not mean that Aristotle’s thoughts do not hold value, but they should perhaps be approached with a bit more critical analysis.

Plato’s assertion that it is impossible to act politically without friends is very telling to the importance of friendship in the sphere of politics. Governance, whether it be of a city, country, or other shared area, is reliant on the establishment of relationships, and thus the forming of friendships. While it can seem to be dipping into the correlation and causation fallacy, the statement that politics is reliant on friendship does not stray very far from the truth.

The role of friendship in political philosophers is critical, as the establishment of common identity through governance inevitably leads to the organic formation of friendships. With the current age of social media, establishing friendships has become much more accessible for people and has resulted in more niche groups being formulated around shared identities, goals, and interests. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle provide the foundation for understanding how friendship functions in politics, and how the formation of friendships aids us in learning about each other and reaching solidarity in one anothers similarities and differences. Although they take unique approaches to the roles of friendship and what defines this phenomenon, they both provide compelling arguments as to why friendship is so important in both politics and beyond.

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