Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Role of Friendship In Political Philosophy

The Role of Friendship In Political Philosophy


Both Plato and Aristotle spend a good amount of time defining friendship and offering their musings on the subject, agreeing that friendship is pivotal to a happy life. Aristotle wrote that “friendship is most necessary with a view to living…for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods”, even referring to friendship as a virtue in and of itself. While both classical philosophers agree that friendship is a requisite for a good life, Plato and Aristotle had slightly different views on the importance and merits of friendship, as well as how to categorize different forms of friendship.

Plato states that there are three kinds of friendship: difference-based friendship, resemblance-based friendship, and a mixture of the two. He also infers that friendship can never be based in utility, and can only be considered true philia if the friendship is reciprocal and symmetrical, serving both members equally in an egalitarian relationship. Plato roots friendship in what is shared between two people, while Aristotle understands friendship through the lens of what is being exchanged. Like Plato, Aristotle also defines three kinds of friendship: utility-based friendship, pleasure-based friendship, and friendship based on respect and appreciation (or, the pursuit of good). While Plato states that there can be no friendship born from utility, Aristotle disagrees, opting to define utility-based friendships as a valid relationship of their own.

In viewing friendship as harmony in politics, we can begin to draw connections to a modern political world. Friendship creates the basis for many laws and political relationships, and the classical philosophy of friendship guides many of these decisions. Whether it be civilian relations, foreign policy, or domestic law, the ethics of friendship are deeply steeped in our political worlds. In Aristotelian terms, most political relationships can be viewed as friendships of utility in which both sides of the relationship provide benefits to one another. While friendship seems unrelated to law on the surface, it in fact dictates the social standard, legislation, and foreign policies of the legal world.

It can be argued that homophobic laws have basis in misconceptions of philia and eros, attempting to assert that relationships between two men or two women should be molded in a particular form of friendship. When personal relationships (of a platonic or erotic nature) become policed and politicized at this level, we are witnessing policy formation rooted in a world of misapplied friendship ethics used to oppress and marginalize.

In the case of foreign relations, most countries engage in forms of utility-based friendship ethics, negotiating an exchange of peace of exports and thus creating what would be considered a valid friendship of a utilitarian nature. While these friendships based in utility are valid by Aristotelian standards, Aristotle acknowledges that these friendships are often born purely out of need, and tend to end upon that need reaching its end. To this effect, we witness sanctions destroy the lives of others while wars erupt between countries. Utility-based friendship has its place, but surely that place can’t be politics.

Instead, both Plato and Aristotle agree that the best friendships are those born purely from the desire to appreciate and grow with one another, admiring one another’s virtues. Ideally, governmental relations of utility would shift to reflect the qualities of a relationship based on respect and “the good”. This would ensure a lasting commitment to mutual respect and an equal desire for the betterment of both states/countries/etc. But is friendship based on a pursuit of the good possible in the world of our current political climate?

An easier way to approach this question (which I, sadly, cannot readily give you the answer to) is by considering these theories of friendship within the scope of friendship among citizens. Though diluted by systemic racism and sexism, many laws are created with the intention of developing a form of harmonious and happy society. Refraining from hurting or killing your neighbor, in theory, will create a more positive relationship, contributing to the overall function of your building and thus your block and thus your town, etc. If we were to shift our attention towards enhancing these relationships through community-building, it is somewhat easier to imagine a societal standard based on good and growth. In this model, we would take the onus off of individuals and build shared community.

Friendship plays an important role in politics – as it always has – branching from relations between rulers and their countries to the formation of laws to the ways that wars are waged and ended. Without taking the time to more critically understand the political relationships we have formed both as individuals and as members of a country, we are bound to fall further into the endless cycle of utility-based relationship after utility-based relationship, all of which end with negative consequence to one or both parties.

In engaging in good-based relationships formed from civic friendship and community building, we could build transnational political friendships formed on mutual betterment, respect, and symmetry as opposed to conquership, imperialism, and intervention. Based on the ethics of friendship presented by both Plato and Aristotle, these relationships would last longer, be more positive for both parties, and would create a better infrastructure for the future.

I believe in the power of community and coalition building despite its surface-level appearance of being idyllic or impossible. Power starts with people, and that power is realized through the support and upliftment of one another’s communities and friends. To expand this notion and give it political weight is anything but impossible, and merely requires a shared willingness to be armed with respect and empathy.



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