Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum


Civic Friendship

-Dr. Mark Shiffman, Villanova University

We tend to think of friendship as a personal matter. In political life, which is largely driven by conflicting loyalties and interests, we would certainly not be surprised to find friendships between people in the same party or activist NGO, but for the most part we expect these people to be allies cooperating in pursuit of their interests or commitments.

In the ancient cities of classical civilization, expectations were different. Political life and self-government were up close and personal. We use the phrase “in someone’s face” to describe a kind of annoying intrusion or unwelcome demand for attention. In small self-governing cities, it was a way of life for fellow citizens to be always and habitually in each other’s faces, and so they were more mindful of the challenges of getting along with a tolerable degree of harmony.

Aristotle speaks to this reality when, toward the beginning of his definitive reflections on friendship, he remarks: “Friendship seems to hold cities together, and lawmakers seem to take it more seriously than justice, for like-mindedness seems to be something similar to friendship, and they aim at this most of all and banish faction most of all for being hostile to it.” Of course, for Aristotle as well as for us, the truest form of friendship existed between individuals who knew each other well and chose to spend time together. But the lesser forms of friendship could still be meaningfully understood as friendship. Let’s call what he describes here civic friendship, as distinct from personal friendship.

In some ways these differ in kind. We choose our personal friends, but not our fellow citizens. In other ways there are important continuities. True friendship can only thrive, as Aristotle explains, between persons of good character. They know they can trust one another, for one thing. Someone who is greedy, cowardly and undisciplined is not likely to be a good friend, even (and maybe especially) to someone with a character similar to their own. While the character of many of our fellow citizens may be mostly unknown to us, we do still need to be able to have some basic trust in them, and to be disposed to treat them with some degree of good will.

To see this at a low threshold, consider eating out at a restaurant. Recently my family and I were seated for dinner in a large outdoor area at a favorite Mexican place. It was early and there were lots of free tables, but we were seated right next to two youngish couples who were obviously out together for a good time. It was pretty clear that they weren’t the type of people I would hang out with by choice, but they seemed perfectly pleasant. We, like they, instantly liked our waiter, who was very free with his opinions about what was worth ordering, so there was plenty of banter with him, each table overhearing his exchanges with the other. As Aristotle would say, there was an evident like-mindedness that “seems to be something similar to friendship.”

Friends or Countrymen?

At restaurants (especially in outdoor dining), in bars, at block parties and festivals in public parks, this low threshold civic friendship is played out over much of America. Lurking below the surface is the knowledge, as well as the implicit affirmation, that we are fellow citizens, that as Americans we to some degree know what to expect from each other. I don’t need to know much about the character of the other diners to feel basically friendly toward them, at least until they give me reason to feel differently. But I do automatically trust that none of them is going to try to kill me, which ultimately comes down to basic expectations and guarantees that are built into our shared political culture and institutions. This kind of life in common, with its implicit affirmation of our civic friendship, was one of the great losses of pandemic lockdowns. 

Very likely that loss made a partial contribution, among many others, to the intensification of factionalism we are experiencing now. Certainly it drove Americans to spend more time online, which has become a petri dish for factional passions. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the internet has defeated the precautions against faction described by one of America’s original legislators, James Madison. 

According to Madison in Federalist 10, the danger of factional politics on the federal scale was effectively mitigated by the geographic separation of groups with common interests that might lead to the consolidation of destructive factions. There were considerable obstacles to the communication and coordination of these dispersed groups.

The internet has defeated Madison’s precautions by providing factions with the means of communicating and coordinating. It has achieved even more dangerous effects, however, by providing a forum in which the grievances and animosities that bind the members of a faction together can be continually reinforced and intensified.

One might be inclined to fault Madison and the other founders for relying too much on structural remedies and the essentially negative curbs of checks and balances, rather than attending to matters of character and friendship as Aristotle recommends. At the time, however, there was no reason to think that the political structure on the federal level needed to address such issues. Most politics was still local, in self-organizing frontier communities, small towns, and cities well within the scale of the ancient polis. In 1790 New York, already the most populous city in America, had about 33,000 residents, roughly one quarter the population of Athens in the time of Socrates and Pericles. This was where civic friendship was a thriving reality.

Concern for the vitality of free self-governing association in America has been with us at least since Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which highlighted the importance of active local government and voluntary associations for developing the public spirit and practical judgment of citizens. As is becoming increasingly evident in our time, the importance of civic friendship pointed out by Aristotle may provide an even more pressing reason for fostering institutions and associations that keep us constantly, and cooperatively, in each other’s faces.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to have a healthy politics where citizens don’t see each other face to face?
  2. How might we do a better job creating public spaces where citizens can interact with each other?
  3. How is “civic” friendship different than normal friendship?
  4. Are people more likely to feel solidarity with people who have shared good experiences or with people with whom they share grievances?

Dr. Mark Shiffman is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Classical Studies and Social and Political Theory in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University.


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