Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Friendship and Liberal Democracy

by John von Heyking

The current crisis of social isolation and political polarization found in the United States and to a lesser extent in other liberal democracies has led recently to an upsurge of interest in friendship as a political category. Aristotle argued that “like-mindedness (homonoia) seems to be friendship in a political sense…. For it has to do with what is advantageous and what relates to life” (Nicomachean Ethics, IX.6.1167b2). His comment about the priority of friendship for political health seems as appropriate now as it did in his day: “like-mindedness (homonoia) seems to hold cities together, and lawmakers seem to take it more seriously than justice” (Nicomachean Ethics VIII.1.1155a23 & IX.6).

The capacity to regard one’s fellow citizens as a type of friend is crucial for the well-being of one’s political community. Aristotle did not expect citizens to be intimate friends with one another, but he reserved the category of friendship for political association because it involves citizens with hearts and minds united about common fundamental matters, which reflects the literal meaning of “homonoia.” Liberal democracies tend to avoid the language of friendship but recent trends suggest the need to consider ways that liberal democracy might cultivate friendships, both political and private.

In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published his seminal study of belonging in the United States. He titled it Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community because he observed a decline in participation and belonging among Americans across a wide array of social and political organizations. The decline of the bowling league was an image of wider social and political trends towards isolation, loneliness, and disengagement from participation in community.

Whereas Putnam observed indifference and disengagement, more recent studies show growing hostility among Americans towards their political institutions and towards one another, and that these two are correlated. Additionally, some studies show a correlation between social isolation (or loneliness) and political extremism. Some see an eerie resemblance between the current crisis of loneliness and political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s observation of the connection between loneliness and totalitarianism. The current political crisis of loneliness appears to strike at the heart of the very social contract that constitutes liberal democracy, and suggests as well that the crisis, rather than having an extrinsic cause or causes, might be a manifestation of an intrinsic flaw in the liberal democratic form of government.

Almost immediately after John Locke articulated the foundations of liberal democracy in the Second Treatise of Government (1689), its critics argued that it breeds loneliness and disunity. For example, in the Social Contract (1762) and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that restless ambitions for approval and material satisfaction would lead democrats “outside” themselves. Writing Democracy in America in the 1830s, the more friendly critic Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed “individualism” as a pathology unique to liberal democracies, whereby ties of affection were wide but shallow. Coming at the problem from another angle, James Fitzjames Stephen criticized liberals such as John Stuart Mill for relying too heavily on abstractions like the “religion of humanity” to support the “fraternity” of liberal democracy.

Whether regarding the bond of liberal democracy as transactional or abstract, many regard loneliness and social isolation to be a feature, not a bug. For example, regarding citizenship in transactional terms seems to produce a “thin” association or mere alliance that precludes deeper bonds friendship. However, I argue that the idea of political or civic friendship does indeed apply to liberal democracy. Historically, liberal democrats themselves invoke it, or at least some version of it, as a way of showing how citizens can unite in a manner something like Aristotelian political friendship.

This recognition of the insufficiency of the transactional model can be seen in two ways. The first is the way liberal democracies regularly draw on moral sources outside the liberal orbit to represent their communal bonds. The second is the recognition among liberal philosophers themselves that the obligations owed to fellow citizens transcend the transactional model and extend towards something more resembling Aristotelian homonoia. Before considering these two modes, we turn our attention to the option that liberal democracy seems to have rejected: Aristotelian homonoia or like-mindedness.

It is crucial to understand what Aristotle meant by political friendship (homonoia). It is frequently claimed that liberal democracies are predicated upon a rejection of the “virtue politics” of premodern philosophers such as Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that political association comes into being for the sake of life, but aims at the good life or “eudaimonia.” Liberal democracies instead aim at the lower but more practical goals of the protection of life, liberty, and property, as described by John Locke and America’s Founders. This lowering of the sights is done out of a fear, perhaps justifiable based on the legacy of religious wars in European history, that virtue is too high of a goal for politics and is more likely to lead to civil war than to moral excellence. Modern efforts to secure the apparent unity that Aristotle seemed to wish for, in the name of solidarity, general will, or some other form of political utopia, only seem to end in tyranny. Furthermore, Aristotle’s restricted view of citizenship to able-bodied males and his inability to look beyond the polis indicate the limits of his theorizing to modern conditions. Even so, Aristotle’s treatment of the problem remains unsurpassed and is instructive for modern efforts to revive the ideal of homonoia.

Aristotle emphasizes that like-mindedness is not a matter of holding the same opinions and it does not apply to matters of science or taste. Homonoia applies only to matters of deliberation that require common action: “they speak of cities as being like-minded, whenever people judge alike about what is advantageous, and choose the same things, and act on things they believe in common. So people are like-minded about things that are to be done, and among these, about those that are of magnitude and capable of belonging to both or all of them together” (Nicomachean Ethics 1167a22-29). As the basis of political action, political friendship can only be shared by members of the same political community. While individuals from different countries can be friends on the basis of other matters, including common opinion or taste, they are not political friends because they do not deliberate together for the purpose of common political action.

Aristotle recognizes the permanence of faction and pluralism, and understands that debate, contestation, and deliberation are enduring features of political life. However, factions debate with one another because they recognize that they all share a common life together. It is not simply that they disagree, but it is that they disagree  about the direction of their common life together. Their common life is prior to their disagreements. Aristotle compares the factionalism of politics to family members who quarrel precisely because they are part of the same family and so regard one another as worth quarreling with (Politics VII.7). Homonoia is a precondition for political deliberation and action, residing in the background of everyday political contestation, much as a constitution operates. It comes to the foreground only at special moments when factions turn from their everyday deliberation and contestation and face one another as partners in a common association, such as during civic festivals.

Aristotle identifies three basic areas in which political contestation depends on like-mindedness: 1) “offices to be elected”; 2) foreign alliances; and 3) who should rule (Nicomachean Ethics IX.6). The first refers to fundamental agreement over procedures by which leaders are selected. The U.S. Constitution and the principles upon which it is based might be a modern example. By attacking the Electoral College vote count, the Capitol Hill riots of January 6, 2022, threatened this component of like-mindedness. The second refers to the unity that a political community requires to conduct its foreign policy. Modern commentators who identify American political factionalism as the prime threat to American security echo the importance that Aristotle placed upon like-mindedness in this regard. The third refers to the capacity of a political community to choose its leaders. Widespread doubt over the validity of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections (“stop the steal”) undermines this aspect of like-mindedness. All three components signify the fundamental operation of a political association and constitute the preconditions for political contestation and deliberation. Aristotle’s elaboration of homonoia in terms of constitutional matters suggests that it is closer to what modern political scientists call “civic nationalism” rather than “ethnic nationalism.” The latter would be closer to what Aristotle regards as democracy by “descent,” which is corrupt on account of it being merely a democratic form of justice (Politics 1292a1).

As if anticipating the liberal model, Aristotle criticized the claim that political association could be transactional after he rejected the idea that it is an alliance (Politics III.9). He thought this an oligarchic claim about justice because it presumed that political association is about protecting property. An alliance is a promise not to commit injustice against others, which is made between political communities in international affairs but does not characterize a political community itself. To constitute this transactional relationship domestically is to commit the injustice of treating citizens and foreigners identically. Finally, a pact not to steal the property of others reduced political community to business and mere utility. Instead, a political community aimed not simply to live but to live well and in friendship. Put another way, while Aristotle is not an enemy of the market, he also wished to defend those moral and political goods that cannot be reduced to a market commodity.

Finally, Aristotle claimed that leisure, understood as active contemplation instead of taking a rest from business, is the aim of a good political community. As peace is the aim of war, a political community must understand how to enjoy peace. Similarly, leisure is the aim of practical activity such as business. By identifying leisure with peace, Aristotle reminded us that leisure is more than simply an add-on or a luxury. It serves as the formative principle of political action for a political community. For example, by being ignorant of peace, the Spartans only knew how to prepare for war and therefore were “slavish when at peace and at leisure” (Politics VII.15.1334a39). By being ignorant of leisure, political communities entrap themselves in a spiral of unlimited acquisition that will produce stark inequality and oligarchy within, and empire without: “For most cities of this kind stay safe while they are at war but once imperial rule has been acquired they come to ruin” (Politics VII.14.1334a8).

Empire and oligarchy appear to be the cost of modern liberal democracy’s lowering of its sights because it has forsaken a formative principle to uplift action to leisure. This was once the role of the Judeo-Christian observation of the Sabbath, which served as a rest to business activity and as a place for community, but its practical elimination from public life over the past generation has contributed to the feverishness and restlessness of public and political life and the hastened decline of community. Thanksgiving and Christmas remain as a couple of the remaining public and civic festivals that cultivate leisure by celebrating the main principles of the liberal democratic regime, liberty and equality. Liberal democracy would compare at best with what Aristotle calls polity, a good regime but not the best one, and one in danger of collapsing into the twin corruptions of populist democracy and oligarchy (Politics IV.8—9, 11).

Liberal Democracy and Political Friendship

While liberal democracies emphasize the transactional model over homonoia, the latter never disappears completely. James Madison pointed this out in Federalist No. 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence, Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Homonoia is included in these “higher qualities,” which the Federalist elucidates when observing how Americans form a single political community: “Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.”

The Federalist provides the sharpest classically liberal account of political association in the American tradition. Numerous intellectual sources provide more explicit evocations of community or “fraternity,” including Puritanism,  Jeffersonianism, classical republicanism, Scottish Enlightenment notions of sympathy, Emersonianism, and progressivism. Abraham Lincoln’s two inaugurals and Gettysburg Address stand out as exemplary evocations that transcend the transactional model affirming friendship, charity, and the obligations that the living have in response to the selfless giving of the dead.

However, one need not step outside liberalism to appreciate the significance of political friendship. After noting that “idea of rights is nothing more than the idea of virtue introduced into the political world,” Tocqueville observed that that mutual recognition of rights constitutes political friendship: “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people. You can almost say that there is no society; for what is a gathering of rational and intelligent beings bound together only by force?” (Democracy in America, 1.2.6). He also observed the bonds of affection that developed in democratic participation itself: “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another” (2.2.5).

Even the transactional liberals argue that the “compact” or “covenant” is something more than transactional. While Locke reserves the terms “acquaintance and friendship” to primitive examples of the compact that creates the commonwealth (Second Treatise of Government § 107), such bonds seem implied in the unanimity that is required to create the modern version that he characterizes as “one body” capable of moving “one way” (§96). The people entrust one another first, and then establish the laws and in the legislative power whose exercise “draw[s] closer” the obligations of the natural law to preserve oneself and all humanity (§135). The importance that Locke placed upon trust in one another harkens back to the same importance on trust (fides) in others that the Romans regarded as the glue of political life.

Even Thomas Hobbes theorized an irrevocable covenant, which presupposed persons made capable of doing so on account of their capacity to transcend themselves. As David Walsh argued, “[t]hey live in relation to obligations that exceed all interests and limits.” Hobbes expressed the unity of the commonwealth by appealing to the person, the persona or face by which one is represented: “A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular” (Leviathan, ch. 18).

Walsh alerts us to the centrality of the person for liberal democracies, and suggests ways that they go beyond the moral possibilities of Aristotelian homonoia. The liberal commitment to rights presupposes the recognition that persons are inalienable, irreplaceable, and irreducible. The transactional idea that the state serves the individual grasps part of this insight but fails to appreciate that persons relate to one another on a basis that necessarily transcends instrumentality. Immanuel Kant argued that the person must be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means, and his concept of kingdom of ends is the ideal that informs liberal democracy. The obligation to the other is absolute because the other is sacred. Self-giving to the other is the apex of political and moral action. Friendship and even charity signifies this form of action. The persistence of the transactional model and liberalism’s ambivalence towards the category of political friendship results in part from a persistent failure among liberal philosophers to think through the implications of their intimations. Our liberal democratic categories always fall short of the practice they aspire to signify. It is not surprising that it is the great liberal democratic statesmen and not the philosophers who most appreciate the significance of political friendship.

Lincoln provided the principle that can guide liberal democrats out of their current crisis just as he did the plague of his own time: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What difference does it make if we see the political community as prior to the individual rather than the other way around? In what sense might the community be thought of as “prior”?
  2. How is political friendship different than other kinds of friendship?
  3. What are the things a “people” must agree upon in order to be considered as a “people”?

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