Politics, friendship, and the art of conversation

07/06/2021

Healthy politics depend on our ability to have ongoing conversation. How we define friendship largely determines with whom we’re willing to have ongoing conversation. Our assumptions about human existence shape our interpretation of the phenomenon (or phenomena) of friendship.

This article is a reworked version of a talk I did for a Krux conversation in 2021 based on Graham M. Smith’s ‘Friendship and the political’.

Friendship has through the ages been part of our understanding of and attempts at being – or becoming – human. All political debates and efforts operate according to some assumption of what it means to be human and what a human society looks like – what do humans deserve and have the right to, by virtue of being human or a specific type of human being; how should people relate to one another in a way that is human; when are we allowed to prevent others from acting in inhumane ways?

A more robust engagement with the mystery of friendship might help all our interpersonal bonds become healthier and make for more humane societies.

As you consider how friendship is conceived of in the works of a few influential thinkers below, reflect on how their ideas frame your own and to what extent it influences your ability or willingness to engage in ongoing conversation and with whom.

 

Friendship and the political

Friendship was once considered indispensable to understanding politics and the political, while the modern mind tends to think of politics and friendship as necessarily at odds. The realm in which political decisions – that affect broader communities or all of society – are made should not be corrupted by personal friendships, it is said. Friendship is linked with concepts like favouritism, nepotism, unfairness, discrimination, or partiality. The contemporary suspicion of friendship in politics is understandable. ‘Friends’ taking care of ‘friends’ played a significant role in bringing a country like South Africa to its wobbly state. People from all nations are familiar with how brutal the mix of politics and friendship can be.

Political theorist, Graham M. Smith, reevaluates the idea of friendship in contemporary political thought as either irrelevant or harmful, making a case for its relocation to the centre of political thinking. He challenges the popular idea that politics consist simply as acts of power or acts to obtain power. Smith seeks to redeem friendship as a term for describing the interpersonal bonds that form the basis of all politics and through which political phenomena emerge. This opens up the opportunity to define and consequently practice politics as various sets of friendships which undermine destructive power plays.

The error in thinking of politics simply as acts of power lies in the idea that politics is possible without conceiving of persons as operating in a shared space. Such politics involve theories about the atomised individual and its world, without considering the individual active in its shared world – as a friend active in friendships. Such politics are not really politics at all. Thinking about politics through the lens of friendship will invigorate rather than pollute it.

Friendship is not easy to define

One reason the modern mind struggles to see friendship and politics as two sides of the same coin, is because it sees one specific kind of friendship as standing for all friendship, namely a friendship based in affection and particularity. This is the kind of friendship you associate with the people who come to mind when you’re asked to think of the faces of your ‘friends’. Smith refers to this as the narrow or commonsense definition of friendship.

He considers the modern understanding of friendship as a private, interpersonal relationship characterised by individuality and uniqueness as legitimate, but reminds that it remains one of those phenomena of which can be said, ‘we know it when we see it’, and yet struggle to define as distinct from other relationships.

Like most other things in life, friendship is a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. Why do we befriend some people and not others? Why do we call only some relationships friendships and not others?

This struggle is illustrated by the words of Francine, a young Frenchwoman interviewed by Theodore Zeldin in his book An Intimate History of Humanity. ‘Out of every ten people I meet, only one is likely to interest me, just a little. Since reaching the age at which I could choose my friends, I have found only three people who interest me, but they are not friends’, explains Francine. She might almost call one of them friend, but that word is too strong, so she sticks to mate. Being agreeable is not enough to qualify someone as a friend, she argues.

Her first criterion for a friend would be a taste for reflection and a fondness for talk about a great variety of subjects. Secondly, there must be ‘a certain complicity’ – not resemblance, nor difference, but something in between – that leads them to ‘click’. She believes values make the individual, and therefore shared values is a third criterion. Lastly, and most importantly, she expects a mutual demand from each friend to push the other to ‘surpass’ herself.

Defining friendship is not a new problem

Francine’s questions are the same foundational questions put forward in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Below is an almost too concise summary of the main statements and questions put forward by these ancient philosophers, to help us frame our political thinking and approach to conversation.

Plato

Friendship was a standard theme that occupied most ancient minds. In their pursuit of a ‘harmonious’ society, friendships (various forms of ‘partnerships’) were the means through which such societies were created and maintained. These partnerships could be established between peers, between educators and their students, or between patrons of the noble class and their servants. Everyone had their specific role to play in bringing about and maintaining harmony and everyone had something to gain, for all classes of citizens would partake in that harmony. It involved a desire for the Good, both in ourselves and in others, for if that is achieved there will be harmony in the city. It is for this reason that laws that helped people desire the Good were welcomed.

Socrates – appearing in the writings of Plato – argued that only people with a vision of the Good are suited for leadership, for only they could frame just laws that will achieve harmony. These would be philosophers or members of the political class, with the mental ability to grasp the good, in its ‘pure’ form. The object of friendship goes beyond the good itself, to the reproduction and immortalising of the desire for good into future generations. A cultivation of a culture of grasping the good, so to speak.

Grasping the highest good involved a mental leap that only the purest in mind could make, and yet, they needed to befriend the more sensual ones among them who mainly desired and busied themselves with material things. These common folk contributed the gift of labour and its fruits towards the harmony of the city, for even the bodies of sophisticated minds require food and drink in order to do the grasping.

The importance of friendship to the good life was undeniable, and yet it remained mysterious. In Plato’s dialogues he wrestles with Francine’s questions about how people become friends and why they become friends, introducing five questions for discussion:

  1. Is there a connection between friendship and ‘being useful or good’?
  2. Is reciprocity important – is it the lover or the loved who is truly said to be friend?
  3. Does similarity (like-mindedness, shared values) or dissimilarity draw friends together?
  4. Does friendship have a purpose or a goal, or is it an end to be enjoyed for its own sake?
  5. Does friendship result from sufficiency (being at peace with oneself) or deficiency (needing others to be fulfilled); following from this, where does ‘belonging’ feature?

Aristotle

Obtaining the good involved not only a mystical grasping of the ideal forms, but an ongoing, embodied fulfilling of one’s purpose, argued Aristotle. The essential nature of a thing (including humans) could be known by looking ‘from below’ towards the end (telos) to which their desires or tendencies are aiming. It’s not only important that pure forms are grasped mentally, but that we actively live towards those ends, each according to their nature.

Plato spoke about the ideal world and ideal friendship. Aristotle explained how that world works and how various sub-communities and their aims and purposes fit into the overarching community and its aim and purpose. Friendship, for Aristotle, is a means of ordering our desires rightly to obtain the good, not only as an abstract, pure form but as ethical actions which help ‘mere’ harmonious societies to fully flourish. Friendship is not a status, but an ongoing activity which, if it lays dormant for too long, will dissolve.

The importance of reciprocity is a crucial characteristic of friendship for Aristotle. Both parties must give to the other what they ‘deserve’ – not in the universal sense but rather the particular: the person most deserving of something is the person who will best use that thing according to its purpose. Reciprocated goodwill is not only based on the love of utility but also that of pleasure and virtue. One party might get ‘use’ out of the friendship while the other receives pleasure or becomes more virtuous. As long as there is reciprocation it is a healthy friendship, even if the two parties don’t attain the same good.

Friendship is what binds communities together and a duty each person must fulfil within their sub-community and towards other sub-communities to help the overarching community fulfil its purpose.

And yet, virtue friendship remains the most complete form of friendship for Aristotle, for being virtuous is the goal of man. And there is only one type of friendship through which and only one sphere in which a person can be truly human and become virtuous. This is political friendship and acting in the political sphere, for this is the fulfilment of what it means to be a human being capable of moral action. As someone able and privileged to become a virtuous character, you can be the ‘ultimate’ friend to all, by fulfilling your duty of ensuring the long-term flourishing of the whole community.

Plato’s account of friendship can be the model for the kind of camaraderie associated both with centralised states and revolutionary movements. The Good is singular and there is only one way to order the soul of a person and the city. It’s easy to imagine how this account can lead to totalitarian scenarios, and yet its attractiveness lies in the possibility of a ‘we’ searching ‘our’ good together, willing to view the achievements of others as our own. This raises important questions concerning shared responsibility and the relationship between the individual and the group. Aristotle’s contribution shows not only the varieties of friendships that exist, but also how different friendships make different contributions despite a singular, overarching goal.

Smith points out the importance of dialogue and room for scepticism as key elements in the ancient approach towards harmony – perhaps an important aspect to keep in mind when totalitarian tendencies arise. He sees Aristotle’s failure as not fully appreciating the emotional aspects of friendship. His main concern is around friendship being merely a means to an end, and whether that necessarily means people remain mere means to ends for one another.

Three modern transformations: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schmitt

Smith now turns to three modern thinkers who grappled with interpersonal bonds in a world characterised by pluralism, as opposed to the pursuit of the single Good of the ancient world. He chooses Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt because they were prominent thinkers who had something explicit to say about friendship. They also reveal some of the modern tensions and challenges to friendship: individualism, the nation-state, the thinning of the social fabric and how this shapes our view of the political.

I will highlight significant aspects that distinguish their ideas harmony and subsequently those of friendship.

 

Kierkegaard

Among these thinkers, Kierkegaard uniquely casts discussions about human bonding in a theistic, and particularly a Christian, context. He was concerned with two interrelated questions: what does it mean to be a person, and what does it mean to be a Christian? How the self relates to others is a crucial question but part of a three-fold relation: all selves must relate first to God and in doing so become able to properly relate to self and others.

He challenges any attempt to substitute this presentation with purely human relations and therefore argues for neighbourliness over friendship. Friendship has changing humans as its reference point, neigbourliness has an unchanging God as reference point.

Human friendship offers no moral task, for it is a matter of fortune whether you find such friendship or not. Fortune may favour some more than others, but all friendship remains a matter of preference – a choice to enjoy someone or something – according Kierkegaard. He criticises friendship for not admiring the other as a total self but only for certain features of that self, with which one relates (similarity) or can learn something from (dissimilarity/deficiency).

When similarity distorts individuality and takes the form of friends seeing each other as their own ‘other self’ he considers it a mis-relation of the self. This misrelation selfishly cuts the friends off from everyone else and a proper other-orientated approach. Kierkegaard also considers the reciprocity that characterises friendships as a sign of selfishness. Even in healthy human friendships, love is only offered as long as it continues being returned. He suspects the desire of offering love in the first place is to have it returned.

Kierkegaard advocates for a bonding that is a kind of spiritual friendship: the neighbour. He urges individuals to recognise themselves a spiritual beings and first relate to – ‘befriend’ – God, for then they will recognise the commandment to love their neighbour and relate to all others as spiritual equals. Love between humans then flows from sufficiency rather than deficiency.

Being a neighbour is not reciprocal but proactive and done to others who do not choose to be your neighbour. They become your neighbour by your activity towards them and because of God’s love towards you: human giving follows human receiving. Loving the dead by honouring commitments to them even when they can no longer reciprocate is presented as the ideal form of love, perhaps not different from God in Christ loving humans, dead in sin, unable to reciprocate.

 

Nietzsche

Nietzsche had early hopes of friendship which was later eclipsed by a commitment to becoming a sovereign individual. He reconnected friendship to the task of philosophy, insofar it is a means of transcending oneself or becoming a virtuous self, the so-called Übermensch. Friends assist one another along this journey of self-overcoming, even by becoming enemies or moving apart. Whoever helps you along the way to become your true, enduring self, acts as your friend.

Friendship is helpful in that it allows more perspectives on who you are while it is dangerous because it blurs multiple people’s identities and threaten the cause of individuality and transcendence towards the truer self. Friendship is a gift insofar it is an opportunity to be shaped but also involves a balancing skill that only a few possess.

Nietzsche distinguishes between selves as ladders and selves as circles. The ladder seeks a friend for each step of his development, the circle attracts a variety of personalities who cluster around him. The talent of the ladder is not only revealed in its ability find an appropriate friend, but also in overcoming that friend. A former friend takes the shape of a ‘ghost’ and becomes a haunting presence threatening one’s individuality, like a siren calling from the realm of the dead. The talent of the circle is not only to hold different aspects of themselves as a whole, but also to hold different aspects of their friends together in the circle.

The person who has overcome himself is capable of solitude and of being a friend to himself. Only such a person can truly be themselves in the presence of others, for they will not seek to blur into or imitate the other in any way. And yet, Smith points out, such a person needed friendship to become a sovereign individual. Nietzsche did eventually abandon the project of creating the self for that of creating an Uber-caste from within European society.

 

Schmitt

Smith introduces Schmitt as one of the few thinkers in the twentieth century to tackle friendship, who not only promoted it as a public category but also placed it at the very centre of his account of the political. And yet, this unavoidable thinker is also a problematic contributor to our understanding of friendship.

Schmitt, who was a prominent member of the Nazi Party, deployed the friend-enemy distinction as a tool to create controversy. His device not only weaves conflict into political groups but structures private concerns in such a way that they can intensify into conflict.

He saw friendship as part of a wider structure which privileges the authoritarian nation-state. The individual is always swallowed up as part of a homogenous group, as opposed to other distinct groups. The result being that friends entail enemies, and that peace and equality with some entails inequality and violence to others. His account reinforces the very structures of power that Smith sees friendship as promising to disrupt.

Schmitt’s work never produced a rounded definition of ‘friend’ but its content is rather inferred from both what he says more overtly about ‘the enemy’ who is framed as ‘existential threat’, and also from the ‘unity’ that is required for the success of, and imposed by, the state. Neither persons or God acts as reference for friendship, the state does. His building blocks for what the political consists of are ‘peoples’ (Völker), with bonds between person and person being mediated by the sovereign-state. One’s friends and enemies are in effect chosen for you by the state. Friendship is not a relationship between individuals but rather the identification of an existing group.

Schmitt does not propose a solution or course towards achieving harmony but rather identifies the problem of disharmony as the reality we must accept. In this reality friendship and enmity results in either killing or being killed by the enemy, or dying with or for friends. You discover your ultimate allegiance by concluding who you are prepared to die for and who you are prepared to kill. His account of friendship is not put forward as a template for friendship but as a picture of friendship gone askew.

Friendship and the art of conversation

The consistent criticism that Smith raises against these diverse thinkers, both ancient and modern, seems to be that the importance of ‘belonging to’ and ‘being with’ others always seemed negligible. He wonders whether the avoidance of reciprocation when being a neighbour might eliminate the possibility of true communication and communion. Is there relationship and conversation beyond the acts of service? Nietzsche’s friendship is more obviously a means than an end and belonging is ‘dangerous’, while in Schmitt’s case we see a warped type of captive or forced belonging, as an alternative to excommunication or even execution. What is the place of conversation in these relationships?

This brings us back to the bond between friendship and conversation. How you think about friendship and whether you consider those with whom you engage in the polis as your friend, enemy or perhaps even neighbour, will determine what conversation will look like. Healthy politics depend on people – citizens of a nation or members of a society – who have mastered the art of conversation.

In his exploration of the complexity of human relationships, Zeldin illustrates in one section of his book how people are yet to master this art. I summarise Zeldin’s entertaining retelling of history in part below:

Conversation is still in its infancy. History is littered with sayings warning us that speech brings trouble and how silence may have us mistaken for being wise. In many cultures it was not strange to sit together in silence as a way of socialising. Tongues were loosened only more recently when philosophers began saying that it is impossible to know the truth, things are complicated and only the sceptic knows wisdom. The invention of democracy also required of people to say what they thought, and express themselves in public assemblies. And yet, it was usually elite tongues only that were loosened to question the nature of things. Peasant silence continued.

Some believed an impressive speaker had to know things. Most were too impatient and so people were trained in rhetoric: the technique of talking on any subject even if one knew nothing about it. But this was not conversation.

The first known conversationalist was Socrates, who replaced the war with words with dialogue. Before this, monologue was the model for speech: the wise man or the god spoke, and the rest listened. Socrates introduced the idea that individuals cannot be intelligent on their own, they needed someone else to stimulate them through questions. But conversation is not made just of questions: Socrates only invented half of conversation.

The next ‘rebellion’ came through the Renaissance and this time it was a rebellion by women. The world’s memory has still largely been stuffed with the names of war generals rather than conversationalists. ‘To converse’ was understood to mean ‘to live with, to frequent, to belong to the circle of someone powerful’, with no need for speech beyond claiming one’s obedience or loyalty. Speech etiquette involved military metaphors: defend one’s reputation, form alliances, use words as weapons against your rivals. The ladies grew tired of this.

A new ideal developed which demanded the opposite: politeness, gentleness, tact and culture. Madame de Rambouillet, the Socrates of her time, organised conversation in an entirely new way: she introduced salons as the opposite of the large royal hall. Conversationalists were invited to intimate lounges presided over by a hostess, not on the basis of their status but because they had something interesting to say, and because in the company created by hostess Rambouillet, they said them even better. Diverse people met in salons like hers for conversations which looked at life with the same distance as Socrates has favoured, but instead of torturing themselves with self-questioning, they concentrated on expressing their thoughts with eloquence.

Horace Walpole, a devoted member of Madame Geoffrin’s salon, discovered that however much men might dislike the pretentiousness of other men, the presence of intelligent women whom they wished to please, transformed normally uncomfortable meetings into exhilarating encounters. The hostesses weren’t specialists in any of these subjects, their achievement was to purge the men of the boorish academic legacy that weighed on them, in which the purpose of discussion was to crush others with the weight of one’s learning. Seriousness was encouraged to be also light-hearted, reason to remember emotion, politeness to join with sincerity.

But, eventually, each salon cultivated a taste that became tyrannical, so that they could no longer tolerate other salons. While they tried to teach themselves to enjoy contact with others and to value the ‘diversity and discordance of nature’, they often ended up worshipping their own brilliance, or their imitation of brilliance, lapsing into conversations which were in effect counterfeit. Salons became as boring as a royal court and people retreated into private conversations. The yearning for more private conversation grew, and the obsession with sincerity became more absolute, only letters seemed an adequate refuge for the pondered exchange of private thought.

As the saying goes, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. Almost four hundred years since salons failed as conversation incubators, we got excited about the possibilities presented by online social platforms. At the beginning of this year I decided to log out of these online salons. I’ve disengaged from hostesses like Madame Twitter who claims, ‘We serve the public conversation’, for at least into the new year. I’m now more drawn to subscribing to interesting newsletters and getting my own occasional online letter up and running again, as it may well be the only adequate refuge for the pondered exchange of private thought left, for now. And then there’s of course the question of how well we’re able to have difficult conversations in person. Conversations that invite scepticism, allow disagreement, and involve ‘friends’ who seek to understand one another.

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