On the personal and political dimensions of friendship

Mark Vernon:

For all that Plato majored on pursuing the true, Aristotle on forging a good life, and Epicurus on gaining a proper understanding of the nature of pleasure – central to them all is the matter of friendship.

Socrates, according to Plato, longed for the intimacies and honesty of close friendship more than all the gold of Darius. Aristotle thought friendship was what made all other things in life worth having; he devoted more space to amity in his book on “happy-making” virtues than any other subject; about a fifth in total. Epicurus thought that friendship joins hands with wisdom as the twin goals of the well-lived life.

Why was friendship such a weighty concern? There are interlocking personal and political dimensions.

Here’s an initial thought. The word idiot derives from the Greek idiotes, “a person who lives only for themselves”. For example, in his Funeral Oration, Pericles praises individual initiative in ancient Athenians, but only inasmuch as it contributes to the greater good: an idiot has no right to be part of the city-state, the collective upon which their happiness depends.

Then, there is that linguistic quirk of ancient Greek: not alone among ancient languages, it declines not only in terms of singular and plural, but “dual” too. The dual is used for two of a pair, as in to ophthalme – the two eyes. It suggests that ancient Greeks could conceive of doing things together in a way that was so intimate that it required its own conjugation.

Just what this implies can be unpacked further via Aristotle’s conception of the friend as being “another self”. Post-Enlightenment, we take this to mean that a close friend is a mirror of your own self, someone with whom you find personal resonances, thereby realising that though autonomous you are not alone; there is someone quite like you and who you quite like.

But for Aristotle something more connected, more dependent is being described. The sense of self of the two friends is, in fact, one. Like the two eyes, their operation is conjoined. I do not find out who I am in solipsistic, narcissistic isolation, but in my friendships. I can no more be a full person without a friend than a magnet can exist as a single pole. Perhaps we still hear an echo of this when we say of a friend, “I basked in her reflected glory.” I have done nothing; but it is as if her doing were mine too.

Friendship becomes part of politics with a similar realisation: to be human is to be part of a society. It is not possible to be human apart from society – everything from language to loving depends upon it. To put it even more strongly, individual people do not make a society: society makes individual people – which is to say that a healthy society is one that finds a path between radical individualism (‘there is no such thing as society’) and totalitarianism (‘there is only society’).

Friendship is how the ancient philosophers summed up the nature of such a good society, and the wellbeing that becomes possible within it. Friends are people who have the virtues – that is the character, dispositions and reasons – to make the choices that allow them to live in a community.

Moreover, friendship matters in politics not just for the sake of individuals and their happiness. It matters because friendship cultivates the virtues, such as creativity and compassion, that are essential to a flourishing society. To put it another way, friendship is the raison d’etre of democracy: the will to live well together is civic friendship.

Friendship is also a vital counterbalance to impersonal democratic values, such as justice and equality. If they shaped a society without allowing for mitigating circumstances – which is to say the complexities of human relationships – such a society would risk breaking down. It would come to treat people as potential rivals and threats, not as potential friends. It would develop the habit of turning to the law as a first resort, and developing an over-bearing litigious culture. Its people would be not trusting but aggressive; not inspired but bullying.

Similarly, friendship is vital to humanise the otherwise dry exchanges of commercial transactions. This is something that Adam Smith worried about. He quite rightly argued that the cooperation of the businessman’s marketplace is preferable to the warmongering of the politician’s court in national and international relations. But he also realised that cooperation is not the same as concern. The difference is the same as the difference between being loved, like a celebrity, and being truly lovable, like a friend. Or being praised, like a Kenneth Lay (before his fall), and being genuinely praiseworthy, like a Nelson Mandela. A society that confuses cooperation with concern is one that thinks only in terms of cost- benefit analysis. Its people will have their animal needs met, in the steady flow of goods and services. But they will struggle to live well, not least in finding the fulfillment of meaningful friendship.

The ancient Greeks knew that linking friendship so tightly to political goals raised big problems. Friendship can lead to corruption, nepotism, favouritism, cronyism. Or in a plural culture, how might everyone agree on the values that underpin the project of living together? But their solution was not to sideline friendship and put it on a half-forgotten wish-list of civic life. Rather it was to promote friendship as a high ideal and engage with its perils as well as its promise in their way of life. Plato put it at the heart of his philosophical method, in the Socratic dialogue. Epicurus set up a community of friendship to show the city-state what it might become. He even thought that men and women could be friends.

That’s what friends are for (The Guardian)


  • Mark Vernon, The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
  • Listen to Vernon and other guests discuss friendship on BBC Radio 4
  • Listen to Mark Vernon discuss friendship on Philosophy Bites

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