A Question of Political Friendship

Political friendship is a topic we don't discuss very much in American society, but Aristotle thought it was crucial for the stability of a political project. It is very natural to pursue your own interests. It is natural to pursue your children's interests: most parents are happy to sacrifice a great deal of their own wealth and time to see that their children have a chance to do well. It is likewise natural to make sacrifices for your parents, especially if they did for you. What is less natural is to make sacrifices for strangers. Those who aren't bound to us by family ties can only rely on us to make regular sacrifices to help them if they are friends. Since any society requires that we all sacrifice of ourselves once in a while, for the common good that we obtain by having a community, we should strive to be friends as far as possible.

Aristotle thought we couldn't be friends with everyone to the same degree that we can be friends with one particular person: the more people you add, the harder true friendship is to maintain. But there is a posture of mind that is appropriately directed toward members of your society, an analogy to friendship if not true friendship. We should strive to have a polity in which we can think of each other in friendly ways, if not as friends. It is less radical than Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself (and even to love your enemy), but along the same lines. Aristotle wants you to love your neighbor in a way, and not at all the same way in which you love your true friends: but if we lose that, we lose the integrity of the political project. Instead of having a common good to pursue, we become divided and hostile.

I mention this because I've been appreciating Conor Friedersdorf's recent articles trying to rebuild a sense of political friendship between supporters and opponents of maintaining traditional marriage as a cultural standard. His first article was aimed at his fellows, who believe as he does that marriage ought to be extended to any two persons who want to claim it. He was asking them to think through the limits of punishment for religious dissenters.

His second argument is intended for both sides of the debate, trying to help them each understand why the other side feels like it is under siege. Now if you are under siege, you are under attack; and if you are under attack, it is by an enemy, not a friend. There's a grave danger of losing what political friendship remains to America as it becomes more diverse. Since we are now diverse enough to lack a consensus on what constitutes a right morality, we could perhaps have a consensus on what constitutes a proper toleration of differences in morality.

In an important way, this refers back to the origins of the American story on religion. Religious tolerance in early America was very much about whether and to what degree variations on behavior compelled by differing religious belief would be tolerated. The answer in Colonial America was usually "Not very much." Many colonies had official religions, especially the ones founded by religious dissenters like the Pilgrims, who were determined not to be overrun in their new home. Others, like the colony of Georgia, were tolerant broadly of Protestants but not Catholics. In Georgia's case this was because it was founded to serve as a buffer for the British colonies against the Catholic Spanish colony in Florida and Catholic French settlers in the west, and was therefore staffed with hardened and warlike groups: Scottish Highlanders who had been in rebellion against the Crown, German Protestants who had been expelled from their homes by Catholics, and men with skills who had fallen into prison through debts. The religious wars were not over in those days, if indeed they are today.

By the early period of statehood, though, religious toleration of dissenters had greatly expanded, and states began to eliminate their established religions. As the states experienced both a successful rebellion against the old crown, and the desire to tighten their ties following the Articles of Confederation, they began to see each other as Americans who could be trusted as political friends in spite of religious differences. The Puritan states in the Northeast held out longest and well into the 19th century, but still not as long as Canada where no rebellion forged a new sense of national unity.

I think that if we are going to get through this new national moral crisis, it will need to begin with making some room for each other -- meaning making some room for dissenters from our own view, whatever that may be. The most obvious way was to allow states to have different laws, as different states had different established religions in early America, but the Supreme Court seems poised to disallow that obvious option. Failing that, protection for religious dissent ought to be formalized so that we can live together without agreement. Let us protect each other's interests, so that we can see each other as friendly even if not quite as friends.

If we fail in that -- if we come to the place where the question really is submission or resistance, so the siege is not merely felt but real -- then I think Aristotle will be proven right. A polity that loses political friendship does not long endure. That last phrase evokes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but his Second Inaugural is perhaps more on point. At the end of a bloody and terrible war, Lincoln too was urging his own side's most intense partisans to rethink how to pursue a sort of political friendship with those they hoped to conquer. It was on that basis, Lincoln believed, that a new American birth might succeed.


raven said...

The crux of the problem is this-
the two "sides" once contested the best way to approach a common goal.

Now the goal itself has become the question.

It is very hard to achieve political "friendship" with a opposition that seeks to utterly destroy you and every value you hold dear.

Eric Blair said...

I don't think it is necessarily "utterly destroy" otherwise it would look like Syria under the Daesh.

I would point out that whatever Aristotle said, the actual history of the Greek city states didn't exactly evidence the 'freindship' he talked about. Plenty of exiles, tyrants, political skullduggery of all sorts.

I sort of think that Aristotle is talking about an ideal, not the way things really were (or are).

Grim said...

Well, you gotta have ideals to know which way to point the claymore.

Eric Blair said...

Snort. There can be only one, eh?

Grim said...

I was thinking of the mine, this time. Do I point the face toward you, or away from -us-?

raven said...

Eric Blair said...

"I don't think it is necessarily "utterly destroy" otherwise it would look like Syria under the Daesh."

just a matter of where we are on the time line-