All around us, friendships old and new are coming to grief over politics. What is the cause of this? Part of the problem relates to how we practice politics today: we have become more warlike and tribal. Another part of the problem stems from our contemporary understanding of friendship. Genuine friendship places weighty demands on us, and most of us prefer relationships that are quicker and easier, and thus less enduring.
Politics and friendship are deeply connected. As strange as it sounds, how we understand what politics is has an effect on the kinds of friendships we are likely to enjoy. And, conversely, how we understand friendship will affect our practice of politics.
What exactly is the connection between politics and friendship, and how should we assess the relative value of each when they come into conflict?
The ancients had an important distinction between types of goods. Some goods are merely instrumental to other goods. Think of a doctor’s visit. Seeing the doctor is good, but not good in itself. Rather, it is good in relation to health.
But other goods are intrinsic, because their value lies entirely in themselves. Think of play, aesthetic delight, love, divine worship, and knowledge. These goods, especially when practiced in the company of others, bring meaning to life. They simply are what we mean by happiness—what the Greeks called eudaimonia. A life without these goods would be meaningless. Indeed, if one’s life were entirely focused on instrumental goods—moneymaking, the pursuit of fame, honour, tackling our to-do list, self-improvement, and social progress—without being grounded in intrinsic goods, we would be like chains suspended in midair. All our activities would constitute so many “links,” valuable for what they lead to; but the chain itself would go nowhere. This is precisely what Nietzsche meant by nihilism—not the belief that life has no meaning but the belief that a life devoted only to instrumental goods has meaning in itself.
The distinction between instrumental and intrinsic goods is crucial, because friendship (real friendship, not the ersatz friendship we practice today) is an intrinsic good, while politics is an instrumental good. Thus, to lose a friendship over politics suggests that something is deeply disordered in our souls.
Politics has to be understood in two dimensions to fully appreciate its paradoxical relation to friendship. One dimension relates to its ends, the other to its means. Regarding ends, all politics is teleological, whether its ends are conservative, progressive, or some admixture of both. In a pluralist society where citizens disagree over the relative value of various ends, politics is necessarily contentious.
We would prefer this were not the case. We dream of a politics that might harness the power of the collective to pursue the ends we value most. Call this the “politics of unitary vision.” We dream of a “body politic,” like the body of the church described by St. Paul, where so many diverse “members” work in perfect harmony to pursue a collective goal. The ancient Greeks with their city-states celebrated this sort of life, and the ghost of the polis still haunts us.
But in the modern nation-state this form of politics cannot be achieved without brutal coercion and complete disregard for human dignity—which brings us to political “means.” A tremendous shift is taking place in American politics that affects the Right and the Left alike. We seem increasingly to understand politics as a species of war. Of course, pluralist politics is necessarily contentious, but it need not be viewed as war, where the goal is the elimination of the enemy and the achievement of total control. Yet today we do view the other side as our “enemy.” We use political “tactics” and “strategies.” We seek “victory.” The Left accuses the Right of waging a war on women, while the Right blames the Left for their war on Christian values. We wage war on everything from poverty and drugs to inflation and immigration.
To lose a friendship over politics suggests that something is deeply disordered in our souls.
The paradox is not only that we desire the politics of unitary vision and end up with the politics of war. It is much deeper than that. It is that we desire a life devoted to the communal practice of intrinsic goods and end up with a life completely saturated by political instrumentality.
Imagine, by analogy, a virtuoso pianist at the peak of her career who looks out at the culture around her and realizes that appreciation for classical music is rapidly fading. She senses a crisis: if things continue, there will soon be no audiences, no careers in music, and no future great performances. She considers the situation so dire that she decides to step away from her instrument, if only for a time, in order to defend classical music nationwide. She gives speeches about composers in grade schools across the country, lobbies Congress for increased support for the arts, and solicits wealthy donors to sponsor classical-music instruction. Her work is noble, but it consumes her; and the crisis is so severe that her task is never done. Thus, she never fully returns to the life of music she enjoyed before. Now, when she has time to play, which is rare, she’s a shadow of her former self. Practice sessions find her distracted. Her music suffers as a result of her effort to save music.
The battle to save music is not itself the practice of music. The two activities are worlds apart. One is an instrumental good, the other intrinsic; one is never complete, the other complete in itself. This paradox occurs across domains: The battle to preserve a space for Christian worship in an increasingly secular society is not itself Christian worship. The defence of the liberal arts is not the liberal arts. And the war to save our political union from our enemies is not itself political union.
Two conclusions follow. First, there must be an activity of “politics” that is different from war. This is what the analogy from other domains implies. But what is that activity? The answer must be communal living itself. Or, as the early modern Dutch philosopher Johannes Althusius (1563–1638) once put it, “Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” Politics, in other words, is essentially about communion. So while politics is itself an instrumental good, when it is practiced well it is an instrumental good in the immediate service of an intrinsic good: togetherness.
The second conclusion is this: mistaking political battle for politics itself causes severe harm to human fulfillment. Some people dismiss this harm on the grounds that politics has simply always been as nasty as it is now. In their defence they cite the extreme vitriol exchanged between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the election of 1800. But they are wrong. While the vitriol was indeed extreme, what they miss is that the massive increase in the scope of government since 1800 means that all domains of social life are now conscripted into political warfare: education becomes political; church becomes political; museums and orchestras become political. Everything is valued, or not, depending on its potential contribution to victory.
When this happens, the stakes are immeasurably higher. To the extent that government is now involved in so many aspects of our lives, the ability to control it is politically imperative. No one can afford to lose. And this causes everything to rachet up. War becomes “total war.”
C.S. Lewis once pointed out in his famous sermon “Learning in War-Time” that the mentality of war not only leads us to instrumentalize all goods that are useful for victory but also creates an atmosphere of shame for individuals who try to engage in intrinsic goods while the war is on. Learning for its own sake is deemed an inexcusable luxury. Even human beings are reconceived in terms of their usefulness, or not, to the cause.
This brings us to the effect of politics on friendship. When politics is understood as war, genuine friendship becomes difficult because friendship contributes nothing to the cause. What it is replaced with is “allyship” or “comradeship.” And comrades are not, strictly speaking, friends. They are rather partners in a cause.
When politics is understood as war, genuine friendship becomes difficult because friendship contributes nothing to the cause.
Cancel culture is perfectly explainable in this light. It has arisen precisely because we have come to value our fellow citizens only for the contributions they might make to political victory. Being cancelled is so painful because it delivers the revelation that what we supposed to be deep relationships of mutual admiration and respect—intrinsic goods—were in fact shallow relationships of instrumentality. Allies “use” each other, and any respect or admiration that may accrue over time will always be subordinate to the ends for which they are used.
Finally, a culture that views politics as war will inevitably struggle with meaninglessness. Of course, there is some sense of meaning in fighting for a cause. But in pluralist societies like ours, political causes will never be fully achieved, not only because there is no place to dispose permanently of our enemies—every victory is thus subject to reversal over time—but also because what the “warmakers” are ultimately seeking in politics is a resolution possible only on the far side of the eschaton. We are seeking perfect justice, perfect agreement, and perfect stability over time. Because perfection in this world constantly eludes us, politics is like that chain suspended in midair. Each link seems meaningful, but the chain is anchored in nothing. The war to end all wars has no end. What ends is only our healthy relationship to intrinsic goods that bring happiness and meaning to life.
Besides mistaking friendship for allyship, people today also mistake it for “companionship,” a much easier and less rewarding form of association than true friendship. Companionship involves interacting with people because they’re pleasant to be around. It typically requires proximity, an openness to self-disclosure, and free time. Companions will be seen laughing, commiserating, playing, and engaging in various activities together. But they will demand little of each other, since that is not what the relationship is for. When companions move away, the relationship typically ends. When companions become needy or burdensome, resentment quickly sets in.
What, then, is friendship? My colleague Alan Jacobs, whose essay of twenty years ago “Friendship and Its Discontents” is still worth reading, defines friendship as a much deeper form of emotional attachment than mere companionship. In fact, it is a form of love. One can recognize it by two tests.
First, who do you know, other than members of your immediate family, whose death would utterly devastate you, leaving you emotionally in a state like that of young Augustine in the Confessions when he loses his closest friend? “My heart was darkened over with sorrow,” writes Augustine, “and whatever I looked at was death.” This is a somewhat morbid test, I acknowledge. But it definitely focuses the mind. Are there people with whom you have identified so deeply that without them you cannot imagine how you would carry on? Those would be friends.
The second test is less dark but similarly revealing. Who, other than family, stands in relation to you such that when he or she is not doing well, you cannot possibly be doing well either? If your friend is in the hospital, you wish to be there too. If your friend is upset over something, you find yourself distracted and upset. This test also reveals who your friends are.
Here we can see exactly what has gone wrong in our contemporary practice of friendship (i.e., companionship). In an age obsessed with individual freedom and autonomy, we have become less willing to engage in activities that place involuntary constraints on us. And friendship, like marriage, and procreation, is one of those activities that places constraints on us. Not only does friendship constrain our time; it also constrains our character insofar as it depends on virtues whose standards we do not ourselves create. Genuine friendship requires patience, forgiveness, toleration, constancy, honesty, self-sacrifice, humility, and care. These are not qualities with which one is simply born. They require cultivation and intentional effort.
Not only does friendship depend on virtue; it arguably is a virtue itself. Aristotle, for his part, hedged on this point in the Nicomachean Ethics, claiming that friendship “is a virtue or implies virtue.” But if friendship is a virtue, this would explain why it is simultaneously so difficult and rewarding. The difficulty lies in the fact that virtues are innate capacities that can only be actualized through long practice. One cannot simply wish friendship into being or master it in a single act.
Love and friendship do not emerge out of nowhere; neither do they easily pass away.
In a sense, this is great news for married people, just as it is great news for friends. Marital love, like friendship, is formed gradually over the course of engaging in it. It does not depend essentially on initial emotions. Certainly, both marital love and friendship involve deep emotions, but these stem less from first encounters than from the buildup of affection over time. Love and friendship do not emerge out of nowhere; neither do they easily pass away.
Our contemporary inability to practice genuine friendship is a catastrophe from an ethical point of view. That is because friendship is one of the few activities that can address (at least to some extent) our natural feelings of incompleteness. Friendship completes our being in two ways. The first is basically Aristotelian. As humans we are bundles of capacities waiting to be actualized. Our best capacities (the virtues) are intrinsically fulfilling to actualize. In this context, friendship is something of a peak virtue: it involves the actualization of other virtues but is also pleasing to actualize itself. Friendship is virtue turned outward and related to another who is capable of knowing and being known. In Aristotle’s view we were simply built for this: the actualization of friendship is happiness itself.
But there is also a more phenomenological way in which friendship completes our being, an insight I owe to conversations with my friend Molly McGrath. We human beings desire deeply to be seen and valued, and we live in profound fear of being existentially alone. But who can really know us? Who can possibly value us like we desire to be valued? How can the ontological chasm that separates one human consciousness from another ever be satisfactorily crossed?
Somehow, friendship is the crossing of that chasm. It involves deep recognition and appreciation. In friendship a self becomes intrinsically invested in another self as if the chasm were not there. In this way, too, friendship completes our being, completes our self.
Of course, in truth, even the richest experiences of friendship do not completely satisfy our desire to love and be loved. That desire craves more than any finite, impermanent human being can satisfy. But perhaps a final benefit of friendship is that it models for us, albeit imperfectly, something of what complete love and perfect communion might look like. Through its intrinsic goodness, its completeness in itself, and yet its ultimate incompleteness as a full satisfaction of our desire to be loved, friendship points beyond itself to something that transcends finitude and impermanence—our friendship with a loving God.
Some people I know worry that genuine friendship is less possible in a pluralist age than in contexts where citizens share a robust conception of the good, or of God. But this is not my view. From experience I have learned that friendship does not require that friends love all the same things, much less that they love the same ultimate things. Friendships based on such common loves of course do exist, and perhaps they are of a higher order than those in which ultimate truths are not shared. But friendship is possible where what is loved is simply the person, not the person’s metaphysics or theology. Pluralism thus need not be the death of friendships that are genuine and deep.
But if pluralism does not render meaningful friendships impossible, the tendency to understand politics as a form of war certainly makes them less likely. That was the claim I supported above by distinguishing between friendship and allyship. The second claim I made was that how one understands friendship can affect how one practices politics. Why would this be so? It is because the experience of genuine friendship, which is not merely an intrinsic good but a peak intrinsic good, cannot help but put politics in its place. Politics today makes great claims about its own importance. Yet politics cannot bring meaning to our lives—not deep meaning at any rate—because it is never more than an instrumental good.
Politics is also always incomplete, while friendship is complete in itself, in that it needs nothing else to deliver such satisfaction as is possible here on earth. Of course, friendship is incomplete in its own way, in that it cannot make us perfectly whole. But this incompleteness differs in kind from the incompleteness of politics. Politics is incomplete because its work is never done. Friendship is incomplete only insofar as its complete success intimates something even higher, a kind of friendship with God that awaits us at the end of time. Those who understand what real friendship is, and what it ultimately foreshadows, will place less value in politics because they will have better things to do. They will know through experience where their deepest longings are most fully satisfied.