skip to Main Content

Churchill and the Athens-Jerusalem Conflict Over Friendship

Churchill And The Athens-Jerusalem Conflict Over Friendship

I want to commend Professor John von Heyking for writing a truly refreshing and original analysis of Churchill’s understanding and practice of friendship as the “key to politics” (vii).[1]  Although it is not easy to add anything new or compelling to the crowded literature on Churchill, von Heyking certainly achieves this feat. This work of “empirical political philosophy” (viii) confirms once again what careful students of Churchill have always known, that he was a man of thought and action. In fact, he lived his thoughts as much as he reflected on his actions.  Put differently, Churchill made history as much as he wrote about it.

What is original about this work is the author’s presentation of a philosophical account of friendship as Churchill understood it and lived it.  Churchill practiced as much as he contemplated the fine art of friendship in politics.  Although Churchill was not a philosopher, he understood that “monuments are words” (174).  As von Heyking brilliantly shows, Churchill knew that the art of friendship is absolutely critical to success in politics, although it is not merely reducible to political ends (17, 23).  Employing the methods of empirical political philosophy, von Heyking has shown how he is a true friend to Churchill’s legacy, emphasizing the dialectic between his thought and action in a readable and compelling manner.

One of the most important philosophical questions that von Heyking raises in this work is how Churchill understood friendship in relation to the two founding traditions of the West, Athens and Jerusalem. As he famously put it in his history of the Second World War, “No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem.  Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding lights of modern faith and culture…Personally I have always been on the side of both, and believed in their invincible power to survive internal strife and the world tides threatening their extinction” (quoted on page 42). To say the least, it is exceedingly rare to find a modern statesman waxing so eloquently on the two traditions that define western civilization or on the need to defend and understand these traditions.  Still, do Athens and Jerusalem fundamentally agree (are they friends?) on the meaning of friendship?

In a fascinating chapter entitled “Great Friends and Friends who are Great,” von Heyking addresses this pivotal question by comparing Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity to the Christian idea of charity, all within the context of Churchill’s thoughts and actions (or adventures).   Aristotle, of course, defined the magnanimous man as someone who is “preoccupied with performing great deeds” (27).  He is, after all, a great man. Although this way of being does not necessarily sound conducive to friendship, John adds that ‘the magnanimous man is a supreme friend, at least to those who can reach him” (27).  He must have friendships with other great men (28). Part of this greatness is to be forgiving and merciful towards one’s enemies (e.g., post-Nazi Germany), or to be magnanimous “in victory” (29).  He is also concerned with living according to truth as well as honor.  In fact, truth should be higher than honor (30-31).

All of the above thoughts seem to suggest that Athens and Jerusalem (specifically Aristotle and the Bible) fundamentally teach the same thing about friendship. Von Heyking writes:

“By emphasizing his magnanimous capacity to forgive, they (commentators on Churchill) are imbued by what Churchill called the ‘flame of Christian ethics.’  His magnanimity enabled him to forgive injustices and insults against him.  While Churchill’s relationship to the Christian faith is ambiguous, it would be a mistake to impute to this ambiguity a clear preference for so-called pagan ethics. Indeed, he consistently refrains from drawing such a sharp line between the two” (31-32; emphasis added).

It is this “line” that I would like to examine with reference to von Heyking’s discussion of Churchill on how to understand friendship in a philosophical (but also religious and historical) sense. As he shows, Churchill often recognized that there were tensions between what Athens and Jerusalem taught on morality. In his discussion of Neville Chamberlain’s role during the Munich crisis, Churchill recognized the conflict between honor (or pride) and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. “It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics” (32).  Do they teach different things here?

According to von Heyking, there is no intractable conflict between the two as long as honor is understood as duty. Like magnanimity, honor “can only be genuine when it serves the right moral and political principle” (34).  Still, he also acknowledges that Churchill’s magnanimity “is gentler than that offered by Aristotle.”  Why? “It is one whose perfection in many ways was enabled by the Christian culture that imbued it, both by tempering his own ambition, and by tempering the Western civilization that prizes forgiveness, not punishment, for insults and injustices against him” (34).

In this rich and compelling passage, von Heyking raises a pivotal question: how deep is the difference between Athens and Jerusalem on friendship (or human relationship in general)? Put differently, why is Christian (or biblical) morality “gentler” than Aristotle’s concept of virtue? And, is the absence of forgiveness (or mercy or charity) in Athens a problem for anyone concerned with reconciling the two great cities of the West?

We know that Churchill admired Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics, he once remarked, led him to conclude that “it is extraordinary how much of it I had already thought out for myself” (quoted on page 8). Yet von Heyking shows that Churchill at times drew some sharp lines between Athens and Jerusalem. In his essay “Moses: The Leader of a People,” Churchill notes that “all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome” were “incapable” of understanding an “idea” or “miracle” that was revealed to a “wandering tribe” known as the Israelites.  What was this?  “There was to be only one God, a universal God, a God of nations, a just God” (quoted on pp. 39-40).[2]  Von Heyking later suggests that great deeds “that found new moral orders upon universal principles, depend on great leaders who rely on good and loyal friends” (41; emphasis added).  Connecting these passages, it is valid to conclude that Jerusalem has different “universal principles” from those of Athens, given the unique status of the “universal God” that was unknown to pagan Greece and Rome.  Is it also valid to conclude that the “great deeds” performed by the prophets and apostles of Jerusalem are greater than those of the Greeks and Romans?

In order to get some purchase on the issues being raised here, I shall turn to Leo Strauss, a great admirer of Churchill who, more than any other political philosopher of the twentieth century, emphasized the tensions or conflicts between Athens and Jerusalem.  It is not that Strauss thought that these two traditions were utterly opposed in every way.  In “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” (1952), Strauss observes that both traditions are concerned with justice, after all.  Plato’s Laws and Moses agree on the “specific prescriptions for human society.”[3]  Strauss adds: “It is as obvious to Aristotle as it is to Moses that murder, theft, adultery, etc., are unqualifiedly bad.”[4]  Moreover, both understand law and justice as “divine law and divine justice.”[5]  Still, they disagree on what the “basis of morality” is[6] or what “completes morality.”[7]  What does Strauss mean here?

In basic terms, the Bible equates piety with “obedient love,” or love that obeys God.[8]  Is there any equivalent idea in the philosophy of Aristotle? Strauss’s answer is a negative one.  The disagreement between Athens and Jerusalem “concerns that ‘x’ which completes morality.  According to Greek philosophy, that ‘x’ is theoria, contemplation, and the biblical completion we may call, I think without creating any misleading understanding, piety, the need for divine mercy or redemption, obedient love.”[9]  There is another pivotal difference to which Strauss points.  Relating these passages together, Scripture teaches that we mortals must love (obey) God by humbling ourselves before him.  As Strauss remarks in an essay on Machiavelli, a fine example of this humility is provided by the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I am a man of unclean lips amidst a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Strauss concludes from this passage that it “amounts to an implicit condemnation of magnanimity and an implicit vindication of the sense of shame.” What is the reason?  “There is no holy god for Aristotle and the Greeks generally.”[10]

Why does Strauss draw this sharp line?  After all, Aristotle believes in God too.  Still, does the unmoved mover require this love (obedience, humility)? Strauss writes in “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections” (1967):

“The Aristotelian god like the biblical God is a thinking being, but in opposition to the biblical God he is only a thinking being, pure thought: pure thought that thinks itself and only itself. Only by thinking himself and nothing but himself does he rule the world. He surely does not rule by giving orders and laws. Hence he is not a creator-god: the world is as eternal as god. Man is not his image: man is much lower in rank than other parts of the world. For Aristotle it is almost a blasphemy to ascribe justice to his god; he is above justice as well as injustice.”[11]

This passage may shed some light on what magnanimity amounts to, in Aristotle. To quote Strauss again, “Justice comprises all other virtues insofar as the actions flowing from them relate to other men; magnanimity, however, comprises all other virtues insofar as they enhance the man himself.”[12]  If Strauss is right, Aristotelian justice is fundamentally a human concern that helps us relate to other mortals.

Yet the unmoved mover, precisely for this reason, is beyond justice and injustice because he is beyond humanity altogether.   To be sure, Aristotle at times in the Nicomachean Ethics appears to close the gap between man and god when he asserts that the gods “should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly”[13] (NE 1179a).  He concludes in the same section that the philosopher is “dearest to the gods.”  So, how does the magnanimous man relate to the divine, as Aristotle understands it?

In order for the great man to be truly great, he would have to compare himself with the greatest thing of all.  As Aristotle recognizes more than once, man is not the greatest thing in the universe (e.g., NE 1141b).  However, a man who is truly a friend of another should wish him to be the greatest thing of all, namely a god.  The tragic outcome of this teaching, however, is that to wish this upon your friend would spell the end of the friendship.  Consistent with his teaching that one cannot be a friend with an unequal, Aristotle writes:

“In such cases it is not possible to define exactly up to what point friends can remain friends; for much can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases. This is in fact the origin of the question whether friends really wish for their friends the greatest goods, e.g., that of being gods; since in that case their friends will no longer be friends to them, and therefore will not be good things for them [for friends are good things]” (NE 1159a).

Now this outcome is consistent with Aristotle’s concept of the unmoved mover.  In order to be truly great, one must become more god-like (and less human-like).  What, if anything, does Aristotle’s metaphysics, then, have to do with his idea of political friendship?

Von Heyking correctly observes that, in Churchill’s view, “political friendship is lower than the universal law commanded by Jesus Christ” (43). If Strauss is right, it is too low to hold the interest of Aristotle’s unmoved mover.  Are the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments too lofty for human beings to practice as well?  Von Heyking’s answer is in the negative. “It seems Christian ethics is uniquely qualified to help us understand and perhaps to effect justice” (44; emphasis added). I find this sentence both accurate and fascinating in equal doses.  Does he mean that Jerusalem is more qualified than Athens in bringing God down to earth to reveal the truth to humanity, and must that truth include the truth about politics and friendship?

Although von Heyking astutely shows that there are tensions between politics and Christian morality that often preoccupied Churchill, it is ultimately Jerusalem that inspires the greatest deed of all in the history of politics.  Towards the end of this chapter, quotes from Churchill’s magnificent speech “The Flame of Christian Ethics.”[14]  In this speech, which he gave three years after the end of World War 2, he categorically declares that ‘the flame of Christian ethics is still our best guide. Its animation and accomplishment is a practical necessity, both spiritually and materially. This is the most vital question of the future. The accomplishment of Christian ethics in our daily life is the final and greatest word which has ever been said. Only on this basis can we reconcile the rights of the individual with the demands of society in a manner which alone can bring happiness and peace to humanity” (quoted on page 44).

This speech is fascinating for two reasons. First, Churchill is declaring that Jerusalem is the true basis for civilization, including its politics. Earlier in this speech, he admits that he was once enamored with the liberal idea of progress that dominated the last century. Yet he is only too aware that the horrors of the twentieth century demolished that dream. Did it make sense to even defend progress? Churchill’s answer is that Christian ethics alone is responsible for whatever progress civilization has made.  Despite the tensions between politics and Christian morality, which he noted elsewhere with great force, Churchill insists that this “flame” is still “our best guide.” Even if political friendship is lower (or less morally demanding) than universal love (43), it is this ethic that must guide politics. Whatever progress humanity makes in the future is likely due to Christianity as well. None of this is utopian sentimentalism  As Churchill notes, Christianity’s “animation and accomplishment is a practical necessity, both spiritually and materially”[15] (emphasis added).

Second, in crediting Christianity with the reconciliation of “the rights of the individual with the demands of society,” Churchill seems to be rejecting the conventional view that true (liberal) democracy in the West began with Athens.[16]  Why does he credit Jerusalem but not Athens with this great deed? Elsewhere in his speech, as von Heyking notes (42), Churchill remarks that the great pagan civilizations could not have accomplished this task. “The Greek and Latin philosophers often seem to have been unaware that the society in which they lived was founded on slavery. They spoke of freedom and political institutions but they were quite unaware that their culture was built upon quite detestable foundations.”[17]  Presumably, then, any civilization that tolerated slavery could not possibly effect the reconciliation of individual rights (for all human beings) with the demands of society.

Still, Churchill leaves some large questions unaddressed. If the classics spoke of freedom, how could they be “unaware” that slavery was a “quite detestable” foundation? And, as an historian, he knew that Christian civilization had tolerated slavery as well.  Why, then, favor Jerusalem over Athens as the pinnacle of civilized progress? It all depends on what Churchill means by “unaware.”  What exactly were the Greeks unaware of? The answer is: a God of universal love (as he noted in his Moses essay).  The Judeo-Christian God loves all human beings, masters and slaves, and commands us to do the same. He thus imposes an egalitarian ethic on all human beings that not only spells the end of slavery (gradually) but also calls for the reconciliation of the individual with society on an equal plane. One could add that only Jerusalem makes true friendship possible. After all, if I am not commanded to love others as I would love God, how can I be a true friend to anyone?  (Perhaps this feature of Jerusalem explains why Voegelin remarks in The New Science of Politics that the “experience of mutuality in the relation with God, of the amicitia in the Thomistic sense, of the grace which imposes a supernatural form on the nature of man, is the specific difference of Christian truth.”[18])

Why couldn’t Athens accomplish any of this? The answer to this query takes us back to Aristotle. The unmoved mover does not command love of any kind, whether it is political friendship or love of thy neighbor (and enemy).  If the unmoved mover teaches anything, it is just how unimportant human existence is.  As Aristotle declares in his Metaphysics (1074b 20-34), this god is indifferent to the changeable existence of mortals. To recall Strauss, this deity is thought eternally thinking itself.  Aristotle even adds that the acquisition of this knowledge of God is “not suited to man” (Meta. 982b 29-30).[19]  To recall Strauss again, this is not a god that reveals and imposes a covenant (of obedient love) on humanity.

What about the magnanimous man? As von Heyking has shown, a key feature of Churchill’s own magnanimity was his capacity to forgive and show mercy, or, in more theological terms, to love his enemies (or turn his enemies into friends). In political terms, this is reconciliation of the sort that he alluded to in his speech on Christian ethics.  Were the classics “unaware” of this reconciliation?  And does this explain why Churchill did not associate Athens with true democracy?

I believe that the answer to both of these questions must be yes.  Although it is true that both classical and Christian civilization tolerated slavery, only the latter believed in a standard of love (based on a universal God) that ultimately put slavery on the defensive. If we are to love God as we love all human beings, then slavery is clearly unjust.  It is hard to imagine Aristotle’s magnanimous man loving an unequal. Recall that Aristotle constantly emphasizes that loving an unequal is wrong, a misapplication of friendship.  The one thing that Aristotle knows with certainty is that the cosmos is a hierarchical place, with the unmoved mover far above, and unknown to, humanity.  Left to their own devices, mortals seek to dominate each other (the few vs. the many) while they ignorantly seek knowledge of the eternal.  “For where there is nothing common to ruler and ruled, there is not friendship either, since there is not justice; e.g., between craftsman and tool, soul and body, master and slave” (NE 1161a).[20]  We have already seen von Heyking note that the Christian version of magnanimity is “gentler” (34).  Yet it is also morally demanding in a manner that would be inconceivable to the magnanimous man of Aristotelian ethics.

This “gentler” magnanimity is absent in Greek philosophy.  With a final nod to Strauss : “Compared with the Bible, Greek philosophy is heartless in this as well as in other respects.  Magnanimity presupposes a man’s conviction of his own worth.”[21]  Without a concept of obedient love amidst the hierarchical cosmos that Aristotle presupposes, it is hard to see why his magnanimous man would love those who are not his equals or commit himself to reconciliation with his enemies.

In fine, I am grateful to my friend John von Heyking for presenting as well as inspiring deep reflections about the nature of friendship, politics, and morality, and how the two founding traditions of the West differ so profoundly on these matters.  I believe that he has philosophically demonstrated what Churchill intuitively grasped, namely that “Christian ethics is uniquely qualified to help us understand and perhaps to effect justice.”



[1] All page citations in the text refer to John von Heyking, Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Churchill on Friendship (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2018).

[2] Winston S. Churchill, “Moses: The Leader of a People,” in Thoughts and Adventures (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1991). Churchill published this essay in 1932.

[3] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization,” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, edited with an introduction by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997), 105.

[4] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 105.

[5] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 106.

[6] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 105.

[7] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 109, 118.

[8] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 118.

[9] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 118.

[10] Leo Strauss, “Niccolò Machiavelli,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, with an introduction by Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 210. Cf. Strauss in “Progress or Return?”: “Biblical humility excludes magnanimity in the Greek sense.” (107)

[11] Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 396.

[12] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 107.

[13] I use David Ross’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 269.

[14] See Winston S. Churchill, “The Flame of Christian Ethics,” in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, Vol. 7: 1943-1949, edited by Robert Rhodes James (New York and London: Chelsea House Publishers, 1974), 7643-7645.

[15] Churchill, “The Flame of Christian Ethics,” 7645.

[16] I have argued elsewhere that Strauss must come to this conclusion as well, given the implications of the distinction that he draws between Athens and Jerusalem.  See my “The Politics of Paradox: Leo Strauss’s Biblical Debt to Spinoza (and Kierkegaard),” Sophia 54 (2015): 525-543.

[17] Churchill, “The Flame of Christian Ethics,” 7645.

[18] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 78.  Cf. James V. Schall, “A Latitude for Statesmanship? Strauss on St. Thomas,” in Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker, edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994):  “In St. Thomas, charity was the ‘supernatural virtue’ that corresponded to and built upon the Aristotelian virtue of friendship.  It implied that man and God could be friends and that men could love one another with a divine love.  Both of these possibilities were in response to Aristotle’s two penetrating reservations that men could not be friends with God and that God had no concern for men, that there was, in other words, no basis for piety in Aristotle’s God.” (225)

[19] I use the translation by Richard Hope (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,1960).

[20] In the same section Aristotle remarks that democratic equality (which allows for more commonality between ruler and ruled than in a tyranny) allows for more friendship than is possible in a tyranny.  Yet it is worth noting his overall view (expressed both in his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics) that each regime has its own idea of friendship and justice, none of which counts as the best.  Cf. Brayton Polka, The Dialectic of Biblical Critique: Interpretation and Existence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986): “With friendship, like justice, made relative to the good of the ruler of a particular political arrangement over the ruled, it appears that friendship is most unequal in the best political formation (kingship) and most equal in the least perverse political formation (democracy), although it appears just as obvious that unequal friendship is no less to be found in tyranny (the most perverse political formation) than in kingship (the best formation) and that equal friendship is to be found no less in timocracy (the least good formation) than in democracy (the least perverse formation).” (105)

[21] Strauss, “Progress or Return?” 108.


Originally presented at panel on “Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Churchill on Friendship” at the Eric Voegelin Society meeting, Boston, September 1, 2018.

Grant N. HaversGrant N. Havers

Grant N. Havers

Grant Havers is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University in Canada. He is the author of Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (Missouri, 2009) and Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois, 2013).

Back To Top