Contemplating Friendship

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John von Heyking’s analysis of friendship in The Form of Politics centers on the Greek concept of sunaisthesis, the triangle of perception and recognition that occurs when two friends, both interiorly oriented towards the good, are simultaneously “beholding the good while beholding one another beholding the good.”[1] Von Heyking argues that sunaisthesis, which is characteristic of Aristotelian “virtue-friendship,” is both the pinnacle of individual human relationships and the “standard or perhaps regulative ideal” of politics, especially understood in terms of political friendship as elaborated by Aristotle and Plato, and finally as practiced in the form of civic festivity.[2]

The book begins, logically, with Aristotle’s discussions of friendship, first in his ethical and political writings (chapter 2), and then in the Poetics (chapter 3). The themes of sunaisthetic friendship, political friendship, art, leisure, and festivity are continued in four enlightening chapters on Plato. The first of these (chapter 4) covers Plato’s dialogue on friendship, the Lysis, and makes a compelling argument for reconsidering the political implications of this neglected text. The argument hinges on the symbolic value of the god Hermes to Plato’s Greek audience and concludes with an application to Tocqueville’s meditations on civic association and self-government. Of all the chapters in the book, I found this one the most surprising and enlightening.

Chapters 5-7 cover the various ways friendship, art, and festivity are considered and related to one another in Plato’s Laws. The chapters each evoke the ways in which these three activities—sunaisthetic friendship, the rhythm of music and song, and the public performance of civic festivals—are all examples of human life placed under the rule of Nous.

The final chapter concludes, in an unexpected but fascinating way, by looking at a modern example of civic festivity: the Calgary Stampede. Like the rest of the book, this chapter is charming and viscerally enjoyable—this time not through rarified contemplations of divine Nous, but by digging philosophical meaning out of cowboys on bucking broncos and chuckwagon races. Being myself a native of a western city (Houston), whose central self-identifying festival also happens to be an annual rodeo, I expected to find many fruitful parallels. However, given the implicit assertion that festival—being “the completion of civic virtue”—ought to be valued in itself as the political manifestation of the good life, I actually found myself pondering how this argument would apply to our neighbor across the Sabine, the city of New Orleans. If there is a city in North America whose entire civic nomos is most conducive to (one might even say ordered around) festivity as a way of life for friends and fellow citizens, New Orleans is it. The civic virtues celebrated here are considerably different from the “risk-taking, cooperation, and manliness” that characterize the Calgary Stampede, but it would be hard to argue that Mardi Gras season is not “a civic festival in the sense that it embodies the principles of the regime’s civil religion” of, say, laissez les bon temps rouler.[3]

The Form of Politics was written out of von Heyking’s experience as a teacher of university students, and I found its insights extremely valuable to my own teaching. He identifies, explains, and reinterprets many aspects of Plato and Aristotle to which my students frequently object or find puzzling. For example, students tend to reject the apparent extremes of Platonic moral purity—it seems difficult to imagine, for instance, that a person who takes seriously Socrates’ advice in the Gorgias to “stand ready to accuse himself or his son or his friend” of their wrongdoing publicly would find himself with many companions.[4] Von Heyking’s descriptions of the role of prohairesis, the way friends are meant to knock each other’s “rough edges” off, and how friendship can be “generated out of what is not friendship, even enmity,” are all helpful for filling in the conceptual gap here.[5]

Likewise, while students usually take pleasure in reading Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship, they tend to be suspicious of the idea that there is any kind of genuine political analogue to private friendships. As von Heyking points out, Aristotle himself fails to make the connection very convincingly.[6] However, by appealing to Aristotle’s other works, especially the Poetics, in his own analysis, and using an abundance of concrete examples, von Heyking is able to make the case for genuine political friendship in a much more compelling and relatable way. I am grateful to be able to incorporate these and other insights into my own teaching.

My first reaction to the book as a whole is to apply its ideas towards the theological areas that von Heyking acknowledges are related to his thesis, but beyond the scope of his book. “Civic action is paradigmatically liturgical” for Plato, he argues, but for many of the ways in which friendship and festivity might likewise apply to other religions, especially Christianity, the reader is left to refer to further reading in the footnotes.[7] However, connections flock to mind as one reads. It was illuminating, for instance, to think of the communal “beholding” of the host of the Eucharist as both a moment of sunaisthetic triangulation and a sort of feast or festivity. Secondly, it strikes me that the role of the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws is, in many ways, reminiscent of the language of the ‘stranger’ or ‘pilgrim’ that runs all through the Judeo-Christian tradition.[8]

Furthermore, there are obviously many ways in which religious contemplation is related to aisthesis and nous, especially since, for Christians, the solitary contemplative is not truly solitary, because he is in communion not with an impersonal Nous but with a personal God. Contemplation here becomes not just active but relational.

This is in one sense a development, but the insight runs the risk of downplaying the spiritual importance of special or exclusive friendships—relationships, in other words, intermediate between the individual ‘stranger’ and the universal Church or world as a whole. John Henry Newman uses the example of Christ’s “private friendship” with John, the beloved disciple, to bolster his assertion that “the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”[9] Yet even Newman, in the same piece, claims that while “the Ancients thought so much of friendship, that they made it a virtue,” for Christians “it is not quite this; but it is often accidentally a special test of our virtue.”[10]

So, in this sense, exploring “the Ancients” and their high opinion of friendship through The Form of Politics yields insight into the ways in which the best moments of virtue-friendship—those rare moments of total reconciliation, mutual recognition, joint absorption in and identification with the love that is our source—foreshadow the common life of the kingdom of God in its final consummation.

The problem is, however, that it is a real question whether ‘the kingdom of God’ can be understood in terms of a “form of politics” or “regulative ideal” for mundane society, or whether it is, in fact, utterly incompatible and irreconcilable with the powers of this age, no matter how well-oriented. Plato is credibly accused, by Callicles in the Gorgias for example, of asserting a similar kind of ideal: “If what you say is true, won’t we have human life turned upside down?”[11] Likewise: Augustine’s understanding that empires and republics, no matter how admirably animated by natural virtue, remain different not in degree, but fundamentally in kind, from the city of God. Furthermore, a kingdom for which the decisive act is understood to have already occurred could credibly be understood in terms of, say, “effortful holding of oneself in readiness,” but less credibly as a mere form or ideal.[12]

Fortunately, The Form of Politics does not trade in mere forms. To begin from the point of view of a triangular relationship is already to insist on a more intermediate or rounded perspective than that provided by the image of extremes upon a linear spectrum (individual-whole, earthly-heavenly, interior-exterior). The difficulty is that this approach precludes a linear development for the book; at times the book provokes a sense of disorientation in the discussion simply from having seen the same topic from so many different angles already. But the final effect is one of having felt around the whole: from the vantage point of a single friendship, one does gain a better understanding of self and polity, soul and body, God and world, particular and universal. Friendship opens a second dimension—its effect is exponential, not additive—and thus a central surface in which one can find perspective and relief (if not escape) from the felt tension of metaxic existence, by sharing it.

Most of the questions I had by the end of the first chapter were thoroughly answered by the end of the book. However, a handful remain, and I have tried to reproduce them here.

First, what is the relationship between sunaisthesis and nous? There are points in the book where the concepts seem to run together. Certainly, they are not unrelated, but some more clarity on the precise relationship of the faculty nous to the faculty aisthesis and the experience of sunaisthesis would have been helpful—especially for modern readers skeptical of the kind of mystic spiritual experiences that nous implies. Nous, for its definition, gets only a footnote in chapter 2, and its more extensive discussion in connection with the god Hermes in chapter 4 does not reference the connection to sunaisthesis.[13] This chapter places “the experience of divine Nous” in “the individual psyche,” and in chapter 7 Nous is actually equated with psyche.[14] I don’t dispute the connection—even identification—but do wish it had been clarified more explicitly and convincingly.

For me, the triangle of sunaisthesis reminded me of the ancient spiritual image of the wagon wheel and the similar triangle one would see between hub, spokes, and rim. Martin Laird explains: “Out on the rim of the wheel the spokes [individuals] are furthest from each other, but at the center, the hub [God], the spokes are most united to each other. They are a single meeting in the hub…. The problem of feeling isolated from both God and others is overcome in the experience of the Center.”[15] Nous (which is equivalent, I suppose, not only to the Center but to the whole wheel) pulls us towards the center, but our perception of it, singular or joint, will differ depending on whether each psyche is oriented towards the Center, in cooperation, or in resistance, towards the rim. We are part of the wheel, but also have some capacity to move or be moved closer to the center of it—that paradox that shows up in The Form of Politics as the “effortful holding of oneself in readiness.”[16]

Secondly, while I appreciate the underlying assumption throughout the book that sunaisthetic friendship is available equally to men and to women, are there no questions or challenges that arise in the case of friendships between men and women? Perhaps this omission was another instance of focusing the scope of the book—this particular type of friendship, while eminently possible, being more often fraught with the kind of passions and bodily distractions von Heyking acknowledges but wishes to exclude from primary consideration.[17]

The difficulty is that both Aristotle and Plato did consider the issue in their discussions of friendship. Aristotle consigns women to a private role in the polis and, as such, views their friendships in familial terms: toward husband and children. He praises mothers as a paradigm of virtue-friendship, as they are capable of selflessly wishing good to their child for his own sake, even in the event that the child is being raised by someone else.[18] However, while this love may be perfect in its virtuous selflessness, it is incomplete—it is passive, distant, incapable of sunaisthesis.

Plato, on the other hand, seemed to understand that confining women to the home or private sphere is ultimately counterproductive.[19] Mary Townsend describes “the problem that women customarily pose to the polity,” for Plato, as “the unwillingness women often evince, to recognize the necessity for, or the nature of, the public itself…. This is the deepest formulation of the danger posed by living in private, the most profound political problem of all that women’s political position represents: the danger of an entire genos in the city underestimating the goods of the public city as public, the public space created by the recognition of one pair of eyes to another, with mutual respect in each.”[20]

To the extent that there is doubt about this “mutual respect”—about the possibility of sunaisthetic relationships between men and women—the polis remains incomplete and vulnerable. Plato’s solutions, both in the Republic—where women are “the possessions of friends to be held in common”—and in the Laws—where strict sexual laws are proposed to assuage the Athenian Stranger’s “disquiet” at the sight of “young men and women associating with each other on friendly terms”—likewise seem untenable, unsatisfactory, and incomplete.[21] However, since the problem seems important enough to him that he raises it in multiple dialogues, it is odd to omit mention of it here.

My final question requires a story. My closest friends and I have carried on a debate, strung out over many years at this point, on the nature and meaning of art—prompted by a “joint perception” we all once had of Robert Gober’s sculpture, “Long Haired Cheese,” at the Menil Collection in Houston. Whether “Long Haired Cheese” qualifies as “art” is best left to the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but as a candidate for a sunaisthetic vision of the Good, it is undeniably lacking. Yet it has generated more conversation and spirited debate among us than any of the more obviously transcendent pieces we have seen together.

Recently, our conversation took up a very funny video produced by the Hammer Museum at UCLA, in which actors Will Ferrell and Joel McHale are taken on a “VIP tour” of a contemporary art exhibit.[22] The video is, for the most part, exactly what one would expect to happen when two irreverent comedians are asked to comment on modern art with faux-seriousness. But near the end, McHale makes a comment which summarizes my experience with my friends and the point I am trying to make here. He says, “I know a lot of people are like, ‘I don’t know if this is art—’ It’s definitely art…I would say…I think.” The qualifications are drawn out with comic emphasis, but then he continues more earnestly: “Staring at them for a long time with other people kind of makes it art.”

“Staring at them for a long time with other people kind of makes it art”—and thank God, for moments of genuine transcendence are rare enough in life and become even rarer if one tries to look for or recreate them.[23] My suggestion is that perhaps there is something akin to sunaisthesis that proceeds along a sort of via negativa. The experience of “foxhole friendships” or humanity inside prison camps—a sunaisthesis of the “Infinitely Great” even in the face of pure evil—seems to confirm this.[24] In our mutual experience of something less than Good we can still recognize our capacity to find (or even generate) meaning together, to jointly assess and debate the goodness (or lack) of the thing observed and its meaning, to behold each other as friends and persons in the process, and even to grow toward virtue. Whatever this is, it seems as characteristic of satisfying friendship as sunaisthesis is. Perhaps it could be understood as the “effort” part of the “effortful holding oneself in readiness”?

“Contemplative or sunaisthetic friendship is no mere exercise in abstraction, but a practice of the greatest existential import.”[25] In a world in which the side effects of an epidemic of loneliness proliferate daily, the existential importance of friendship is abundantly clear. The Form of Politics is thus eminently valuable for its celebration of friendship and, politically speaking, its practical suggestions around festival and civic virtue. It is a treasure, too, to read a book on friendship written by a friend, and I would like to thank John for undertaking the effort to put this book out into the world.



[1] John von Heyking, The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 42.

[2] Ibid., 7, 9.

[3] Ibid., 203, 202. For concrete examples consistent with von Heyking’s perspective, see Wendell Pierce, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015).

[4] Plato, Gorgias, translated by Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones (New York: Penguin, 2004), 508b.

[5] Von Heyking, 16, 46, 136.

[6] Ibid., 10, 57n1.

[7] Ibid., 148.

[8] Ibid., 153: “his being a stranger reminds us of the way in which we are always present and absent to one another.”

[9] John T. Ford, C.S.C., ed., John Henry Newman: Spiritual Writings (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 41.

[10] Ibid., 43.

[11] Plato, Gorgias, 481c.

[12] Von Heyking, 15.

[13] Ibid., 43n16.

[14] Ibid., 122, 182.

[15] Martin Laird, O.S.A., Into the Silent Land (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 12.

[16] Von Heyking, 49.

[17] Ibid., 18-19.

[18] Nicomachean Ethics, 1159a27-34.

[19] Plato, The Laws, translated by Trevor J. Saunders (New York: Penguin, 2004), 781a-d.

[20] Mary Townsend, The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017), 129-130.

[21] Plato, Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 449c; Laws 835d; or see Laws 739c-d, quoted in von Heyking, 133: “If women are common, and children are common, and every sort of property is common…”


[23] See, e.g., Gerald May, “Unitive Experience,” Ch. 3 in Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: Harper Collins, 1982), or C.S. Lewis’s insistence in the Chronicles of Narnia that the children cannot get back into Narnia by the same route as before.

[24] Ernest Gordon writes of such an occurrence, and its political implications, in To End All Wars (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002): “The vision of the Infinitely Great had been revealed to us by divine grace in the prison camp by the River Kwai. Now that we were back among the distraction and diversions of the materialistic world, we were determined to follow that vision” (224).

[25] Von Heyking, 18.


Please also see Joshua Bowman’s “Friendship and ‘Filthy’ Politics in Plato and Aristotle,” James Greenaway’s “The Form of Politics as Friendship,” Rodolfo Hernandez’s “Aristotle and Plato on Friendship,” and John von Heyking’s “’The Delicate Shimmer of Interlaced Rainbows’: Sunaisthesis, Homophrosyne, and a Reply to My Friends.”

Carol Cooper

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Carol B. Cooper teaches political theory at the University of Houston. Her research and teaching interests include ancient political philosophy, early modern political theory, and the intersection of religion and politics.