Friendship and “Filthy” Politics in Plato and Aristotle

HomeArticlesFriendship and “Filthy” Politics in Plato and Aristotle

The Italian philosopher and statesman, Benedetto Croce, once wrote that, “politics and filth are so frequently identified in the ordinary conversation of people that the thoughtful person is rather puzzled by the situation. Why should politics, one of the fundamental activities of man, one of the perpetual forms of the human spirit, alone enjoy homage of such contemptuous language? We never describe other forms of activity as essentially filth.”[1]

Croce’s observation is no less true a century after he made it nor less common in the centuries before him. “I hate politics,” is a common response when a political scientist introduces his or her line of work, and disdain for the political has become a kind of “virtue-signal.” To say one “hates politics” has become a way of expressing disdain for corruption, injustice, selfishness, deception, and greed. And, to be sure, politics is inherently messy. It requires compromise, invites conflict, and seems to bring out the worst in people. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “the merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering; men are degraded when considered as the members of a political organization.”[2]

Croce’s observation is no less true, however, when he refers to politics as “one of the fundamental activities of man,” placing it alongside all other fundamental human activities which do not tend to attract the same vitriol. Politics is inescapable; inherent in a world where human persons live and work together. Furthermore, as Plato emphasized, our politics is a reflection of us as human persons. Whether it is virtue or filth we see in the mess of politics, we need look no further than the nearest mirror to see the source of it all.

While politics may be inescapable, it is not inevitably and always filthy. At its core, politics transcends both the virtues and vices of individual persons. The “form” of politics, in the Aristotelian sense, then, is not power, corruption, and filth. It is not merely the collective action of millions of undifferentiated individuals. The form of politics is relationships, and more specifically, friendship.

The centrality of friendship is easy enough to say, but far more challenging to explain, especially given the default disdain some have for politics and the overuse and abuse of the word, “friend.” Such difficulty has not discouraged John von Heyking whose book, The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queens University Press, 2016), is an impressive and elegant study of the classical foundations of friendship. John takes us through a careful and penetrating reexamination of Aristotle and Plato that is refreshingly unconventional. This is especially true with the latter, where Plato’s underappreciated contribution to the question of friendship is considered in depth. John specifically spends a tremendous amount of time on Plato’s Laws and the Lysis.

Curiously, he examines Aristotle first and then Plato, rather than treating the two chronologically, but the organization has a point. His argument “moves from our common sense experience of friendship to more fundamental considerations concerning the nature of the world that makes friendship even a possibility” (31). The organization also allows him to better establish his argument that sunaisthesis, that is, what Aristotle defined as “‘joint perception’ of the good” is the basis for genuine virtue-friendship. “Virtue friendship is present when friends love one another for their characters” (16) and they “love each other while contemplating the good” (16). And this virtue-friendship is what “nourishes” a proper political-friendship.

This is not to say that all friendships are political, nor is political-friendship “higher” than virtue-friendship, but “political friendship is the condition of legislation, and it also is the expression of citizens practicing civic virtue together” (9). If peace and justice are to be achieved, some foundational like-mindedness must be present. This need not translate to “sameness” or a kind of legalistic uniformity, but it is, rather, in a nod to Augustine, moving toward a shared love. Still, we often need to be reminded of this common love – a task achieved in regular festivity and storytelling, among other activities.

I confess I cannot contend with John’s reading of Plato and Aristotle in a way that could add to or critique his interpretation of these seminal figures. I cannot read Greek, and we seem to share a muse that would likely result in me affirming his reading over and over again. A good book, though, like virtue-friendship, points beyond itself. And a number of striking, if somewhat sobering, truths emerge by implication throughout this work. Rather than catalog the strengths and weaknesses of von Heyking’s book, then, I hope to show its value by drawing out a few implications and reflections.

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A core instrument by which friendship is developed and practiced, according to von Heyking, is storytelling. As he explains, “friends act together and contemplate together, and together they pursue and discover what they regard as the good and the beautiful. But they also reflect upon their adventures” (24). Chapter 3 looks more carefully at storytelling and the corresponding importance of festivity in light of Aristotle’s Poetics and Politics VII and VIII. In the process “we see the political counterpart of sunaisthetic friendship, which shows how the latter informs the civic virtues of the good regime, not only indirectly (as citizens practice sunaisthetic friendship in their private lives), but directly and publicly” (58). For Aristotle, the best regime is not one in which “philosopher kings” rule directly, but one where wisdom and virtue acquire public authoritativeness by means of civic education and mediating institutions. Rather than a regime dedicated to the acquisition of wealth or to martial courage, the regime grounded in sunaisthetic friendship is one dedicated to peace and freedom. “It is the regime in which citizens are habituated into performing certain actions for their own sake, for the sake of friends, or for the sake of virtue” (61).

This civic education is achieved, in part, by the sharing of stories in music and festivity; by poetry and dialogue. The notion of mimesis or imitation is key here, in that the practice of sharing stories becomes a way, not merely of following or promulgating rules and formulas, but of exercising one’s theoretical and practical reason so as to avoid neglecting the universal for the particular and vice versa. Civic education animated by sunaisthesis, then, is primarily formative and not merely informative.

The greatest example of the role stories play in the cultivation of moral reasoning and character formation is that of Jesus Christ and his use of parables. As the Gospel of Matthew shares, “all these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:24-43, ESV). Jesus’ life and words did not describe the Kingdom of God as the culmination of rules and formulas, but as an unfolding story of God’s redemption of humanity. Speaking in this way, he appealed to the whole person – body, heart, mind, and soul – calling them not to merely assent to some new set of platitudes but to a greater love and to the truths of existence. He calls his followers to be part of a story.

It is striking, in this vein, that when Christ calls his disciples he says, “Follow me.” There is no argument being made here, as if Jesus confronted Andrew, James, and John with a cost-benefit analysis of why continuing their fishing business was, in comparison to the opportunity before them, not in their best interests. Plus, if any of them had known their final earthly end – that is, martyrdom – would they have followed anyway? The point is that Jesus’ emphasis on “following” and “parables,” is an emphasis on the formative nature of genuine virtue-friendship. With the tragic exception of Judas Iscariot, the disciples had not chosen to follow Jesus for fame and fortune, nor as a means to an end. Jesus, as the Son of God, also did not choose His disciples as a mere means. They were part of a plan, part of a story from the very beginning, and he referred to them explicitly as his friends (Luke 12:4,  John 15:15). The Church Fathers would follow them as they followed Christ, and the Fathers would have followers, who would also have followers and so on. And like the Greeks’ use of Homer and drama as a source of formative civic education, for two millennia the parables of the Gospels and these friendships have become central to Christian teaching and formation. While I do not think it is accurate to say that friendship is the “form” of Christianity in the Aristotelian sense, it is no less crucial in the early church as it is for the ancient Greeks.

Storytelling and the cultivation of sunaisthetic friendship also occurs in the context of festivity. “Sunaisthetic friendship,” John writes, “consists of mutual intellectual perception of the good, along with mutual perception of one another perceiving the good” (57). A festival, occurring outside of the normal workday, is an expression of political friendship and serves as a moment in which friendships can be renewed and strengthened (106). This likely strikes the reader as unexpected in the context of sunaisthetic friendship. After all, the evocation of “festivity” does not exactly conjure up images of civic education and virtue. Indeed, from my current vantage point here in southeastern Louisiana, the word “festivity” brings to mind adults dressed in light-up crawfish costumes drinking beer and throwing beads at children from a trailer made to look like a duck hunting blind. More ominously, the notion of festivity may evoke even less virtuous moments, such as the use of the Roman Colosseum to entertain and pacify the masses by means of blood sport and murder.

But this misses the point that Plato, through the Athenian Stranger, is trying to make in the Laws. The interlocutors of Plato’s Laws are discussing what they understand to be the best practicable regime, which they refer to as Magnesia. Magnesia is distinguished by the fact that it is “based upon the entirety of virtue” (148). In order to achieve this, however, the Magnesians must not be governed by untamed passions and the “lower” parts of the self, but by Nous; that is, by the pursuit of knowledge guided by an attraction to and love for the transcendent. It goes without saying that this disqualifies many – if not most – instances of festivity. The Athenian Stranger himself laments this, since what masks as festivity in many communities of the time was simply the celebration of wealth and military might, but not the Good. There is no moment of unity and self-reflection in these regimes of “partial virtue” (150). Magnesia’s festivity, however, will take place every day. Summarizing the Athenian Stranger’s description, von Heyking writes:

“Festivals are leisurely and free, but also engage the virtues of the citizens. They practice courage in war games; they practice moderation by dancing and singing in the spirit of friendship instead of eros; they practice justice in choral competition and by living out the mathematical composition and proportion of their city; and they practice wisdom by imitating good characters and beholding the cosmos in wonderment” (151).

The standard by which festivity is measured – that is, the extent to which it is grounded in and encourages virtue-friendship – makes it hard to point to moments where this actually happens. John points to the Calgary Stampede, but we also might consider some of the festivities surrounding American Independence Day and Thanksgiving.  The description from the Athenian Stranger also evokes the many expressions of public solidarity and unity following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These moments cultivate a sense of like-mindedness and civic virtue, however imperfectly, in ways that highlight the need for political-friendship to be grounded in sunaisthesis. Though, to be sure, they still do not achieve the intellectual complexity that the Athenian Stranger seems to have in mind. Indeed, outside of more explicitly religious gatherings, where might one find a festivity that cultivates rule by nous? What would it look like? What would, say, an “Eric Voegelin Society Festival” look like in light of von Heyking’s reading?  A glimpse of the answer is offered when John quotes from C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves: “My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs – or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes” (23).[3] Though not a picture which would universally evoke “happiness,” among scholars, Lewis’ recollection would acquire widespread agreement.

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Despite its many virtues, there is something disconcerting about von Heyking’s book, though I doubt that was his intention. Toward the end he observes that:

“a political society in which citizens lack personal experience of sunaisthetic friendship will be distorted and convulsed by utopian and ideological attempts to seek that kind of friendship in the political sphere. Communism, socialism, general will, and other forms of collectivism are instances of such distorted passions, variations of which Plato and Aristotle understood and criticized in their writings. Utopian ideologues look for love in all the wrong places” (198).

Friendship is indeed the form of politics, but the quality of that friendship has profound implications for the nature of that politics. And if John’s argument is correct, as I believe it is, then the absence of sunaisthetic friendship on a broad scale, may spell disaster. A great danger, for example, is that citizens mistake the pursuit of political success and abstractions as sunaisthetic friendship. This occurs when we conflate political friendship with virtue friendship, assuming that triumph in an election or policy dispute is the same as beholding the Good or as being ruled by nous.

This corrupted friendship, however, is arguably the more obvious derailment Plato and Aristotle warned about. The more underappreciated problem is the lack of an effort to cultivate genuine friendship at all – sunaisthetic or otherwise. Indeed, the great paradox of the digital age in which we live, animated by social media and relationships mediated over fiber-optic cables and satellites is that we have more ways to connect with one another and yet we are lonelier and further apart than ever.

What happens to the political community in such a context? When friendships begin and end at the push of a button, and when what we know of our friends is limited to Facebook profiles and fleeting moments of 140 characters, what virtues are being cultivated? Our relationships – from the most superficial to the most central – are mediated by smart phones and timelines. Our politics is reduced to tweets and memes. In other words, friendship is the form of politics, but given the lack of sunaisthetic friendship, do we now live mostly with a formless politics? Perhaps it makes more sense to say that there is always a form to politics, but in a regime of lonely, disconnected individuals, what form has taken the place of friendship?

Von Heyking’s exceptional volume raises these questions and many more, and his work has implications well beyond politics and the writings of Plato and Aristotle. His follow-up work on Winston Churchill and friendship (St. Augustine Press, 2018) is just one instance of the value of his thought. One could envision, for example, John’s analysis serving as a foundation for reexamining the careers of other great political leaders. More importantly, a renewed appreciation for friendship in the work of Plato and Aristotle challenges every reader to re-examine their own relationships and the potential political consequences.



[1] Benedetto Croce. “Disgust for Politics” in The Conduct of Life. Trans. by Arthur Livingston. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1924) p. 255.

[2]. Henry David Thoreau. “Natural History of Massachusetts” in Excursions from The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Ed. by Joseph J. Moldenhauer. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 2007) p. 4

[3]. C.S. The Four Loves (London: Harper Collins, 1960) 78-9.


Please also see Carol Cooper’s “Contemplating Friendship,” 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.”

Joshua Bowman

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Joshua Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Ohio. He is author of Imagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau (Lexington Books, 2018).