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The Form of Politics as Friendship

I’d like to take a road trip with John von Heyking. I don’t know if he and I could ever achieve that rare gem which is friendship, but, if so, and if he were to fall into a river, I’d like to be there to tell the story later. Such story telling from a common experience is the stuff of friendship. I picture him spurting water out of his mouth as I help him climb out. He’s well, but he’s cold and soaked through. Perhaps his pride has been dented. My sides hurt from laughing. I intend to buy him a few scotches to warm the bones.

The telling of the story of the day von Heyking fell in the river is a story whose value is found simply in its own telling. Friends tell stories because stories are the coinage of friendship. Stories communicate the substance of a particular friendship. One might say that, existing in friendship, friends tell each other stories and delight in these as they delight in each other. Stories articulate something of what we as friends already are, they cover the landscape of our friendship, and reaffirm the achievement that friendship between us continues to be.

Von Heyking hits us on the opening page of the preface with the claim that “the task of understanding a philosopher’s views on friendship obliges one to try to understand nearly everything else about that philosopher” (xiii). There’s a resonance to this, a resonance worth exploring. It seems to suggest that the very attempt to understand what is meant by a philosopher’s views of friendship means nothing less than an attempt to befriend—in some substantive sense—the philosopher him or herself. To know “nearly everything else” about any human person is virtually impossible in the absence of friendship. Only a friend can authoritatively claim “to understand nearly everything else” about another. To know Aristotle’s view on friendship, for example, is to befriend Aristotle in some way, at least in a way that intends to let Aristotle speak for himself and that seeks to love him in the words by which he manifests himself to the reader.

Von Heyking notes about Aristotle that “friendship is not simply a particular virtue, but the entirety of virtue” (xiii). Friendship, like Justice in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, is a complete virtue.[1] Like Justice (or the Good and the Beautiful for Plato), we might dare to go so far as to name friendship as a dimension of being or of what Voegelin called the encompassing It-reality, that reality within which we exist, and of which we are part. Plato did go this far when he claimed that friendship or koinonia is embedded in the very structure or order of being:

The sages too say, Callicles, that the heavens and the earth, gods and men are bound together by communion, friendship, order, temperance, and justice, and for this reason, my friend, they call this universe order, and not disorder or intemperance.[2]

If one is fortunate enough to have a friend, then friendship is a dimension of what one lives within, according to Plato. While it’s true that von Heyking is writing about virtue and political philosophy, and not metaphysics, his insights into Aristotle’s sunaisthesis as the highest form of friendship really do say something substantial about the order of being, or at least, our existential participation in it. I will attempt to justify this claim by considering some key moments in the first and second part of The Form of Politics, each of which deals with Aristotle and Plato respectively.

Sunaisthesis as the Model of Politics

Sunaisthesis is “the mutual perception of the good” (xiii). Von Heyking writes, “for Aristotle, the sharing of intellects in both speculative and practical concerns, for the purpose of striving for the most complete wisdom and virtue, is the highest expression of friendship as well as human possibility” (35). The Form of Politics lays before us the evidence to verify the claim that sunaisthetic friendship (or virtue-friendship) is the model for politics. In essence, the sharing of intellects—required for both sunaisthetic and political friendship—is conversational, dialectical, and freely given.

Edmund Burke reminded the English, in the fever of revolution across the channel, that politics is foremost a reconciliation of conflicting interests, rather than “headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many.”[3] The importance of this cannot be overstated. What seems not to pass away, no matter how discredited, is the allure of a tribal identity politics on both the left and right of the political spectrum that registers only the dynamics of domination. The Form of Politics is a perennially timely book because von Heyking emphasizes the importance of political friendship as more foundational than power or any institutional realization of that power, and that friendship is less about identity than encounter on common ground. One may ask of any polity, “Who are the citizens?” and the only fitting answer would be that citizens are political friends. Given the obvious divisions in the culture, this may seem patently false. Whatever truth there is in the claim to political friendship would seem to be counter-intuitive, but that might also suggest that the problem may be us who do not think foundationally enough.

Pragmatic relations in political society can work only because there are already relations of political friendship. “Deliberation over the just and the advantageous, an act of practical wisdom, is frequently seen as the characteristic activity of political friendship . . . Even so, I think there is a deeper . . . form in which political society expresses political friendship” (38). Here, von Heyking begins his discussion of festivity as “the political or civic version of sunaisthetic friendship, and the clearest expression of the common good . . . Festivity is political friendship appearing in its own name, the normally silent precondition of deliberation” (38-39). The festival is where the entirety of the political community of citizens celebrates the good of the relations among them symbolically. Festivity is where stories are publically told that hold up this good and cause us—“we the people”—to forget our divisions for a moment, and instead to behold what is common to us all in wonderment. “Ekplexis is in fact the excess of wonder.… It makes the soul receptive to seeing and indeed loving the other, without projecting one’s self-love entirely onto the other” (72). The excess of wonder is the stunning realization that, for example, we have more in common than we have of what divides us, or that my predicament is also your predicament. Sometimes, in the midst of our culture wars, we need a stark reminder that, in fact, and foundationally, we all live and suffer and die as human persons. And it’s that very humanity, that common predicament of bodiliness and need, of fragility and vulnerability to suffering, and irreplaceable uniqueness, that renders us lovable to one another.

Von Heyking takes some time to explain the political function of tragedy from Aristotle’s Poetics. It is tragedy that stirs up a necessary philanthropia. Referencing the Poetics, he writes that “the decent character who suffers bad fortune arouses love of the human” (78). On the one hand, we learn of the tragic character as an individual person, “that’s who this is” (78). On the other hand, we simultaneously experience the tension between the particular character and the universal tragic situation of all humanity, which this character exemplifies. His or her predicament is mine. “This sharing of a common world explains why tragedy aims at cultivating philanthropia and not specific people or Athenians” (78). Philanthropia is the necessary political outcome of tragedy because even Athens is not exempted from giving an account of itself to mankind. That sunaisthetic friendship as a mutual beholding of the good is the model for politics becomes clearer in festivity, tragedy, and storytelling that unveils not only “who this is,” but also who we are together. “In moments of recognition [of the things spectators love in one another], which are filled with shock and exuberant wonder, they will experience their friends’ lives as oriented toward the good they share together, as if that good has been there all along” (82).

Friendship in general—in the range from the sunaisthetic in persons to the political—is a condition of human wellbeing. Friends, after all, see the good of their friends, and pick up the responsibility for the wellbeing of their friends. Martin Buber is helpful here. In The Knowledge of Man, he writes:

“The principle of human life is not simple but twofold, being built up in a twofold movement which is of such a kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. I propose to call the first movement “the primal setting at a distance” and the second “entering into relation.” […] Man, as man, sets man at a distance and makes him independent; he lets the life of men like himself go on round about him, and so he, and he alone, is able to enter into relation…with those like himself.”[4]

As citizens, human beings find themselves as having been set at a primal distance from one another. We can recognize in this primal distance the sphere of natural rights or a zone of autonomy or privacy that liberal polities begin from. It is because of the respectful distance between them that citizens can freely choose to enter into relation with one another. Von Heyking also writes that Aristotle’s “theory of human action is a challenge for moderns because it takes place in an intermediate space of action which is not the modern story of the solitary self or of universal humanity” (91). The modern political stories are stories that narrate identities and collapse the primal distance. The insight that von Heyking is reminding us of is that politics is foundationally about encounter, dialogue, reconciliation – the sort of engagements that friends take up. In friendship, politics is a space where the common predicament of need and desire among citizens is attended to, and negotiated, by fellow citizens. In fellowship, the “primal setting at a distance” is the space between us where conversation happens and politics unfolds itself.

As Tilo Schabert puts it in The Second Birth, the bodiliness of human beings is a predicament of need. Because the needs of the body must be met, “bodies become ‘eloquent’ toward one another.”[5] We need each other because of the bodiliness that we have in common. (One supposes with Madison that angels have no need of politics because they exist without the predicament of need that bodies impose).[6] The space within which the eloquence can occur is that which Buber’s setting at a primal distance opened up between us. This space, for Schabert, is a political space. Politics is more like conversation than identity because it follows from what we choose to say and do in the mutual beholding of the eloquence of bodies. Politics is the space that invites relations that are conversational simply because the individual citizen—in his or her sovereign personhood, and already subject to the appeal of political friendship in the common predicament of bodiliness—chooses to engage. What The Form of Politics does is to remind us that those political relations are foundationally relations of friendship. In the context of political friendship, it makes sense to claim that there is a common good which is the raison d’être of politics.

Hermetic Friendship and the Order of Being

The daimonic horizon of Plato’s work, discussed in the context of the Lysis and the Laws primarily, presents friendship as a liminal reality; and presumably existence in friendship as liminal too. For readers of Voegelin, the experience and symbolization of the soul as the site and sensorium of divine presence is not an unfamiliar notion. Voegelin, of course, employs Plato’s symbol of the metaxy or the “in-between” to account for the paradox of human consciousness, which participates at once in the opposing poles of immanent and transcendent reality. In The Form of Politics, von Heyking emphasizes the symbolism of the mythological god, Hermes, in his discussion of the Lysis. “As the liminal power that traverses and unites the opposite poles of reality, Hermes is also the creative force that creates and sustains human relationships, including friendships and political societies” (127). If human existence is experienced as metaxic tension, it is not difficult to characterize human relationships as hermetic. Who then is my friend to me? “Instead of seeing one’s friend as subsumed under a so-called metaphysical idea of friendship, Hermes, who is both above and below us, reminds us that our friend is a cosmos, an image of the divine” (127). To love one’s friend—sunaisthetically—seems to be no less than to love the cosmos, or, to put it another way, to love the cosmic-divine order of being, whether we acknowledge this or not.

Furthermore, as my friend is loving the same order of being in me, we together not only become a communion in and with each other—the poles of you there and me here, hermetically forged together (129)—but our communion reveals itself to be paradoxically more than a communion of you and me. Our communion manifests itself as a Gestalt that, for Plato, is nothing less than the cosmic-divine order of being. “Plato’s appeal to Hermes reminds us that friendship transcends our capacity to fully understand it. Friendship practices us as much as we practice friendship” (128). Like truth, goodness, beauty, or justice, friendship is a self-declaration of being to those who pay attention to their participation in it. It is an embodied metaphysics that one recognizes and reads in the eyes of one’s friend: this is what is real, and this is what is worth living and suffering and dying for. In an existential shift, the very status of the cosmos is at stake in the communion of friends: you there and me here, time and eternity, earth and heaven; hermetically forged together as a communion of opposites, whose opposition is not collapsed, but gathered into a deeper concordance.

The Form of Politics is, of course, a work in political philosophy. So, what does Hermetic friendship tell us about politics, modeled as it is, on friendship as communion? The answer seems to be that politics is itself more fundamentally a Gestalt. Politics is a communion of friendship too. More primordially than its institutional realities such as forms of government or branches or functions or mechanisms, politics is a movement oriented by an inner directedness to mirror the divine order of being. Plato suggests as much in the myth of the Rule of Kronos in the Laws. Kronos, as the “god of care,” presided over human beings and provided for every need. There was then no need for politics. However, divine care reached its due limit and the divine “pilot” let go of the handle and withdrew. Human forces were released and power was utilized in confusion. While the god of care intervened to remedy the course toward destruction, humans subsequently reached the age at which there can be no more divine intervention. The gods have withdrawn for good. Human beings must look after themselves. Tilo Schabert comments: “There is one word for the care of human beings for themselves: politics . . . Or, to put it differently, there are two ways of naming the care of human beings for themselves. One is ‘politics.’ The other is ‘mimesis of God.’”[7]

In a dispensation differentiated by Christianity, politics may well be focused on what is given to Caesar and not to God, but even Caesar is nested within the order of being, burdened by the responsibility of attuning himself to that very order. Von Heyking discusses mimesis in “Chapter Six: Political Friendship as Learning to Dance Together,” where he considers the governance of souls by Nous in Plato’s Laws. A politics of the soul inevitably becomes a politics of society, which—if rightly ordered in experiential openness to the divine ground of being—is mimetic of that divine ground. Politics, like the soul itself, moves through a hermetic process that maintains and disrupts boundaries (99).

If the communion of sunaisthetic friends is somehow both an attunement to the order of being and a manifestation of that order, then a rightly ordered politics—modeled on sunaisthetic friendship, as von Heyking discusses—serves the political friendship of the people as the mode of its own attunement to being. In this context, von Heyking briefly discusses Tocqueville’s “science of association.” He writes, “Because democracy inclines human beings toward individualism, and thus to loneliness, Tocqueville felt that ‘the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one’” (129). The “miracle of political freedom” needs more than democracy. Politics acquires that miraculous character—it mirrors the miraculous—when it becomes Hermetic and practices democracy in a way that saves democracy from itself. Freedom, as the political miracle, as a “holy enterprise,” “depends on combining democratic elements with non-democratic elements, combining the goods brought about by equality with the goods brought about by the aristocratic desire for greatness” (129).

Tocqueville does not present a theory of political freedom, but perhaps gives us a description of how a political communion—the political friendship we call the “people”—is consummated in freedom. A consummation means a completion, a realization, and a perfection. In this case, we could say that freedom is a name we give to the consummation of political friendship, at least the political friendship of the American people.

Politics, as something like a mimesis of the gods, or as care of the people for themselves, must know itself as a consummation. If the people are without political articulation, they have not yet achieved—or have been prevented from achieving—the fullness of their own realization as a people, as a communion. And if the people experience the very mode of their own being as free—that is, if they already discover themselves and know each other as individuals and friends who are free to act, to speak, to think—then one might say that it is freedom that is the perfection in which friendships, personal and political, are hermetically forged. In Tocqueville’s science of association, political “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another” (129). So, if politics is to be the consummation or completion of “we the people,” who are the communion, then it must be a politics worthy of who we already experience ourselves to be.

In the first part of the The Form of Politics, von Heyking writes of sunaisthetic friendship that it is an “intellectual communion” that “seems to be the precondition as well as the culmination of the process by which humans join together in love and conversation” (37). To use the insights of the second part of the book, we might claim that every friendship or communion can be said to be Hermetic in that it is already a perfection that nonetheless still reaches out for its perfection. Perfection is the consummation already moving within the friendship, driving and measuring it. Friendship then is always a strangely incomplete perfection because the communion of friends is a participation in, and an ever more life-affirming attunement to, the order of being that can never finally be caught.

Politics too can approximate to the order of being when it models itself on the Hermetic Gestalt that is sunaisthetic friendship. Political freedom is like a “holy enterprise” because, as the realization of political friendship, it models itself on sunaisthetic love in which “the act of ‘joining’ [in friendship] depends on there being a plurality of determinate individuals. One must have a sense of oneself in order to give of oneself (see Politics 1263b5)” (42). To give oneself in friendship to the responsibilities of friendship is conditioned upon the freedom to give oneself continually. Friendship and freedom are no more inseparable than friendship and responsibility. Political friendship is a richer, more transparent friendship when the good that is loved in common is the very freedom by which citizens continually enter into the bonds of political friendship, for the sake of the responsibilities of political friendship.

Just as the story of von Heyking falling into the river might forge us into a communion of sunaisthetic friendship—and we would delight in being itself—so too does the mimetic chorus of singers, singing the story of tragedy, point our polity in philanthropia toward an ever greater approximation to the order of being. The Form of Politics is a superb recapturing and retelling of the classical insight that friendship—as the liminal reality that makes sense of both liberty and responsibility in persons and communities—is the indispensible foundation of a politics sprung from the common good, in service of that common good.



[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V. ch. 1, especially 1129b27-1130a14.

[2] Plato, Gorgias, 508a, (Bekker, 136). In The Works of Plato, trans. Henry Cary (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848), 211. The word “communion” is curiously absent in later translations.

[3] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in Classics of Modern Political Theory, ed. Stephen M. McCann (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 670.

[4] Martin Buber, The Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays, (Toronto: Humanity Books, 1988), 60, 67

[5] Tilo Schabert. The Second Birth: On the Political Beginnings of Human Existence. Translated by Javier Ibáñez-Noé. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 21.

[6] James Madison, Federalist #51 in Accessed April 27, 2018.

[7] Schabert, The Second Birth 57-8.


Please also see Joshua Bowman’s “Friendship and ‘Filthy’ Politics in Plato and Aristotle,” Carol Cooper’s “Contemplating 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.”

James Greenaway

James Greenaway is the Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Charles H. Miller M.D. Chair in Human Dignity at St. Mary's University in Texas. He is author of The Differentiation of Authority: The Medieval Turn toward Existence (Catholic University, 2012) and Belonging, Communion, and Being (Notre Dame, forthcoming).

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