Despite being more interconnected than at any time in our history, America is experiencing a friendship crisis. Americans, especially men, have far fewer friends than in decades past. The number of men who say they have no close friends at all has tripled since the early 1990s. This data comports with a recurrent theme in surveys over the past ten years.
Despite these warnings, we have failed as a political community to consider this problem—much less genuinely address it. We rightly bemoan the downfall of marriages and the broken families they entail, but we must also care about the friendlessness rampant among us because it damages the lives of our people and corrodes our polity. John Adams recognized our political duty to address this problem: He believed “the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness.” Similarly, Cicero observed that “life can never be anything but joyless which is without the consolation and companionship of friends.”
The present friendlessness has distinctly modern causes. Social media, long work hours, and COVID-19 lockdowns amplify our feelings of isolation. Moreover, we do not understand the core political nature and import of friendship. To recognize this, we can draw on the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who provides a poignant discussion of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle highlights the importance of friendship to the individual. Similar to Cicero, he states, “without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other good.” The fact that, for Aristotle, politics is the governing science, the one that orders the other sciences in the context of political community toward human happiness, makes something this fundamental politically salient. Additionally, Aristotle argues that friendship is important because our citizenship, rightly understood, includes an element of friendship. Thus, politics’ purpose as the science of social happiness, as well as the issue of citizenship itself, makes friendship an important political matter.
Aristotle helps explain why friends matter so much within his division of friendship. He categorizes friendships based on either use, pleasure, or virtue.
Aristotle sees use-based friendship as the lowest kind of friendship. People can attain a level of general civility and basic, mutual aid with this friendship, but it is the form of friendship most susceptible to selfishness and instability—unraveling the second the use no longer attains. It can thereby teach bad habits for friendship and inculcate perpetual, calculating disloyalty. Such a friendship is better than nothing, however, as it at least presents some degree of a hedge against misfortune and poverty, as well as fulfilling some element of our social nature. In addition, the low can give rise to the high, morally speaking; by bringing people together for mutual needs, those same persons can begin to develop better forms of friendship.
Friendships of pleasure present more beneficial opportunities, though this depends on the source of pleasure. For example, pleasure in the basest of objects does little good and much ill. This point proves especially true in our own day, obsessed as we are with pleasure, especially in the use of our and others’ bodies. The extreme sexualization of our culture is the main manifestation of this point. One might think here of our hook-up culture, in which people use each other for physical pleasure. Pornography might be seen, too, as a false form of friendship for pleasure, with the viewer seeking sexual gratification and the viewed possibly seeking monetary or other forms of gain. Better options exist for common satisfaction. True beauty can form bonds, with the friends gaining pleasure in mutually appreciating an excellent film, a lovely painting, or a perfectly executed play in football.
Beyond specific forms of pleasure, Aristotle makes a more fundamental point about human nature. He argues that humans are largely driven by pleasure, which is a part of happiness. As he puts it, “nature appears to avoid most of all what is painful and to aim at what is pleasant.” This involves friendship, too. Lacking friendship means lacking the many varieties of pleasure it brings. But we must seek better foundations of pleasure for friendship, not deny that basic human good.
Finally, Aristotle sees friendships based on virtue as the highest kind of friendship. For Aristotle, virtue consists of a disposition toward the good that results in right action. This good disposition and consequent deeds divide into a series of characteristics, such as courage, justice, prudence, and liberality. Friendships based on virtue accentuate those goods by giving common companionship in them. “Iron sharpens iron,” the Bible says in Proverbs 27:17. So too do virtuous friends encourage and make better each other. In the wider view, virtue-based friendship benefits nations as a whole; the more friendships based on virtue a country contains, the more likely that the country will produce persons of noble character. Subsequently, these persons will practice the virtues in our communities and for those communities’ good.
These categories of friendship have political implications. Aristotle believes that citizenship itself is a form of friendship. He notes that “like-mindedness seems to resemble friendship” because it consists of something two or more people hold in common and from which they either derive use, pleasure, or in which they see the good. Thus, we need good friendships not just because we need to care about our citizens’ happiness. We need strong friendships because our citizenship makes up one form of those bonds. Our like-mindedness politically involves shared principles, history, geography, language, and other factors. In this sense, as Aristotle observes, “friendship holds cities together.” If anyone wonders why our partisan divides run so deep, the answer partly resides in seeing fellow citizens as foes, not comrades.
Our understanding of patriotism relates to the forms of friendship previously described. A patriotism based on “use” has some merit, though it will be fickle, always asking what the country can do for us.
A patriotism of “pleasure” might love America for the wrong reasons, taking pleasure in its worst moments or redefining it against its principles. Rather than loving our commitment to liberty and equality, some might see those things we have sought to overcome, like slavery, racism, and other ills, as the real goods. That’s a pretty fringe position, though. More people, instead, go the opposite route, attacking America’s principles as inherently unjust, building bonds with each other in antagonism to our common history and citizenship. These become friendships of mutual hatred, partisanships whose pleasure derives from canceling enemies.
Friendships of virtue, however, avoid all of these problems for patriotism. These friendships will promote the country’s best qualities and not its vices. Aristotle notes that while these friendships involve use and pleasure, they are ordered correctly. These friendships will find use and pleasure in America based on her best qualities, such as the manifestations of justice and truth in the country’s founding and throughout its history.
Our common love of ordered liberty, of equality before the law, and of the Americans who articulated and acted upon these points, already maintains political friendship among us. More important, these friendships will work toward higher realizations of these qualities, while seeking to purify what vices remain. They are the friends that can sing of America as in the text that concludes the second verse of “America the Beautiful”: “God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law!”
Lawmakers, however, face challenges in cultivating any friendships, much less the best kind. This challenge comes to the fore in Aristotle’s other dividing line for friendships: equality and inequality. Equality seems essential to friendship, since holding something in common is a kind of equality. Yet, not all regime types affirm equality between citizens. This presents a problem for citizenship and is the reason Aristotle combines his discussion of friendship with one on political regimes. One must address the issue of equality to adequately consider friendship from a political perspective.
Later in Book Eight, Aristotle reiterates the division between the proper rule of one, few, and many (kingship, aristocracy, and timocracy or polity), and their distortions (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy). We hope that citizens can be friends with each other and with their rulers. But that may work in different ways, or face different challenges, depending on the type of government.
Kingship is founded most decidedly on inequality, which makes likeness, and therefore holding things in common, difficult. Even friendship between citizens faces obstacles in this regime since hierarchy becomes a norm regulating all areas of the social order.
Aristocracy, too, is founded on inequality, though the distinction falls between the two large groups of nobles and commoners rather than a monarchy’s greater subdivisions of its subjects. This aristocratic set-up can accentuate the skirmishes between citizens, creating permanent class warfare. But it does create one basis for friendship—more citizens within each class who hold something in common.
Aristotle sees these inequalities as addressable. To make distinct portions of society friends despite their inequalities, one must proportion and distinguish what each class receives. Some might have more needs than others. Thus, political friendship may involve the provision of a social safety net. Some might merit more honor. Political offices or even awards could address that. The task of the legislator is great in finding a way that these distinct groups can receive what they each deserve and still hold their citizenship in common. But the task, while hard, is possible to achieve. They can be friends despite their differences. Their differences can feed friendship, showing mutual needs that can build into mutual pleasures and, hopefully, mutual virtues.
Polity or timocracy, finally, is based on equality. Friendship seems easiest and most natural in this regime. Our citizenship is based on our common humanity and America’s claim that all men are created equal. But polities still face problems with friendship — over who should rule or how they can strain or break bonds between persons.
One may chaff under the commands of a friend or refuse to share with him or her in the exercise of that rule, acting in a despotic fashion. We often see examples of friendships that dissolve into fighting when these persons go into business together or form some other venture where they have to share command. In particular, citizens in a popular regime might fall prey to such destructive forces. As much as some might want their rule to resemble domination, popular governments must seek political ground in partnership. Political rule, Aristotle says, consists of ruling or being ruled in part or in turn. That sharing must form a basis for politics among equal citizens. Thus, we must consider not just that we disagree but how we do so. Friendships can involve a debate about justice. But they must remain between those who see a common bond between them.
Other forms of friendships also present thorny questions for a politics aiming to cultivate this necessary good. In particular, popular governments like America must consider where friendships undermine or aid their principles of equality and liberty. Slavery, for example, bears a resemblance to tyranny. It inculcates the demerits of such a regime in the souls of those who act as masters and as slaves, proving antagonistic to the American regime itself. The relationship between parents and children, on the contrary, appears more like that between monarch and subject. Since they are temporary and pointed toward cultivating free and equal citizens upon maturation, this relationship proves necessary even to a political community founded on equality. Thus, civic education begins in the home and the home should receive adequate protection and support from the laws.
Moreover, Aristotle compares marriage to aristocracy. At first blush, this designation would mean either the man or the woman rules alone according to who possesses the most virtue. Aristotle’s marital aristocracy, however, divides tasks between husband and wife based on whose virtue best suits him or her for the job. Granted, Aristotle begins with the husband, who then leaves the tasks for which he is deficient to his wife. Yet much equality remains in this version of aristocracy’s allocation of merit. This perspective receives support from the fact that Aristotle elsewhere compares the rule between spouses as “political” in the rule-sharing sense previously discussed. The fact that so many do not get married, and others divorced when they do, presents political problems grounded in the issue of friendship.
The growing friendlessness in American society is a contemporary tragedy for individuals. Yet it proves a political one as well. Our public policy must facilitate and promote friendship both at the level of citizen and in private relationships.
At the private level, this entails a robust re-founding of community. We must encourage the civil associations that Tocqueville celebrated in Americans of the 1830s. Cultivating the mediating “little platoons” found in gatherings of religious groups, book clubs, and hunting associations all can do much good on this project. They can help articulate meaning, worth, and dignity for the individuals involved. Perhaps the way our tax code aids charitable organizations can be expanded to other forms of association, giving a financial incentive to start organizations that will facilitate common bonds.
At the political level, we must rebuild small towns and neighborhoods. They must become hubs of political activity so citizens can see, talk to, and develop relationships with each other. The internet presents a barrier to this needed change. We measure our community too much by the number of Twitter likes and Facebook “friends,” creating for ourselves a desert of true companionship. Instead, we should move away from our keyboards and toward cultivating real interactions with real human beings. Reinvigorating federalism would move us in this direction as well, as we find more concrete ways to exercise citizenship and the bonds it entails locally.
Finally, we must work to aid the quality of friendships. Can our education system move away from its focus on creating workers and cultivating humans and citizens? It should do so not only because true education seeks to elevate the soul, not just give skills for employment. That emphasis also would form more lasting, healthier grounds for friendship. Such friendships would help us to know ourselves and others in light of what is good, true, and beautiful.
Aristotle’s ancient perspective still applies to our modern context of friendlessness. Accomplishing this goal will be a generational task, but we must urgently work toward it. What country would want to live otherwise?