“As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary.”
— C.S. Lewis, “Membership” in The Weight of Glory
One of the most painful realities of this seemingly interminable political season has been witnessing, and feeling, the rise of rancor and frustration toward our family, friends, and neighbors who think so differently than we do about this or that political issue, or this or that political candidate.
This is not unique, nor is it as bad as it has ever been. We’re not anywhere near Bleeding Kansas or brother against brother. But still. There are, were, normal rhythms of electoral disagreements and political bickering and partisanship in American politics. There are, or have been, limits.
We have a build-up and an election and the arguments and the political fighting and then . . . things settle down somewhat even as we know there’s another wave building, on its way out in the deep. Thanksgiving can be awkward around the table, but by Christmas we’re good.
But those limits feel like they’ve been stretched, broken, and obliterated during this season, starting with the 2016 presidential election and most recently with the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. The latest exclamation point is Hillary Clinton’s statement that Democrats should give up on civility. President Trump is not known for his civility either.
It is not just that we cannot see why our friend or family member supports a particular candidate or position. It’s deeper than that. It’s an inability to fathom such support coupled with a deep-seated fear that perhaps we don’t really know this person, that we cannot really like this person. That, deep down, we find in ourselves a mix of loathing and incomprehension battling with what our better instincts tell us should be our natural affection for friends and family.
This gets to one of the take-aways from the Lewis quotation above. Lewis was, among many other things, an Aristotelian. Yet his quotation is both Aristotelian and strikingly anti-Aristotelian.
It’s anti-Aristotelian in that Lewis didn’t think getting involved in “politics” was inherently wrapped up in what it means to live a flourishing human life. Aristotle did, though his polis differed a great deal from our public square.
Politics, Lewis thought, is purely instrumental, and this is his version of Aristotle at work. Politics is not an end or telos in itself; it’s a means. It’s what allows for the truly good things in life, like reading a good book, drinking a craft beer with a friend, or eating a family meal.
When working properly, politics is like your electric company or internet service provider. You don’t think about it that much, because you’re more interested in what it allows you to do; you think about it a great deal when your power goes out or your internet goes down. Hence Lewis’s quip from that same “Membership” essay that a “sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.”
One doesn’t have to completely accept that politics is essentially instrumental to appreciate the point. To the extent that we allow political differences to seep in and toxify our relationships with friends, family, and even citizens sharing the same neighborhood, we have allowed what is instrumentally valuable (politics) to poison what is intrinsically valuable (people, relationships).
Why do we do this? Political scientists have been working on this question of increased polarization in recent times, finding ways to describe and measure an increase in strong partisan identification while noting the extinction, more or less, of blue dog Democrats and moderate Republicans.
And there are surely several factors that have contributed to what feels like an increasingly severe divide, or divides, in our culture, whether because a Protestant-Catholic-Jew synthesis of American identity has fractured and we’re unsure what will replace it, and/or because we now fight more about incommensurable ends of the sort we see in the beginning of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue rather than the means by which to achieve agreed-upon goals.
Politics and friendship
I suspect part of the reason our politics feels so personal these days is because politics is inevitably about the good. This is another lesson from Aristotle. As he writes in the beginning of his Politics, “every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good.” Insofar as we love what we take to be good, this is the precursor of Augustine’s later definition of a commonwealth being defined by what the community loves.
The connection between our politics and our personal relationships then is due to what it means to love, and how love is intimately tied to friendship. And friendship is inextricably tied to our politics because everything political aims at a good.
In Book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three types of friendship. The first is a relationship based on usefulness. We are friends with someone else because that person can benefit us in some way, and for the “friendship” to work we also offer some benefit in return.
Society cannot really work without this sort of relationship, but it hardly qualifies as friendship. No one would be delighted to hear from a friend that this was the foundation of the friendship.
The second level of friendship thrives on the delight or enjoyment of being with a particular person. This is certainly a step up from the utility friendship, though even here we can sense something amiss. A true friend sticks closer than a brother even when we are not at our best, when we are not a joy to be around.
And thus Aristotle leads us to the third and most fundamental form of friendship: that grounded on love for the good of the other person for his or her own sake. This friendship is most valuable, and rare, and is at once both outwardly focused (because it is for the good of the other person) and inwardly connected (because a one-way commitment to another person’s good is not friendship).
If Aristotle is right, then, our truest and deepest friendships require a commitment to the other person’s good, and the other person’s commitment to our good. True friendship would then depend on a shared understanding of what is good, which then makes possible the conscious commitment to that person’s good even when such a commitment has no perceived utility and is less than pleasant.
I think with this understanding of friendship we can better understand why recent political seasons feel so personally vexing and exhausting. When our neighbors endorse a significantly different political vision than we do, we intuitively sense that this is more than a mere disagreement about how to solve a problem, like two college roommates on a road trip bickering over the best way to get to spring break.
This is a radical (to the root) disagreement about what counts as a problem in the first place. One college roommate is arguing about the best route to Florida while the other thinks Los Angeles is the destination. We cannot believe that Grandpa voted for him. We are aghast that our niece volunteered for her. This is why it is impossible to cleanly separate friendship from politics, and why we should feel some sense of alienation when our friends and our neighbors endorse a position we find wrong or even abhorrent.
Our politics reflects our sense of what’s good, and that’s intensely personal.
The importance of civility
This is where the civic virtue of civility comes in. Like any virtue, civility only takes root in our character through habit, and thus if we are unaccustomed to interacting regularly with those who differ from us on matters of the good, we will find civility difficult. And of course it is difficult. Civility is one of those virtues that you don’t need when people are singing the same tune.
A husband and wife getting along swimmingly don’t need to be civil, nor do best friends in the best of times. Civility is by definition exercised only when it’s needed, and that’s when we disagree about what is good and what we love.
Perhaps we need to add a fourth type of friendship to Aristotle’s scheme, that of civil friendship. This form of friendship could be useful and perhaps even enjoyable, but most importantly it partakes in the good of the other because we can agree that one component of our good is respect for others with whom we disagree about other fundamental aspects of the good.
The Christian, however, has a different and deeper source from which to draw in loving her fellow believer and her neighbor. The Christian can offer friendship to the non-believing neighbor, friend, or family member because the Christian is committed to the highest good, which is a who rather than a what.
The neighbor who is made in God’s image bears a relationship to the Good that requires even more than mere civility, as important as that is. We have it on high authority that we are to love our enemies. Surely this applies to our political adversaries as well.
And when it comes to the Christian who cannot understand why her co-religionist supports him, or stood with her, genuine friendship can still exist, even if frustrating and difficult, because both parties can be committed to the other person’s good, defined and embodied and empowered by the person of Jesus Christ.
Lewis’s remark above talks about “natural values,” yet relationship with Christ is the greatest supernatural good. This relationship to Christ and to each other as brothers and sisters heightens the tension and offers us the means to live with and through it. It heightens the tension because we cannot see how someone who shares our faith can identify with that party or that person or that position.
It offers us the means to live with and through the tension and the contradiction because we can call upon God to help us and our friend come to know the truth about how we should live, and how we should live with others with whom we strongly disagree.
All this is to say that I think Aristotle is right, and Lewis is right, about politics and friendship. But there is more to it than what Aristotle said.
My hope and prayer through this election season and the next is that Christians can practice love and friendship and patience and civility inside and outside the body of Christ, arguing well for the good of our country, while loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with our God and alongside our friends.
Micah Watson is Associate Professor of political science at Calvin College. Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.