Skip to content

Friendship, Part II: Aristotle and Romantic Friendship

Cross-posted from Genetic Method.

In my last post on friendship, I responded to my friend Ashley Vaught’s questions about the role of proximity in friendship in Aristotle.  I  consider some questions there about whether virtue friendship is possible when we are still on the way to becoming completely virtuous.  I was left wondering how we can ever become virtuous if we need friends to become virtuous but we can’t be virtue friends before we are completely virtuous.  Perhaps it isn’t just that friendship is impossible, but rather that our friends who help us become virtuous must be more virtuous than we are.  One possibility is that virtue in Aristotle unlike in Plato can be partial and always underway since virtue is practiced and requires a practice of ethical perception which is then limited based on our individual habits of seeing.  Against the view that friends become virtuous and then become capable of having complete and virtuous friendships with us, I think that Aristotelian virtue friends make us have more complete virtue because together we can see better, ethically speaking.  It is not lost on me that my exchange with Ashley over friendship in Aristotle illustrates how friends help us see more and better.  I appreciate the meta-ness of that more and better being about how friends help us see more and better.

So this brings me to the question of whether romantic friendships are instances of complete friendships — Ashley thought that might be so today because they satisfy many of the conditions of complete friendship, but that Aristotle didn’t mean this because he didn’t think of women as equal to men and thus not capable of friendship.  I’d contest that to some degree given that he describes the relationship between men and women as political and political rule as that which is between those who are free and equal. But let’s concede that Aristotle might have meant complete friendship as that which is between those old leisurely men who sat around and thought about life together (I picture the old guys in Greek cafés who sit around all day chatting with nary a woman in sight). The more I think about it, the more I think that there is not an easy answer to this question. In this post then I don’t promise to offer any answers but to raise more questions and concerns about how we think about friendship in Aristotle and how investigating romantic friendship might further illuminate those questions.

Complete friendship is between equals. In a patriarchal society, we have no reason to assume that romantic relationships are between equals. Aristotle’s complete friendships seem to be not only between men but also between Greeks, precisely because barbarians could not be seen to be equal to Greeks, so the Greeks could not be friends, complete friends, with barbarians. Derrida argues in Rogues: Two Essays on Reason that democracy for Plato was a ruse, a sharing in turns that appeared to allow for difference, but always required that one be equal, the same, having the same sight of the good, in order to rule.  But Aristotle’s account of friendship seems to acknowledge the lack, the incompleteness, even of complete friendship, where one cannot fully see one’s own virtue or deliberate as well alone as with others.

I have a hard time thinking about this without thinking about Danielle Allen’s Talking With StrangersAllen argues that Aristotle’s account of political friendship can help us think about racial reconciliation by showing how the undue burden of sacrifice on Black Americans is injustice because it requires an unequal contribution by equals.  Allen’s account suggests that friendship then requires challenging our notion of what constitutes equality.  Friendships are unequal when unequal demands are made for their success, as when peace is maintained by asking people to stop complaining about racism and thus making the victims of racism pay for the success of the political friendship.  Or in romantic relationships, when women bear the emotional load or the moral compass of the relationship.  If political life is a matter of justice because it is a matter of equality, then friendship too is political, and it can involve the same difficulties as political life, though perhaps with more goodwill.  Liberal feminists like Susan Moller Okin point to the problems with thinking that romantic or family relationships need not concern themselves with equality or justice in Justice, Gender and the Family.  The lives of the closest proximity in contemporary life are romantic ones and this closeness has been what kept or discouraged people from demanding equality and justice in these relationships.  But that liberal model of the family, which argues the problem is that rights are properly distributed, contributes to our view of koinonia, whether between two or ten thousand, as the competition of resources, whether they be rights or recognition.

So yesterday was Alain Badiou’s birthday and I’m reminded of Badiou’s inclusion of lovers in his list of the kinds of subjects produced by an event.  Love is the event, and the subject-of-two is what is formed in fidelity to that event, an event which changes the way that you see the world.  I’m not saying Aristotle is Badiouian, but complete friendship might be better understood as this kind of subject-of-two in a way that sees the friendship as a common activity that manifests something in the commonality, and a commonality, a community, that must be worked on, investigated, considered, improved.  Such a conception can serve as an antidote to the force that the concept of the self as a discrete subject has on our thinking.

One obstacle to thinking romantic relationships as complete friendships is not just that they are gendered and unequal, but that culturally gendered expectations infuse our romantic relationships in ways that seem to demand that partners perform their gender well for the sake of the community formed by the friendship.  Such demands are manifested in the “you-complete-me” Disney version of what romantic friendships ought to look like, which keep us from allowing for the kind of freedom we tend to allow our friends.  That seems to make romantic friendship about fulfilling what we need (a partner who reflects well on us and fills the needs that we imagine we have according to a certain view of romance, and one might say, of happiness) rather than about the opportunity to live a virtuous life, to fill out one’s view of life from a virtuous perspective that a complete friend offers Aristotle.  The other side of that is it makes romantic friendship about negotiating needs.  When people talk about marriage as sacrifice they are drawing on a model of romantic friendship that says you have to give up what you want and what would make you happy in order to make your partner happy and such a willingness to be for-the-other will produce a successful romantic friendship.  I’ve been struck in my efforts to write about friendship just how pervasive is the view of the individual as a subject that has a sphere of wants and needs that she then negotiates the world to fulfill.  This giving up some things and demanding satisfaction in other areas entails this modern sense of who we are as subjects metaphysically separated from one another, agents who have to reach out and give up something or demand something in order to be and to be happy.  In my understanding of him, Aristotle doesn’t think about ethical and political life in terms of responsibilities to others, but rather, in terms of actions that make this shared life good, an account that binds self-care and the flourishing of community.  Even the language of self-care seems insufficient because it seems to tell too well in advance that I am a self who reaches out beyond my self to others.  Aristotle is explicit about how our self-sufficiency is communal.

If we are cultivating a subject-of-two in friendship and in romantic friendships, then it seems that we live wanting what is good for our partners not because we are obliged and somehow less independent (which is a bit of a neoliberal capitalist myth anyway), but because it is our opportunity to be generous and just.  We remain concerned with equality and injustice and who is contributing more or less not because we are keeping our own tallies, but because we want the success of the community formed by these relationships (which is not to presuppose a self that formed prior to or separately from community) not to be unduly borne by one party (à la Allen).  But even more that we don’t see the community of the complete friendship as formed by separate parties with separate agendas who come together and reconcile their agendas in order to be happy (such business world terminology is also why the term ‘partner’ seems to make of relationships the space of competition over resources — why oh why do we let capital make us think of our relationships in this way?).

I thank my husband in the Acknowledgements to my book by saying that our lives together prove that the deliberate choice to live together constitutes friendship, a line from Aristotle’s Politics.  Deliberate choice, prohairesis, is a sense of reaching out toward something rather than willing a decision.  Reaching out toward something can be done collectively and reaching out toward sharing life seems to capture something of Badiou’s notion of the subject-of-two.  I worried when I wrote that sentence in my Acknowledgements that it sounds like I’m not saying enough.  These reflections have assured me that I am.

Update: Since I initially published this post, I read the chapter from Sara Ahmed’s book, The Promise of Happinessin which she talks about how “we’re friends” becomes a way of dismissing and safeguarding queer kinship ties in a way that draws on the sense that friendship means something less than romantic friendships has come to mean, but also involves recognizing the sense that “friendship” might be a subversive way to think and talk about romantic kinship beyond the traditional expectations of those relationships.

No comments yet

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: