Aristotle, friendship, justice, Politics

Friendship and the State

 In chapter 9 of book III of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the general relation between justice and the state. In the course of examining the relation of equality and inequality, Aristotle proposes that the state “exists for the sake of a good life, and not the sake of life only” (1279b31-32). Notice that the good is already predicated of the state in this statement, and it is because of this bias that Aristotle will conclude: “if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness in a life based on choice” (1279b33-34). Although happiness as an end for the virtuous life is one of Aristotle’s primary concerns, the emphasis on the choices that the political situation makes possible seems to conceal the fundamental lack of choices for the individual as well as the a priori nature of any state whatsoever. This assertion stems from Aristotle’s misunderstanding that the political arrangement of a state (whether constitutional or otherwise) has very little to do with the will or mood of the multitude, even if, in the last analysis, they are given priority in power because of their total quantity of property (cf. 1282a37-40).

 In other words, since Aristotle theorized earlier that the state precedes any individual which would constitute it (just as the whole precedes the parts), it seems to be false that the state would only consist of individuals for whom life was founded on a choice. Moreover, when Aristotle claims that the state is a community of families whose goal is self-perfection and self-sufficiency, he seems to undercut the primordial character of the state that would subordinate families for its own ends (i.e. his previous position). More fundamentally, he also seems to negate his earlier statement that political life had anything to do with a choice. He writes: “Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence there arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for to choose to live together is friendship” (1280b36-38 my emphasis). It then follows that our political environment is contingent and that friendship is only a choice in terms of choosing to live virtuously; only then could we call “living together” a choice, insofar as we choose not to live or strive against one another.

 The concept of friendship, which is analyzed in depth in the Nicomachean Ethics, in relation to political choice can be better illustrated in reference to the pre-eminent individual (1284a10-15). The pre-eminent individual is a person whose excellence, especially in political affairs, overshadows that of anyone else. In fact, Aristotle admits that they are “God among men” and that “legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are equal in birth and in capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent excellence there is not law—they are themselves a law.” In this sense, they are above the law simply by being at the very center of it. Men of this caliber may find it difficult to find friends because of a lack of equals suitable for them, but the important point is that the example of the man above the law logically leads to the counterexample, i.e. that of the ostracized man, the outlaw, those beneath the law (1284a34-36). 

What is characteristic of these singular positions in society is the fact that they have nothing to do with a political choice, at least in the straightforward sense in which Aristotle presents his argument. If we were to agree that these positions could be characterized by choice, we would be forced to look at the more fundamental phenomena at work in the unconscious of the society as a whole. In other words, ostracizing someone from political life and incarnating them in the very fabric of the law constitute the extreme forms under which the balance of justice and friendship in the state come to take on their most dissymmetrical distributions of equality and inequality. But it is also here that justice as friendship, as the (anonymous) perpetuation of noble deeds in the absence of a telos, can illustrate the very inconsistency of the social bond (Badiou).

justice, Plato, Politics, sameness, the Republic

On Recognition, or Why Dogs Make Great Philosophers

There are various moments in the Republic, especially in book II which we will focus on here, where justice is elusively illustrated according to those to whom justice is attributed, i.e. proceeding from types which partake in or lay claim to justice and showing by example not only the essence of justice but how it is in itself good. Now, obviously all of this is evident from the text and does not require repeating except to remind the reader, in a sense, the directionality of the arguments through which Socrates proceeds. It would also be obvious to point out how Socrates dialectically presupposes the subordination of the individual to the polis or State, which is manifested through his own “sacrifice” to Athens memorialized in the Crito and the Apology. What I would like to do here is instead to bear this in mind and stop upon a crucial passage in the text that concerns the “natural aptitudes” fitting for a guardian of the state in order to first analyze an example of this procedure from types and then, from there, to make some remarks about the general role of “philosophy” in the Republic along with the manifestation of an implicit argument of the text: namely, that philosophy is necessary for the cultivation of justice.

Let us situate ourselves, for our paths are narrow and fragmentary. After discussing the different duties which are required for the industriousness of a State, Socrates brings up the crucial question about the guardians of the state. It could be interpreted that these guardians would represent the elite elders governing the city, yet these passages do stress the physical requirements along with the necessity of fearlessness and bravery in battle (II 375). Warriors, Socrates argues, need swiftness, braveness, and spirit. Yet they must be gentle, they must be able to treat those like them with fairness. If you remember from the text earlier, Socrates makes the argument that the just man does not wish to exceed others like him. In the same sense, guardians must have a complex mixture of behaviors and instincts: they must combine fearlessness and gentleness. The example given of an animal that combines these traits is found in that of the dog.

In fact, Socrates asks, “Is not the noble youth very like a well-bred dog in respect of guarding and watching?” But, to complexify the argument, Socrates also argues that the dog is very much like a philosopher because “he distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing” (II 376b). Before returning to this statement, we can almost sketch a syllogism with major and minor premises:

Major premise: Every noble youth is like a well-bred dog.

Minor premise: Every well-bred dog is like a philosopher.

Conclusion: Every noble youth is like a philosopher.

The cornerstone to this argument is the very nature of justice, for Socrates remarks “he who is likely to be gentle to his friends and acquaintances must by nature be a lover of wisdom.” And, not to jump ahead of ourselves, the reason why the following pages are concerned with censorship are precisely because Socrates is addressing a crucial question of breeding: how do we breed the noble youth into a well-bred dog, i.e. how do we instill justice into the youth, i.e. how do we breed the philosopher? For we are reminded after the claim that: “he who is to be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in himself philosophy and spirit and swiftness and strength.”

In other words, what makes the noble youth like a well-bred dog is the presence of philosophy instilled into the essence of his very being. This installation is what allows for the cultivation of justice precisely because justice is defined within the limits of the known and the unknown, i.e. of the like and the unlike. This leads to some startling conclusions: Greek philosophy and ethics are founded on the subordination of the Other, the Stranger, to the Same, which is to say that Greek justice is logocentrically normative or, in another sense, is too worried about the neighbor, the nearest, such that the furthest, in Nietzsche’s political sense, are precisely ignored or non-represented in terms of the situation. Where does this argument stem from?

To come full circle, the dog’s virtue is precisely in his recognition of the face of the Other in relation to that of the Same. As a crucial result, philosophy and justice come to reinforce each other on this basic principle: that the love of knowledge is the exaltation of the Same, and for philosophy to express its domination, the unlike must be rendered unto justice, which is to say that it must be made into the Same. Consequently, the Other and the Stranger are always on the other side of justice, justice always seems to slope off asymptotically upon verging with the unlike. As Laruelle would remind us, though, we are all Strangers in-the-last-instance, which means that the criterion of Sameness and Difference will not help us here if we are to think a completely human notion of justice. On the other hand, Deleuze has convincingly argued that justice does not exist, and where it does exist it must have been constructed, and hence it must have always already been jurisprudence, i.e. it must evolve according to a situation. This is why it becomes disingenuous for Socrates to not only promote the praise of the gods but also to change their very nature through the censorship of literature. Obviously, Socrates’ justice is constructed in such a way that its jurisprudence shows the inherent injustice in the system, for the freedom to know and question are denied to the common folk: what is left is the freedom to obey. Hence the freedom to know must be pre-established: one must be bred for it…

awareness, Hegel, justice, language, law, levinas, objectivity, ontology, Politics, reason, society, teaching, time, tyranny

Hegel and Universality

(by Will Godfrey)[Photograph by Will Godfrey]

In an essay Hoffmeister suggests was written in 1808 or 1809, Hegel — certainly not without some irony — identifies an important ethical connection between abstract thought and power:

Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated, not the educated. Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) — not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter.

[G. W. F. Hegel, Who Thinks Abstractly?]

Abstract thinking sets the thinker apart from good society, for their general opinion considers it too easy, too small, too obvious, even in poor taste. As Hegel understands it, abstraction is that faculty through which we spontaneously discover nothing in the subject but an abstracted notion of his concrete behavior. The inner life, the event of being, the very actuality of the will, is subsumed beneath an objective product. Ontology precludes apology.

Judgment indeed confirms the event in its original and fundamental movement, but every human quality in us is erased by the absolute imposition of a simple meaning — the reduction of living to some finite series of directions: past-tense, third-person verbs. Thus abstract thought — which we will now recognize as something common, even inferior or “ignoble,” at least in its operation and chosen material — functions effectively as providing (social) justification for punishing, terrorizing and humiliating others: “This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.” (ibid) Our capacity for abstract thought is what allows the army officer to beat a soldier like a dog, like an object, without any trace of empathy.

However, somewhat paradoxically, it can also be seen as that faculty whereby we become capable of transcending simple explanations for complex phenomena, and for recognizing the corruption of morality indicated by the folly of such ‘abstract’ justifications: “This woman saw that the murderer’s head was struck by the sunshine and thus was still worthy of it. She raised it from the punishment of the scaffold into the sunny grace of God, and instead of accomplishing the reconciliation with violets and sentimental vanity, saw him accepted in grace in the higher sun.” [ibid] Abstract thought may be considered then as similar to a faculty of metaphor, a kind of improvised or dancing thought which reaches the real only indirectly, as though it had to be transmitted by an “untrustworthy” third.

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ego, freedom, humanity, justice, other, peace, philosophy, Politics, truth, war

Explosions in the Sky

Common to both capitalism and democracy is competition as the basic principle of social organization. Politics in a purely competitive key has a majoritarian ring — it is monistic, totalizing, self-absorbed — whereas philosophy from the competitive perspective — and we may wonder whether there have yet been any others — are egologies. The complementary model, or sharing, has been more frequently preached than practiced. Yet it is the meaning of language: the demand for social justice is expression par excellence, the very thirst for peace. Both violence and love aim for the other in their vulnerability, but only in non-violence can truth reconcile us together.

Like a smooth or empty space, peacefulness operates without principle, without direction, without form. Yet even as a formal relation to another, it connotes a kind of difficult freedom, a consciousness which refuses to compete, which questions not its abilities but rather itself as such. A force grasps hold of us, an explosion which limits without thereby enslaving us — a relationship which forms the lineaments of a new kind of relationship between human beings, as well as between human beings and themselves.

Yet non-violence would never really be an emptiness, a pure void or absolute gap — even if war enjoys the practical status of something like an ultimate cosmic principle. While the future may appear bleak, I believe we can find a way to think, act and speak together, singularly as well as plurally, and to do so more peacefully — that is to say: more freely, more honestly, more creatively, more joyously.

The difficulty of freedom is also the problem of war: it lies entirely within the fact that the future demands our service as individuals. There is no middle-ground. We become responsible for slavery, which faces us at every turn as the “primal” injustice. The material conditions of others, the ravages wreaked upon human beings by historical “consequence,” present us with a non-transferrable ethical demand, one which is active in a concrete and fundamental sense in every dimension of life. Inhumanity is a silent anonymity, the obliteration of language, freedom and society all at once — a negative indication of the primacy of our responsibility.

Peace can only begin with myself. The passivity such a mode of human existence implies indicates a kind of subjectivity completely different than the one we have inherited from Greek philosophy. Yet passivity indicates not a lack of reason, but rather the submission to a dimension of absolute externality: a responsibility which is unlimited, which is not a debt, which is not restricted by the extent of an active commitment.

The hostages’ responsibility for their captor.

Aristotle, difference, ethics, ethnology, friendship, happiness, humanity, justice, light, Plato, Politics, science, society, spiritual evolution

Happiness or Justice? Ethics and the Politics of Friendship

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.


In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life they incite to noble deeds.

A true friend is one soul in two bodies…


There is an important sense in which Aristotle’s political and ethical project is well-studied in the Platonic method of questioning and re-evaluating conventional priorities and relationships between spiritual elements. Both projects re-discover in traditional virtues a philosophical power which they express in dialogues, encapsulating critical or diagnostic re-evaluations of specific mental and social priorities. The unspoken consonance (implication) here is interesting, and merits reflection: that the old social values and relations are themselves capable of producing new procedures, contain within themselves the power or potential to radically reformulate the ‘axiomatic’ rules and relations between material and psychic agencies.

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Aristotle, character, classical philosophy, ethics, eudamonia, happiness, justice, law, Plato, Politics, virtue

Outline of Aristotle’s Ethics


“We make war that we may live in peace.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics — 1177b (Book X, Chapter 7)

Let’s try to understand this work first through the method by which its project is assembled, the way the text functions.

In general Ta Ethika has three phases or stages of development: (a) a general, in-depth study of the “good” and the “good life”; (b) an analysis of moral virtue or excellence; and (c) an investigation into social ethics, or ethics within society.

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democracy, justice, nationalism, Nietzsche, socialism, universal politics, utopia

Nietzsche’s Glance at the State: Socialism, Nationalism, Universalism


In January of 1872, less than a year after Germany officially becomes a nation, Nietzsche gives a series of five lectures at the University of Basel on the future of our educational/cultural institutions. Six years later in section 8 of Human All Too Human we find Nietzsche discussing the future of political institutions and the fate of European nations. One of the questions that Nietzsche asks in his analysis of socialism, nationalism and democracy is whether or not these political orientations are strong enough for an affirmative investment in the development of cultural forces­, investments that one day will lead to institutions that address the true needs of all of humanity (476). Nietzsche always comments on different state organizations in terms of their speeds of evolution and lifespan.

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