More thoughts from the Eighth Day Symposium Friday and Saturday, and again from Ken Myers.
I’ll try to distinguish direct quotes from my summaries or paraphrases. I consider none of what’s below today my original contribution, and if something appears plagiarized, it must be because I inadvertently omitted a credit that Ken Myers did give, which credits were given lavishly.
Reminder: The topic was “Cultivating Friendship in a Fractured Age.”
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Plato and Aristotle both agreed that stimulating moral virtue primarily takes the form of conversation, of speaking with one another. The aim of politics in Aristotle is “living well in a polity of justice, which justice is practiced by citizens who live in virtue-forming friendships.” Friendship and politics are thus mutually dependent in Aristotle. Life in the larger community requires virtuous citizens whose affections have been trained to love the good within noble friendships. And the polity was committed to protecting the space for such friendships.
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What Poem or novel since Tennyson’s “In Memorium” has celebrated friendship? Eros has innumerable modern literary examples, while David & Jonathan and other historic examples of friendship have few or none. We admit mens’ need for “a few friends” only grudgingly.
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Aristotle deals with justice in in a single book in the Ethics. Friendship fills two books. It fills less than a page in Kant.
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Modern political theory banished friendship to the private realm so it would have no influence on politics. Our anthropology assumes that humans are such that government exists to protect individual rights to live as we please. In this theory, society is not an integrated body, with its own health.
Government exists, in other words, to protect us from one another. We’re interest-seeking, rights-bearing atoms. That atomistic individualism spills into private life, reconfiguring all relationships. We even approach friendship, when we approach it at all, as if we’re trying to get a good bargain.
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Oliver O’Donovan thinks angry political backlash comes from somewhere deeper than loss of inclusion, but from a perception that modern politics is morally unintelligible, because justice is not being done to people’s full humanity. We’re so tutored in individualism that we lack the vocabulary to describe how politics has abandoned seeking the objective good of communities.
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Christians believe that community is good for individuals, but they do not believe that society exists to serve individuals’ private purposes.
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Once society is thought of s an agreement … between competing wills, the cloud of competition never lifts from it.
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Speech has lost its orientation toward deliberating about the common good. Political speech is about managing and allocating competing claims about the good.
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“Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” (I think that’s from Alistair Macintyre) Because we’ve abandoned the idea that communities are bound by common objects of love, modern liberalism tells us that our nature and dignity are honored, and that
“we’ll be happy, when we’re completely from from any constriction on the pursuit of our desires. We’ll be happy when we get to define what happiness is on our own terms.”
If we assume this … then if we find we’re not happy, then we assume we’re just not free enough, and we turn to the government to expand our freedom. “Let us define what marriage is,” for instance …
But what if happiness depends on submitting to an understanding of happiness that we didn’t invent? What if we can only be free when we honor an understanding of freedom rooted in certain truths about our nature, an understanding shared by and received from our community?”
I confess my interest in political philosophy is a relatively new thing. It was energized significantly as we lived through the surreal election year of 2016. And I began asking myself “Is what we’re living through a sign of the failure of our political structures or is it the logical outcome of a system with critical design flaws? Is it actually succeeding, and this is what success looks like?”
I’ve come to believe that a more hopeful future requires the radical revision of some basic beliefs about public life — about the relationship between state and society, the purposes of government and about how the ordering of temporal affairs must account for the full reality of what we are as human persons. And those are finally theological questions.
A number of thinkers much more experienced and wiser than I have suggested that we have a really hard time imagining radically different paradigms for political life.
And I think that what we need to jump start our imaginations is a renewed understanding of, and more importantly practice of, friendship … It is to do with a reciprocal sharing of all that is good. Only secondarily is it about organizing the distribution of material goods and designing laws that are always somewhat arbitrary.
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“While saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.” (John Dewey) Be a saint anyway. (Tipsy)