Universitas, Number 9, September 2001

Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, not always having been asked

On Civic Friendship

John Ziegler

There is something that is so very obvious to everyone that it is in danger of becoming invisible: the need for civic friendship.

Comparison is made between the human organism of the individual person and the 'organism' that is human society. On this comparison there is a correspondence between the levels of life of the person and levels to be distinguished in society.

Thus human life is together vegetative (nutrition, growth, generation), sensitive (sense knowledge, the emotions) and intellective (practical and speculative). Philosophical sociology sees in society corresponding levels: to the level of vegetative life, there is the body economic: to sensitive life, the body recreative: to intellective life at the practical level, the body politic: and to speculative intellective life there is the body cultural.

Lest this comparison seem a little forced, think of this: the vegetative life of a body is what must exist in order that there be life at all. The body must conserve itself alive - nutrition; it must reach a size appropriate to it (mosquitoes can't behave like elephants) - growth; and conserve its species - generation. Well, what corresponds to that vegetative life in human society, that it be actually social, and grow, and not only sustain itself but even be capable of founding others, is first of all, the basic social life of economic activity: that men swap to mutual benefit. Aristotle had said that man is naturally social, and is fundamentally so at this level of being what we call civilised and he called political. The alternative to swapping is hard labour indeed for the really solitary.

Persons become social if they need the help of others, and also because they have good to offer to others. Man is social for both reasons at once.

Social philosophers speak of an association of persons, like a club, as a moral person, by which they mean that it has a certain entity as a unit for acting; and that in this it has, as a unit, rights and obligations. This is so with associations as widely taken as the State, the parish, the tennis club.

We would do well to remember, though, the saying a friend of mine had when speaking of the State: that it is a brainless abstraction. It is the members of the State that really are the persons: who live, suffer, die, and in spite of that, survive (Greek philosophy had proved that the human soul is immortal). The State does none of these, unless we drastically alter the meanings of live, suffer, die, survive. The State can only be said to be a person in a drastically altered meaning of 'person': which is what is meant by 'moral person'. That strange aberration that is totalitarianism acts (we, in our generation, have seen, and still see, it act) as though this were not true: as though the State were the only real person, and the citizens just pawns.

Well, that's not quite true. I doubt that we have ever seen a genuine, theoretical, totalitarian state in our day. What always seems to happen is that someone takes note of the bit about the citizens being pawns and contrives to bring that part about while for his own part enjoys the job of being boss.

Now, as with a living body, a certain unifying principle is required in order that any human society, be it the tennis club or a nation, cohere and operate as a unit. In the case of the living body, that unifying principle is natural; in the case of human society there is something of nature, and something of human will.

There must be something of human will, since any human association of the free has a basis in freedom. But there is also something of nature. Thus, of human societies, we have a maximum from nature in the family, but still it has its origin in freedom. Next, there is the nation, the State. Here there is a large element of nature, as Aristotle had remarked: saying also that whoever would live without human society is either a beast (sub-human) or a god (super-human). But for all that, the nation requires a common will. Finally, there are the more 'optional' societies, less originating from nature and more free, such as clubs; and the Church. Here, obviously, good will is paramount for cohesion, in proportion as the influence of nature, propelling us into such societies, is less.

Still, there is something natural in every free act. Consider my freely willing myself a beer on a hot day. Now, first, I consider the beer good; nobody freely wills the distasteful unless on account of something deemed good, as nasty medicine to cure an ailment. That is, every willing is necessarily the willing of what is considered good. (Someone might argue with me over my taste in beer, holding some other beer to be better: but never does he prefer a beer he really thinks is worse.) Secondly, it is myself to whom I will the beer. Or again, I could intend it for your benefit. In any case, it is willed to some beneficiary. That is, there are these two elements in every free willing: the willing of good, and the willing of it to a beneficiary. Thus does nature de-limit the free.

Aristotle says of friendship that it is the willing of good to someone, for his sake and for no other reason. He means by this to rule out 'friendships' maintained for their usefulness, although not at all to rule out mutual friendship whereby a friend likewise wills good to us. It is for this reason that gifts, and indeed exchanges of gifts, are a token of friendship, although material gifts are inadequate: 'it's the thought that counts'.

In the Rhetoric, treating of anger, he says that we cannot be angry against a class, but only against concrete persons (or anything concrete, like a dog). We can, however, hate a class, such as bandits (at any rate those who might menace us), or a nation, or any abstraction (like the inhabitants of the next suburb as a class, or the hairy Ainu, or astrology). And the diagnostic difference in this respect between anger and hatred, which he notes, is that anger wants to hurt (so there must be someone to hurt, or a dog to kick), but that hatred simply wants non-existence.

Now, no human society, no co-operation of the free, can survive without mutual friendship. Consider what was had said about anger and hatred: anger is not totally against friendship, although it opposes it. What necessarily obliterates friendship is hatred; so that human societies can tolerate spates of anger, but not hatred. That is why civil wars can be so horrible. Just as friendship corresponds in human society to fundamental health, and anger to sickness, so hatred is death.

Let us follow this notion a little further. Friendship consists in willing good to another for his sake (rather than for my, or for another's, sake), which does not exclude his willing good to me. A society of persons, which is of those who are already units in their own right, is nevertheless a certain unit itself; although not in the substantial way that persons are units.

We are born indigent, and rely even for survival upon others, and for a long time. Did not others will us good then, we would never flourish, nor even live. Our first attempts to return this friendship are slight, but the friendship of family and others teaches us, so that we become familial, and in time genuinely social. This very upbringing, in the normal case, steeps us in social and civic friendship as integral to our own personal development.

But we should not forget what Aristotle noted about friendship: that it is willing good to another for his sake and no other reason. This emphasis was meant to exclude what we refer to as 'useful' friendship; where we cultivate someone purely for the sake of some favour we may be able to claim. The emphasis is on respect of the person, not respect of something inferior to the person. Human society cannot be built on purely 'useful' friendships. That is what cements a mere gang of burglars: self interest is the motive of what we call the 'honour among thieves'. But human society, to be human, must depend on humanity in the very literal sense that its basis is human persons. Civic friendship is indispensable to civic society.

Civic friendship is much more than being affable to someone in the street. It means allowing that one's countrymen share something valuable because they are who they are, something for the lack of which one can only pity the rest of the world. It is a spirit not entirely unknown to us.

But what of human society in its economic aspect? Do we not partake of economic activity, do we not spontaneously swap things and obtain the benefit of the industry of others? Does not that seem to be the very acme of that association which I have called merely 'useful' friendship? For if true friendship is not to be found at this economic, fundamental level, this 'vegetative' level, of human society, then it rings hollow to claim it fundamental to any higher level.

And thus it is. Lack of civic friendship at the economic level, at the level of buying and selling, implies lack of it in higher activities. It implies 'using' people. Has it not been said that the person is that which nobody uses? For to 'use' a person, to treat someone as a useful good rather than as good in its own right, to consider someone as useful for my obtaining of something to enjoy, to demean -- reduce the person to the status of a means -- is to make oneself, precisely to that extent, isolated.

Consider the economic act, the swap. It suits me to swap some of the beans I grow for some of the shoes you make. I gain shoes, which I prize, and you get beans, which you esteem. My motive is to gain something material, shoes. But if that were my pure motive, if I really willed nothing but that, then I would, if I could do so, will that you get nothing in return. Is it merely that I will beans to you purely so that shoes will be forthcoming? If that were so, what is the difference between the economic act and the transactions of thieves? That is what the 'greed is good' school seemed to be saying, although I think that by 'greed' they really meant the legitimate desire for prosperity: for greed does not wish another to prosper. But if it were so, what are we to say of what we call a 'debt of honour', wherein I wish you to obtain fair value? For that cannot be explained except through willing good to another for his sake.

To see this, consider what was once usually, simply, and accurately referred to as 'gambling on the Stock Exchange'. I am not speaking of buying shares as an investor. I am speaking of buying shares for no other reason than to hope to sell them at a profit. This differs from say, buying apples and storing them until change of season makes them scarce, then selling them for profit. For in that case, a service of seasonal storing of apples is provided in return for the profit. But no such service applies to what I am speaking of, and nowadays so widespread and 'popular' has it become that people are a little ashamed to call it gambling; and it is given many names, all of which sound respectable: hedging, trading in derivatives, even 'investing'. But it is not investing, where capital is productive: it is a counterfeit of investing. For in a true investment, the investor benefits indeed, and so do others from the productivity of the capital. On the contrary, the essence of this is that if one wins, another loses, just as at a casino. In no way is the sum of wealth increased, nor its fruits distributed, by such an act. If such an act were done by mutual consent as amusement, as gambling can be, then it is obvious that it is an act outside the economic order, like enjoying a trip to the mountains. Yet it is done not at all as mutual amusement, but in the name of 'making a living'. To 'make a living' thus is to do so at the expense of another who is also trying to 'make a living'. Clearly, this is contrary to friendship, at the same time as being contrary to the true economic act, where the transaction is such that each party obtains value.

A few years ago mathematical game theorists popularised the term 'zero sum game'. By this was meant a game in which I lost exactly what you won, so that the sum of what the game 'produced' was zero. It is an accurate term for a gambling transaction. Well, the true economic act is no zero sum game: I swap with you to get value in shoes, you with me to get value in beans. Far from being a zero sum, it is a sort of double sum where both parties get value, which comes down to the economic goal sought by both: leisure, freedom from toil. To the extent that the economic energies of a society are dissipated in 'zero sum' transactions, to that extent is toil not reduced, wealth not produced, and the economy thereby indebted. We all pay such a debt, even as the economy supports the unproductive, by a lesser prosperity. And nowadays, with the tendency to delegate adepts to act for many, these games of zero sum are played on a large scale. So, at the most fundamental level of vitality of society, the economic level, without civic friendship there is anti-social and destructive activity, even as with it there is the social, constructive activity of the body economic.

Lack of civic friendship is more obvious in the other levels of civic life. Thus, in sport, everything from lack of generosity to an opponent to the murderous activities of the 'soccer hooligans' is evident enough. And one hardly need dwell on the social cost of the sort of party politics that places party interest first, and sinks to personal denigration, or on the abuse of power for selfish ends, or on the silly animosities that can blight pursuit of the arts and academic matters. But let us not think of aberration of this sort as being confined to a few well-known people. Civic friendship is a necessary pre-requisite for society. We should cultivate it, for the lack of it will undo us.

John Ziegler


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.