Lewis and Aristotle on our Political Moment

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, or seem to be, 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 building wave 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’re been stretched or broken or obliterated during this season. 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 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. Politics, Lewis thought, is purely instrumental, and this is the Aristotelian part. 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 Founders 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 toxicify our relationships with friends and 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 more-or-less extinction 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.

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 definable 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 a 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 this political season feels 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 Florida. 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 is voting for him. We are aghast that our niece is volunteering 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 to abhorrent. Our politics reflects our sense of what’s good, and that’s intensely personal.

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 (have not made it a custom) to interacting regularly with those who differ from us on matters of the good, we will find civility difficult. And of course it’s 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 when it’s needed, and that’s when we disagree. Perhaps we need to add one more layer of friendship to Aristotle’s scheme, that of civil friendship, a friendship that can be useful and may perhaps be enjoyable, but most importantly partakes in the good of the other insofar as 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. Thus 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 (whether such an offering can be reciprocated in even a truncated way is another question).

And when it comes to the Christian who cannot understand why her co-religionist is voting for him, or standing with her, genuine friendship can still exist, even if frustrating and difficult, because both parties can be committed to the other person’s good, which is defined and embodied and empowered by the person of Jesus Christ. Lewis’s quotation above talks about “natural values”, and the relationship to 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 through the tension. It heightens it because we cannot see how someone who loves Jesus can identify with that party or that person or that position. It offers us the means to live through the tension and the contradiction because we can call upon God to help us and help our friend come to know the truth about how we should live and how we should live with others with whom we strongly disagree.

To reveal my own leanings here and risk alienating some of my neighbors, friends, and family, I do not know how my fellow believers can support a robustly pro-choice position, or deeply corrupt candidate. I do not know how my fellow believers can support an ethnic nationalist position, or an authoritarian ignoramus candidate. And some of my friends don’t understand why I will not support either one. And to be honest sometimes we wonder whether our friends who support or oppose that one thing can really know Jesus like we do. But I have to think that if there were genuine believers on either side of the slavery issue in America’s tortured history (and I think there were), then I cannot think that that’s impossible with our current dividing issues.

All this is to say that I think Aristotle is right, and Lewis is right, about politics and about friendship. But there is more to it than what Aristotle said, and my hope and prayer through this election season and the next is that we Christians can practice love and friendship and patience and civility inside and outside the body of Christ, loving mercy and acting for justice while walking humbly with our God.



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2 responses to “Lewis and Aristotle on our Political Moment

  1. George Guichelaar

    Thank you for your insightful, thoughtful, tightly argued, challenging thoughts about the 2016 election.

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