BMCR 2021.02.43

Rediscovering political friendship: Aristotle’s theory and modern identity, community, and equality

, Rediscovering political friendship: Aristotle's theory and modern identity, community, and equality. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xvi, 347. ISBN 9781107022966 $105.00.


The arrival of this book is timely and, although not initially meant to be,[1] the author maximizes its current appeal by interacting directly with contemporary political theories and theorists, as well as trends in practical politics, understanding them in terms of the notion of civic friendship. Given the appeal and relevance of this book regarding civic friendship in relation to contemporary issues, why discuss any of these matters in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy? The answer to that question is the main point of Ludwig’s book. His appropriation of the concept of civic friendship is taken directly from Aristotle. “According to Aristotle’s theory, citizens are civic friends when they share an agreement about important practical matters: preeminently, they agree about the regime, their political system” (p. 2). Ludwig is attuned to the nuances of Aristotle’s account of friendship. Civic friendship is best understood as a friendship of utility (p. 10).

One of the strengths of using Aristotle to inform discussions of civic friendship in relation to modern liberalism is his political realism. Ludwig’s own approach leans heavily on such realism. His book is not a call to cultivate or promote civic friendship, which may disappoint some readers who advocate civic friendship as normative discourse. Instead, Ludwig desires that modern political theorists own up to the fact that civic friendship is already intrinsic to modern theories of liberalism and should be acknowledged and studied as such. Key to understanding civic friendship in Aristotle is that the term “friendship” in this respect is being used analogously. Civic friendship, particularly because it is based in utility, is a friendship by analogy with other relations that are properly so called, like personal friendship.

The Introduction lays out well the trajectory of the argument, developing it in an interrogative fashion following specified questions within subsections. In order for Ludwig to be successful in his goal of “proposing a new, better dialogue between liberal theory and ancient theory” (p. 20), he would need to have a robust grasp of Aristotle and of modern liberal theory. Such an interface between the ancient and modern was also central to Ludwig’s previous publication Eros and Polis, and at least one review of that book faulted him for failing to meet the goal of his ambitious project.[2] However, in my estimation, Ludwig has accomplished his goal in this text, in part because he limits his ancient source material to Aristotle on civic friendship. Had he gone into other notions of civic friendship in the ancient world, he may not have been as successful.

Due to the ambitious breadth of ground that is covered in this text, it has many layers and intricate arguments for each subsection that are difficult to cover in the space here. What I have attempted to do in this review is give some sense of how the thick arguments of each chapter relate to the overall thrust of the main argument, which is more heavily weighted in the beginning chapters (Parts I and II), then applied in the later ones (Parts III and IV).

The first chapter in Part I, “Foundations of Friendship,” has the title: “Friendship from Identity: Recognizing Anger in the Politics of Recognition.” It is here that Ludwig begins in earnest his project of bringing the ancient theory of civic friendship to bear upon modern liberal theory. As the title indicates, Ludwig interacts with Charles Taylor’s notion of the “Politics of Recognition” after establishing the relationship between identity and anger via Plato and Aristotle. Anger, which derives from the “thumoeid” part of the soul, pertains to pride and honor – both being elements of recognition. “Anger undergirds identity,” and much of “recent identity theory fails to understand that it is dealing with anger” (p. 60). In Aristotle, anger is the basis for friendship itself. Thus, the tendency of liberal theory toward recognition politics is one main way to see where ancient theory can interface with modern. However, liberalism has, in practice, had a difficult time maintaining such recognition politics without devolving into partisanship and factionalism. At the inception of liberal thought, attempts were made to ply interests, particularly business interests, into identities. Could such identities born of interests be understood in terms of friendship?

Ludwig picks up from this line of inquiry in Chapter 2: “Friendships from Utility and Activity: Toward a More Realistic Social Policy (and More Idealistic Civil Society).” Here he follows a similar approach to Chapter 1 by frontloading it with the ancient theory through an examination of Aristotle’s account of friendship in all of its intricacies, complexities, and difficulties, focusing his attention on the main point of his inquiry: the role of utility for friendship. Understanding utility friendship in terms of activity (energeia) is a movement in the direction of Aristotle’s metaphysics, and Ludwig understands that a modern reader may not readily buy into it for that reason. However, Ludwig introduces just enough of the discussion of activity to be serviceable yet palatable for modern non-Aristotelians. “Modern theorists suspicious of Aristotle’ ontology of energeia can accept his conclusion about the passion of love on the basis of these weaker, parsimonious presuppositions: ownness and utility” (p. 98). This discussion centers on the activity of “benefaction” (euergasia) and its capacity to engender affectionate dispositions. By recognizing the utility factors involved in citizen activity toward the state and society, ancient theory may assist modern policy in avoiding the pitfalls of extreme idealism and political realism.

Part II (“Where is Civic Friendship Today?”) begins with Chapter 3: “Why Associations Replaced Civic Friendship: Altruism Conspires with Self-Interest to Produce the ‘Free Rider’,” which covers some of the historical intellectual changes that moved the modern age away from the ancient discourse of civic friendship. This chapter centers on “a vicious cycle – between altruism that wishes to be entirely gratuitous and self-interest that wishes to be more and more narrowly rational” (p. 159). People in general in the modern world, along with liberal theorists, do not want to admit the interpenetration of the two. The origins of the separation were first outlined by people like Montesquieu, who gratuitously applied high Christian ideals of love to considerations of friendship, thus excluding it from political application, though civic friendship continued to operate under different names, like “associations.” Ludwig asserts that both theorists and people in general would benefit more by returning to the Aristotelian conceptuality that does justice to the utility aspects of friendship as well as to the civic motivations rooted in irascible passions acknowledged as such.

Chapter 4 (“Why Associations Are Really Civic Friendships”) more fully elucidates the claim of Chapter 3 that associations are actually a form of civic friendship and the importance of modern liberalism’s owning up to this claim. This chapter also makes the important clarification that Aristotle’s vision of civic friendship was not an overture to unite a city through philia. Recognizing the dynamics of civic friendship thus rightly understood and named has (or should have) practical consequences for actual policy, which begins at the local level of citizen participation in associations and radiates out toward the larger society.

Chapter 5 (“From Communitarianism to Civic Friendship: Broadening Out beyond Associations”) goes even further as the opening chapter of Part III: “A Different Way to View Liberalism.” This different view entails more than a modification of political perspective. Ludwig considers and critiques communitarian epistemology, with its conceptions of the self (focusing on Bellah and Sandel), and contrasts it with a civic friendship that is grounded in an appeal to human nature drawn from the classical liberalism of Locke. It is in Locke’s discussion of the ownership of labor (leading to property) where Ludwig sees a road back to the realism of ancient theory, given that “Aristotle’s psychology of commercial exchange turns out, surprisingly, to be the psychology of civic friendship” (p. 213).

Chapter 6 (“Commercial Society and Civic Friendship”) continues with the commercial theme begun in Chapter 5 and shows how the economy of modern liberal society connects with civic friendship. But the chapter expands beyond this initial economic scope and takes up considerations of virtue that are relevant for Ludwig’s emphasis on civic friendship for the modern liberal, specifically when virtue for the middle class “comes to mean sharing the regime’s presuppositions” (p. 243) and the mutual moral concerns for each citizen in a regime free from the undesirable outcomes of economic envy.

Chapter 7 (“Mass Society and Civic Friendship”) introduces the Aristotelian notion of concord (homonoia) which “means shared assumptions about the regime under which citizens live” (p. 253). Such assumptions are the basis for the way citizens cherish each other as they cherish the regime, which also accounts for a patriotism based not upon the people or the land, but upon the regard that the citizens have toward the political system. A potential challenge in applying Aristotle’s philosophy of civic friendship has to do with the sheer numbers of citizens in a modern state. Could civic friendship really apply to so many people? Ludwig answers in the affirmative, since Aristotle’s own position allows for mass civic friendship, which can then be understood in much the same terms for liberalism today and its mass society.

Chapter 8 (“What Is the Use of Civic Friendship? Sheltering Liberal Practices from the Effects of Liberal Theory”), as the concluding chapter of the book, looks at actual policy in today’s liberalism. Again, Ludwig’s purpose is not to alter the practice of liberalism today. “The passions and many practices of civic friendship are continually operating in liberal societies under different names; my argument has been a plea to scholars and theorists to recognize and study them, and to bring them out into the open, calling them by their right name” (p. 298). The main practical value of his text then is to show how the ancient theory of civic friendship can assist liberal practices by limiting the negative impact of a liberal theory insufficiently aware of the advantages of civic friendship so called. His conclusion considers areas of practical politics such as just wages, immigration, and national service, which helps to emphasize the political realism of the civic friendship found in ancient theory and practiced by liberal society today.

Overall, the main strength of Ludwig’s book is that it is provocative in a way that did not strike me as particularly controversial, especially given its discussion of current political topics. His overall appeal of recommending Aristotle to help clarify and inform current political concerns lends itself to the mollification of sharp dissent. As such, he presents a rather compelling case for utilizing the ancient theory of civic friendship for modern liberalism, though anyone dead set against Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship would probably not be convinced. A person like myself who is readily inclined to see the continued relevance of Aristotle for today will probably be almost entirely in agreement with the force of the argument. Any points of major disagreement would undoubtedly reside mainly with anyone who does not hold to Ludwig’s use or interpretation of Aristotle on friendship.


[1] See: “A Conversation with Tutor Paul Ludwig about Civic Friendship,” St. John’s College, June 7 2019.

[2] See Paul Cartledge’s review of the book in The American Journal of Philology, vol. 125, no. 1 (Spring 2004), 148-152.