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On the Politics of Friendship: Its Promise for Democracy

With the Functionalist school losing it relevance and the rise of Feminist, Post Modern, Phenomenological, Interactionist schools of thought, a ‘third’ turn in sociology was being witnessed. This third turn in sociology sought to focus on the matters of everyday life that were largely ignored by focuses of the ‘first’ (sociology of macro structures and social wholes) and the ‘second’ (sociology of the micro structures and social atoms) sociology—matters like the politics of friendship.

The sociology of everyday life began with a focus on different kinds of relationships, emotions and patterns of behaviour that were otherwise ignored. However, as Carol Smart notes, what was missing from the study of everyday life was the aspect of the personal. On looking at photographs of her family, she realizes the need to undertake a sociological study where the personal life figures importantly in understanding institutions of family, kinship, marriage, and other forms of relationships. She argues that the need to take into consideration “feelings, memories, biographies and connections” is crucial as it can offer a more “reflexive engagement.”

What is Friendship?

The aforementioned background offers a comfortable space for me to unveil the topic of the following essay. I have always wondered what exactly constitutes friendship. Is it simply a relation we forge to make our experiences of school, workplace or life outside home better? Or does it serve some other purpose? Is there a wider discourse that this non-institutionalized relation was generating? Not until I chanced upon Hannah Arendt’s life and her friendships, did I realize that it is one of the most politically engaging relations we participate in, in our everyday life. 

[Friendship] is one of the most politically engaging relations we participate in, in our everyday life

Rahul Singh

The Politics of Friendship

What constituted the domain of political for Hannah Arendt? Where exactly did she locate the relationship of friendship? In the first chapter of The Human Condition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between vita active (active life) and vita contemplativa (contemplative life).

The Contemplative Life vs. the Active Life

The contemplative life is the one philosophers have for centuries engaged in. It is a life lived in isolation from the outside world in contemplation and thought with the self. On the contrary, the active life is the one where humans engage in the world of activities such as labour, work and action. This is the realm of the political. The active life became the basis for Arendt to analyse the human condition because being active in political life is fundamental for human existence. 

How is the active life of politics possible?

Nixon states that for Arendt politics is something that can only be possible when people are able to converse freely and respectfully. Politics may not be a sphere that has easy solutions to the kind of problems that emerge in human life. However, the possibility of being able to share ideas, ways to understand each other, solve problems together by negotiating all differences is what makes the world a truly plural space to exist. And for this to happen, friendship is important.

For Arendt, it is ‘allied to politics: not as a substitute for politics, nor as a way of doing politics, but as a condition necessary for the survival of politics.’ The primary basis of friendship was equality and ‘mutuality of respect.’ Friendship relied on its continuity most importantly and only through friendship could the ideology of plurality be maintained. 

The Promise of Friendship

For Arendt, friendship was a promise. It was a promise of continuity that could only be maintained through an act of forgiveness. In almost all her friendships, one can observe how strongly she believed in this act of promise to maintain a friendship. It began with her friend Anne Mendelssohn who Arendt had met when she was young. Even though she was proscribed from meeting Anne because of her family’s reputation, Arendt refused to comply and met her friend at whatever chances she got.

Although there is no trace of the nature of their friendship, the fact that Arendt dedicated the book Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess to Anne, years after when their friendship had begun speaks a lot about the promise she felt she owed to her friendship. It was the longest and the most enduring friendships of Arendt temporally because it lasted until Arendt’s death that was fifty-five years later from when they had met. 

Contrasting Political Beliefs

Things took a wrong turn when she met Martin Heidegger, who was her professor then, in 1924. Experts have traced their correspondence since February 1925 with Heidegger establishing the terms of their relationship. Even though, the relationship was manipulative and controlling, she learnt and grew intellectually because of him. She remained insistent to ensure her friendship with Heidegger continued. She knew he had been a Nazi, but she reached out to him once the war was over; that was eighteen years later. In fact, she met him and his wife after the war and tried to establish a relationship of ‘spontaneous harmony.

Her struggle for recognition by him continued and she sent him her works, but he refused to read or even acknowledge them. The publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) and the furore against her concept of the banality of evil brought her relationship with Heidegger under intense public radar. Their friendship revived in 1967 when both of them met at one of Arendt’s lectures. 

Sharing Political Beliefs

From 1926 to 1969, her friendship with Karl Jaspers was a complete transformation of what it had been with Heidegger. She found in Jaspers a friend with whom she shared a critical-political engagement with the ways of the world in which they were living in. It was in him that she found the philosopher of an active life who did not believe in a philosophy created in isolation but constantly engaging with the world the philosopher lives in. 

Friendship and Motivation

In 1944, she met Mary McCarthy in New York and this was, as Nixon describes, a ‘workmanly friendship.’ Despite the early setback in their relationship, both the women discovered each other and resolved to established one of Arendt’s and McCarthy’s most important friendships of their lives. Both of them supported each other through the intricacies of their lives. McCarthy helped Arendt with her English and Arendt became the reservoir of ideas. The women found in each other utility and motivation to work toward their goals and ambitions. 

Finding Friendship and Marriage in One

The friendship between Blücher and Arendt was of a deeply Socratic nature comprising both eros and philia, sexual fulfilment and friendship. They may have been related to each other as spouses but the core element of their relationship constituted friendship. There was a seamless continuity between the two—of language, of cultural background, of space and of thought that made their relationship truly a political one.

The relationship between the two began as being friends with each other who thought similarly and established a political dialogue that eventually brought them together into a marriage. The mutual love and care they established made them ‘home-land’ for each other. The categories of lover, husband, partner, friend became porous and blurred between the two.

Final Thoughts on the Politics of Friendship

Unlike other institutions, friendship does not have religious or legal sanctions backing it with a set of rules and laws. It is a relationship that establishes the laws and sanctions as Derrida or Aristotle have argued. It is a promise that continues even though it may be uncertain at many instances. For Arendt, it was a practice that one had to engage in their everyday life to control totalitarianism. It was practice of politically engaging with each other as equal citizens of a state and dealing with the differences between them with respect to private affiliations. Arendt is of the belief that plurality in the public realm and an act of forgiveness is what will heal the growing state of capitalism and its evils.

Sociology of Hegemony: Culture, Politics, and Economy

Rahul Singh

Rahul Singh has an MA in Sociology from Presidency University, Kolkata. His research interests are in socio-anthropological areas of ecology, urban environment, water and caste. Besides sociology, Rahul loves reading literary fiction and writing short stories. His book reviews have been published in various online magazines including Outlook India. His short stories have been published at The Sociological Review, Muse India, Queer Southeast Asia among others. He can be reached out on Instagram (@fook_bood) where he shares his thoughts on all the books he reads and twitter (@rahulzsing).