Friendship: Brotherhood, Equality, Pathology

series begins here

I’ve told you a little of my story, and we’ve listened to the grief of Alfred. We could have started with a taxonomy of forms or a grammatico-historical exegesis of scriptural terms. To do so, however, is to risk substituting the dried specimen for the living organism. It may also be to introduce the pathological form as the normal. This is certainly the contention of Jacques Derrida and I’d like us to spend a little time with him, listening to his meditations in The Politics of Friendship.

The Politics of Friendship is one of Derrida’s later works, after his celebrated ‘turn to ethics’ under the influence of Emmanuel Levinas: a work on friendship and of friendship.Jacques Derrida The Politics of Friendship is Derrida’s attempt to reflect upon the ‘canonical’ concept of friendship within Western literature and philosophy and to note the entanglement of concepts of friendship with political organisation, particularly democracy. To simplify (extremely), Derrida’s political goal is to use a deconstructive reading of friendship to appeal for a reconstructed form of democracy: one that is better able to make room for the social outsider, immigrant, refugee, etc. The details of this proposal, as you’d expect from anything by Derrida, are maddeningly hard to pin down (which might be the point?), and yet the book is beautiful, melancholic, hopeful.

Derrida’s readings of the canonical concept of friendship continually spiral out from a remark attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, “O my friends, there is no friend.” The strange unstable contradiction within this appeal (how can you address someone as ‘friend’ and maintain ‘there is no friend’) captures Derrida’s imagination. Ultimately he reads it (I would say) eschatologically – as though Aristotle is calling out to, making room for, a form of friendship that has not yet appeared but whose trace he feels. Strangely, this line from Aristotle and the trace of the ‘friend who is to come’ keeps bubbling to the surface in the canonical history of friendship.

Against the ‘friend who is to come’ is the canonical form of the ‘friend as brother’. Derrida attempts to show (I think successfully) that the figure of the brother is consistently presented as the exemplar of the friend, and the ‘fraternity’ (brotherhood) as the paradigmatic political community. As you would expect in a deconstructive reading, Derrida highlights and destabilises the apparent ‘naturalness’ of the brotherly bond, and the way that this ‘nature’ is taken up into political discourse. We like to picture our political communities, political friendships in terms of native ties and natural bonds. However, as Derrida points out, the reality of the ties that bind political friends are rarely ‘natural’, and the natural ties that bind biological brothers rarely result in the kind of relation envisaged by political ‘brethren’. Political friendship is particularly seen in the concept of the ‘sworn brotherhood’, a bond of alliance sealed with an oath and then re-imagined under a fraternal narrative. Derrida responds:

“… there has never been anything natural in the brother figure on whose features has so often been drawn the face of the friend, or the enemy, the brother enemy. De-naturalization was at work in the very formation of fraternity… The relation to the brother engages from the start with the order of the oath, of credit, of belief and of faith. The brother is never a fact.” (The Politics of Friendship, 159.)

Derrida asks us to join him in questioning: who does this oath exclude, and what is it for? The answer is found in the other dominant strand of the canonical concept of friendship.

Alongside the motif of the friend as brother, Derrida traces the theme of the essential ‘equality’ of friends. Reaching back to Aristotle once again, we find the idea of the friend as ‘one soul in two bodies’, taken up through Cicero, and becoming hyperbolic in Montaigne’s love for his friend Étienne de La Boétie. This essential equality must be an equality of virtue, and thus, of manliness, excellence. We are measured by the quality of our friends. In our friends we see ourselves reflected back. The oath of friendship, of fraternity, that founds the political community, is an oath between equals that narcissistically reflects the excellence of the one back to the other. It is against the stranger, the immigrant. It is a friendship that makes outsiders.
Much of the rest of The Politics of Friendship is Derrida’s reading of these twin themes – brotherhood and equality – as they shape the concept of friendship, and through friendship, the modern concept of democracy. (For what it’s worth, my sense is that Derrida is attempting to respond to Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy by turning Nietzsche against him. But really, who can tell?)

Derrida’s reading of the history of friendship is eminently contestable but what we can gain from him is a judicious suspicion of the rhetoric and narrative of friendship mediated to us through our culture. Might there be something structurally wrong with the way we think about friendship most of the time? An essential narcissism, an inbuilt exclusionary impulse?

We shouldn’t be surprised that friendship has pathological forms: this is the reality, living, as we do, in the wake of Adam’s sin. We don’t need to travel far to see friendship turned into a conspiracy against others: a primary school play ground. Or to see friendship as narcissism:

Series Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
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