restricted access 10. It Is Not Good for Man to Be Alone: Tocqueville on Friendship
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The question concerning Tocqueville’s understanding of friendship presupposes the question concerning friendship itself, namely: what is its nature; on what occasions does it arise; to whom does it accrue; in what way is it pertinent to the community of men; and so on. The locus classicus to which historians of political thought return to consider the question of friendship is, of course, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. What we find in that compilation, among other things, is the ready distinction between three kinds of friendship: friendships based on pleasure, friendships based on use, and friendships based on virtue.1 Of these three types, Aristotle tells us, political friendship is the highest and the one that is most needed (even if most unlikely) to gather together a community of men. In our own day, it is usually against the backdrop of this claim—namely, that virtuous friendship is 268 10 It Is Not Good for Man to Be Alone Tocqueville on Friendship Joshua Mitchell 030 pt3 (195-284) 3/20/08 12:51 PM Page 268 the sine qua non of durable community—that historians of political thought consider the modern manner of “gathering together.”2 Aristotle ’s typology conveniently suggests to us that the preeminent basis of such gathering in the modern world is friendship based on use, the obvious confirmation of which is the opinion current today that free markets and global trade are what are most needed to produce a durable community. Said otherwise, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sets forth a typology that directs our attention to the possibility that the modern understanding of how we may be gathered is largely but not exclusively illuminated by Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.3 Man, the market animal; man, the animal who ventures no further than the household, the oikia. While this is certainly an oversimplification, a perusal of any number of seminal works in political philosophy during the modern period confirms that there is little in the way of systematic reflection on the subject of friendship, and a great deal on commerce and market relations. And perhaps more revealing still, when things purportedly political are thought through, they are treated in terms of “contract.” Why is this so? What does it mean that friendship as a philosophical category scarcely exists in the modern canon? Does it betray a diminution of man? Or does this silence intimate that in the modern period other possibilities for gathering together emerge—ones that Aristotle could not have imagined? Said otherwise, might it be the case that notwithstanding the inability of virtue friendship in Aristotle’s sense to take hold of the modern imagination, modern life has its compensations, which more than make up for the absence of what Aristotle purports to be highest in man?4 Might it be the case that the absence of the category of “nature” makes friendship of the sort Aristotle pondered quite unthinkable for modern, historical man? In this essay on Tocqueville’s understanding of friendship, I wish to consider these possibilities. If Aristotle’s ideal typology is our guide, we will be left to wonder how the modern world has been held together at all. Yet held together it has; and this bald fact leads us to wonder whether Aristotle’s typology of friendships can exhaustively comprehend the situation before us. However tempting it may be to claim that the modern world has been based on a philosophical error, a quarter of a millennium is surely long enough to suggest otherwise. It Is Not Good for Man to Be Alone T 269 030 pt3 (195-284) 3/20/08 12:51 PM Page 269 Let me first rename the question before us. Instead of “Tocqueville on Friendship,” let us consider “Tocqueville on How We Shall Be Gathered.” The latter formulates our problem at the level of the genus; the former, at the level of the species. Friendship, articulated in and through its three subspecies (“virtue,” “use,” and “pleasure”), is a distinct mode of gathering together, predicated on notions of virtue and of nature—notions that, for better or worse, have little purchase in the modern world. By attending to the larger genus of “gathering together ,” the absence of the species called “friendship” in modern political thought need not confound us nor lead us to adopt a hostile posture toward that thought, but rather persuade us that other available manners of being gathered together about which modern thinkers write warrant our attention. As it turns out, the...