Rediscovering Political Friendship: An Incredibly Poorly Timed Book

Paul W. Ludwig, Rediscovering Political Friendship: Aristotle’s Theory and Modern Identity, Community, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 362 pp. $105.00.

Had you fallen into a Rip-Van-Winkle-esque sleep about 20 years ago only to wake up now, what, of all the vast swaths of change which progress hath wrought, would most surprise you about America? The ubiquitous screens everyone taps? The lack of troops in countries invaded in response to terrorist attacks which, as you’d gone to sleep, were fresh in your mind? Or maybe it would be some bespoke developments in the boudoir…

I suspect the answer is none of the above. Rather, the greatest shock would be the ways in which what was a relatively unified country, with a shared story of its past and shared aspirations for its future, has descended into a cold but real civil war. Yet here we are. It is in the midst of this situation that Paul W. Ludwig has published his book Rediscovering Political Friendship: Aristotle’s Theory and Modern Identity, Community, and Equality by Cambridge University Press. As the title suggests, the book is an attempt to deploy Aristotle’s thought as something of a cure to the perceived ills of contemporary liberalism, populism, nationalism and other “isms” that have supposedly caused so much division (and broken friendship) in twenty-first century America. We could call it an attempt by one scholar to do the best of things in the worst of times–but, given everything, I’d not fault a reader for calling it hopelessly optimistic.

Regardless of the context in which it finds itself, Ludwig’s book is admirable for doing two things which are both difficult and rare. First, he makes clear a distinction which is too often glossed over by readers of Aristotle: there is a significant difference between friendship proper and the subset of friendship that is called “civic friendship”. In Aristotle’s work, civic friendship is discussed briefly in the Ethics and then developed and expanded upon in the Politics. Neither, however, treats it exhaustively—one must put the two together to learn that civic friendship is a particular type of what Aristotle calls the “friendship of usefulness”; it is a useful friendship based on shared sentiments about the regime in which two people dwell and rooted in the task of figuring out how to continue dwelling there. Ludwig’s book helpfully highlights Aristotle’s distinction, and treats readers to hard-won insights arising from it, such as how friendship is related to a settling down from anger, and how it contains a seriousness modulated by our thumotic tendencies.[1])

Ludwig’s second admirable achievement is that he puts ancient texts in cogent conversation with modern—which is to say, liberal-–thought. This, too, is harder than it seems, for to do it well an author must conjure forth the spirits of philosophers long dead and have them converse with modern men. Only this way can the great conversation continue on to its end. Ludwig proves a trustworthy conjurer; he has a grasp of Aristotle, and knows whom to put him in conversation with among the moderns in order to produce a fruitful dialogue. A reader who persists is treated to a conversation so wide ranging few will be able to keep up with it all, even though all will be edified by parts. For example, readers will witness a plausible vision of the outlines of modern identity politics in Aristotle, made possible by sharing in a reading of Aristotle’s theory of recognition with Charles Taylor and Hegel.

Yet despite these positives, there is one criticism I have of the book: Ludwig writes scared. And indeed he should be—these are dangerous times, and he handles some dangerous topics. But his fear shows in the stark contrast between how he writes about theory in the abstract and how he writes about civic friendship as practiced in our tense political moment. On the theoretical level, his thinking is close, daring even, as the subject matter ranges far and wide. But on the practical level, the level in which we act and in which civic friendship is profoundly needed, he is apologetic and plainly selective about what he will meditate on or even approach. He writes with circumspection (which is not, of course, a vice in itself). Such silences are potentially more telling than text and are not to be missed, particularly given the subject matter of the work. Ludwig may be more aware of the tenuous nature of our current civic life than he lets on. Therein may lie a further lesson for attentive readers who are, by nature, also trustworthy and not cruel.

And yet, having said this, the conversation developed here by Ludwig succeeds on one level because he is selective. In limiting himself to a discussion of Aristotle’s civic friendship, he allows for the ancients’ conversation with the low, but stable, foundations of modernity to carry on.

In setting the arbitrary limitation of focusing the ancient perspective of the book on Aristotle’s concept of civic friendship, Ludwig shows up to the fight with a hand tied behind his back. Aristotle knew politics must serve some end beyond itself; he knew there were bigger intellectual fish to fry and he went about spending a very great deal of time frying them. And perhaps most significantly, avoiding conversation about the possible need for a higher end prevents us from reading Aristotle closely enough to ask whether, in the end, Aristotle believed himself. If the low but apparently stable foundations of our modern age are not, in fact, stable from the start, then even employing The Philosopher as a new cornerstone may not save them. Civic friendship is only a part of Aristotle’s philosophy. As is the regime. But Aristotle was not trying to merely theorize a way to keep a regime stable; he was a man in full, reaching out to know, and not to know the part but the whole. He knew anything short of attaining that whole would be a tragic, if perhaps human, end, for himself and for mankind. Let us hope that a scholar of the learning and profundity of Paul W. Ludwig follows the example set by Aristotle in his next book–which I eagerly await.

Colin Chan Redemer is Vice-President of The Davenant Institute, Poetry Editor of Ad Fontes, co-founder of Davenant Hall, and Adjunct Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California. He loves teaching at the intersection of history, philosophy, literature, and Christianity. His writing has appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, Evansville Review, Sojourners Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in community with his wife, kids, and fellow church members, in Oakland, California.


1 It is disputable whether Ludwig is correct that this means philia is not also a desire. (49-50


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