Friendship: East and West

Friendship: East and West


Hans Sluga




Matteo Ricci’s treatise on friendship, the Jiaoyou lun of 1595, signifies the moment at which Chinese thought and European philosophy first made contact.[1]  In the years immediately preceding that treatise, Ricci had translated the four books of Confucianism into Latin and ten years later he was to produce a Chinese adaptation of the Enchiridion of the Greco-Roman Stoic Epictetus, thus establishing an exchange of ideas in both directions. But it was the Jiaoyou lun with its attempt to mediate between Western and Chinese understandings of friendship that most notably tied the knot between the two traditions.

Soon after completing his treatise, Ricci wrote to one of his European correspondents: “This Friendship has brought more credit to me and our Europe than anything that I have done hitherto…  [The book] credits us for literariness, intelligence and virtue at the same time. And for this reason it is read and received with much enthusiasm.”[2] In its introduction Ricci had spoken, in turn, of the virtue he had discovered in the culture of the ancient kingdom. “I Matteo, from the Far West,” we read, “have sailed across the seas and entered China with respect for the learned virtue of the Son of Heaven of the Great Ming dynasty as well as for the teachings bequeathed by the ancient kings.” Ricci recounted how the Prince of Jian-an had received him as an honored guest at a dinner where there had been “much wine and merriment.” The prince had come over to him at this event and had taken his hand and spoken of the virtue of his visitor and of that of the place from which he had arrived. “Whenever there is a traveler who is a gentleman of virtue who deigns to visit my realm, I have never failed to host him and to treat him with friendship and respect. The nations of the Far West are nations of virtue and righteousness. I wish that I could hear what their discourses on the way of friendship are like.”[3]

Ricci went on to say that as a result of this request he withdrew into seclusion and “from the sayings of old that I have heard since my youth, I compiled this Way of Friendship.”[4] The book presented a series of thoughts on the need for and the vicissitudes of friendship, motivated, no doubt, in large part by Ricci’s bitter-sweet experiences in China;[5] but it was also much more than a collection of aphorisms. The book was in effect Ricci’s offer of friendship to his host  Kang Yi, to the  Chinese scholars and officials he had met, and to the Chinese at large. Ricci was speaking, moreover, of the highest form of friendship that Aristotle had identified in his Nicomachean Ethics, a friendship based on the mutual recognition of moral excellence. “The perfect form of friendship,” Aristotle had written, “is that between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue. For these friends wish alike for one another’s good because they are good men… Such friendships are, of course rare, since such men are few.”[6] Ricci had come to China for what he considered to be the entirely unselfish wish to bring its people the truth of the Christian faith. And he had discovered in Chinese philosophy ideas that he found to be, in turn, true and virtuous. Confucian thought and Stoic philosophy, he became convinced, shared the same ground. Two years before his treatise on friendship he had characterized Confucius accordingly as “another Seneca.”[7] And it was surely no mere coincidence that in his treatise he quoted Seneca with the thoroughly Confucian sentiment: “If you cannot be a friend to yourself, how can you be a friend to others?”

Ricci’s motive for writing his treatise may be transparent. But the motivation of his host, Kang Yi, Prince of Jian-an, in asking for that treatise is more difficult to decipher. We know too little about him to come up with a definite account. But part of it is surely to be found in the “explosion of friendship discourses as well as the rise of the cult of friendship among many educated males” in late Ming China.[8] Where orthodox Confucianism had worried and was still worrying about friendship as a “dangerous relationship” that could even undermine the more significant family relations, the late Ming scholar Gu Dashao would go as far as to contend that “friendship was an even more authentic relationship than that between father and son.”[9] This still leaves, however, Kang Yi’s personal investment in the topic. Was he concerned with striking up a friendship with his foreign guest, was he, like Ricci, open to the idea of a friendship between the Chinese people and “the nations of the far West”? The Ming were ambivalent about contacts with the outside world. The reigns of Yongle and Xuande had been China’s great age of exploration; Zheng He, the adventurous Eunuch admiral, had sailed the oceans to India and Africa. But later Ming rulers had turned inwards and during Ricci’s time, the country’s war with Japan generated deep suspicion of all foreigners. So, was Kang Yi an exception? Perhaps not, because there were so many other officials and scholars set on getting to know the visitor from the West and to establish friendly relations with him, if not relations of friendship, in order to hear more about the scientific, mathematical, geographical, and astronomical knowledge he was bringing along. For Kang Yi’s contemporary, Wang Daokun it was obvious, in any case, that “a true man should befriend all the gentlemen under Heaven.”[10]

Many other Chinese officials and literati remained, however, quite understandably wary of the Jesuit missionary. Some wavered in their attitude toward him – as Ricci was to learn from bitter experience. And there were also those implacably hostile to him – as Ricci was also to discover.[11] Were his friendly advances not all in the service of promoting his foreign religion? Might the ideas he was bringing into the country not foment discord and instability? Was he not part of Europe’s expansion of its military, economic, and cultural power? Whether he wanted to or not, Ricci was part of the world-historical movement that made first Europe and then the United States into global powers. And here we face the question what relationship Ricci actually succeeded in establishing between himself and his Chinese acquaintances, between the Europeans and the Chinese. Is it adequately captured in terms of the notion of friendship? Friendship is an inherently mutual relation. In contrast, say, to love which may be one-sided – to the frustration of both the one who is in love and the other who is not. Friendship exists only where both sides are and take themselves to be friends. We may want to be friends with someone but find ourselves ignored or rejected or misunderstood; but in that case there is no friendship, only the frustrated desire for it. We may consider ourselves friends with someone while the other party understands the relationship in quite different terms. Later on we complain: “I thought that he was my friend …” or we end up speaking of “false friends,” “fair weather friends,” and “feigned friendships.” So, was Ricci making friends in China? Did the Chinese he met offer him friendship? Was he, perhaps, deceiving himself about the possibilities and realities of the cultural interaction in which he was engaged?

Friendship is a bewildering topic. It lends itself to treatment in a personal and literary style, but appears to resist philosophical analysis. Nonetheless I believe, like Confucius and Aristotle, that we can understand neither ethics nor politics without attending to it. “A gentleman gathers friends through his culture,” Confucius says in the Analects, “and with these friends, he develops his humanity.”[12] This gives friendship an essential role to play in the development of the moral person – a thought to which I will have to return. And Aristotle writes in his Nicomachaen Ethics that “no one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods,” and he adds that “friendship also seems to hold city-states together.” [13] I will come back to this point as well. Together, Confucius and Aristotle are telling us that we can’t do without friendship in either individual or political life. But where and how exactly does friendship enter into our individual lives? And what, if anything, is political friendship? Are personal and political friendship even relationships of the same kind? What are the attractions and dilemmas of friendship – personal and political – and what are they for us moderns thrown together, as we are, into our vast, impersonal, global world where the conditions for establishing deep and lasting relationships have become more difficult and where we seem, at the same time, more in need of friendship than ever.

In search for answers, I find myself retracing steps that Ricci was the first to take. I believe that I can find insight in returning to the question how friendship looks when one considers it from both Chinese and Western perspectives. The encounter of Chinese and Western thought that Ricci initiated is still incomplete. But it has, perhaps, greater urgency today than 420 years ago. Technological changes have brought the East and the West, and, indeed, the entire world more closely together. Can we conceive of a real meeting of minds, a true friendship of cultures of the sort that Ricci was after, a relationship in which we recognize and respect each other and learn from each other’s virtues? My tentative answer is that neither the Confucian nor the Aristotelian tradition can give us a comprehensive answer. But both have something to offer to us on the theme of friendship though in the end we still need to go beyond them.



Friendship is difficult to talk about in a philosophical manner because it is an umbrella term under which many other, more specific relations take shelter. These extend from the intimate bonds between two human beings that Montaigne described as a merger of two souls into one, through the more loosely affective relations of people united in a common cause such as the Quakers who call themselves “The Society of Friends,” all the way to the passing association of internet users in “Facebook” friendships.[14]

Friendship involves affection but the degree and the nature of the affection may vary. That’s why we can distinguish between casual, distant, and loose friendships, on the one hand, and personal, close, and intimate ones, on the other. There are numerous degrees of friendship and each of them carries with it its own set of mutual commitments and understandings. I don’t owe the same things to a casual friend that I owe to a close one, and I shouldn’t expect the same degree of mutual understanding in a distant and in an intimate friend. This makes it impossible to say once and for all what friends owe to each other; there can’t be general rules in an ethics of friendship.

Friendship relates, moreover, to a number of other affective relations from which it must  be distinguished. There is friendliness, liking, love, comradeship, brotherhood, caring, regard, solicitude, and so on. Friendship is different from all these even though we may not always find it easy to say which is which. All these relationships involve affection towards others but the nature, the tone and, the intensity of the affection will vary. I can be friendly to a passing stranger but can’t be friends with him. I can like someone at a distance, but friendship demands mutual acquaintance and attachment. Love may or may not be erotic; friendship characteristically is not and the two kinds of affection do sometimes stand in each other’s way.

There are, furthermore, friendships that encompass much of the lives of those engaged in them and there are friendships reserved for specific domains of their lives. That’s why we talk about business friends, school friends and sports friends – and for that matter, political friends. What we call comradeship is often a friendship defined in terms of a particular shared concern. We may be, for instance, “comrades in arms” and thus be acting as friends as long as we serve in the same army but cease to be friends in other respects and also when we afterwards go our separate ways. Even close friends may find that there are domains of each other’s lives that lied outside the scope of their friendship. Here again, all kinds of variation are possible.

We also need to distinguish between friendship and the other affective relationships from an altogether different class of social relations. I am thinking here of family relations and relations we find ourselves in because of social and political status; while these relations can be accompanied by affection they are not defined through them. We are inhabitants of a village or a town, citizens or subjects of a state and are so however we feel about this. In his treatise, Ricci explicitly acknowledges this difference between the two kinds of social relations. In one of his aphorisms he writes: “You may be close to your parents without loving them, whereas you cannot be close to your friends without love. It is because the parent-child relation can still exist without love, but there is no such thing as befriending someone without love.” And he draws from this a conclusion that Gu Dashao and his followers would have applauded, though not any orthodox Confucian, namely that in this respect friendship is superior to the parent-child relationship.[15]

I will call social relations of this sort “regulative,” in contrast to the affective ones. Regulative relations also carry ethical commitments with them, as Confucius and his followers rightly emphasized again and again, just as the affective ones. But in contrast to the latter those commitments are publicly recognized and socially defined. What I owe to my parents is broadly understood – understood, that is, in my own social sphere, not necessarily everywhere. We should certainly not assume that the ethical commitments that come with specific social relations are universally taken to be the same; but we should also not assume that they are completely different from culture to culture. We should realize that we are dealing here with things that are  culturally variable but only within certain broad parameters. Chinese and Western people may differ in what they think they owe to their parents, but both recognize that they owe something. In calling some social relations “regulative” I don’t mean to say, moreover, that the ethical commitments that come with them are expressed in the form of explicitly stated (or even explicitly statable) rules – though in some cases they may find such expression. In most of these social relations the regulative element is, instead, contained in unvoiced habits and practices.

While the distinction between affective and regulative social relations is conceptually clear, the actual social reality is more opaque because it is more complex. For the two kinds of relations, the affective and the regulative, will often intersect. I owe something to my parents simply in the light of the fact that they are my parents but I am also bound to them by relations of love and affection. And an affective relation may, in turn, come to acquire a socially accepted, regulative form. The transition from a love affair to a marriage signals exactly such a change; but the partners who redefine their relation in this way may, of course, continue to be related also by bonds of affection. Their desire to achieve a publicly recognized social status may itself be for them an expression of the affection they feel for each other.

The social universe in which friendship is located is, thus, complex and varied. Our problem is that we have no precise vocabulary for describing and distinguishing this plethora of relationships and the exact area within them marked by the term “friendship.” It is, as if the word referred to a field in which a thousand subtle varieties bloom. We can see and discriminate them, talk about them in poetical and personal terms, but we lack the vocabulary to name and describe them in a genuinely philosophical and theoretical manner. We shall therefore not be surprised to discover that terms which serve roughly the same purpose as English word “friendship” in other languages may not exactly coincide in their range. Scholars of Greek ask themselves rightly  whether the word “philía” means the same as “friendship” in modern English.[16] Aristotle, at least, uses “philia” for what unites young people in pursuit of their pleasures but also for the trust that obtains between a merchant and his customer. Modern English speakers speak of friendship in the first case, but not in the second. I am not qualified to judge to what extent Chinese and Western terminologies coincide but we need to be prepared for divergences also in this case.  We need to consider whether the term “friendship” covers the same ground as the Chinese “p’eng-yu.” [17] The Chinese “tongzhi”, for instance, means “comrade” among other things and thus, refers to a kind of friend, but it is also a word by which Chinese gay people refer to each other and this has no equivalence in the English word “comrade.”

It is, in any case, for all these reasons that the topic of friendship is not easily handled by philosophy with its characteristic focus on definable concepts and precise formulations.



As far as the Western philosophical canon is concerned the richest and most detailed study of friendship is still to be found in Aristotle who takes friendship to be of major significance for both ethics and politics.  That Aristotle still dominated the theme testifies to the limited philosophical progress we have made on this topic and to its large-scale neglect in the Western philosophical literature.  Since Aristotle, Western thinkers have dealt with the topic, if at all, then only selectively and usually as incidental to other concerns. Only in recent decades have we seen a renewed interest arising in it. I mention Michel Foucault’s “Friendship as a Form of Life” and, in a very different key, Marilyn Friedman’s feminist take on friendship.[18]  It is, however, not only friendship that has been ignored by the Western tradition, but the entire topic of topic of the ethical commitments contained in our social relations.

This neglect is due to the fact that Western ethical and political thinking (particularly in the modern period) has for the most part circulated around two other poles: that of the human individual and that of the universal law. Immanuel Kant has provided us with the most explicit statement of this point of view. He writes in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: “[T]he dignity of man consists precisely in his capacity to make universal law, although only on condition of being himself also subject to the law he makes. AUTONOMY OF THE WILL as the supreme principle of morality. Autonomy of the will is the property of being a law to itself,”[19] Only that which is chosen by the individual himself can be binding on that individual. Any law that comes to him from without, comes derived from some other authority, be it God or nature, raises the question: why should I obey it? But when the moral law is properly derived by the individual by means of pure abstract reason, it will turn out to possess an unlimited, universal validity – holding not only for all human beings but for all rational agents whoever and wherever they may be. This combination of the individual and the universal is expressed most pointedly in Kant’s categorical imperative which in one of its formulations demands that the individual “act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Friendship turns out to be a problematic category in this context. Actions done out of a spirit of friendship have no moral value in the Kantian universe; acts of friendship can gain moral value only when we set our feelings of friendship aside and perform them exclusively in the spirit of moral duty. “To help others where one can is a duty,” Kant writes, “and besides this there are many spirits of so sympathetic a temper, that without any further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find an inner pleasure in spreading happiness around them and can take delight in the contentment of others as their own work. Yet I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind … has still no genuinely moral worth.”[20] This inevitably diminishes the moral significance of friendship. There is not much of friendship left when I have to tell my friend that I am acting towards him out of a spirit of universal duty, and not because of my feelings for him.  And what holds for friendship must hold also for all other relationships of attachment: those of the family and those of social and political life. No specific human bond can, on Kant’s account, morally justify my acting in this or that way. The love of father and mother cannot give moral value to my actions towards them, neither can my attachment to a place or its people provide moral support for what I do in public and political life. Every such action gains moral significance only when it is carried out in the unwavering, cold light of the universal moral law – a law that I have given myself as an autonomous and individual rational agent.

Confucius and, more generally, Chinese ways of thinking take us in another direction.  Fei Xiaotong speaks of Chinese society, accordingly, as built on “a differential mode of association” in which there exist webs of manifold personal relationships. “To each knot in these webs is attached a specific ethical principle.”[21] In Chinese society, so Fei argues, relations within the family form the primary level of ethical understanding. He quotes Confucius in this connection as saying: “Filial piety and fraternal submission are they not the foundation of moral life?” But Fei continues: “An additional route out from the self is through friends. … As Confucius said: ‘When acting on another’s behalf, shouldn’t you always be loyal? When dealing with friends, shouldn’t you always be sincere? … Make loyalty and sincerity your first principles. Have no friends who do not measure up to yourself.’”[22] Appealing as this account may be at first sight, it once again slurs over the distinction (and contrast) between affective and regulative relationships and thus ignores the tensions that exist between the different types of commitment implied by them, tensions that were well-understood in the Confucian tradition.

What Fei sketches as the Confucian view is a social-relations-based form of ethics and more specifically a communitarian ethics in which the social relations in question are conceived to be those of an entire community. Such an ethics looks for its foundations neither in the isolated, autonomous individual, nor in abstract universal law but in the concrete social relations and the communities in which we find ourselves embedded. This form of ethic is certainly far from the one that has pre-dominated in the West. But it has come to be increasingly attractive in recent years for Western philosophers and scholars who have become disaffected by the traditional Western individualism and universalistic rationalism. It is in this spirit that Herbert Fingarette, a contemporary American philosopher, writes: “When I began to read Confucius, I found him to be a prosaic and parochial moralizer; his collected sayings, the Analects, seemed to me an archaic irrelevance. Later, and with increasing force, I found him a thinker with profound insight and with an imaginative vision of man equal in its grandeur to any I know.”[23] I can sympathize with these sentiments but I worry that they overlook the important difference between an ethics based primarily on regulative social relations and one based on affective relations. Confucius evidently represents the former. Aristotle, as I will try to argue, represents a form of the latter. The implications of these two forms of ethics differ and we need to sort out more carefully which of them is more compelling – or even whether either of them is. Some modification of both the Confucian and the Aristotelian view may be called for.




Matteo Ricci conceived of Confucius as a Stoic philosopher and, in particular, as another Seneca. We have come to understand that there is perhaps a greater affinity between Confucian ethics and the Aristotelian variety because both Confucius and Aristotle were, in fact, communitarian thinkers; for both of them ethics and politics is grounded in the reality of social relations and specifically in relations that constitute the human community.

Both Confucius and Aristotle are, moreover, holistic thinkers; they concern themselves primarily not with individual actions but with the formation of whole human beings. They both consider in consequence the development of moral character habits. And the virtues they recognize are remarkably similar. Confucius’ man of humanity and Aristotle’s man of virtue are, in many respects, analogous figures. But having said that, we must acknowledge that their notions of community differ and this reflects on their respective views of the ethical universe. Confucius is primarily concerned with social roles within a securely established hierarchical society whereas Aristotle thinks in terms of the moral perfection of the individual human being. There expresses itself in this Aristotelian (and Greek) conception of the self already at this early point an inclination towards individualism that will come to expand later on in the Western tradition under the influence first of Christianity and then of modern thought with its atomistic and compositional view of both the natural and the social universe. Nonetheless, both Confucius and Aristotle are political thinkers. But, due to their somewhat different conceptions of the self, Confucius thinks of the political space as organized into kingdoms and ultimately the empire with its determinate hierarchical structure, while that space is for Aristotle made up of autonomous Greek city-states with their republican and egalitarian traditions.

This bears on their respective understanding of friendship. Confucius, no doubt, values friendship greatly but other social relations are clearly more fundamental for him. The Analects have much to say about what is required but they are fairly reticent about the nature and meaning of friendship. We are told only a few things such as, for instance, that one must be true to one’s word with a friend.[24] And one must give them “loyal advice and guide them tactfully.”[25] Nothing  is said about the affectionate aspects of friendship and how they bear on moral life. Confucius asks: “To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?” But he fails to tell us why this delight matters Instead of focusing on friendship, Confucius concerns himself with a series of other relationships: those to parents and elders, to dukes and kings, and, of course, that between Master and Disciples. These are all characteristically relationships of inequality and thus differ from relations of friendship, a relations in which the parties treat each other as equal even though they may come from unequal backgrounds. In Confucius’ picture the social and political space ordered by in-egalitarian relations with friendship cutting orthogonally across it. Friendship has therefore for him also a potentially disruptive and dangerous aspect. It can, of course, as we know, disrupt other social relationships. It can make us rebellious against parents and rulers. The suggestion is that bad friends can lead us to ignore our family and political obligations; there is no recognition here of the fact that there may be also bad family and political relations from which friendship can liberate us.

Aristotle conceives of social space, like Confucius, as built initially out of relations of inequality. He writes in the first book of his Politics: “There is a natural distinction, of course, between what is female and what is servile… The first thing to emerge from these two associations is a household.”[26] To the resulting relationship of male and female and of master and slave he adds in a later chapter that of parent (or father) and child. All these three relationships are relations of inequality. “For free rules slaves, male rules female, and man rules child,” but, of course, in different ways since “the deliberative part of the soul is entirely missing from a slave; a woman has it but it lacks authority; a child has it but it is incompletely developed.”[27] It is, in any case, from these ingredients that, first, the household is constructed and then, in turn, the village and finally the city-state or polis. Aristotle justifies this story, moreover, by appealing to a principle whose range extends beyond the social universe, so it appears, to all of reality. “For whenever a number of constituents … are combined into one common thing,” he declares, “a ruling element and a subject element appear.”[28] The entire world order is thus essentially constructed out of relations of domination and subjection.



But this seemingly simple picture is modified, in Aristotle’s account, by the appearance of friendship in the social, moral, and political order. With friendship an element of equality is injected into that structure. Aristotle approaches the issue in his characteristic way by making distinctions. Some kinds of friendship relations are, indeed, directly egalitarian like friendships based on shared pleasure when “both partners receive and wish the same thing from and for one another.”[29] But there exists also “another kind of friendship which involves the superiority of one of the partners over the other, as in the friendship between father and son, and in general, between an older and a younger person, between husband and wife, and between any kind of ruler and his subject.”[30] Here the initially in-egalitarian social relations of father and son, older and younger, husband and wife, ruler and subject are re-cast in the light of possible relations of friendship between the parties. When such friendships come about the inherent inequality in those relations comes to be overlaid by a new proportionate form of equality. Not that this always and necessarily happens but the potential is there. But the question is how it will appear.

Aristotle offer us an answer in his Politics.  A political system, so he writes does not consist simply in people sharing a common location or being jointly engaged in preventing wrongdoing or exchanging goods. It is established only “when households and families live well as a community” and that explains “why marriage connections arose in city-states as well as brotherhoods, religious sacrifices, and the leisured pursuits of living together. For things of this sort are the result of friendship, since deliberative choice of living together constitutes friendship.”[31] Aristotle is, in fact, convinced that “nothing characterizes friends as much as living in each other’s company.”[32]

In order to understand this wish to live together that characterizes friendship, Aristotle thinks we need to take note of the affectionate aspect of this relationship. He argues that the giving rather than the receiving of affection, constitutes the proper virtue of friendship “so that people who give affection to one another according to each other’s merits are lasting friends and their friendship is a lasting friendship.”[33] This affectionate element in friendship, Aristotle says, explains also the possibility of friendship between unequals “since equality may thus be established between them.” Human beings who are otherwise unequal may still hold each other in mutual affection and thus create a form of equality in the relations between themselves. It appears then that according to Aristotle a political system should be a community in the sense that the people have appropriate feelings of affection for each other. To use Ferdinand Tönnies’ well-known distinction between community and society,[34] we can summarize the view as being that the people united in a political system should ideally form a community and not just a society. A community, in this sense, is constituted by people holding each other in some form of mutual affection; it is this affection that makes them not only wish each other well, but makes them also want to live together and to socialize with each other in the various associations that constitute a communal, political life.

But not every political system we know of can be a community in this sense. For political friendship, as Aristotle understands it, requires direct and personal acquaintance. He writes that “many people have good will towards persons they have never seen … and one of these persons may well reciprocate this feeling… But how can they be called ‘friends’ when they are unaware of how they are disposed toward one another.”[35] The awareness that is here invoked is surely that of direct, face-to-face acquaintance. It is Aristotle’s view then that friendship can exist only between those who are aware of, i.e., directly faced with, another’s good will. The kind of political system that Aristotle conceives to be based on friendship must then be small enough to allow for such mutual acquaintance. It cannot be larger, as far as Aristotle is concerned, than a moderately sized city. The kind of political community envisaged is, in other words, most closely approximated by a Greek polis like ancient Athens. Larger systems, like Imperial China or any modern state, will, by contrast, not be able to rely on the existence of a community of friendship; its people will be able to constitute only a society united by shared interests with all the attendant problems of egoism, greed, factionalism, and class conflict. Aristotle would thus be resistant to speaking of friendship as the defining feature of modern states and even more so to speaking of relations between modern states as involving friendship. When recent US Presidents like Nixon and Reagan proclaimed a desire for friendship between America and China, they used the term then in a fashion that has little to do with Aristotle’s understanding of political friendship. “Friendship” between modern nations and states may involve mutual understanding, respect, and recognition but it is not the kind of political friendship that Aristotle had in mind and which he considered a natural adjunct and extension of individual and personal forms of friendship.

Aristotle was aware, moreover, that not even every political system of the size of a polis will actually live up to the ideal of being a community of friends. When fortunes are distributed too unevenly between the very rich and the very poor, so he is convinced, a sense of communal friendship will be difficult to preserve. “The result is a city-state consisting not of free people but of slaves and masters, the one group full of envy and the other full or arrogance.”[36] We may ask here to what extent Aristotle’s ideal type politics is realistic. Has there ever been an entire political community held together by the bonds of friendship that Aristotle envisages? Or is every conceivable political and social order characterized by divisions and potential conflict? Ancient Athens was certainly never such a community; it was deeply divided by economic and social distinctions and the resulting conflict between factions was eventually to bring about the end of the independent city-state. There were, no doubt, political friendships and alliances in Athens, as, for instance, between the democrats, on the one hand, and the oligarchs, on the other, but was there in addition a single bond of friendship uniting both Athenian democrats and oligarchs?

Aristotle seems to have forgotten the exclusionary aspect to friendship. Our being friends inevitably excludes others, in some way or other, as not being so. These outsiders maybe others we ignore in our interactions as friends, but they may appear also to us as strangers, or even as opponents and enemies. We have to wait till Carl Schmitt in the 1920’s to highlight this aspect of friendship. While Schmitt is specifically concerned with the idea of political friendship, his harshly modern view of this relationship as always containing an antagonistic element and hence a potential for conflict, is grounded in a broad, anthropological and thoroughly modern vision of man as a “dangerous” and “risky” being.[37] But with this qualification we may still think of Schmitt as offering us a modern variation of the Aristotelian idea that the political order is grounded in relations of friendship and is thus something we enter into (and even, perhaps, in some sense, choose) rather than something we find ourselves in on the basis of factually determined kinship relations and social dependencies. In Schmitt’s succinct formulation “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that of friend and enemy.”[38] For this view, in contrast to Aristotle’s which treats conflict as a breakdown of politics, conflict and the permanent possibility of war “is crucial for the friend-enemy antithesis and for the recognition of politics.”[39] Schmitt’s version of the thesis that the political order is based on relations of friendship acquires thus an altogether more disturbing and more harshly “modern” character than Aristotle’s.



There is no equivalent in Confucian thought, as far as I see, to the Aristotelian conception of a politics of friendship and for this reason friendship cannot occupy in it the central place it does in Aristotle’s ethics. To understand this we need to pay attention to another distinction between the Confucian and the Aristotelian tradition. Confucian thought, as I understand it, takes the family to be the primary place in which ethical commitments take shape and in which we acquire an understanding of these. From there, these understandings are projected outwards so that the entire structure of social responsibility and political commitments is finally based on the foundations laid in the household. The family is thus in the Confucian system the primary ethical community.

For Aristotle, on the other hand, this primary community is the polis, the autonomous city-state. “It is evident,” he writes in his Politics, “that a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman.”[40] Aristotle goes on to argue that the city-state or polis is even “prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually, since a whole is necessarily prior to its parts.”[41] The priority in question is, of course, not a genetic one. Aristotle understands that there existed households and villages before there were city-states. But he believes that the more elementary forms of association find their purpose and fulfillment only in the political order of the city-state. He conceives individual and family life, in other words, in a teleological manner as realizing their potential and meaning only in a political order, whereas Confucius advances a genetic conception of ethics in which it is ultimately the family that provides other and higher forms of social organization with their meaning.

Aristotle, on the other hand, considers politics to be “the master science” and ethics part of politics. He writes: “Even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good for the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and to safeguard.”[42] And he argues for this view by pointing out that politics determines “which sciences [i.e., what kind of knowledge and what kind of ethical views and standards] ought to exist in states, what kinds of sciences each group of citizens must learn, and what degree of proficiency each must obtain.”[43] The family can, in other words not be considered the source of our moral consciousness since what is taught in the family is inevitably determined by the surrounding society. Since Aristotle assumes, moreover, that the political order must be based on friendship, it follows for him quite naturally that friendship will also be a major theme for his ethics. Since friendship involves moreover some kind of equality (if only a proportionate one), equality must also be a major ethical and not just a political concern. It does so in Aristotle’s ethics under the heading of justice, for justice, Aristotle concludes, is concerned with “equity and the equitable.”





I have dwelt on the political and egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s account of friendship because it highlights one of the differences to the Chinese concept.  Aristotle takes it to be  evident that politics (in its ideal form) is based on friendship and that friendship is a relation of straightforward or proportionate equality. It follows that politics – once again in its ideal form –  must  have an egalitarian character. By contrast, the traditional Chinese view of politics seems to lack a concern with equality. Instead it understands politics in terms of relationships of authority that are inherently in-egalitarian. Such sweeping judgments need, of course, qualification for Western conceptions of politics are also often just as authoritarian and in-egalitarian. But in Aristotle we certainly find a counter-model to this pervasive view of politics – one which as a result makes the notion of friendship central to politics.

This conclusion generates, however, an immediate puzzle. Doesn’t Aristotle say that our  social order is based on the in-egalitarian relations of husband and wife, father and child, and master and slave and that on the foundation of these relationships there arises first the household then the village and finally the polis? And does he not also say more generally that every complex must be composed of dominant and subjected elements? So where then is there an opening for equality to enter into this system? It would certainly be wrong to think of Aristotle as a radical egalitarian. Inequality is for him an inherent feature of human life, including, of course, political life. Equality enters into our political life only in a specific and restricted fashion. First of all, it concerns only a small privileged group: free (i.e., not enslaved), economically independent, and educated male citizens. It is in this group that political equality is possible, according to Aristotle. Even among these men there exists, in fact, always some kind of political inequality in that some of them will rule at a given moment and others not. The political equality of these males consists only in the fact that each of them is qualified to rule the city and that they will actually rotate in and out of office. It is the capacity to be rulers rather than the actual exercise of rule that characterizes privileged males as equal. The ideal form of government is for Aristotle then not one that treats everybody as equal. He rejects what he calls “radical democracy” and advocates, instead, a “constitutional” or “republican” form of government in which only those genuinely capable of being politically equal – i.e., those genuinely qualified to rule – take turns in office. Only such a system is “just.” Aristotle writes: “The first thing one must grasp, however, is what people say the defining marks of oligarchy and democracy are, and what oligarchic and democratic justice are. For they all grasp justice of a sort, but they go only to a certain point and do not discuss the whole of what is just in the most authoritative sense. For example, justice seems to be equality, and it is, but not for everyone, only for equals.”[44]

This still leaves the relation of friendship to politics somewhat underdetermined. We might grant Aristotle conditionally that politics must involve an element of equality but why does it have to involve an equality that manifests itself in friendship? An answer might be that the qualified males who can count as political equals must have sufficient confidence in each other that their peers will play fairly, that the rotation in office actually works and is administered in a fair fashion, and that those who rule at a given moment will apply the laws in a fair manner. And this confidence, so Aristotle may have concluded, is guaranteed only when the members of the privileged group are bound to each other in relations of friendship, that is through relations of  mutual affection. It is in those terms that we must understand the surprising assertion in Aristotle’s  Ethics that “when people are friends they have no need of justice, but when they are just they need friendship in addition.” The just must still rely on bonds of friendship when they administer the law, but when people are genuinely political friends, they do not need to worry about justice; being just to each other will come naturally to them.



There is a further important lessons to be learned from Aristotle which concerns his emphasis on the affectionate element in friendship. Confucius is largely mute on this point, as we have seen. He speaks of respect for friends but that is not the same as affection. To hear more on the theme of affection from a Chinese thinker we have to turn to Zhuangzi.

In one of his metaphorical tales Zhuangzi writes of four Daoist masters: “Master Si, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai  were all four talking together. ‘Who can look upon nonbeing as his head, on life as his back, and on death as his rump?’ they said. ‘Who knows that life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body? I will be his friend!’ The four men looked at each other and smiled. There was no disagreement in their hearts and so the four of them became friends.”[45] To re-enforce the entailed message Zhuangzi repeats it in a second tale concerning three other Daoist sages, Master Sanghu, Mengzi Fan, and Master Qinzhang. This story bears in addition on the theme of the exclusionary character that friendship relations may take. When the Confucian Zigong comes to visit, he is bewildered by the spontaneous and entirely untraditional funeral rites that Mengzi Fan and Qinzhang are enacting for their deceased friend. Confucius himself is made to comment ruefully: “Such men wander beyond the realm; men like me wander within it.”[46] Between him and them no real understanding is thus possible, no community, and no friendship.

But the main interest of the two stories lies in its identification of an aspect of friendship that neither Confucius nor Aristotle have taken into account. We speak of friendship as a chosen relation rather than one into which we are born or in which we find ourselves more or less willingly as a result of our place in society. We don’t choose our families and we have for the most part no choice in our citizenship. But friendship is acquired – and can therefore also be lost or abandoned. But this does not mean that we are entirely free in choosing our friends. We may well want to befriend someone or become part of a circle of friends but fail or be even rejected. Friendship presupposes that there be a common ground between the parties involved. Friends typically share common interests and engage in common pursuits. But, as Zhuangzi points out in his narrative, friends also typically share common convictions, a common view of the world, a common understanding of things. Carl Schmitt brings the matter once again to a point by stressing that friendship is built on the perception of an entire, shared “form of existence” and he connects this once more to the antagonistic aspect of friendship in that he envisages alternative and mutually incompatible forms of life and hence the always obtaining potential of an adversary who “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”[47]

Zhuangzi and Schmitt highlight a feature of friendship that throws a disturbing light on all communitarian, social-relations-based forms of ethics. If community and more generally all social relations have an exclusionary aspect, do forms of ethics based on them  not license obvious injustices: favoritism, guanxi, and insider-dealing, also factionalism, blindness towards outsiders, ultimately corruption and even a fight to the death? It is this realization that produces the attraction of moral universalism. Neither Confucius nor Aristotle deal adequately with this matter. Aristotle has really nothing to say on it and Confucius deals with it only by upholding the ideal of “humanity” without, however, being able to explain how we are to get from our initial concern with family and elders to this encompassing ideal. Hanfei is the major Chinese thinker who really appreciated the problem. The first of ten basic faults that he identifies is “to practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty.”[48] Hanfei, in particular, warns that rulers are undermined when their ministers “build up cliques of their own.”[49] They must therefore make sure to “put an end to private scheming” and “block selfish pursuits.”[50] If men “enter into associations with foreign powers in order to further the interests of their own group, then subordinates will be of little aid to their superiors. If the cliques are large and their allies numerous, so that a single clique embraces men both inside and outside the state … this is the beginning of downfall.”[51] Han Fei hopes to prevent such disaster by an enforcement of the law – that is, binding rules proclaimed by a ruler – but the proposal is clearly insufficient because there is no guarantee that in a society motivated by a social-relations-based ethics these laws will be administered in an impartial fashion. The problem is evidently how to motivate those whose ethics is based on their social relations to accept the validity of the law.

We find ourselves then here, at the end, in a dilemma from which neither Confucian nor Aristotelian ethical thinking seems to give us an adequate way out: We see, on the one hand, the attractions of social-relations-based or communitarian forms of ethics. They ground our moral commitments in a persuasive picture of ourselves as human beings, naturally embedded in social contexts that bring with them moral commitments. Moral universalism on the other hand is forced to appeal to the intangible and dubious power of reason or to intuition and revelation or rely on the stark enforcement of human law. But, attractive as it appears, communitarian ethics seems to land us at the same time in the swamps of moral partiality. The question is whether we can conceive of community and specifically friendship in ways that overcome the exclusionary power inherent in them. Can we reconcile our commitment to local community with one to the human community at large, friendship with those close to us in life and conviction with an open, generous, and encompassing sense to humanity? How do we, how can we make the move from our narrow commitments to those about us to those of all of creation? Can we learn from Ricci and those like him who set out, not always with full success, to befriend people initially alien and perhaps even hostile? What they did was to learn new languages, new ways of speaking and acting, new forms of communicating; they set out to find truth in the ways others see the world; to get insight into the thinking of others; to grasp other “philosophies,” to accommodate themselves to other forms of human existence; to negotiate the gulf that separates us from one another. To engage in, what we may call in a word, new practices of friendship.

I return at this point to a remark from the Analects that I have already quoted: “A gentleman gathers friends through his culture, and with these friends, he develops his humanity.” There are two ways of reading this saying, one weaker and one stronger. The weaker one takes Confucius’ statement to mean simply that friendship is among the social relations that helps us to develop our humanity. The stronger reading, which I prefer, understands the sentence as an endorsement of a distinctive feature of friendship which sets it apart from other social relations. Where our regulative relations always confine us to a specific sphere (our family, our community, our state) friendship allows for new types of relationships that cut across these boundaries and that open us up to others. Friendship thus serves distinctively to widen our horizons and is thus indispensable for developing our humanity.  This is not what orthodox Confucians with their worries about the dangers of friendship and their promotion of family ties found in the remark, but it is just possible that Confucius himself was ahead of them in this point – as in so many others.






[1] Matteo Ricci, On Friendship; One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, translated by Timothy Billings, Columbia University Press, New York 2009, p.

[2] Quoted from G. Vitiello, The Libertine’s Friend, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2011, p. 86.

[3] On Friendship, p.

[4] Ibid. The aphorisms he selected came from religious, literary, and philosophical authors and were taken from Andreas Eborensis’ Sententiae et Exempla (fifth edition, 1590).

[5] Yuet Keung Lo, “My Second Self: Matteo Ricci’s Friendship in China,” Monumenta Serica, vol. 54, 2006, pp. 221-241.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Martin Oswald, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis 1962, 1156b.

[7] Quoted from Michela Fontana, Matteo Ricci. A Jesuit in the Ming Court, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham 2011, p. 105. The letter was addressed to Claudio Acquaviva, the head of the Jesuit order.

[8] Martin Huang, “Male Friendship in Ming China: an Introduction” in Nan Nü, vol. 9, 2007, p. 17.

[9] Ibid., p. 32

[10] Ibid., p. 6, footnote 13.

[11] On the hostilities Ricci encountered see, for instance, Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Viking, New York 1984, pp. 49-56.

[12] Confucius, The Analects, translated by Simon Leys, Norton & Company, New York 1997, 12.24.

[13] Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, 1155a.

[14]  Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” Essays; Adriana Manago, Tamara Taylor, and Patricia Greenfield, “Me and my 400 friends: The anatomy of college students’ Facebook networks, their communication patterns, and well-being,” Developmental Psychology, vol 48,  2012, pp. 369-380.

[15] Treatise on Friendship, quoted from Yuet Keung Lo, loc. cit., p. 237.

[16] Alexander Nehamas, “Aristotle’s Philia, Modern Friendship?” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 39, 2010, pp. 213-2247.

[17] On the changes in Chinese friendship terminology, Martin Huang, loc. cit., pp. 4-6, 10-11.

[18] Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” Foucault Live, Semiotexte, New York           ; Marilyn Friedman, What are Friends For? Feminist Perspectives on Personal Relationships and Moral Theory, Cornell U. P., Ithaca,  NY, 1993

[19] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton, Harper, New York 1956, pp. 107-108.

[20] Ibid., p.

[21] Fei Xiaotong, From the Soil. The Foundations of Chinese Society, translated by Gary G. Hamilton and Wang Zheng, University of California Press, Berkeley 1992, p. 78.

[22] Ibid., p. 74.

[23] Herbert Fingarette, Confucius – the Secular as Sacred, p. vii.

[24] Ibid., 1.7

[25] Ibid., 12.23.

[26] Aristotle, Politics, translated by C. D.C. Reeve, Hackett, Indianapolis 1998, 1252b.

[27] Ibid., 1260a.

[28] Ibid., 1254a.

[29] Ibid., 1158b.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Politics, 1280b.

[32] Nicomachean Ethics, 1157b.

[33] Ibid., 1159a.

[34] Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, translated by Jose Harris, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011.

[35] Nicomachean Ethics, 1155b-1156a.

[36] Politics, 1295b.

[37] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab, extended edition, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007, p. 58.

[38] Ibid., p. 26.

[39] Ibid., p. 37.

[40] Politics, 1253a

[41] Ibid.

[42] Nicomachean Ethics, 1094ab

[43] Ibid.

[44]  Politics, 1280a.

[45] Zhuangzi, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York 2003, p. 80.

[46] Ibid., p. 83.

[47] The Concept of the Political, p. 27.

[48] Han Fei Tzu, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York 1964, p. 49.

[49] Ibid., p. 19.

[50] Ibid., p. 22.

[51] Ibid., p. 23.

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