States of Friendship
Friendship, for Cicero, was a virtuous thing, sustained by love, respect, and sincerity – this is why “one does not live with a friend as one would with a dictator.”
“…a tyrant never either is loved or himself loves. Friendship is a sacred name, it is a holy thing; it is never exists save between morally upright people [gens de bien] and stems only from mutual esteem. It is sustained not so much by favors rendered as by proper living. What makes one friend sure of another is the knowledge he has of his integrity: the guarantees of it he has are his good character, faith, and loyalty. There can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there is injustice. And it is conspiracy, not company, among evildoers when they assemble. They do not love, but fear, each other; these have no affection for one another; fear alone holds them together; they are not friends, they are accomplices.”
Etienne la Boetie, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” in Montaigne: Selected Essays with la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, tr. James B. Atkinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012), 284-312, 310
Montaigne, writing in his Essays about the loss of the friend who had penned these lines, lamented that la Boétie’s death had left him no more than half of himself, saying that there was “no deed nor thought in which I do not miss him.”
Not all friendships are or can be like the one between Montaigne and la Boétie, and the point of Montaigne’s commentary is to underscore that even centuries could pass before the world might witness another relationship such as this. For la Boétie himself, friendship was inimical to tyranny, because there was no friendship at all to be found in the heart of a tyrant bitter enough to hate his own people. Here, one can see how important relations of friendship were thought to be for political life in general, as part of what sustains and enriches a people. Looking back to Aristotle, whose empirical cast of mind lent itself to cataloguing pluralities and practices, one finds a more differentiated view of friendship, also tied up with living together in shared communities and therefore likewise of political significance. For Aristotle, however, friendship was not simply unique and virtuous, but rather part of a continuum of feelings that helped to cement the polis. He documented several different kinds of friendship, or philia, noting that some are based on “utility,” or the usefulness of the relation, in which a mutual benefit is derived from the association. Civic friendship is of this kind, since it “looks to equality as sellers and buyers do; hence the proverb ‘a fixed wage for a friend.’”
Perhaps because of this, Aristotle was also highly attuned to borders, both real and conceptual. In his Politics, for example, he comments that if two distinct cities, such as Corinth and Megara, were “to be brought together so that their walls touched, still they would not be one city…”
In matters of practical philosophy (ethics, politics, economics), Aristotle seems to allow for a kind of relative universality because he recognized that, say, Spartans were different from Scythians and Athenians: in matters of practice, universality is instantiated within a particular context, as reflected in the laws and customs of a polis. This is why a principle of equity is required as corrective to the law’s universality as applied, because “all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which will be correct,” since errors can arise because of the “absoluteness of [a] statement.”
Aristotle’s emphasis on instrumental relations as being integral to the life of a polis is striking, perhaps all the more so because it is not burdened by the moralizing ideals that are so much a part of the Christian tradition. There is no Golden Rule according to which the conscience should measure its actions or hypocrisies, and the asocial aspects of sociability are abundantly obvious within his texts. People use each other, and treat others as expedient means rather than respect-worthy ends. As he notes, the justice of those merely useful to each other is highly prone to recrimination, especially if the friendship on which it is based is represented by one or both parties as moral, but is in fact instrumental: “pretending they trust one another they make out their friendship to be not merely legal.” In such cases, legal recourse reveals the ruse: in friendships established on that basis, he writes, “legal association is dissolved by money-payment (for it measures equality in money), but the moral is dissolved by mutual consent.”
Within our contemporary world of nation-states, friendship continues to play a role in notions of the political, since the word is often used to describe strategic alliances of interests and economies, as well as gestures of good will. Aristotle was perhaps one of the first to acknowledge this use, when he admitted that relations of philia could obtain between states.
To my knowledge, the collapse of these kinds of international friendships between modern states has never been commemorated with the kind of confession of grief and loss that Montaigne expressed for la Boétie. Nations do not become half themselves after such a break; indeed, it seems their business to insist that they are and will always remain very much themselves, regardless of any attritions – that is the malleability of modern patriotism. I will return later to the topic of friendship – relevant in an age of enforced, imposed and increasingly highly policed borders – because of its relationship to the problem of cruelty, alluded to above. First, though, I want to examine some ideas about universality, since this conceivably borderless state has had a long history and correspondingly shifting series of referents.
Time, Space, Thought: Western Universality
From the very beginnings of Western philosophy, the term “universality” has admitted of multiple interpretations and overlapping registers, and this plurality has contributed to its conceptual flexibility and endurance. Historically speaking, specific assertions or attributions of “universality” are not always in themselves particularly revealing of the interpretive nexus I am trying to represent here; rather, it emerges out of sustained, repeated patterns of thought observable across time, which revolve around embedded tendencies peculiar to particular intellectual traditions and which help shape both the figure and ground of experience. Such repetitions do not have the fixed regularity of events amenable to properly ‘scientific’ treatment and analysis, however, which, as Bergson once said, are “withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time.” They are by contrast acutely temporal. What we now understand as ‘science’ works on what is repeated and repeatable, whereas “anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science.”
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein comments on an earlier claim from the Tractatus that “the general form of propositions is: ‘This is how things are.’”
As an intellectual historian, I am curious about what it has meant within the European tradition to claim to speak universally, for humanity as a whole, not least since such claims have often (though certainly not always) appeared at the junction between relations of force and relations of meaning. My focus has been on issues of philosophical method and the persistent interplays between the universal and particular, which can be productively used to recover the conditions under which past borders of thought were established, reinforced, or demolished. After all, very few people use the language of natural law today, save for some who maintain an affection for the Christian traditions out of which it emerged. But even these focus chiefly on the ways natural law helps one to speak in moral terms about the world and creation; none, to my knowledge, are attempting the kinds of epistemological and metaphysical treatises written, for example, by Christian Wolff. But even if someone did, it would be a rather solitary and eccentric effort, far removed from the concerns of contemporary intellectuals and universities, perhaps considered a form of naïveté or madness.
Within the European tradition, it was often said that time and space, chronology and geography, were the two eyes of history. I’m uncertain of the phrase’s origin, but it was used at a time when most intellectuals in Europe measured the age of the world only in the thousands of years. It remains evocative, even though the context has shifted considerably: chronology is no longer a discipline, nevermind one capable of attracting the finest minds of an era, and although European colonialists could be found everywhere that wood could float and then some, the mapping of the world was still in relative infancy. The visual metaphor is quite apt, however: time and space were coordinates operating in tandem, capable of shaping what was seen and of setting the intervals, say, between civilization and barbarism. ‘Universal’ history offered even more, and it is to this topic that I will now turn, in order to investigate what it once meant to envision the movement of humanity and peoples together through time.
Universal History: A European Narrative
In Europe during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the notion of “universalism” began to shift again, principally in response to the challenges posed by the collapse of the language of natural law, which had facilitated a certain epistemic orientation toward questions of universality. I’ve previously described natural law as an ‘idiom’ rather than a specific doctrine
The methodological aspects of natural law help to clarify the relational frameworks within which knowledge was construed, constructed and communicated. This is a peculiarly European history, to my mind, but its legacy is so pervasive that its particularities can often remain unselfconsciously embedded and active within conceptual framings far removed in time and place. The coherence of natural law, along with its endurance as a general frame of reference, was built up and sustained over centuries by a series of interrelated and historically complementary dualisms that shored up both ideals and practices associated with ‘science’: between deductive and inductive methods, between a priori and a posteriori forms of proof, between universals and particulars, between reason and empiricism, and between the contingent and eternal. For example, Christian Wolff divided his Theologia naturalis of 1736 into a posteriori and a priori sections; likewise, his work on psychology. Around the same time, jurisprudence was designated as a ‘practical-theoretical’ undertaking, with the structural division of universal/theoretical and particular/practical sections quite common in student legal textbooks. The two approaches did not stand fundamentally in opposition, because it was assumed that what one could ultimately know as a result of using either method would not result in irreconcilable perspectives on the world: they were complementary, not conflicting, approaches to knowledge.
This situation began to change, however, in the eighteenth century: partly by reason of methodological tensions but also because the post-revolutionary context significantly disrupted the ways in which political power or the power of the state could be seen in terms of natural law. Despite being asked, Kant never completed a natural law; instead, he wrote critiques. And in Hegel’s essay on natural law, the supposed unity of idealist and empiricist approaches, of the a priori and a posteriori, of deduction and induction, is and ought, is portrayed as fractured and broken.
But idioms of unity are hard to shake, and ideas and ideals of universalism still widely circulated then as now. Here, I will focus mainly on ideas about universal history – a venerable approach in Europe, but one which began to assume new forms at the end of the eighteenth century, as approaches to history became more global and the uses of history more prominent. In 1784, Immanuel Kant linked the cosmopolitan perspective with the idea of a universal history in his essay, “Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” in which he averred that a philosophical history oriented around the a priori might productively accompany empirical efforts based on the a posteriori. More famously, Kant argued for a global civic union, likely led by Europe, because the evils of war would cease only with an international government, thus combining the territorial and the ethical. Ambition, avarice, love of power – these demand a cultured response, which is the ground for a “cosmopolitan whole,” without which “war is inevitable,” as he later put it in The Critique of Judgment (1790). The constitution of such a whole was hardly certain, however, like the playing out of some mechanical sequence; rather, it remained a matter of choice, freedom, and possibility.
Universal history, which for Kant here is a philosophical history, is not a principally empirical matter. History written after the fact or a posteriori is merely manifold without unity; it cannot grasp the teleological principles that orient, but do not determine, the future of humanity. The methodological depth of Kant’s claims here is underscored by a few remarks from the Critique of Pure Reason, where he states that if one abstracts from the objective content of all cognition, then all knowledge, subjectively regarded, is “either historical or rational. Historical knowledge is cognitio ex datis, rational knowledge, however, cognitio ex principiis.”
At the time Kant was writing, the idea of a universal history was circulating widely across Europe. In May of 1789, for example, Friedrich Schiller gave his famous inaugural address at the University of Jena on the topic of universal history to a packed lecture hall filled with young people eager to receive guidance on their vocations. Universal history in his telling was a story of the development of cultures, with the many “tribes” populating the globe serving like so many children of different ages, gathered around a mature adult. Given the university context, it is hard not to take this claim with some irony, but the lecture as a whole suggests there was none. Europeans in his vision are the adults, after all, and the study of universal history underscores the good fortune, the exceptionalism, of European civilization, which the “long ages of the world” have finally brought home.
Here, one can see the ways in which universal history was used to help anchor and advance an idea of European identity within the increasingly vast space of time, since it was also around this period that the temporal boundaries that had been defined and redefined on the basis of Biblical chronology were being overcome.
But universal history itself has a very long history in the Christian West, and to help explain why ideas about universal history were again circulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a proximate source is useful and, in this case, available. Called An universal history, from the earliest account of time; compiled from original authors; and illustrated with maps, cuts, notes, chronological and other tables and published in England, it began to appear in 1736, with the first edition concluding in 1765 with over forty volumes. Gibbon, while admitting that he had enjoyed the work immensely in his boyhood, later called it a “dull mass…not quickened by a spark of philosophy or taste.”
The presumed universality of Christendom, evident in a lingering reliance on Biblical chronology, remains intact in this new universal history and marks a continuity with earlier universal histories, such as Bossuet’s. Again, chronology and geography had long been identified as the “two eyes of history,” and while this new universal history was fairly conventional if not old-fashioned with regard to the former, it was nothing short of innovative when it came to the latter. In it, one finds an expansive geographic sensibility, in keeping with its encyclopedic delivery; information has been gathered and ordered on customs, territories, weights and measures, currencies and the like, all of which is set down in great detail. This is a more ‘global’ history, with a clearly comparative and anthropological bent absent in the more inward, Europe-directed universal histories that had preceded it. A new set of aspirations can be detected in this global focus, particularly when considered in the context of England’s expanding empire and economy – aspirations which set the pens of Europe in motion around the topic of universal history yet again.
The German historian Leopold von Ranke, discussing the origins of universal history almost a century later, wrote that “the historians of by-gone days were satisfied with the conception of the four great empires of the world, drawn from the prophetic books of the Bible”; in the eighteenth century, however, the idea of a “Universal History was, as it were, secularized,” thanks to the progress of civilization but also to the publication of a “voluminous record of different nations under the title of ‘Universal History’”– something greeted enthusiastically in Germany and serving as the incitement to a “display of similar industry.”
This endurance of universal history as a project – one with proponents even today – points to a long-term and principally European commitment set into motion against a horizon of ideals yet to be achieved. And it was precisely this forward-looking, hegemonizing impulse that Theodor Adorno called out for criticism in his Negative Dialectics:
Universal history must be construed and denied. After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it. Not to be denied for that reason, however, is the unity that cements the discontinuous, chaotically splintered moments and phases of history – the unity of the control over nature, progressing to rule over men, and finally to that over man’s inner nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace which organized mankind presents to organized men, in the epitome of discontinuity. It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head. If he transfigured the totality of historic suffering into the positivity of the self-realizing absolute, the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day – with occasional breathing spells – would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.
Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973 ), 320.
Adorno is addressing the interplay of the unity and the manifold, the one and the many, the universal and particular. And he is doing so principally with the philosophy of Hegel in mind, in which tensions, frictions and contradictions are subsumed into an overarching unity of discontinuity, one that rationalizes capitalism and its modes of production and assimilation within a conception of world spirit that Adorno defines as a “permanent catastrophe,” not unlike Benjamin’s gloss on Klee’s Angelus Novus, in which a violent storm blowing out of paradise propels the angel of history inevitably backward toward the future, with only a view of the wreckage piling up.
Recalling once again that the term ‘universal’ has at times carried an intentionally territorial sense, referring to things held in common within a particular geographic space, this Western universality still has its borders and limits, its interior and exterior. In the Roman and Greek world, so often a reference point for the West, there was a voluminous literature – a remarkable literature, really – on the meaning of exile, of being driven away from the universal in this embodied sense: away from what is held in common, away from the known universe of people, customs, habits, laws and politics, and into a new and foreign space. This was often a precarious, vulnerable affair, as the classical literature attests – one was compelled to live on the margins of all that one had known. One of these writers, Plutarch, said that when speaking with someone in exile, one should take care not to vindicate the pain of the situation, but to lessen it. Those who do not heed this advice, he says, are like people who don’t know how to swim trying to rescue a drowning person.