Online Colloquium (4): Comments on Gabriella Slomp, Hobbes Against Friendship: The Modern Marginalization of an Ancient Political Concept

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship.

We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Nicholas Gooding
University of California, Berkeley
Department of Philosophy

When I told a friend and fellow philosopher that I was reading a book about Hobbes on friendship, she responded with the suspicion that Hobbes scholars were scraping the bottom of the barrel. An understandable reaction, since Hobbes hardly mentions friendship. But what Professor Slomp’s argument suggests is that my friend’s reaction betrays precisely Hobbes’s success: Though Aristotle could list as a “common opinion” the idea that friendship was more important to the polis than justice, after Hobbes, it appears that the default assumption is that friendship is irrelevant to the political theorist.

In fact, Aristotle’s account of friendship plays an important role in the story that Professor Slomp tells. Here, I want to comment on, and raise some questions about, her discussion of Hobbes’s relationship to two particular elements in the Aristotelian theory.

The first is what Aristotle called “friendship for the sake of the useful.” Aristotle suggested that “political friendship” is an instance of such, and though he used the term “political friendship” only a handful of times, later thinkers would come to recognize it as having profound importance. Within this tradition, Professor Slomp discerns two different (though “intertwined”) strands, which she labels “negative friendship” (an alliance for protection against a common enemy; chapter 3) and “positive friendship” (a cooperative partnership enabling the friends to live “commodiously”; chapter 4). On Slomp’s telling, Hobbes’s criticism is relatively nuanced (see, e.g., p. 97). He does not deny the possibility of such friendships, and he incorporates elements of both negative and positive friendship into his own political theory. Where he diverges most sharply from the tradition concerns the question of whether anything plausibly thought of as “friendship” could provide the basis of peace and stability.

Slomp’s argument here is, I think, quite persuasive. I could, admittedly, imagine feeling that her conclusion, when stated in such general terms, is hardly something anyone would have thought to deny. But what makes her discussion illuminating is its capacity to bring out, by means of a bird’s-eye survey of the vicissitudes of “political friendship” before Hobbes, that Hobbes’ silence on the topic is surprising—surprising in ways that we (belonging as we do to an intellectual world partly shaped by Hobbes) might otherwise be blind to. On this basis, it seems to me that Professor Slomp is able to offer a plausible account of the Hobbesian views that can be inferred from what looks at first like an almost total neglect of the topic.

I find myself somewhat less persuaded by her discussion of another Aristotelian idea, that of “virtue friendship”—the only genuine form of friendship according to Aristotle, since, unlike friendships for the sake of utility or pleasure, it involves loving another in himself and wishing him well for his own sake. (Slomp labels this “normative friendship.”) Here, Slomp tells us, Hobbes is uncompromising: Whereas he “made some important concessions to the narratives on negative and positive friendship,” his “theory contains a forceful…rejection of the ancient model of normative friendship…” (p. 97).

Hobbes does not explicitly discuss Aristotle’s notion of virtue friendship. So why believe that he nonetheless rejects it? An initially tempting answer might be that Hobbes—with his notoriously reductive view of human motivation—simply thought it impossible for one person to love another in himself or to wish him well for his own sake. But Slomp is not persuaded by this familiar line of thought: “Hobbes’s description of human nature does not exclude the possibility of one man considering another to be ‘a second self,’…[nor] preclude men from acting generously towards a select few, even if he rules out universal love for mankind.” (p. 112)[1]

So, Hobbes’s rationale for rejecting normative friendship does not derive from his psychology. Instead, Professor Slomp suggests that it derives from his rejection of the Aristotelian conception of virtue as consisting in a “mean” that lies between a vice of deficiency and one of excess—a view Hobbes breezily demolishes thus: “as if not the cause, but the degree of daring, made fortitude; or not the cause, but the quantity of a gift, made liberality” (Lev. 15.40; cf. Slomp p. 113). If we read this a criticism of Aristotle, however, then it does not seem to be Hobbes at his best, since it would have to depend on a superficial misreading of Aristotle’s account of ethical virtue. Aristotle explicitly says that the reason or motive for an action (“the cause”) is part of what makes it virtuous;[2] and, whatever “the mean” is, it is very explicitly not the midpoint between two extremes.[3] Professor Slomp’s discussion of this topic can sometimes give the impression that she is simply following Hobbes in his misreading of Aristotle (see p. 113); I expect that this impression is misleading, but it does raise some questions: Is she assuming that Hobbes’s carelessness or philosophical shortcomings on this score do not matter for her argument? Or that Aristotle himself need not be the target of Hobbes’s critique—that Hobbes’s purposes will be served well enough by knocking down this strawman instead?

But, granting Hobbes’s rejection of the Aristotelian account of virtue, it is hard for me to see why this, on its own, should imply a rejection, rather than a reinterpretation, of the idea of virtue friendship. After all, Hobbes does not reject the notion of virtue altogether; instead, he presents us with a view according to which the moral virtues are those qualities that lead to peace (Lev. 15.40). Is there some reason to suppose (without falling back on that crude or reductive psychology that Slomp cautions us against) that the recognition of such qualities in another could not be the basis of love, as the Aristotelian virtues supposedly were?

Professor Slomp does offer us a further justification for Hobbes’s rejection of normative friendship: “Hobbes took and voiced a position on friendship that distinguishes the moderns from the ancients—he stressed the ambivalence of friendship” (p. 114), in the sense that he saw that it could be a potential danger (not only a benefactor) to the political community.

            Were “the ancients” unaware of the ambivalence of friendship? C.S. Lewis appears to have thought so—Professor Slomp quotes him approvingly (I take it) on p. 114: “Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better, and bad men worse.” The problem is that Lewis seems to be very straightforwardly mistaken here. In fact, his claim could almost be a paraphrase of the final paragraph of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics:

Hence, the friendship of base people turns out to be vicious. For they are unstable and share base pursuits; and by becoming similar to each other, they grow vicious. But the friendship of decent people is decent, and increases the more often they meet. And they seem to become still better from their activities and their mutual correction. (NE 9.12, 1172a9-12; Irwin translation)

            Now, Professor Slomp might (perfectly correctly) point out that Aristotle is not talking about people being made worse by virtue friendship. Granted, but now there is some risk that Hobbes’s purported disagreement with the Aristotelians will devolve into a merely verbal dispute. Any friendship that is a potential “school of vice” and therefore a danger to the community will, for that very reason, not count as a “virtue friendship.” But that does not involve the Aristotelian in any substantive disagreement with the idea that the relationships normally referred to as “friendships” are politically ambivalent. 

Perhaps we can do better. The Aristotelian believes we have reason to conceptually mark off those relationships that are not ambivalent; Hobbes has no use for her taxonomy. Why? One idea that may suggest itself is that Hobbes thought that the distinction could not be drawn, because there are no independent, objective criteria of goodness or virtue; thus, if (those whom we are inclined to think of as) the vicious love each other because of qualities they themselves respect, their relationship has just as much claim on the label of virtue (or genuine) friendship as any other. But I don’t think that Slomp can avail herself of this kind of argument, since she grants that there are, for Hobbes, just such objective criteria (the laws of nature, the moral virtues).

            To echo something Alexandra says in her contribution, I do not mean to suggest that Hobbes was a closet proponent of the Aristotelian view of friendship, and I am sure that there are other reasons that we might come up with for supposing that Hobbes would be skeptical about it. Perhaps we might appeal to his rejection of natural teleology, which is certainly involved in Aristotle’s tripartite account of friendship. Or we might imagine that singling out some friendships as “virtue friendships” would involve, by Hobbes’s lights, arrogating rights to oneself that properly belong only to the sovereign. But, even if we can come up with such a story, I still find myself wondering: What does Hobbes’s silence on the matter show? That his rejection of the Aristotelian picture of friendship was so uncompromising that he could not even bring himself to speak of it, or that—in the words of one of Hobbes’s anti-Aristotelian contemporaries—he simply felt he did “not have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind”?[4]

One can imagine, after all, why Hobbes may have thought that virtue friendship was irrelevant to his concerns, and thus that he need not bother with the subtleties of refuting it. Professor Slomp points out that, rare though it was, virtue friendship was of profound political importance for Aristotle and many thinkers influenced by him. But this is because for those thinkers the moral education of citizens was a (perhaps the) central goal of the polis; virtue friendship was politically important insofar as it both contributed to and was made possible by the achievement of this goal. But once that view of the proper goal of the political community is rejected, virtue friendship immediately becomes peripheral. Hobbes has a conception of politics according to which, even if there is such a thing as virtue friendship and even if it is of paramount importance to people in their personal lives, it is anyway of no political importance. He declines to speak of it simply because he has no use for it.

That, anyway, is one alternative explanation—too baldly stated, no doubt—for Hobbes’s silence.  I would be curious to hear more about why Professor Slomp believes, instead, that it is best explained by supposing that he rejected the idea of normative friendship altogether.

Perhaps, however, there is an inevitable indeterminacy here. It is, after all, a much trickier business for an interpreter to draw inferences from a thinker’s silences than from his statements. And notwithstanding my worries and questions about the place of Aristotelian virtue friendship in Professor Slomp’s argument, it seems to me that she generally handles this tricky business with thoroughness and care. I learned a lot from her new book, and am grateful both to her and EHS for the opportunity to participate in this symposium. 

[1] I am sympathetic with this claim, but I would have liked to hear a bit more about how she understands passages that seem to be in some tension with it—for instance, the argument of chapter 1 of De Cive, which, at least at first pass, presents us with a view of men as seeking the company and friendship of others, not because we love them as such, but for the sake of our own advantage and glory. Hobbes concludes part of his argument, for instance, with a striking claim: “So it is clear from experience to anyone who gives serious attention to human behavior that every voluntary encounter is the product either of mutual need or the pursuit of glory.” (Silverthorne translation, slightly altered; emphasis added).

[2] See Aristotle’s repeated claims that, in order to be virtuous, an action must be undertaken “for the sake of the fine,” e.g., NE 4.1, 1120a24; 2.4, 1105a32; on courage specifically, see NE 3.7, esp. 1115b17-24; on generosity, see NE 4.1, esp. 1120a28-30.

[3] See NE 2.6, 1106a30-b8; 2.7, 1107a1-2.

[4] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, AT 25.