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A Conversation with Tutor Paul Ludwig about Civic Friendship

June 7, 2019 | By Zachary N. Greene (AGI20)

Civic friendship, says tutor Paul Ludwig, is an essential need in contemporary society. 

The following is an excerpt from an interview originally printed in the Spring 2019 issue of Colloquy. Here, Paul Ludwig—who has been a tutor at St. John’s College since 1997—discusses civic friendship, a topic about which he is working on a book and which he covered in a September 2018 lecture on the Annapolis campus.

You are currently working on a piece on civic friendship. Would you care to tell us about that?

It’s weird—I got started on this almost 16 years ago. I had done my dissertation, which became a book, on eros and political philosophy, and whether they had anything to do with one another—I claimed they did. It seemed like a natural move to go on to another type of love, from eros to philia. It also seemed like a quick kind of thing—I know a lot about emotions already, this could be a quick rip-off. It became much more involved very quickly. I’ve gone through many phases of feeling I knew something, then realizing I was ignorant, then scratching my way back to thinking I knew something, and realizing “Wow, talk about ignorance, glad I didn’t publish that!” Learning remains a dialectical process, even if you’re doing it by yourself with either dead or distant interlocutors.

The whole need in America for civic friendship, the terrible polarization in a way and really hostility that we are living through now—all that came later. I joke that if I had been smarter about this and got this out earlier, I could have prevented all that and we would be fine. So in a way, events have caught up with the book and made it more relevant than when I first started. I think political communities are forms of friendship. They don’t look like it because they pale in comparison to personal friendships, which have the sheer emotional affect you feel for your close friends. I think we feel something analogous to that with fellow citizens without realizing it.

In a way, it’s comparative or contrastive: Think about how you feel about fellow citizens compared to how you feel about foreigners, even if they are living in our country. We aren’t quite as worried about what they are like. Various hatreds have arisen against immigrants, and that’s unfortunate. In that regard, people are currently worried about what they are like. But, in general, we are much more worried about what our fellow citizens are like; we want them to be a certain way, we want them to have certain attitudes—pro-liberty, pro-equality—because these are assumptions of our regime. We share our regime, a shared cooperative scheme, and if people don’t believe in equality, they don’t fit into our regime as well—same if they don’t believe in liberty, and I realize these are in tension in the current liberal-conservative divide right now between valuing one more than the other. But if you don’t value both, you make an odd fit in America. To that degree, worrying about immigrants who maybe don’t share those regime assumptions is legitimate.

Mostly, I think we are worried about each other, though. We wouldn’t worry that way if we didn’t favor each other. That’s the kind of worry you have about your brother; he’s not holding up his end. “Dad, he’s not doing his part! I’m doing the mowing every week!” That’s a kind of favoritism—you aren’t worried about your neighbor, you’re worried about your brother. From that, I think there is room to build and see each other as sisters and brothers, which is what Aristotle said, too. It’s natural, there’s something natural here, but there’s also something artificial, especially in the modern state. Within the modern state, there are tons of things that are still natural. It’s very natural to feel concerned about your fellow citizens, what they believe, what they ought to believe, how they are faring, who is persecuting them. A test case of that would be the pathetic story of someone’s job that has been outsourced—you immediately feel outraged. “You did that to an American!”

I think we all feel that. I think it’s time for theorists, especially, to admit that, not just to concentrate entirely on self-interest, which is great, it motivates us, it does a lot of things. I would never think that self-interest is not a great political motivator. Civic friendship is another, and they are in some forms of tension. When people pursue their self-interest utterly, to the detriment of their fellow citizens, a price is to be paid and they lose the political support of their fellow citizens. I think cosmopolitan elites have lost a little political support recently. That’s what we call populism. Really, a lot of the passions that I see as being out there, and somewhat misguided or even debased today, are civic friendship that doesn’t know its name. At an earlier stage, it dared not speak its name.

Liberalism wanted to get us away from civic friendship. Classical liberals— such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson—they lived through an era of robust civic friendship, both in theory and practice. I think the wars of religion had already showed them that it was very dangerous. Civic passions can be fanatical, especially when connected to religion, but in other ways, too. Geography, maybe? We have a little bit of fanaticism about our border right now, on both sides. Those passions needed to be defused, so liberal theorists stopped talking about civic friendship for very good reasons, but we might now be ready for another corrective, moving back in the other direction slightly.

Can a city without civic friendship be just?

We seem to be trying that experiment, don’t we? “Let’s forget about civic friendship and just try to focus on justice.” As conceived as equal freedom, equal opportunity, or equal result, that would be the basis for justice. But I think the answer is “no.” Maybe it can be just without recognizing that it’s a civic friendship and without talking about it. I think liberal societies have always been civic friendships without recognizing it, without knowing it, and without calling it by its name. I certainly believe justice has undergone a manifold improvement since the liberal revolution, since Locke, Montesquieu, and give Hobbes his credit, and especially Machiavelli. That justly decried name!

Without that revolution, the kinds of justice we enjoy today wouldn’t be possible.  I think all through that period, civic friendship was always there, but people just slowly forgot about it as a thing and began to redescribe it as morality—therefore fitting [it] into justice itself, or even as patriotism. It just got redescribed. We may have now hit a limit on what we can do with a civic friendship that no one knows about. It’s just there, in the air, where people are breathing it without thinking about it. Maybe to move on from where we are now, we would need a more self-aware civic friendship. It seems we are pretty unlikely to associate it with religion again. I think maybe we’ve made that distinction. I hope religion stays private. I’m religious myself, but my hope is that it will remain a private issue and not become a political issue. Civic friendship could be just political, and not have to have that fatal connection, which is why I think it faded in modern theory to begin with. But I’m not sure if I’ve given you a strict “yes” or “no.”

I think that was rather sufficient. Congratulations on the book—do you have a release date?

Thank you. About a year from now. Hopefully it’s all blown over by then, and it will be dated before it comes out. But somehow I doubt it.