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Friendships of Listening in Creating Just Societies

Fostering cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships of listening are essential to creating virtuous and just societies, especially in a fractured political climate that fails to serve the human good.

In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle identifies the purpose of the state as that of cultivating the lives of its citizens and of serving the human end of happiness.  We cultivate virtue through our participation in the civic life of the state. Communities must be set up in a way that happiness and virtue can be cultivated, and Aristotle suggests that laws should regulate right upbringing and occupations.  

One who has been raised well, having been taught and “trained in the right habits” and actions to cultivate virtue, can more easily continue in his or her virtuous living “under the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force … law, being the pronouncement of a kind of practical wisdom or intelligence, does have the power of compulsion” (1180a15-20).

While Aristotle’s ideas of regulating right upbringing and occupations ring a bit harsh to our contemporary ears, his insistence on the role of the state in shaping its citizens for the good has echoes in the Catholic Church’s understanding of the role of society in cultivating the common good.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church asserts, “A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of human beings at every level is a society that has the common good – the good of all people and of the whole person – as its primary goal” (no. 165).

Aristotle does not translate seamlessly into current conversations about politics and theology, but he raises important questions in our fractured political climate.Despite his emphasis on the importance of the state, he also recognizes the possibility that the state my fail to regulate virtuous living. We can ask ourselves, then, “Has the American state failed in its duties to help its members live a life of virtue and happiness?”  Or, from the perspective of the common good, “Is the state any longer working at the service of the human good?”

To suggest that Americans find themselves in an unprecedented situation of political uncertainty does not seem hyperbolic with ongoing controversies surrounding President Trump’s administration – contentious judicial confirmations, Congressional gridlock, painful immigration policies.  All presidents have had controversies, and it is unlikely that any state has fulfilled its duties in the way that Aristotle or the Catholic Church imagined. At the same time, it seems increasingly clear that we can no longer listen to many of our political leaders for insight into how to cultivate the best possible life for all people.  So to whom should we listen?

    According to Aristotle, we should listen to our friends.  Aristotle categorizes friendship into three levels – friendships of pleasure, utility, and virtue – with friendships of virtue being the most profound and genuine of friendships.  It is to this latter category of friends that we must listen. When the state is derelict in its duties, friends must step in to help each other cultivate virtue.

As Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches write in Christians Among the Virtues, for Aristotle, friendship “determines the political insofar as it is the purpose of good politics to make the virtuous life possible,” but if the state fails in its obligation to make this life possible, then “the only available resource of virtue is, again, the association among friends” whose duty it is to help others in the community achieve the best possible life” (37-38).

Though grounded in a belief in God as creator, the Catholic Church also emphasizes the importance of social relations in developing good lives, insisting in the 1965 encyclical Gaudium et Spes that “God did not create man as solitary …. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others, he can neither live nor develop his potential” (no. 12).

What Aristotle and the Catholic Church fail to account for – though in different ways – is the importance of creating friendships across difference.  Given the stratified nature of the Greek polis, Aristotle’s friendship would have been between men who held power. One of the problems in our current political climate is growing divisions between those who hold power and those who don’t.

For its part, the Church often fails to consider how structures of injustice undercut the common good by denying oppressed segments of the population full participation in our political conversations.  To cultivate a truly just and virtuous society by listening to our friends, then, requires a broadening of our practices of friendship across group boundaries. What might this look like?

Sociologist Joe Feagin’s work on conscience formation for interracial solidarity is helpful.  In Racist America Feagin identifies three necessary steps to build the kinds of cross-racial friendship that truly would help us listen and help each other live the best possible life. The first step, sympathy, is foundational but limited in scope.  Sympathy requires an intentional effort to set aside stereotypes of the other to develop a “friendly if variable interest in what is happening” to the other (254).

The second, and more complex step is that of empathy.  Empathy “requires a developed ability to routinely reject stereotypes and a heightened and sustained capacity to see and feel some of the pain of those in the outgroup” (254).  The final, and most difficult, step is moving into “autopathy” which Feagin describe as a white person who “has intentionally put herself or himself, if only partially, into the racist world of the oppressed and thereby not only receives racist hostility from other whites but also personally feels some pain that comes from being enmeshed in the racist conditions central to the lives of the oppressed others” (254-255).

This type of relationship requires an intentional commitment to sharing in the life of the racialized other.  The commitment to fully sharing in the life of the other best reflects Aristotle’s friendship of virtue, but by expanding this type of friendship across racial boundaries this commitment better reflects how friendships of listening can help us foster societies that allow everyone to participate in the conversation about what virtue and justice look like.  

Inaugural Essay Contest

Symposium Essays

Friendships of Listening in Creating Just Societies

Fostering cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships of listening are essential to creating virtuous and just societies, especially in a fractured political climate that fails to serve the human good.

The Powers of Powerlessness

Our modest proposal is for those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

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