Friendship. Politics, and Human Meaningfulness08-20-2023
In the wake of the Alpine Fellowship on Human Flourishing in Fjallnas, Sweden last week, I’ve been reading Lisa Miller’s book The Awakened Brain. Miller makes what my daughter says is an obvious argument, that mental illness and especially depression and anxiety can be prevented and also helped by having a rich spiritual and inner life. This may seem obvious to some, but it goes against the practice of modern psychotherapy that imagines the only and best way to treat mental illness is to focus on past traumas. Miller marshals scientific and experimental evidence to show, instead, that when people feel connected to others, when their lives have purpose and meaning, and when they believe in a world of meaning beyond themselves, they are less likely to suffer mental illness.
Hannah Arendt isn’t mentioned in Miller’s book, but the fundamental idea underlying Miller’s work is the Arendtian worry about the loss of meaningfulness, the absence of purpose, and the feeling of abandonment that has become widespread in the modern world and leads to what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Much, if not all of Arendt’s writing and thinking, is an attempt to understand and respond to the abandonment people feel amidst our epidemic of loneliness. Totalitarianism emerged as a new form of government in the 20th century in large part because it does a better job than liberal democracy in giving to its citizens the feelings of purpose and belonging that they need and crave. In the claim of a coherent and fictional total explanation of political life—that racially pure Aryans deserve to rule the world, or that economically pure proletarians will inherit the earth—totalitarian movements give their adherents a sense of purpose and meaning.
Arendt understands that man is a political animal, that absent religion and amidst the end of metaphysics, we must strive for and cultivate a transcendental politics of meaning, but one that is not totalizing. Her politics is one that seeks to build and nurture a common world, a shared world, thus a world of connection and meaning, but one based on a full and unyielding recognition of plurality and difference. For Arendt, we humans seek the meaning we crave and need at least in part through politics.
Politics is, Arendt understands, based in friendship. Friendship may begin in love, but in friendship, we don’t love our friend, but we respect them. Friendship is based on trust, lasting engagement, and attraction. But the foundation of friendship is respect. Respect acknowledges our interest in the friend, someone we want to have in our lives. And yet respect allows for a distance that gives the friend the freedom to be different from us, to live a unique and even problematic or disagreeable life. Which is why Arendt thinks politics on the model of respectful friendship.
Our Virtual Reading Group has just finished four sessions on Arendt’s writing on Friendship. You can visit them here: Arendt on Lessing. Arendt on Socrates. Arendt on Karl Jaspers, and Arendt on Gershom Scholem.
And our Annual Conference on Friendship and Politics is now open for registration here.