Friends, enemies, and Trump

As readers will remember, Book One of Plato’s Republic features a discussion about justice, in which three interlocutors present three or four conceptions of justice. The conception of Polemarchus, son of the rich metic Cephalus, is that justice is “helping friends and harming enemies”. Socrates dispatches the idea with at least one bad argument, and at least one strange argument. He also has an argument that sounds okay to me: since justice is a virtue, it shouldn’t cause harm, and shouldn’t make people worse. But harming an enemy would make them worse, so that can’t be part of justice. That’s not a bad argument, I guess.

Still I think Polemarchus gave up the argument too early. On sign is that his basic claim reappears, with slight modification, in Book Two, where Socrates says that the guardians (at this point defined as a fighting force) should most of all have the quality of being kind to fellow citizens but fierce to enemies of the city. It appears that a part of justice is indeed being willing and able to do harm to enemies. There are limits to war, for Socrates (at least with other Greeks), but in general, the more willing and the more able, the better.

Perhaps we can save Socrates’ original critique of Polemarchus, but specifying that while harm to “others” may be an effect of justice, it is only a side-effect of the main function of justice, which is preserving and strengthening social bonds. If we must harm enemies, it is only in order to help friends.

But even that may be too easy. Carl Schmitt — who said that the very concept of politics rests on the distinction between friend and enemy— clearly takes the side of Polemarchus, and plenty of conservatives who wouldn’t exalt Schmitt would nevertheless agree that a key defect of the modern left is its inability to correctly identify friends and enemies in international affairs, and to treat each accordingly.

On the left, something remotely similar appears in the contemporary claim that “justice is conflict”. Even if justice cannot be established by violence (a claim some, but not nearly all, on the left would endorse), some people, groups, and valued institutions must be fought against and opposed for justice to be established. If solidarity is a part of justice, so is criticism and subversion. As Orwell put it (I paraphrase), “The real working class, though they are immune to jingoism, can never be truly pacifist, because their lives teach them something different.”

I think we have some problems with our thinking about friends and enemies. Liberal intellectual culture rejects “us versus them” thinking, but non-elites commonly feel that an “us” and a “them” are basic features of human reality. If the improvement of society resolves some enmities and creates new forms of friendship, the reverse is true, to some degree, too: There is no obvious end in sight for actual human beings to being friends to some, but not others, and to some of those “others” being for all practical purposes enemies. Maybe the trouble with accepting or otherwise dealing with this reality comes from the fact that our culture is a product of Christianity, and “harming enemies” (in general) is obviously un-Christian. But even “helping friends” has its problems. A friend, in politics even more than in private life, is some we treat better, just because they are a friend, not because they are better. This kind of partiality is also in tension with much of the ethical and religious tradition in the West, too.

Donald Trump has, in an extremely vulgar way, promised to help friends and harm enemies. He wants to torture suspected terrorists, and kill their families, and he suspects an American judge born in Indiana of having true loyalties to Mexico. But Trump’s vulgarity — indeed his lack of mercy and decency — does not prove that all friend/enemy thinking is wrong. Indeed the appeal of his promise, despite its appalling aspects, should give us pause. It’s not wrong to ask if a democratic government should place the interests of vulnerable workers above the interests of shareholders in multi-national corporations. It’s not wrong to ask whose interests it serves to make it easy to enter the U.S. to work in a lettuce field or a construction site, but not in a hospital or on a university faculty. There are always, it seems, those whom the state treats as “friends”, regardless of their virtue or goodness. If it did more to help vulnerable U.S. citizens, if it treated them more like “friends”, it wouldn’t be helping people who are universally good, either. But the relationship would at least be reciprocal, as all real friendships must be. The portion of the American public that believes that the American government to be a friend rather than a foe is quite low now, and that’s true on the left as well as the right. The phenomenon of rising friend/enemy thinking in politics should lead us to ask why that is.

Like what you read? Give Jeremiah John a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.