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Horst Hutter on Our Politics of Friendship

What is a friend worth? The Preacher taught us long ago:

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

A friend brings reward, help up, heat, and an unbroken bond. Yet for over a century now, if not longer, the prophets of Western culture have been warning us of growing poverty, helplessness, coldness, and fraying ties. They have confirmed what we all have known, that we are all drifting away from each other into the shadows.

One political theorist, Dr. Horst Hutter, painted this gloomy picture in sharp detail in his 1978 monograph, Politics as Friendship: The origins of classical notions of politics in the theory and practice of friendship. While, as the subtitle implies, the majority of the work focuses on antiquity, the last chapter unveils a strikingly accurate image of contemporary society.


Alienation is the vacuum left in the absence of friendship, and so we must begin with a definition of friendship. Hutter’s definition, simplified, is a lasting relationship, founded on love and trust, directed by common values, leading to a regard of the other as a second self, where one’s increase in happiness simultaneously increases that of the other. [175] This type of relationship inspires such profound loyalty that it can lead individuals into conflict with society, which can in turn supply that society resources for renewal in crises. [175-176] It this this type of relationship that modern industrial society inhibits by various means.

Causes of Alienation

The Structure of Cities

Hutter notes that the large scale of urban life creates the conditions for anonymity; this in turn makes attempts to communicate beyond the trivial seem suspect or annoying. [179] Widespread violence, grime, and noise pollution add to the negative experience of cities, which can negatively colour interactions that occur within them. In general, the lifestyle of the average person in the city is difficult, making people skittish towards incurring relationships that might entail any kind of obligation. [180]


Our age is highly mobile, both geographically and socially. The former type of shifting incentivizes a nuclear, rather than extended family, adding to the isolation of those extra family members, and leaving older people more alone than they used to be. Further, people young enough to work are pressured by the industrial economic system to move out of economic necessity. The system in place thus makes it very possible that one’s friends today could be hundreds of miles away tomorrow, or else one’s direct subordinates or superiors. It thus discourages deep friendships from forming. [180]

Diverse Roles

Friendship in Aristotle’s sense requires a similarity of character; but the modern education and occupational training are aimed at the production of a massive variety of different types of people, fit for ever-increasingly specific tasks. This obstructs people from finding others with whom they share experience. [180]

Competitiveness and the Oligarchs

The competitive jungle of the capitalist order encourages a calculating and cut-throat habit of mind, and this obviously works against any tendency toward meaningful friendships. This in turn breeds isolation, which makes individuals prey to manipulation from above. Hutter pulls back the curtain on the mechanisms, and here he is worth quoting in full:

The conditions of life and the fate of the person are not decided by individual choice, but are created and maintained by the large social conglomerates within which individuals have their being, such as the huge bureaucracies of state and private enterprise. Decisions that affect millions are made by the few who occupy the top managerial positions without the participation of the many and often against their interests. The world of effective choice and power is so far removed from the daily lives of most individuals that they do not even begin to understand the mechanics of choice by which their lives are disposed. Indeed, such lack of understanding is even reinforced by the ideological distortions behind which the facts of powerlessness and individual isolations are hidden, for mass society presents itself to its members as that society which realizes selfhood and individual autonomy. It celebrates the individual and gives him the semblance of effective choice in the form of regular elections and participatory democracy. It extols the virtues of self-reliance and individual liberty but produces in the conditions of life which it sets large numbers of individuals who lack the faculty of encounter. It manufactures illusory communities on the basis of an agglomeration of solitudes, in which real divisions are suspended in a happy unity through consumption. Each increase in consumption, then, which provides a semblance of unity, without abolishing the solitude, carries within itself a justification of the system demanding to be acknowledged by the consumers. [181]

The maintenance of capitalist rule, organized under the principles of achievement, competition, and the commodification of social relations, requires the existence of an estrangement of men from one another, the most blatant forms of which are a permanent state of anxiety and a general neurotic inability to relate freely. This anxiety leads to a loss of spontaneity in the expression of basic drives, makes otherwise harmless men cruel, renders them unable to love, and expresses itself in the search for compensatory gratifications such as the drive for status, career, overconsumption, and the cultivation of ideological distortions of reality. [182]

Alternatively, the feelings of powerlessness generated by isolation manifest themselves in aimless resentment, which can lead to political apathy, random acts of violence, and the madness of politically agitated mobs. [181]


The story and character of individuals is their most important possession, but also the least important for public roles of occupation and recreation. This inclines public institutions toward discouraging the expression of these private features, which in turn makes it more difficult for others to see the unique quality of the individual, knowledge of which enables real friendship. [183]


The loss of real friendship affects the soul of the polity. Like a drop of poison in a glass of water, the isolation of individuals diffuses throughout the whole.

What’s Left: Acquaintanceship

The majority of modern relationships form around business and recreation; yet the kinds of relationships formed here, while numerous, are largely superficial [183]

The Paradox of Intimacy

Hutter connects the loss of friendship with a rise in sexual promiscuity, and once again he is worth quoting directly on this point:

Isolation, powerlessness, and privatization have made the need for self-confirmation through trust and openness more poignant. A telling example of this increased need is currently the often frantic search for sexual intimacy. People seek sexual encounters at any price. Yet most such encounters are empty exercises in pretended intimacy. They tend to leave the partners utterly dissatisfied and even more alone than they had been before, thereby further increasing the need for intimacy. [183-4]


The unfulfilled desire for deep community manifests itself in various kinds of fears, especially the fear of solitude and desertion. [184]

The Paradox of Friendship

The rarity of friendship makes its value extraordinarily high; when they are formed, they are freighted with extreme significance, which puts them in a precarious position. For this reason, people are often cautious to enter into them. At the same time, when they are formed, they can tend towards clinging. [184]

Threat to Democracy

The oligarchic influence Hutter described above has a kind of feedback effect, and the destruction of friendship in turn threatens a democratic order. He writes:

Now democracy as a form of government depends upon an active citizenry that willingly participates in the governance of the state. Citizenship must be seen as an office with corresponding rights and duties, the discharge of which makes possible the political culture of equality. In a democratic polity citizens are as brothers or friends to one another who jointly and equally share in the management of public affairs. [185]

Numerous studies show, however, that in modern mass democracies the vast majority of citizens are politically passive and apathetic and do not think that they can in any way influence the management of the state; such things are best left to the experts who staff the huge public and private bureaucracies. The powerlessness and isolation which modern men feel in their private lives are also present in their public roles. The precariousness of friendship in modern society is hence an indication of the declining importance of democratic citizenship. [186]

Grasping for What Has Been Lost

The sense of loss that all these effects produce sparks various reactions that attempt to recreate human connection. However, these reactions come in the form of mass movements, which can never produce real friendship, but certainly can generate scapegoat dynamics. One more time, Hutter:

In breaking through the façades of chance encounter, they succeed in overcoming the sense of isolation felt by individuals. Participation in mass events confers a dizzying sense of power and provides emotional catharsis. The surge of emotions thus attained, however, is merely a temporary release of persons from their private prisons. It gives the illusion of power by inducing individuals to subordinate their wills first to the mass and then to whoever may be able to manipulate the mass. In its exercise of sheer force, untempered by the moral will, it presents the spectacle of the atavistic assertion of the will to power prior to all valuations. Real friendship, however, obtains between morally autonomous individuals and is therefore present only in shadow form in the mass movements. It is always tied to the search for a good and thus transcends the will to power. …

The leaders of a mass movement frequently derive their ascendancy from the myth of the ‘enemy’ which is consciously created in cynical disregard of the truth. Thereby the participants in the movement are enabled to discharge their hatreds and sentiments accumulated from the long experience of powerless and isolations. The structure of enmity is used to reinforce dialectically the bonds of friendship among the participants. The we-experience thus created is spurious, however; it does not abolish the differences but merely suspends them temporarily. The solitude returns after the parade and the cathartic release of violence. [188]

Now What?

What Hutter forces his readers to acknowledge is that quicksand sucking friendship into the earth is drawing along civilization with it. But this is all bad news. What can citizens, what can Christians do to affect any of this?

Part of the answer is certainly that we can’t solve this problem, because it is partly a spiritual problem; like all suffering and sin in this world, the ultimate problem below the problem is our frayed relationship with the Creator. The only way out of that malady is through the cross, and in the power of the Spirit. In his mercy, thankfully, God works to undo the damage we have done to friendship and the polis by recreating bonds of love between people, and thereby founds a new city in this vale of tears.

But in this time between the times, we are capable of acting beyond the strictly religious sphere. Certainly, preaching the Gospel, and being the instruments of the spiritual kingdom of Christ provides an answer to this problem. But as Hutter has shown us, a great deal of the damage done to friendship, and thereby society and democracy, comes from a certain kind of economic and legal regime which serves and preserves a small number of people in power, essentially enslaving the rest of civilization to their whims. And so, it stands to reason, a legal problem can also have a legal solution. If we want to mitigate the widespread devastation the capitalist order has wrought on human relations, it would be foolish to ignore the instrument of law while serving as instruments of the greater message of the Gospel. The Law cannot perfect humanity, but a just law can at least maintain a level of decency and goodness in civil society that might otherwise not be present. And it seems to me, at least, that civil society could do with a lot more decency and goodness these days, however we might achieve it.

Finally, the vicious circle noted above could conceivably run the other direction; as Hutter noted, the degree of loyalty based on common values that friendship consists in can sometimes renew society. It can provide the seeds of a new society within the old, and when it comes into conflict with destructive systems of organisation, sometimes overcome them.

And so perhaps the best answer to our social problem is this: preach the gospel, press for legal reform, and find good friends.