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America Cannot Be The ‘United’ States Without Common Goals

Aristotle argues friendships built on pleasure or utility will not last. The same could be said for America’s political movements. We need common virtue.


America has long harbored intense political divisions and hosted a plurality of cultures within its borders. Today’s media coverage, however, displays people of different ideological stripe ripping apart any semblance of political unity with new ferocity.

A nation’s unity is partially based on its common definition of purpose; in Aristotelian terms, it’s telos. U.S. citizens have long diverged this unifying telos into two worldviews, but those worldviews seem to be intensifying, becoming more and more irreconcilable. Many theories have emerged about why party ideologies have become so polarized, and many more abound on how to reconcile the divide. One such theory dates back to mid-300 B.C. with the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

[Related Post: To Depolarize Our Politics, Aristotle Would Prescribe Some Virtue]

In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle claims the pursuit of the good in the city is founded on the pursuit of virtue, and these pursuits are partially bolstered by friendships. Dr. Larry P. Arnn gives a free online lecture at Hillsdale College explaining Aristotle’s three definitions of friendship and what they mean for the city.

First, he identifies “just friendships.” These relationships are best exemplified in the marketplace. In a free society, commerce depends on transactional relationships based on giving and receiving. This mutually beneficial and fair relationship is “just.” Second, he identifies friendships of pleasure. These friendships endure more than relations of utility, for their goals are more than merely transactional. They result in mutual enjoyment.

The third kind of friendship is friendship of virtue. These are the relationships Aristotle says bind a community together. They form between people mutually aiming at something higher than personal gratification or commerce. These relations of virtue are a product of choosing to pursue the good, and thus they unify cities in common objectives and values.

Though Aristotle talks about these friendships in terms of individuals, these personal friendships contribute to the overall unity of the city.

Although all friendships contribute to the flourishing of the city — commerce, pleasure, and the pursuit of the good are all vital — it is the pursuit of the good that is the overarching unifier, Aristotle said. The intentional cultivation of virtuous friendships based on a mutual appreciation of character and goodness are the most likely to strengthen over time and be lasting.

This last sort of friendship can be applied to extinguish America’s inflamed political climate. Just as friendships built on pleasure or utility lack depth and a solid foundation, politically minded Americans who build convictions or movements solely on pleasure or utility will lack unity, unable to strengthen over time.

If America has a common definition of the good, it can pursue virtues necessary to cultivate it. Once the populous unifies in that pursuit, the United States can achieve the good.