by Steve Millies
I am fortunate to have returned to Chicago’s south side where I grew up when I came to work at Catholic Theological Union. To become a professional academic is to accept that there will be little control over where one lives. Jobs are scarce, and (especially in the humanities) we go where the job we get is because we really don’t have any choice. Living on home soil now, twelve minutes from my parents and the house I grew up in, is an uncommon stroke of luck. After nearly twenty-five years away from Chicago, I am grateful for it every day.
One of the pleasures of being home is to root for the Chicago White Sox at their home ballpark more than once every other year or so. Or at least, it had been a pleasure before the pandemic. But on a recent Sunday afternoon I made my first pilgrimage since the 2019 season. The Sox won with a tie-breaking, walk-off home run, and as I made my way down the concourse to leave the ballpark I had a funny sort of experience. Among a diverse crowd of people—young, old, women, men, Latinx, black, white, and all sorts of other things—I began to experience what Aristotle called sunaisthesis. Or rather, I realized we all were experiencing it together.
From behind me on the ramped concourse as I made my way out of the ballpark, a chant of “Let’s go, White Sox!” roared toward me. With each incantation, the chant grew louder. More and more people were joining in. I amused myself to wonder who had begun the chant, and I imagined she or he must be very pleased. But that thought passed quickly as I found myself joining the chant. With no coordination, no scoreboard to tell us what to cheer, thousands of people simply expressed our sudden joy about what we had experienced together. For me especially, it was an opportunity to reflect on my own relationship to the people around me because (having been away for many years) my sense of belonging to this community is heightened. I am much more aware of this community because I left it for many years than I ever could have been if I had stayed in Chicago. So I could imagine well the sorts of arguments that might break out among the people around me in different circumstances—about immigration, about COVID, about many things. Yet in the rush of emotion felt together, we all were friends. We all felt joy at the same thing, beheld same good and beheld one another beholding it. In that instant, even not knowing one another’s names, we became friends. Becoming friends this way, we recognized that we were a people. We affirmed our community.
“To Share with a Friend”
From Greek roots that mean “sensing together,” we generally think of sunaisthesis as a confusion of the senses like hearing color or seeing sound. Synesthesia ordinarily is a medical diagnosis or a side effect of hallucinogenic drugs. But Aristotle used the word in a different way to describe something important. Sunaisthesis, for Aristotle, is a characteristic of friendship because “each person really wishes to share with a friend the End they are capable of attaining”(Eud.Eth., 1245b6) and because of this “to live together is actually a duty”(1245b7), so that friendship is the real nature of social life.
My good friend John von Heyking has written a book about Aristotle’s accounting for friendship and community in this way, The Form of Politics. John places sunaisthesis and sunaisthetic friendship at the heart of political life. When we behold the same good together, we become as one. There would be no politics without this experience. And, in this way von Heyking depends on Joseph Pieper’s work on festivity and so, in turn, he calls our attention in a way to liturgy, a similar act of beholding one another beholding the same good together. This is central to how I think about politics, and it will offer something like a guiding principle for my contributions here at Pray Tell. Simply, we have to appreciate the universal church as much as our local parish as much as any gathering of two Christians is a political community just as we call a city or a state a political community. To understand either the city or the church, we must understand them together in this way and see that, in this way, they are more than just similar. The ekklesia as much as the polis is a community gathered toward a shared good.
I have chosen a particularly trivial example of what I mean by describing fans at a baseball game. I have done this in part because it happened to me recently but mostly because the trivial example is a useful one. I have been making this argument about friendship and politics for many years, and often I encounter the same criticism. The criticism might remind us of Augustine as much as Aristotle. In Book XIX of de Civitate Dei Augustine tells us that a people is “a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love.” But as much as Aristotle, the criticism goes, Augustine argues that the goods that unite us must be the higher goods. Aristotle’s arguments about friendship are made in the Eudemian Ethics where he writes about the best sort of life, or in the Nicomachean Ethics where he writes about friendship in a context of virtue. Augustine is writing about the love of God. Where does a baseball game fit in here?
And yet, there I was in the concourse feeling sure that I didn’t know any of the people around me and yet knowing them. I mean that in two important senses. Of course, we all knew one another in that moment as Sox fans. But having been raised and grown to maturity across the first twenty-five years of my life on Chicago’s south side, I also knew what divisions existed among the people around me. I knew what was being overcome by our sunaisthesis, beholding the same good together—even if it was just a 2-1 win over Cleveland.
Achieving More by Settling for Less
My experience at the ballpark suggests to us that there is an important question here to deal with, whether Aristotle and Augustine set too high a standard for social cohesion. Their standard of the best life, or the highest good, or a shared faith in God may never have been practical as an expectation about the goods around which we can gather to recognize one another as friends, but certainly it is not practical today. That high expectation is the same error into which our integralist friends fall. Integralists lament how “the “American order enshrines very few substantive ideals I would want to transmit to my son,” as Sohrab Ahmari writes in his recent book. He sounds a bit like Tucker Carlson touring Victor Orbán’s Hungary, praising a regime he says is built on “traditional values, on national identity, on the tradition of Christianity.” The mistake is not necessarily authoritarianism or integralism—it is an error that has to happen before all of those errors, to prepare the conditions for them. The error is to tell the people what must make them friends with one another, not letting people find and recognize those things, themselves.
My point is not to pin social cohesion on popular culture, the materialism and consumerism that people like Rod Dreher rightly condemn. I am not here to diminish important higher goods. But I do wish to say that political goods are of a different nature from ethical goods, moral goods, and religious goods. Political goods are practical, they can be transitory, and always they must be responsive to the people who are the political community. They must originate organically from human experience. They can be very high things, while other times they are lesser goods than we might like: think of the spirit of community grown around the loss of the September 11th attacks, or think of the base nationalism evoked by the Olympic games. One comes from a deep place in the human soul, the other is superficial and vain. But both succeed to build political community because both are occasions where the political community invites the community to recognize one another.
Let me suggest two necessary things we should keep in mind. First, people ultimately will respond only to goods that seem to them to have authenticity. Inevitably those must be goods they identify for themselves. This is the strength found in the free governments that evolved in the modern political era. Even in our polarized circumstances today when sunaisthesis seems to be entirely out of reach and the illiberal pressures on our politics are as great as they were nearly a century ago when totalitarianism gripped much of the world, we also know that all of the alternatives are worse. Despite the trouble we have constructing our community together, we know we must construct it ourselves. Our social disagreeableness, I often think, arises because we tend to mistake higher goods for the lesser political goods that unite the community. Mistaking politics for those other, important spheres of activity, we feel the stakes suddenly getting very high and we become gripped by a need to prevail. But politics is something different, and free politics cannot withstand such uncompromising attitudes. In politics, we must always risk the wrong outcome with the knowledge that no outcome ever is permanent because, in order for people to accept and to choose the right thing they must be free to choose the wrong thing.
My second observation finally is the important point here. Once we set people free to choose the goods toward which they orient themselves, the goods that inspire sunaisthesis, the work begins to guide people gently and persistently toward greater goods than materialism, consumerism, baseball games, or Star Wars movies. Every political community is an organic reality. I detest anthropomorphisms when we discuss political community, but only because we must use them. Communities grow and they decline, our polis thrives in health or it falters into pathology. What distinguishes our public square most from its human analog is the community’s immortality. Human civilization has continued in different places under different forms constantly for five millennia. Today’s decline unnerves those of us who live amidst it, but stepping backwards to see the whole picture we know that our temporary distemper is the necessary setback before the next triumph of our human adventure in time. The vital political question is not whether we seek and achieve the best public policy outcomes today: even if we did, they only would be transitory. Rather, the more important question is whether we are attending to the conditions that encourage a people to recognize themselves together as friends in order that they may teach one another how to desire a better community that, in turn, desires better things. We must recognize we act on a longer arc than the moment. This is what has been lacking too much in our politics. It also has been lacking notably in the political witness of Catholics.
“A Better Kind of Politics”
I remarked earlier about the correspondence of our church community and the political community. In its original understanding, the ekklesia only is a gathering of people called together. That is what the visible church is. We are a people gathered together on a pilgrimage, and that experience ought to be a good training for how to live well in the political community. That our ecclesial experience has not trained us well for politics and instead has become too often a source of political division is a social failure that reflects a deeper failure of ecclesiological imagination. The failure of ecclesiological imagination can be a topic for another time. For today, we would want to note that our Tradition offers resources to help us do better. As Catholics, we should be the first to recognize that the only pre-eminent political issue is the health of the political community that, together, makes all of the other decisions. If we cannot recognize this, then something has disfigured us as a people of faith.
Pope Francis is alert to this, Deo gratias. He has called us to solidarity and social friendship not only in Fratelli Tutti, but throughout his pontificate as he has recurred again and again to this theme and called for “a better kind of politics.” If I can offer any contribution here at Pray Tell, I hope it will be to call attention back to this central teaching of the Francis era and remind all of us that our great public work together is the community’s action to recognize one another, recognizing goods together as friends.
Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical Press, 2018).