Of the three central tenets of the French Revolution, fraternity has received the least attention, as if it were the most self-explanatory and self-justifiable principle.

The scope of liberty and equality continue to be contested to this day but the role of fraternity stirs no debates. After all, one can always point to vastly different experiments in liberty and equality, and argue their premises and merits. However, when it comes to fraternity, historians and political scientists may analyze social formations like the public sphere, clubs, brotherhoods, associations, or secret societies but they do not suggest that a particular regime or movement has been institutionally characterized by fraternity. People today may hold libertarian or egalitarian views but not fraternal ones.

Yet in the late eighteenth century, before becoming first revolutionaries in the barricades, then comrades in the parties, and eventually citizens in the assemblies, individuals who aspired to fashion new selves outside a court, military, or religious setting forged the first modern friendships seeking to balance personal feelings and public virtues. Two complementary pre-revolutionary types emerged who challenged the formal allegiances and reciprocal favors among the nobility with the civic duties of virtue: the rebel and the friend. They emerged together as they created one another.  The rebel needed somebody by his side to fight tyranny. The friend needed somebody’s hand on his shoulder to save him from Werther’s sorrows. Together they overcame rank and sentiment to forge fraternité and fight for a higher purpose. The solidarity between rebel and friend produced a new agent, the revolutionary ethical man. His responsibilities lie at the center of modern French, German, English, Scandinavian, Italian tragedy and opera.

Absolute friendship is heroic; it is driven by the heroism of rebellion. In this duet music, rebellion and friendship come together. Rebel and friend commit themselves to the struggle for “Libertà!” Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I agree that, singing with Rodrigo, Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Carlo is the absolute friendHe hugs, he despairs, he sings, he loves, he hopes, he urges, he exalts. Nobody touches the friend’s hand as he does.

The revolutionaries idealized friendship as a communion of sentiments and a morality of sympathy, both characteristics represented by the two friends and comrades contemplating the moon while plotting rebellion in Caspar Friedrich’s painting which is the emblem of my blog. For the Jacobins and the Girondists ties of personal loyalty and alliances played a major role in the political side people would chose.   Rules of reciprocity, norms of moral obligation, informal interpersonal ties, and spaces of conviviality proved quite resilient. Before long, though, liberty and equality became the pillars of the modern polity, and fraternity, having lost much of its political potency, withdrew to the realm of private emotions.  As Gregory Jusdanis puts it, “modern friendship is sustained exactly by its revelatory, confessional impulses.  In the absence of institutional support, the loosening of obligations and duties, what remains is mutual self-disclosure” (A Tremendous Thing:  Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet, p. 101).  Still, rebellion often functions as a modality of friendship, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of the Greek Left.

June 21, 2014

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