O Friends, There Are No Friends

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship,  Verso, 2006.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l’amitié, Editions Galilée, 1994.

This book has its origins in the seminar that Jacques Derrida gave during the academic year 1988-89, as part of his late attempt to grapple with issues of political philosophy that he also deals with in his Specters of Marx. The book itself is an extended replay of the first session of the seminar, in which the French philosopher (who died in 2004) gave an overview of the themes that he would cover at more length during the year, beginning with the apostrophe: « O my friends, there are no friends » that Montaigne attributes to Aristotle.

I was fortunate enough to attend that lecture and some of those that followed. The desire to retrieve that experience from the past and to compare the understanding of the written text with the impression left by the oral intervention certainly drove me to read this volume, with the English language providing an additional distance that I somehow find necessary to break with the immediacy of my native French.

Derrida’s seminar

The stage was set twenty years ago at the salle Dussane of the Ecole Normale Superieure, before an audience composed of fellow academics, faithful followers and curious onlookers, drawn together by the intellectual aura of the French philosopher who was at the peak of his public career. The atmosphere was quite different from the scenes of mass hysteria that are said to have accompanied the seminar of Jacques Lacan in that very same conference room some twenty years before, with swooning ladies fainting over the words of the Maitre and fanatical psychoanalysts arguing furiously over Freud’s legacy. The cosmopolitan nature of the audience, composed mainly of foreigners, bore witness to the international following that Derrida’s brand of philosophy already attracted, as well as to the conservatism of French philosophy students, who tended to shun this lecture in favor of more academically correct seminars.

Reading Derrida or other French authors like Bataille, Foucault, Barthes or Bourdieu is sometimes considered as a kind of rite of passage into the world of rebellious intellect. Such motivation was not absent from my decision to attend that seminar, which had no connection whatsoever with my university major in economics. But if I or others were in for the show, for a kind of post-modern happening, then the lecture was certainly a deception. As a philosopher molded in the classical tradition, deeply familiar with the canon of great authors that he quoted in their original language (be it Greek, Latin, German or English), Derrida expected the same kind of familiarity, and the same language skills, from his listeners.

I remember my sense of frustration and awe as I realized that my philosophical background, limited to a course in classical philosophy during high school and preparatory class as well as personal readings of contemporary French authors, hadn’t prepared me at all to dealing with the many quotes, allusive references and close readings of topical excerpts that were thrown at us during that first session. I came home with a long reading list of quoted authors, some of whom I later skipped entirely like Aristotle, others which I discovered during that academic year and with whom I am still familiar, like Carl Schmitt.

The celebration of friendship

Friendship has been celebrated by many classical authors, starting with Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, very often as an act of mourning over the disappearance of a beloved one or as a celebration of a great couple of friends, always men, who provide the model of ideal friendship: Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, Damon and Pythias, Laelius and Scipio, Montaigne and La Boetie, etc.

But the apostrophe attributed to Aristotle, articulating a performative contradiction, also opens friendship to its own deconstruction: if there are no friends, how can one address friends? And how to draw the line between the friend and the enemy, a basic opposition to which Carl Schmitt attributes a central role in the definition of politics? Even the origin of the quote is obscure, as its attribution to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius and subsequent authors is purely based on hearsay and its aporetic nature contradicts the clarity of the Greek philosopher’s prose. The destiny of this ambiguous quote provides a common thread to the book and indeed to a significant part of Western philosophy, as it runs through the work of authors as different as Montaigne, Florian, Kant, Nietzsche, Blanchot and Deguy. A large part of Derrida’s book is devoted to the commentary of Nietzsche’s even more paradoxical statement, in Human All Too Human, that subverts the quotation by reversing it:

‘Friends, there are no friends!’ thus said the dying sage;

‘Foes, there are no foes!’ say I, the living fool.

Here the friend is converted into the enemy, the sage passes himself off as a fool, and one is not sure whether to rejoice or to mourn the disappearance of the enemy which, if one follows Carl Schmitt, puts into question the very existence of the political.

Counting friends

The question of counting or enumerating people–how many friends are there, how many are listening to the apostrophe that there are no friends–is also one of the lecture’s recurring theme, which ironically points toward the obligation made to the teacher to register the attendance and count the number of students in the classroom (an obligation that Derrida conspicuously avoided) as well as to the ideal number of citizens that a functioning democracy cannot exceed (which, according to Aristotle, was less than 10 000). As Derrida points out, there is no democracy without respect for irreducible singularity, which by definition one cannot count, but there is no democracy without the calculation of majorities and the addition of equal, identifiable citizens. This paradox suggests the possibility of a « community without community » which, according to Derrida, would characterize the « democracy to come ».

The key to this insistence on number is only given at the end of the book, when Derrida shows that, according to the way the omega is accentuated in the original Greek quote, the paradoxical interjection: « O friends, no friends » can also be translated, more prosaically, as « Many friends, no friends », or « he who has many friends can have no true friends. » This philological coup de theatre does not eliminate the fecundity of the original quote, which functions as a textual machine producing its own discourse as if granted with a life of its own.

Catégories : Book reviews