Walking with Aristotle: The Role of Friendship in the Time of the Novel Corona Virus Pandemic by Barbara Bundy, PhD

Dr. Bundy with 2 of her 3 Grandchildren

Barbara Bundy is a retired university professor of comparative literature and administrator who lives in Asheville, NC.. She retired after 43 years as a university professor and administrator in higher education.

She was president of Dominican University of San Rafael and taught on the faculties of the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz and at the University of San Francisco, where she was the founding executive director of the Center for Asia Pacific Studies.


Hats off to my long-time esteemed friend from The 1990 Institute, Billy Ming Sing Lee, for the creative work he has done on friendship and “friendshipology” and for establishing this website as a public forum for the continuing exchange of ideas about the intercultural role of friendship.

I believe passionately that there is a critical role that friendship and friendships can play in helping us navigate the current crisis environment of the global Covid-19 pandemic.  Friendship also can play an important role in building solidarity for the international movement for racial justice inspired this spring by the tragic death of George Floyd, due to police brutality, thanks to the leadership shown by the Black Lives Matter movement in seeking racial justice for Floyd and other Blacks killed as a result of racism in our society.  

So how does friendship figure as a healing force in our current climate of deep distrust in institutions, especially government?   Many of our institutions have failed us, and we perceive them as the problem rather than the solution to the challenges facing us right now.  We are clearly in need of “a new friend” to trust as we rebuild and reimagine our institutions for the future.

It is heartbreaking to me to see a lack of commitment in so many of my fellow humans right now to protect others and themselves from Covid, which happens whenever an individual chooses not to wear a face mask in public.  This single act bespeaks a lack of trust in the common good, the global commons, and the public square. We are definitely witnessing a decline in publicspiritedness and seem to lack the willingness to see someone “other” than ourselves as…well, as friend.  To be sure, the geopolitical trends of populism, nationalism, and isolationism that have been sweeping the globe the past several years do not favor trust and cooperation among countries or individuals.

Enter our old friend Aristotle, great teacher and scholar of years past in Greek antiquity.  Friendship as described by Aristotle offers us a bridge to restore the global commons and the public good and to create a more just interracial and intercultural community that is sustainable in the future.  He believed that the best type of friendship is disinterested, i.e., not for personal gain, and is based on moral and ethical values; the truest form of friendship, he said, is a function of “virtuous” human character put into practice.  This type of friendship, unlike other types, is not based on transactional values and is not transient in nature. Friendship, Aristotle argues, enables one person to relate to an ”other” as if the other were familiar and a part of one’s own self.

Let us walk with Aristotle in the present time, viewing the challenge to contain the worst pandemic in our lifetimes and to reckon with the dark side of our American past. Perhaps he can be of help in our effort to reckon with racial and other forms of systemic injustice that have  continued to disadvantage Blacks and other minorities since before the Civil War and also since slavery was legally abolished at the close of the Civil War.

One reason Covid-19 is spreading out of control in the US at this time (almost five million cases at this writing and almost 160,000 deaths) is that individuals are not pulling together to practice the health safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, namely the simple act of wearing a protective face mask in public; social distancing; and repeated washing of hands with a disinfectant. Some people have resorted to violence when asked by businesses, e.g., to wear a mask when they enter a store, or an airplane, or asked by others who share the public space to wear a mask to protect against the transmission of Covid.

A few words about the crisis environment in which we find ourselves in August 2020 as the number of cases of Covid-19 continues to escalate worldwide to dangerous proportions since it first was transmitted in the US in January 2020.  In the US alone over four million cases have been identified through testing, with the count soon approaching five million and with a staggering 157 thousand deaths to date.  The US has the highest number of cases of Covid-19 in the world while we constitute only four per cent of the world’s population.

We desperately need to practice the “as if” philosophy of Aristotle in our current situation so that we can take the actions sorely needed to unite rather than further divide people and cultures in this time of the coronavirus.  Only such unity will help us to stem the tide of this and future pandemics, to stop environmental degradation, and to find friendly solutions to enable us to sustain and steward ou environment for future generations; and to find solutions to the systemic racism that currently divides us and privileges white people over people of color.

With empathy for the “other” that friendship cultivates, perhaps we can move beyond the current pandemic to support one other in reimagining many of the destructive attitudes and practices that have led to the current brokenness of our world as a cooperating organism.  Today’s environment is unlike anything we have ever experienced since the 1918 Spanish flu and the Black Death of the fourteenth century that killed some 25 million people. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic we are also experiencing a collapsing economy and massive unemployment, which is causing evictions and homelessness; and already thousands are suffering from food insecurity.  Moreover, we face the greatest climate crisis of our lifetimes in the ensuing years and do not have a plan in the US for addressing this crisis because the current administration in Washington is anti-science, anti-environment and isolationist and has severed US engagement in many of the US-led multilateral institutions that contributed to building a prosperous liberal post World War II order that benefited so many in the day when. 

The national (and now international) protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic death from police brutality of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis have inspired the most diverse movement in American history in support of racial justice for Blacks and other people of color, all of whom have for too long been the victims of systemic racism. The BLM movement is a force for unifying us and unlike the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which I participated in, this time not only Blacks and whites are working together but also Asian Americans, Latinx, Native Americans and others.  This is a profound moment of reckoning with our racist past as a slave-owning nation, the reckoning that never fully happened following the equal rights legislation enacted after the Civil War and even with the Voting Rights Act passed under President Lyndon Johnson.

To relate the current moment in history to my own youth growing up on the South side of Chicago in the 1940s and 50s and coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, society then was divided along hard and often hostile lines between Blacks and whites.  Racial tensions ran sky high due to systemic racism that disadvantaged Black communities, depriving them of equal opportunity for education, health care, competitive paying jobs, fair housing and often of a living environment free of dangerous chemicals that often caused  deaths among the Black community.  The schools were segregated in my lower middle class neighborhood so that I never had the opportunity to be friends with Blacks or any Minorities until I was in the tenth grade and was among the first group of teens to attend a brand new, experimental public high school, John Marshall Harlan High School.

At Harlan High I spent some remarkable years as we, a half Black and half white student body, were enrolled, and the friendships and activities in this amazing environment were ours to create.

I cannot express how my friendships with my Black friends at that time changed my young life and set my heart on fire to work for civil rights, knowing through my own friendships and experience that we were all as if Black, and we were all as if white, equal as friends and fellow human beings. There was only one thing left to do following that experience when I went to college and that was to work for civil rights and fight for equal justice for Blacks.  But in contrast to our moment for change right now, in the 60s we did not have the advantage of a truly diverse society with hands of many colors as we do today, and I find this difference of great encouragement for producing systemic change—an unexpected opportunity afforded us by an otherwise disastrous plague.

We are all in search of a better “new normal” that is more just for everyone and based more on spiritual values and friendship and less on the materialistic values that have in large part brought us to our current crisis point.  The novel coronavirus pandemic has stripped away our illusions about what really matters and given us the opportunity to evolve into higher beings with a deeper sense of the sacredness of  environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice for all.

We are all friends and “as if” Black at this moment in history, just as all of us are “as if “ the hundreds and thousands of people who have unfortunately died from the novel coronavirus.   If Aristotle were walking with us today, would he wear a mask? Absolutely, for the common good first and for his own health safety second !