The Necessity of the Stranger Friend (Laws)

The Necessity of the Stranger Friend (Laws) December 3, 2018

We need stranger friends.

Now this is not an appeal that people befriend me eccentricity and all, though that would be nice. Instead, I am picking up on language that Plato uses in his Laws. There three gentleman from very different places (Athens, Sparta, and Crete) meet to discuss (wait for it) laws.

Two of them are named, but the sage from Athens goes by “Athenian stranger” during an entire conversation that lasts hundreds of pages. This is strange to us. Why do his friends keep calling him a “stranger?” They call him friend, but never lose sight of the fact that he is not from their homes.

This is good, because it points us to the value of the “stranger-friend,” even if the term would be offensive to use.

To understand what Plato means we have to recollect that the “laws” of a city are more than just political ordinances, they are the customs, manners, way-of-life of the community. To come to the city from outside was to be in a much honored role of guest or as a hostile invader. The invader must be stopped. The guest needs to be welcomed, the gods demand this, but not to take control of the city. A person might live in a Greek city for years (as did many merchants in a place like Athens) and never be considered fully part of the city.


Not because of bigotry, or at least not merely as a result of bigotry. Instead, recall the broader meaning of citizenship in a place like Athens. To be Athenian meant your identity, the man you were.  No matter what a person did, he could never be Athenian or Spartan or Cretan the way a person born to the city could be. The citizen born to the laws, customs, and manners was formed by them, he did not choose them. He learned the rules with his mother’s milk and whatever the merits of the honored guest, his experience was different.

He is a child of a different mother.

The honored guest chose to come to the city. An Athenian might view such a guest as better than many members of the family, favor him with huge awards, but he could not get the folkways of the city as the naturally born citizen. In Athens the guest might be welcome, but would always speak Greek with a Spartan accent.

Greek culture generally took the idea of a “guest” very seriously. A host greatly valued the guest and would honor him in many ways. In turn, the guest had many duties toward his host, including fair treatment. The great evil done by the Trojan Paris to many Greeks was not just that he had run off with Helen, but that he had broken the host-guest relationship.

Plato’s gentlemen in Laws reflect Greek society. They are all Greeks, but they are from very different expressions of Greek culture. The Spartans and the people of Crete were very different than Athens: Sparta was spartan and Athens was gorgeous with art.

These differences are what make the conversation delightful and productive. They meet and discuss a new city, better possibilities and do so as (at one level) strangers to each other. The difference, the diversity, is necessary. Homogeneous discussion groups are blind to possibilities that are easy to a group of stranger-friends.

Some (Limited) Applicability in the American Institutional Context

In our time, we have narrowed the notion of “citizen” so that immigrants can become full citizens of a republic like the United States.

Thank God.

Yet a strength of such immigration remains that the immigrant will, in one important sense, always be a stranger. They will have come by choice, studied our ways from the outside. This enables fresh appreciation and insightful criticism. The new citizen is “strange” to our ways and so both enriches them with new possibilities and can help us see them (for good and bad) in new ways: out of many one.

Let me be plain: in our American context, the immigrant who becomes a citizen is as much a citizen as any other person. Yet the good news is that they also bring diversity, difference and richness to the nation. We would never wish to melt away such difference, but allow each citizen to become a piece of a mosaic, slowly changing America in the particular as the overall message is retained.

We remain America with new Americans. That changes us slowly and organically.

As they learn, this new citizen the rest of us will also learn. At the same time, while a nation, city, or organization can and must adapt over time, many fail if they lose track of their central mission or keep trying new methods.

The stranger-friend is the outsider who has the access of an insider to the community or organization, but does not change the very being of the program.

The language of stranger-friend is awkward, but every church, business, and non-profit needs such people. The best places I have worked have been open to friendships with “outsiders” who enriched the organization without changing her basic mission.Bad organizations will create inner rings (see Lewis in That Hideous Strength or Abolition of Man) unable to make friendships, deep and abiding, outside the charmed circle. The worst organizations end up with a tyrant and not a circle of friendships at all, but where all is about money and power.

In the end, if we respect the autonomy of the individual, everyone is in some ways a “stranger” and, God helping us, has the possibility of being a friend. We are human, all created in the image of God, and this commonality creates a certain sameness, but each person is a variation on the human theme. This “strangeness” is a difference that is a strength (or can be) as we dialog with each other.

The bad man will wish everyone to be as he is. The weak man will not care about pursuing the truth. After all, the dialog is risky and can lead to dissension! We paper over the differences instead of growing through them. The good person rejoices in our common humanity and the infinite variety in which this humanity is expressed in a world of stranger-friends.

God help us.



A reflection based on a class on Plato’s Laws at The College at The Saint Constantine School.

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