Sunday, December 06, 2009

Friendly Fire

The disagreement between AnPan and I that has been taking place on our blogs (here and here) has reminded me of why I feel fortunate to have good friends like him. As it just so happens, this also is the time in the semester (at my instiution) when most of the first-years are deep into Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and so are inclined to say more-insightful-than-usual things about friendship. And, of course, it's the holiday season, so filial good-will is both in the air and on the air in the form of a wide variety of commercial advertisements trying to sell products by association with things like friends. All that is to say, the pump is primed to say something about friendship...

In particular, I want to say something about the kinds of friendships that not only allow, but are made stronger by, disagreement. Of all my closest friends, I would say that it is true that our relationships permit fairly serious disagreement... and often. Of course, many of my closest friends are academics, philosophers no less, so many of those friendships were initiated by a shared love of ideas and the arguments upon which ideas are sharpened. I was having a conversation with one of my oldest and closest friends (Dr. Trott) a few weeks ago, and we were both genuinely perplexed by people who take disagreement to indicate some fundamental devaluation of the other person or, alternatively, people who take disagreement to be the expression of a fundamentally un-friendly disposition toward the other. Dr. Trott and I disagree about a lot of things, some of them quite important to one of us, but for as long as we've known each other, we've taken the fact that we can have it out about things that matter to us to be a sign of the health and strength of our friendship. In fact, I tend to be more unsure of friendships in which those kinds of arguments present "threats" to the relationship.

A lot of the arguments I've had with my friends over the last several years have taken place on this blog, so they're not secret. And they're not always nice, even. We can be snarky, we often play hardball, and we're not generally inclined to let go when the other cries "uncle." So, what is the tie that continues to bind in the midst of these fights? I suspect that it is something like a mutual respect for ideas and, by extension, for the kinds of people for whom ideas matter. Occasionally, I'm surprised to discover that the ideas and values that really matter to my friends are quite different from mine (as may or may not be the case in my recent dispute with AnPan), but the truth is, it's hardly ever the case that their ideas and values are so different that the difference comes to constitute a reason to dissolve the friendship. Does that mean that we aren't ever really disagreeing? I don't think so. Does it mean that our disagreements are ultimately about trivial, merely academic, differences? Perhaps, but it hardly ever feels like that.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that there are three kinds of friendship: (1) friendships based on utility (in which two people are friends with each other because each can be useful to the other in some way), (2) friendships based on mutual pleasure (in which two people are friends because of the good feeling each provides the other), and (3) friendships based on virtue or excellence (in which the friends view each other as possessing intrinsic, non-incidental goodness and, hence, both wish the good of the other for the other's sake and not for any lesser motive). The third kind of friendship is, not surprisingly, what Aristotle characterizes as "perfect" friendship and tends to be the most stable and true, but also the most rare. The first two relationships are easily dissolved, for example when a friend no longer seems to be useful or ceases causing one pleasure. But what conditions would have to be present to motivate the dissolution of the third type of friendship?

No disagreement or fight could itself constitute a justification to dissolve a true friendship. After all, one is not friends with "true" friends because it is useful to have people who agree with you, nor are we friends with "true" friends solely because of the pleasure that we experience in the absence of conflict. The only thing that could justify the dissolution of a true friendship, it seems, is something that would no doubt come as a complete surprise to one of the friends, namely, that the person one took as a "friend" is not the person one thought s/he was at all.

There are, no doubt, many times when I have suspected that my friends and I "neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things." But, I suppose, whatever those things were never quite rose to the level of forcing my reconsideration of the kind of person they were. When I try to think about what kinds of disagreement might motivate such a reconsideration, I find that they're fairly extreme... like, for example, if I found out that one of my friends really believed that women or non-whites are essentially inferior in intellect or character. And I simply cannot imagine, for all our substantive disagreements, discovering that any of my friends think those kinds of things. I imagine it would be like discovering that your spouse/partner were being unfaithful. The real blow in that situation is not simply that the other person has wronged you, but that the entire relationship in which you were engaged with them was simply not what you thought it was.

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my "true" friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to "live together."


hawkbrwn said...

thanks for this. i spend a lot of time thinking about aristotle on friendship (and teach it too, of course). and i've wanted to more directly write about his views too on my b, but instead have only done so indirectly.

what you get at here is not exactly the route i usually go in thinking about his view of complete friendship. but you get at something so obviously important and insightful by analyzing these differing levels of agreement and disagreement. i appreciate too your insight as to what causes true friendships to change--when the individuals have grown 'away' from each other.

enjoy reading your thoughts, as always. elaine

Mark E.P. said...

Well, after our brief discussion in the Rat I managed to get right into a discussion (on Facebook, no less) about the value of artwork, which managed to quickly move into me having to defend my ironist stance, which is AWESOME. I love it when people think I'm wrong. When else can I get comments like this:

"To say that we can value a thing by assuming a point of view or by assuming a "vocabulary" is to merely beg the question (that is, it's a circular argument and thus fallacious at worst and vacuous at best)."

I'm fallacious and vacuous! Am I real philosopher now?

Dr. Trott said...

I have always found frustrating those who interpret "the friend is a second self" to mean that the friend is exactly like me and a mirror of myself. It makes more sense to say that the friend shares my virtuous concern for life but completes by being different than I am, offering diverse views, seeing things in ways other than I do. Otherwise, why would we need friends? So thanks, good friend.