Friendship and Some Obstructions: Reflections on the Ego-Centric Predicament
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By Anonymous, October 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

In this post I would like to reflect on two themes: Friendship and Rationalism—or, it may be better to say, I would like to reflect on friendship and the obstruction presented to it by some modern epistemological presuppositions.  To express myself more formally, the presumed self-sufficiency of mind’s practical activity within certain modern rationalist philosophies establishes a barricade between men by blocking the activity of shared concern peculiar to the excellence of friendship.  It blocks this shared concern because it blocks access to both the need for and possibility of the kind of intellective act that constitutes friendship and constitutes the possibility for its activity.  I will be making my reflections on the basis of the presentation of two essays: Robert Sokolowski’s “Phenomenology of Friendship,” and James V. Schall’s “Aristotle on Friendship.”[1]

From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship is a moral excellence or virtue.  Virtue requires knowledge, the exercise of reasoned activity, and self-awareness.  Hence friendship requires a particular kind of intelligence, both of oneself and of the friend.  Under Sokolowski’s reading of Aristotle, this act of intelligence not only substantiates the being of friendship but because it substantiates it, it is a necessary component of its formation and activity.  That is to say, I must take on as my own good the good of another; I must recognize his good as my good, and I must do so in such a way that I do not mistake the apparent for the real, and in such a way that I do not nullify the other or impose myself upon him.  I am friend to an other and he is friend to me because I recognize or identify with his good as my good, and he mine.  And it is this act of intelligence, I propose, that is obstructed by two aspects of rationalist epistemology: 1) the presumed self-sufficiency of the intrinsic and insular resources of the cogito; and 2) the reduction of intelligence to procedural rationality.

If I am oversimplifying things here, let’s think of it this way: the modern rationalistic demands of 1) radical independence of mind, and 2) reason construed as methodological step-wise procedure-following puts up a barrier to the practical intellect’s act of taking on another’s good as one’s own.  It thereby tends to reduce friendship to some form of utilitarian relation, at one extreme, or, at the other extreme, to some form of emotional connection.  If you remain locked in your own self-inflated ego and significance, and if you have a single minded attachment to calculative, productive thinking, friendship would only appear and be open to you on the level of utility and the usefully and immediately pleasant.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX, we find Aristotle’s description of friendship, its features, worth, and necessity for living in a way worth living as a human being.  “For no one would choose to live without friendship, even if he had all the other goods”[2] (1155a5).  Friendship, Aristotle asserts, either is virtue or implies virtue (1155a).  It is an opportunity for the exercise of the moral virtues; it is a help in adversity and danger.  It is also a guide and opportunity for the exercise of moral action and intellectual excellence.  Friendship is, as James Schall formulates it, “a critical good of human life,” for “without it the highest questions never arise in their fullness, nor will happiness as such be achieved without it.”[3]

And as Schall also helpfully points out, Aristotle almost off-handedly remarks: “friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice.  For accord would seem to be similar to friendship. . . .Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship” (1155a24ff).  This is a curious statement.  As Schall formulates the problem: “what constitutes the clear superiority of friendship to justice . . . without denying the necessity of justice? . . . Why is justice not enough?”[4]

As we know from our own reading of Aristotle’s work, he does not always come right out and clarify discretely what he means.  And in many passages where he does explicitly clarify what he means, the style is often a kind of shorthand demonstration.  Aristotle’s texts are not treatises worked up for publication, but more like lecture notes, say, in a fairly dynamic and rigorous graduate class.  So reading him can be somewhat disheartening, given our modern preoccupations with discrete treatises, and we may miss the significance of what he says, especially in passages that seem to be slapped together by some, let us say, conscientious graduate student.  Nevertheless, as Schall further points out, “in this treatise [Books VIII and IX], Aristotle is deadly serious.  He is engaged in the culmination of his ethical reflections where he is constantly running up against questions that cannot, apparently, be resolved within his system, even though they appear to arise legitimately within his argument (1156a22-b6; 58a6-9).”[5]  Note that Schall is identifying Books VIII and IX as the summit of the Ethics—not Book VI and, curiously, not Book X.  Sokolowski concurs with Schall—and with sufficient attention paid to Book X and the contemplative life:

“The Nicomachean Ethics reaches its highest point in the discussion of friendship because the exercise of friendship is the best form of human moral action.  It is true that in book 10 Aristotle goes on to say that the theoretical life is higher than the practical life, but in the practical order noble friendship is the highest form of activity that men are capable of.”[6]

Morally speaking, therefore, the summit of the Ethics is the discussion of friendship in Books VIII and IX.

Sokolowski himself has an interesting treatment of theNicomachean Ethics as a whole.  Aristotle’s reflections about moral activity and about the human moral agent is developed in a logical progression.  As Sokolowski describes it, Aristotle moves through three successive stages.  From the moral virtues in Books II & III, through the account of particular virtues in Book IV, the first summit is the account of magnanimity in Book IV, chapter 3.  Magnanimity is a kind of “capping” of our behavior in regard to our emotions.  Sokolowski describes this as a kind of consolidation of our passions and desires wherein we take self possession of ourselves.  “Magnanimity is the completion of what we could call our ‘internal or ‘individual’ virtues.  It is moral virtue brought to self-awareness, the confidence that comes to us when we have achieved virtuous dispositions and know that we are able to act in a noble manner.”[7]

The second summit of the Ethics, still following Sokolowski’s account here, is the discussion of justice in Book V.  There we find the particular types of justice: distributive, corrective, reciprocal.  More importantly, we find a discussion of general justice.  This type of justice is more holistic to virtue than the particular kinds, and functions as a kind of second capstone, as Sokolowski describes the phenomenon, to the whole of moral virtue—a ‘finish’ perhaps of the capstone of moral self-awareness in Book IV.  General justice, Aristotle tells us, is a completion of virtue in its entirety.  It allows us to transcend our own needs and wants, goods and desires, and deals with our relation to other people in a way analogous to the way magnanimity deals with our relationship to ourselves.  General justice is complete virtue with respect to oneself and to other people: “. . . justice is the only virtue that seems to be another person’s good, because it is related to another, for it does what benefits another” (1130a1-7).  The just man himself, then, is the one who can see and bring about equalities i) within himself, ii) between himself and other, and iii) among others (1134a1-10).

The third and final summit of the Ethics, again still following Sokolowski, is the discussion of friendship in Books VIII and IX.  Justice alone is not the summit of ethical life.  For all that justice activates within us with respect to the practical order, it still does not fully actualize the full potency of practical reason.  I think Schall’s answer to his own questions above is well worth quoting here at length:

“Perhaps we can make this understanding clearer if we realize that the difference between friendship and justice is that justice . . . does not concern itself with the uniqueness of the person with whom one enters into just dealings.  Justice is concerned with the abstract relationship (1158b29-33).  . . . Justice in this sense is depersonalizing.  The very people who are only just to one another are not, therefore, friends.  In a sense, the relationship of justice prescinds from the reality of friendship itself.  Friendship, on the other hand, deals only with those for whom justice, while not being denied, is not the primary concern in the relationship.  Justice does not take into account the very uniqueness of the persons involved in the exchanges of friendship.  . . . At a minimum, there is justice between friends.  But this is not its essence or especially its perfection.”[8]

In other words, friendship adds something to our lives—something that cannot be provided by the moral virtues themselves or by justice alone.

There are three types of friendship for Aristotle: the useful, the pleasant, and the true or complete friendship, sometimes called the noble.  It is this third kind, complete friendship, that, as Sokolowski phrases it, is “the paradigm of human agency” within the practical order of things.[9]  Perfect friendship befriends the other for the other’s sake—for the sake of the other—for the virtue, goodness, nobility of the beloved himself—because he is what or who he is.  The friendship therefore is non-coincidental.

In friendships of utility and pleasure the other is befriended for the utility or pleasure they give or provide.  Some other person could just as easily be loved in the same way. The persons themselves, in their individuality, and peculiarities of their personalities, histories, manners, looks, etc, do not matter so much as what they offer.  The relationship of true friendship, in contrast, targets the uniqueness of the friend, not for what he provides, but for the friend himself—in himself and for him.

The completeness of this sort of friendship occurs of course in the community of shared activity, of accomplishing shared goals and the communication of shared interest.  The friendship must be reciprocal and the friends themselves must both be virtuous.  The virtues themselves are exercises of reason—knowing what the right thing to do is at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, with the right people, toward the right end, etc.  Virtue is a mean in regard to extremes, the mean as determined by reason, the reason of the excellent person.  In short, as Sokolowski calls them, virtues are “embodiments of practical reason.”[10]

These embodiments of practical reason all involve a particular kind of intellective form, or “categorial structure.”  Sokolowski identifies four of these categorialities.  First there is the structure of means-to-ends found in most practical activity. Second, there is the determination of the mean in regard to extremes, of intuiting the appropriate middle between extremes.  Third, there is the proportional or arithmetical calculation of justice—of calculating what goes to whom under what circumstances and under what conditions, whether proportionally, as in distributive justice, or arithmetically as in corrective justice.  Fourth, there is the kind of practical intelligence appropriate to perfect friendship.  The reciprocity of perfect friendship is such that each friend wishes well of the other and that this well-wishing is mutually acknowledged.  “This reciprocal . . .well-wishing,” Sokolowski states, “involves a categorial form.  It is a highly sophisticated intellectual structure.  It is a form of recognition or identification.  The good of my friend is identified as my own good, and my good is identified as the good of my friend, and both of us rejoice in the identifications that we mutually accomplish.”[11]  This type of mutual identification cannot occur with too many people.  Perfect friendship is rare—we are lucky to have one or two, maybe three, over a lifetime.  One reason for the rarity is that the knowledge required is profound—we must know what our friend needs, and how he needs it, and at what time.  “We simply cannot understand many people with the detailed and personalized knowledge that friendship demands.  Friendship, therefore, requires an act of intelligence; it has to understand the needs, inclinations, and emotions of the friends so that it can calibrate the equation that is the friendship between them.”[12]

I will now, briefly, contrast the above description of friendship and its intellective act to Rationalism and certain features peculiar to that philosophical enterprise.

Rationalism is that philosophical position and presupposition which considers the mind as self-sufficient and radically autonomous in its capacity for complete understanding of all reality.  The definition is primarily Cartesian, but applies also in a variety of variations to other modern philosophers—including those that self-identify as non-Rationalistic.[13]

 In modern rationalism, there is a clear distinction and separation of mind and body (i.e., metaphysical dualism).  Modern rationalism also distrusts the senses, and symbolic mathematics is considered necessary for a clear and distinct understanding of the world.  To quote Jacob Klein on the subject: “In a broader sense rationalism is that approach to an understanding of human behavior, history and the world around us implied by the premises of mathematical physics.”[14]

We get a more or less immediate impression of this approach in Part VI of the Discourse on Method.  There Descartes clearly says that what he wants is a practical philosophy geared toward utility and the satisfaction of desire by means of technological invention.  “It is possible to find,” he tells us, “a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the various skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them . . . and thus render ourselves . . . masters and possessors of nature.”[15]  What we have in Descartes is algebraic or symbolic mathematics as the paradigm measure of all knowledge put in the service of human design and control.

The theme of control and dominance comes up in earlier portions of the Discourse as well.  After reflecting on the ingenuity of his own intellect for inventing a method, and for increasing his knowledge “by degrees” and for raising his “mind” “little by little to the highest point,” Descartes “cannot but take immense satisfaction in the progress that [he thinks he has] made in the search for truth.”  Moreover, he “cannot but envisage such hopes for the future that if, among the occupations of men purely as men, there is one that is solidly good and important”—namely, the one that he has adopted for himself. (Discourse I; 2)  Note three aspects of Descartes expectations:  1) that there is only one method and 2) only one just occupation of mind; and 3) that this method is predicated on a single-minded love of process. 

Within a different context, F.A. Hayek makes a similar point regarding the rationalist strain.  In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek tries to make the case for the dynamism of freedom and the social conditions which help bring it about culturally.  Anathema to freedom, he says, is the idea that man has deliberately produced his civilization and thus can change it as he designs.  “This assertion,” he says, “would be justified only if man had deliberately created civilization in the full understanding of what he was doing or if he at least clearly knew how it was being maintained.”[16]  At root in this Cartesian-esque view of society is the idea that at any time we have perfect knowledge of both what is and of what is good for us.  “The whole conception of man already endowed with a mind capable of conceiving civilization setting out to create it is fundamentally false.  Man did not simply impose upon the world a pattern created by his mind. His mind is itself a system that constantly changes as a result of his endeavor to adapt himself to his surroundings. . . [and] The conception of man deliberately building his civilization stems from an erroneous intellectualism that regards reason as something standing outside nature and possessed of knowledge and reasoning capacity independent of experience.”[17]  Contra rationalism, there are no omniscient men. And part of Hayek’s point in all this is that the rationalist, who does seem to assume at least some measure of latent omniscience, “[does] not see that, for advance[ment] to take place, the social process from which the growth of reason emerges must remain free from its control.”  Or in other words, “the rationalist who desires to subject everything to human reason is thus faced with a real dilemma.  The use of [modern conceptions of] reason aims at control and predictability.  But the process of the advance of reason rests upon freedom and the unpredictability of human action.”[18]

The last feature of rationalism that I would like to discuss is the idea that mind is sufficient unto itself.  In Discourse IV Descartes turns his method back in on himself.  “I resolved to pretend that all the thinks that had ever entered my mind were not more true than the illusions of my dreams.  But immediately afterward I noticed that .. .it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something.  . . . I think, therefore I am . . . I judged I could accept [that] without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.”[19]  Or in other words, what the love of process produces first, for Descartes, is immediate, certain and indubitable self awareness.  As Sokolowski has phrased it in a different context, what the mind knows first and best is itself; the mind principally knows itself.[20]  From this self-knowledge, it can then take possession of itself—“From this I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which is simply to think, and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place nor depends on any material thing.”[21]

The primary and most important discovery of Cartesian methodology is the establishment of the cogito in all the vitality of . . . itself and its self awareness.  As Patrick Masterson puts it: “in virtue of a programme of radical doubt . . . [ consciousness] . . . takes as its only and absolute starting point the luminous presence of the thinking subject to himself—a subject defined as identical with his own thought.”[22]  What we have with Descartes and the subsequent philosophical tradition is an isolated and insular mind, closed in on itself and its own workings and dealings.  It is as though we are all in a way, like Descartes, “shut up by [ourselves] in a stove-heated room, where [each one of us individually] are completely free to converse with [ourselves] about [our own] thoughts.”[23]  And this, for Descartes, is to be the starting point for the life of the cogito—isolated and self contained, for it has within itself the resources for perfect knowledge.

Finally, contrast that picture of man with Book IX, chapter 9 of Nicomachean Ethics.  Towards the end of this chapter we find a discussion of perception.  Aristotle brings out that there is a kind of self possession in the activity of perception.  We not only see but we see that we see; we not only think but perceive that we think.  This reflected perception is more vivid and clear when directed not just on our own activity but toward that of a friend and toward the activity that is shared with him.  For Aristotle, the self-hood of the person is not closed in on itself.  Rather it is a dual or shared personhood, as Sokolowski has expressed it.  A friend is another me, and I am also another “self” to the friend.  As Aristotle puts it, “the excellent person is related to his friend in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another himself.” (1170b9) 

Now this is not to say that for Aristotle, a friend forces his views on his friend.  For Aristotle, contra Descartes, it is not that we start with a complete self and then make another one just like me, as a kind of clone—which seems to be the effect of the cogito.  In our friend we see ourselves active, or we see the activity that we both of us share.  This sort of enhanced perception is not possible without friends.  And this is why Aristotle says that in seeing our friends and our friends activities we see ourselves better.  In our friend, we can “see” or “contemplate” his good actions; his actions are in a way our own actions reflected back on us.  Thus, even the good and fully virtuous and self-sufficient man needs friends, and it would be absurd, Aristotle says, to deny them to him. (1169a5-b30)

More to the point, if I am methodologically insulated from external communication, then I have no need of friends.  And friendship would certainly not be possible if I think that the good of another is not derived from the other—his being, his situation—but derived from my own internal resources.  If I, in the completeness of my cogito, possess such qualities as corresponding to all external reality, I have no need to postulate the need of friends.  I have no need of the enhanced perspective I can get on myself with my friend and I have no need to take on his good as my own.  For, I, if I were a rationalist, am self-sufficient and complete unto myself; for I myself can take full possession and self-awareness from out of the completeness of my own internal resources of mind. And the other, to the extent that there are other people for the rationalist, is self-sufficient and complete unto himself.  From the rationalist perspective, what need would there be for friendship?  Contra Aristotle, it is friendship that would be absurd, not the lack thereof.



[1] Robert Sokolowski, “Phenomenology of Friendship,”  The Review of Metaphysics 55 (March 2002).  James V. Schall, “Aristotle on Friendship,” in The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, 105-113 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008).  Any wisdom or insight in what follows should be attributed to these thinkers and not to the present author.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, 2nd edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 119.  All citations from Aristotle are taken from this edition unless otherwise idicated.

[3] Schall, “Aristotle on Friendship,” 106.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sokolowski, “Phenomenology of Friendship,” 453.

[7] Ibid., 451.

[8] Schall, “Aristotle on Friendship,” 107.

[9] Sokolowski, “Phenomenology of Friendship,” 452.

[10] Ibid., 453.

[11] Ibid., 460.

[12] Ibid., 462.

[13] See, for example, Patrick Masterson, Atheism & Alienation: A Study of the Philosophical Sources of Contemporary Atheism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971).

[14] Jacob Klein, “Modern Rationalism,” in Lectures and Essays of Jacob Klein, ed. Robert B Williamson and Elliot Zuckerman (Annapolis; St. John’s College, 1985), 57.

[15] René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress, 4th edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 35.

[16] F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 23.

[17] Ibid., 24.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Descartes, Discourse (IV), 18.

[20] Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), see chapter 14.

[21] Descartes, Discourse (IV), 19.

[22] Masterson, Atheism & Alienation, 9.

[23] Descartes, Discourse (II), 6-7.

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5 Comments
Kevin on Nov 2, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Your essay seems a little vacuous in theme and "practical reason. Personal experience, backed by catechised study has lead me to the following experience and observations on friendship :

1) Enduring human friendship, as opposed to fellowship is based on the simple concept of 'fair exchange' - consistently practiced in a one-on-one relationship.

2) Such a friendship becomes inscrutable to all others. We can never understand the nature of such a combination of souls in completeness.

3) a priori, individuals engaged need the self-confidence of a healthy and full relationship with self and higher power. (Or, in the case of the a-theist, comfortable acceptance of this position), omfort

James Despres on Nov 3, 2011 at 6:31 am

Not at all clear what the previous comment is saying. Please clarify. Friendship based on "fair exchange" is indeed possible but not ultimately desirable, or not ultimately desirable exclusively, and the fairness and the exchanging need not target the person of the other, but only the motion and behavior of the other, which is at best utilitarian. Now, the useful friend is indeed a friend, no one who knows Aristotle would deny that, but it is not the kind of friendship which best activates the best potencies in us, which is Aristotle's point.

Louis Gasper on Nov 8, 2011 at 8:48 am

I appreciate the post. It is well reasoned, and I learned from it. At the same time, a good deal more could be written on the subject. For example, another dualism in full-blown rationalism is between the natures of the self and of the other.

In true friendship, I have entered not only into the good of the other but into his understanding of his own self. A rationalist can see the nature of the other, but, epistemologically confined within hinself, he has limited or no capacity to understand the other as that other understands himself. The rationalist necessarily considers that he knows himself not only better than anyone else can, but that, lacking the interiority that he enjoys with respect to himself, the other cannot begin to know him as he knows himself. But this is reciprocally true, so that the rationalist must regard the true interior selves of others as opaque. This is incompatible with genuine friendship that goes beyond reciprocal justice.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 9, 2011 at 5:05 am

I had always interpreted Aristotle's account of friendship as a social virtue with political implications and is required for the good and self-sufficient life. Because it depends upon another person who is an equal, it makes it a social virtue that is different from justice, which seems to require a hierarchy of people (i.e., rulers and ruled). I don't think this interpretation is in disagreement with what is mentioned-above, but, from a political science perspective, friendship seems to fall in the "civil society" or "social capital" part of Aristotle's politics.

Worcester Teacher on Nov 27, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Good post but what do you make of Book X? Do friends let friends become gods? Aristotle is pretty clear that friends don't let friends become beasts -even if that's so judgmental! This post is timely because it reminds us all that friendship is about something far nobler than calculation and networking

Today friendship seems to have been displaced in many circles by a myth of domesticity, in a very literal reading of Plato's Aristophanes' story of the circle man. Most people, even atheists, seem to believe that there's one special person, eternally destined for them. Then, when we find that no one person can bear the burden of being our everything, we go to the other extreme and become Epicurean pleasure centers. Only true friendship can get us out of this mess...