Friends for life

20 09 2013

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Most people would agree that friendship is necessary for a good life. I can’t imagine living my life without my friends and some of my most precious friendships are with people I have known for forty years. Like most people I sometimes take my friends for granted and forget to call them for weeks at a time, and because they are my friends, they never blame me for my absences or my neglect. In the same way, I’d never dream of taking them to task for not calling me more often. With my close friends, I can assume that our friendship is worth preserving because there is so much shared history and humour.

Thinking about Aristotle’s ideas on friendship has made me wonder, though, about the qualities within friendship that I value most. For Aristotle friends are necessary at all times of life: to show us how to appreciate the good times and to support us when we fall on hard times. Dickens made a similar point in creating the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man too miserly for friends, who has to learn about benevolence from the ghosts of the past, present and future. The message of A Christmas Carol is that no matter how much money you have, without friends or people to care about, life is impoverished and not worth living.

Written more than three hundred years before Christ the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s series of lecture notes, develops this same theme. The Ethics develops the idea that friendship is essential in the pursuit of happiness or a flourishing life “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”

For Aristotle, friendship goes beyond the functional. We don’t simply need friends to avoid the abyss of loneliness. “Friendship is not only necessary, but also fine. For we praise lovers of friends and having many friends seems to be a fine thing.”

Still, he says, there are many disputed points about friendship itself. For some people being friends means seeking out people who are similar to them. Hence the saying “Birds of a feather stay together.” On the other hand it is said that similar people are so alike that they are bound to fall out, “like the proverbial potters quarrelling with each other.”

In attempting to unravel these seeming contradictions, Aristotle wonders whether friendship is possible among all sorts of people, or whether ‘vicious’ or unpleasant people can be friends. He also wants to know if there is one species of friendship, or more.

He begins with a general account of friendship. The object of friendship is to find what is lovable in a person. For Aristotle, not everything is loved, but only what is lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful. He goes on to note that what is useful is the source of some good so that what is good and what is pleasant are lovable as ends.

This raises the question: “Do people love what is good, or what is good for them?”

In other words, do we seek out friends just because they will make us feel good? If so, doesn’t this mean that all friendship is a reflection of our own egoistic needs and desires? Do we want to be friends with people who will make us shine?

Aristotle’s way of thinking is that friends are necessary in helping us to become better people. With certain friends I feel that I can be my ‘best self,’ not my most arrogant self, but my true self. I’ve just, as it happens, finished a long phone call with one such friend who always has me reaching for my note book as we speak. She makes me think in ways that make my brain sparkle. Our friendship creates a space where we discuss (often quite mad) ideas, and we are entirely comfortable with this. We ‘get’ each other and we both share a sense of the ridiculous. At the end of the phone call she had me hooting with laughter as she told the story of a long-ago marriage proposal from a butcher.  The italics do not do justice to the outrage and incredulity in her tone, for my friend is a vegetarian and devout friend to animals.  I’m writing the short story in my head for her, and this helps to explain what I think Aristotle means when he tells us that: Complete friendship is the friendship of good people.”

For Aristotle a complete friendship is only possible with someone who is similar in ‘virtue,’ someone who holds similar principles, beliefs and values to our own. I’d have to add humour to that list to make it complete. Still, it makes friendship a matter of morality.

Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.”

The aim of friendship, then, is to strengthen the higher qualities in people. For the Greeks friendship was of primary importance for the functioning of a healthy society. People could practise noble values through reciprocated acts of generosity and loving and concern for others. If enough people do this then society becomes less selfish as a result.

Aristotle admits, though, that such mutual friendships are rare, since people who are concerned with higher values are few. Not everyone wants to live a fully aware life. Most people would rather just spend a pleasant time hanging out with their friends without over concerning themselves with their moral well-being. We might say that this type of principled friendship is impossible now that we have so many other distractions such as the internet and the demands of our families and jobs.

Aristotle recognises that friendships change over time.  Friendships formed out of utility can be easily dissolved and Aristotle says we shouldn’t worry about this.

“There is nothing absurd in dissolving the friendship whenever they are no longer pleasant or useful. For they were friends of pleasure or utility and if these give out, it is reasonable not to love.”

Friendship which matters most is friendship that helps us to understand ourselves. Aristotle is clear that we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to another person. If we are good to ourselves, we wouldn’t wish to be anyone else even if that other person had every good going for him. Aristotle claims that a good person “practically never regrets what he has done. Every action is useful feedback. This strikes me as a pretty modern idea as does his conclusion that friendship is the highest form of benevolence. If benevolence is an expression of our highest self, we are complete when we give our best efforts to others.

Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Hackett 1985)





The Best Life

16 06 2013

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Can we choose to be happy? Aristotle thought that we could. He outlines his reasons in a series of tantalisingly brief notes compiled as the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle whatever we choose, we choose because we want to be happy or fulfilled. We make decisions that are ‘choiceworthy.’

  “Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”

Aristotle’s main idea is that we never choose happiness for the sake of something else. He argued that all our choices in life are aimed at the goal of happiness. We choose the person we will marry because we are convinced that that person will bring us (hopefully) everlasting happiness. Similarly we choose to settle in places because we feel that we are going to be happy there. When we get fed up with living in, say, London, we move to Devon, or to Cambridge or Spain. Happiness draws us along the line of decision making. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is that we can’t choose beyond happiness.

Aristotle makes the goal of happiness both incredibly simple and fiendishly difficult. For a start, many people who live lives of acute desperation are often not aware that happiness is even a valid choice for them. I imagine young women who have been kidnapped as victims of human trafficking gangs rarely feel that they have any options, and that applies also to victims of any form of violence. Child soldiers; young prostitutes; sweat shop workers; the homeless; migrant fruit pickers – for many people in these situations their daily decisions are aimed at survival alone and happiness itself is a remote dream.

Circumstances must always influence happiness: you simply can’t compare the happiness of a wealthy business woman with an online empire and her children educated in independent schools with a woman who still has to carry water to her children who may die of disease before they reach adulthood. Global happiness is clearly not a level playing field.

I would argue, though, that we can still find wisdom in Aristotle’s ideas. If we are going to aim for something in life then surely it is better to aim at happiness than to dismiss it from our lives because it does not apply to our circumstances at the time? It is a rare human being who cannot recall a single happy moment. For those living the most wretched of circumstances, it is those moments of lightness and relief that keep them going and act as the bridge between merely existing and truly living.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s memoir from the ‘human laboratory’ of the Holocaust death camps builds the case that courage and hope are closely connected. If we can hope, then we have the will to live, and in order to move beyond despair we need to make fundamental changes in our attitude toward life. Frankl, a professor of neurology and psychiatry, who spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, writes movingly of his role as mentor to those for whom the relentless brutality of camp existence had extinguished all hope…’we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.’

The answer, for Frankl, does not lie in in the innocent pursuit of happiness, but in ‘right action and in ‘right conduct.’

Here Frankl’s ideas dovetail with Aristotle’s. For both thinkers seem to agree that happiness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of life, but a series of activities and challenges that we must overcome in order to draw our own map of meaning. Right action and right conduct means living an ethical life.

In the notes throughout his Ethics, Aristotle is vague on the question of whether happiness is a gift of the Gods. He more or less admits that he didn’t know, but that if it were a gift from the Gods then that would be a reasonable thing for the Gods to offer. He is more interested in how we can achieve happiness through our own actions. He didn’t think that fate brings us good fortune. He is not superstitious. He argues that it is better to be happy through our own efforts than through good fortune because fortune is easily lost and therefore unreliable. The Ethics is a reasoned enquiry into the elements that make up the best kind of life. One of its conclusions is that activity brings lasting happiness.

“…since it is activities that control life…no blessed person could ever become miserable since he will never do hateful and base actions. For a truly good and intelligent person will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will produce the finest shoe from the hides given him, and similarly for all other craftsmen…”

In this idea that purposeful and creative activity brings psychological benefits, Aristotle follows Plato. This idea is central to Greek thinking on harmony. A person living in harmony lives a life that is well-suited to their talents and character. If you are suited to be a shoemaker then that is what you should do for life and if you make the best shoes possible and keep all your customers happy then you in turn will be happy.

   “Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”

Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls ‘the virtues of character,’ or good habits of mind. The term ‘ethical’ comes from habit or ethos. For Aristotle, then, the good character is ethical. He claims that ethics does not arise in us naturally. We are not born ethical, as anyone who has spent time with toddlers will recognise. Aristotle claims that we become ethical through a process of habituation. We learn the right way to act.

 “The right sort of habituation must avoid excess and deficiency.”

Aristotle advocates the middle way. If we avoid extremes of all kinds we can achieve balance and harmony in our lives and it is this sense of equilibrium that leads to happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is temperance and moderation; a state of poise and tranquillity that has echoes in Buddhist ideas of recognising that it is craving that leads to suffering.

    “For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength; and likewise, too much too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health…the same is true of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash.”

But his claims about habituation raise a puzzle: How can we become good without being good already?

Aristotle’s response is that we need to practise ethics rather than relying on theory. There is no point in reading a book about how to live a better life unless you put into action some of the ideas suggested. We become happy by doing activities that put us in a good state. We create our own well-being.

   “The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions.”

Aristotle argues that knowing ourselves is fundamental to achieving happiness. We need to observe our own tendencies on the scale of extremes and deficiencies. Are we more inclined to be passive or aggressive; active or inactive? A dreamer or a doer; intellectually or emotionally driven? Are we generous or cautious with money? When we know what we are like, we can find our own midpoint on the circle.

“Giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person in the right amount at the right time for the right end and in the right way is no longer easy nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy and fine.”

Which makes Aristotle’s idea of happiness sound like a goal worth pursing, not for the glow of contentment it brings, but for the motivation it gives us to shape and adjust our ethical lives so that we may become endowed with the happiness that we truly deserve.








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