There is no ‘double life’ in philosophical life

One concern has been raised many times by many conversation partners in many quarters. It is that philosophical friendships and erotic lovers are rare. Yet if most of our lives are spent in the world among those of a non-philosophical persuasion, how are we to make sense of this “double life,” a life both apart from the world yet of the world?

It does seem as if we were fated to be very much alone, no longer able to live with non-philosophical others but not actually living in a closed community consisting entirely of kindred spirits. Hence, we would be forced to lead a “double life” in which we were torn in two.

This would indeed be the conclusion were it not for the claim that friendship comes in many kinds. Aristotle, in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, sketches three species of friendships: those of pleasure, those of utility, and those of virtue. He seeks not to deny any of these friendships but to rank order them in terms of importance. He says that some friends make for good company, their presence–their humor, their affability, their liveliness–affording us great pleasure. Other friends are useful to us, allowing us to achieve our higher aims. We say that this relationship is “mutually beneficial” to both parties. The last kind is rare and excellent: philosophical friends are those with whom we can exercise the moral virtues. Aristotle believes that friends who exercise the virtues together are equals and are concerned with the well-being of each other quite apart from his own interests.

The key to Aristotle’s account of friendship is that those of pleasure and utility are lower forms of friendship but, for all that, they have value and should not be dispensed with entirely; they have their place in our lives. Additionally, they are more common than philosophical friendships and so we would expect that most of our friends would fall into the first two categories, only a few into the third category.

We see that the claim that we are bound to lead a “double life” is beginning to lose its force. In the first place, we can observe that the assumption that all our friends must be virtuous (in the Aristotelian sense) is unwarranted. In the second place, we can come to regard many of our dealings in the marketplace and in the workplace as, ideally, dealings with friends of pleasure and utility. Finally, we could claim, in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle’s account, that some friendships of pleasure and utility may become, over time and on account of increasing intimacy, friendships of virtue.

There is thus no “double life” in philosophical life. There is instead a continuum stretching from the lower forms of friendship, which are “less near” and “less intense,” to the highest form of friendship, that through which we learn most about ourselves. Honoring all three kinds of friendships allows us to be comfortably of the world but not so completely in the world.

Good marriages can’t be thrown away

Imagine that a marriage is falling apart and that the disaffected demands of the other, “How can you throw away what we’ve worked so long and hard for–how after all these years together, and for what?”

Suppose that these questions are not simply expressions of sorrow and imminent grief. Suppose that the questions are asked in good faith. Then we can examine the argument which tells us much about our misconceptions of marriage: of what it is and what it should be.

The mistakes abound. It is assumed that the end of the marriage is external rather than internal to itself. It is further assumed that ‘maintaining’ a marriage requires near constant, effortful, strenous activity, as opposed to being at home with graceful effortlessness. Lastly, it is implied that a good marriage must run on indefinitely. If it does fall apart, then something good and still good is miscategorized as waste and hence is disposed of, dispensed with, or lost.

Let’s consider what we know.

1. Good marriages do not involve a lot of work because good marriages are not of the order of work. Better comparisons can be made between good couples and good climbing partners or between good couples and good dance partners.

2. Good marriages are sung in a Daoist key. Each sings the same tune and that tune flows like water.

3. Good marriages do not aim at some external end. They aim at an immanent end, i.e.., an aim internal to the practice.

4. Good marriages do not ‘measure’ their ‘success’ according to the realization of  some external end. They are not ‘successful’ in these terms. Indeed, good marriages are not ‘successes.’

5. Since good marriages are not ‘successes’ or ‘accomplishments,’ they cannot be dispensed with or thrown away. And marriages that do not last are not ‘wastes.’ When examined closely, even failing marriages reveal a great deal about ourselves.

6. Good marriages inhabit the long present (philosophical eternity), not the n+1 (unphilosophical eternity).

It is wise not to reply to the accusation above but to see it as a sign that the marriage is over and has doubtless been over for a while.

Heat and Summer Solstice

I

The temperature will itch toward 100 degrees and we will want to itch. The key will be ascesis: to breath and be calm, to be skin.

II

One day after the Summer Solstice the gods are smiling divinely. Some are in fits. The rest are philosophical: loving the steadiness of breath.

III

Joan most always wears her wig; yesterday she did not.

IV

I washed the white sheets. They wear new marks already.

V

Meditation is about finding the coolness in the heat, the softness in the breath, the softest breeze on the underside of the most breathless day.

Old Whitman and me just singing

Recently old Walt Whitman spoke to me. He said of himself, singing a Song of Myself:

Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female, 
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the
mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
 
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be
shaken away.
 

He said all of this of himself. He said it of himself and spoke it to me. He and I undraped. We could not be shaken away.

*

My philosophical life is like speaking in different keys. I speak to old men and young women; to mathematicians and aestheticians; to businessmen and entrepreneurs; to daydreamers and logical plotters; to all of these and to many others. I speak to each in the right key, matching my voice to hers so that we can sing the same tune. Do we joke? Sometimes we do and with some I do and with those some often in the right way–giddy or wry, slapstick or spry. Have I been earnest from the first with others? I have, yes, I have. I have been wooden and earthy, rooted and mushroomy, browed and solemn. I have been the sweetheart and the old maid. I have been them both.

I crave the rigor from one conversation partner as much as the whimsicality of another. I hunger for the mystical as much as the quotidian, the robin’s egg and the set of all sets. I laugh and sigh and cry during the same conversation and in subsequent. To each, I sing with words we know. To none do I sing in or of discord; toward none sew discord; with none create distance save by mistake.

In any day, on every day, I want men and women, hard and soft, Scandinavian and Italian, Lars Van Trier and Charlie Chaplin, blood and earring waterfalls. Let me have the mathematical, the lyrical, the dialogical, the whimsical, the silly, the childlike, the loving, the joshing, the elliptical, the enigmatic, the exhortative. Let me have, let me have, but let me have it all.

 

Beauty in human frailty


There is beauty in human frailty if only we look closely.

Beauty in human frailty because life is so many things at so many times in so many ways. And there are fathers and mothers and there are lovers and friends. And then there is enmity and tragedy: the shards and stains and yoke torrents running crestfallen over sheeny, tar-like rocks.

Beauty in human frailty because there is also laughter, only–only the laughter, a laughter that comes with knowing that life is, or in any case can be, so many things at so many times in so many ways and that we are still here, amid it all, after all, through it all and withal, and then too that there are pieces of eye and sky and turquoise flowers floating above the tumult and growing apart from robin’s death.