Love, friendship, and work

In Sources of the Self, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that what is distinctive about the modern world is that many of us have come to regard the claims of ordinary life as being ultimately fulfilling. Someone’s falling in love, raising a family, maintaing a close-knit group of friends, and doing meaningful work would, on this modern view, be sufficient for him or her to flourish.

While it is true that many people are drawn to these goods, it is equally true that one or more may not be so easy to come by. Searching for unconditional love may seem futile, the project of being a good lover utterly perplexing. Cultivating genuine friendships may seem arduous, sorting the genuine ones from the fair-weather especially painstaking. And discovering the kind of work that moves one to be be fully engaged in living may fall, one may believe, into the hands of the precious and fortunate few.

From time to time, philosophical friends and I puzzle through these questions concerning the art of love, the fashioning of genuine friendship, and the nature of meaningful work. To learn more, see ‘What We Talk About.’

‘Yet here I am in my wretchedness’

The end of Chapter 6 of Chuang Tsu’s Inner Chapters is startling. It has been raining for 10 days, and one friend, Tsu Ysu, believes his friend Tsu Sang to be in a bad way. When he arrives at Tsu Sang’s house, he hears a lamentation. ‘O Mother! O Father! Is it heaven, or is it man?’

Continue reading “‘Yet here I am in my wretchedness’”

On improv and philosophy

Before I met Alex Fradera yesterday afternoon, I tweeted my friend Dougald, “@dougald, journeyman on pilgrimage. I’m seeing Alex in NYC tomorrow. Shall I send your best to him?” He replied, “@andrewjtaggart Wonderful! Please do – and give him a big hug from me.” I did.

Alex finished his Ph.D. in psychology and for six years has performed as an improv artist. Meandering through the Park, we spoke of improvisation and philosophy. He said that one thing he learned, or had confirmed, recently was that impro is not about “striving for” and this in two senses. First, it is not about striving–hence, not guided by the will. Second, it is not about effectuating a desired outcome at all and especially from the start. Without striving, a good improv artist lets be, letting a scene unfold in any number of directions with the end not being announced but discovered. Will it be tragic, comic, absurd? Will it be epic? Will it be undeniably boring?

Near one of the baseball diamonds, we saw an owl kite caught in the tree. It had googly eyes, a mismatching front and back, and it turned and turned about, frontward, backward, dipping and twirling on its string, in tune with the wind. It was funny, sad, boring.

Philosophical friendships: A gentle refutation

A few days ago I tried to meet an objection to leading a philosophical life that ran something like this: “Andrew, it is all well and good for a philosopher to surround himself entirely with philosophical friends, but the rest of us live, and have to live, more ‘in the world,’ where living ‘in the world’ necessarily involves consorting more with all sorts of non-philosophical kinds of people. It is therefore overly demanding to insist, as you do in the Guidebook, that one only be friends with and have erotic lovers who are committed to philosophical life.”

My reply to this objection was to make an appeal to Aristotle’s distinction between friendships of pleasure, those of utility, and those of virtue. I suggested, in the spirit of ‘realism,’ that it may be enough to have many who fill the first two categories and only a rare few who fall into the third. I confess that this did not seem to me the most palatable solution insofar as it may have moved too far in the wrong direction, but it did seem to meet the overdemandingness objection expressed separately by a few conversation partners.

The same day that that post, “There is no ‘Double Life’ in Philosophical Life,” appeared, a philosophical friend who is committed wholeheartedly to living a philosophical life pushed back lovingly yet firmly, claiming that this tripartite distinction was giving up too much to ‘the world.’ She argued far more cogently that we–i.e., those of us wishing to lead a philosophical life–would have to surround ourselves mainly with friends of virtue and we would strive, to the best of our abilities, to have our professional acquaintances (cf. friends of utility) be ‘consonant with’ philosophical life. By ‘consonant with,’ I take it she means that professional acquaintanceship is not heard in ‘the same tune’ as philosophical life and yet is not, for all that, ‘discordant with’ this way of life. Finally, we would want, she thinks, to avoid friendships of pleasure entirely, preferring instead to spend this time in leisurely contemplation, in meditative solitude, and in harmony with nature.

Her account is simpler and better than the one I had given. As she spoke, I smiled knowingly, standing thus refuted. I thought of Socrates from the Gorgias:

Now if you are one of my sort, I should like to cross-examine you, but if not I will let you alone. And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute, for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another. For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking and if you claim to be one of my sort, let us have the discussion out, but if you would rather have done, no matter, let us make an end of it.

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.