Convocation, Spring 2010
Welcome. Welcome especially to our new Graduate Institute students; welcome also to returning students and colleagues.
On this your first day at the Graduate Institute, I want to address you on the subject not of great books and the profound thoughts you will encounter therein nor on the subject of the rigors and delights of independent thinking, a skill you will be honing here—at least I will not be speaking of those things directly. These are the obvious attractions of the program at St. John’s. Today I would like to reflect on one of its less conspicuous charms: friendship.
My guess is you haven’t really come here seeking friendship. You have already had an undergraduate experience where you probably formed lifelong attachments. And here you will not be living together in dorms...nor sharing the trauma of ill-advised unions and cruel breakups (thank goodness for that)...nor helping each other to cope with groceries, laundry, time management, etc. Some of you are long past those days, and you may even have committed yourselves to the joys and trials of that particular and demanding friendship found in family life. Nonetheless, you are going to find friendship here, for I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to engage properly in our activity without experiencing a certain kind of relationship to other students (and tutors) which is properly called friendship.
The topic of friendship seems to be in the air this year. President Nelson used his fall undergraduate convocation address to consider the famous Greek phrase that “the things of friends are common”; tutor Gary Borjesson gave a Friday night lecture concerning the friendship of dogs and men as a paradigm; and friendship was one of the themes of the faculty NEH study group. But my concern with this issue antedates those events. For a while now, I have wanted to use the word friendship to characterize my relations with students and colleagues, but have been at a loss to subsume these relations under the existing categories I have of friendship. So I’m going to use this opportunity to try to better formulate the particular, special kind of friendship that forms the bonds holding together this community—at least insofar as it is a community of learners.
What do we normally mean by friendship? We use, perhaps overuse, that word to characterize a broad array of relationships. People with whom we share activities, whether poker or bowling or moviegoing or Church, become our friends. A certain class of friends comes with networking: work relationships, former colleagues, potential bosses. Modern life even has us “friends” with people we’ve never actually met—through Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter.
But we all recognize these are friends only in some extended, casual use of the word. Sometimes we speak instead of our “true friends,” by which we often mean the people who are loyal to us. Certainly, I value these friends; it is rare to find someone so committed to us as to see past our inadequacies, to endure with us our incapacitation by suffering, to forge a personal connection that transcends mere characteristics or shared interests. I hope each of you already has such a friend; I hope too that you may find another here.
However, this kind of private relationship, based on affection and fidelity and intimacy, is clearly not the one that permeates our community. We do, by and large, like each other. But I mean here to uncover the essence of a more public, shared bond that arises organically through our common activity of joint inquiry. What is it about exploring together the persistent questions confronting us in our lives that cultivates, perhaps even demands a sympathy beyond general civility?
Perhaps the example of Socrates is relevant. Surely Socrates is a paradigm of the probing questioner searching beyond mere opinion and holding the highest of standards for knowledge, and he also embodies that particular way of life which critiques itself through engaging in dialogue with others. In these ways, he seems a kindred soul, if not a friend, to every Johnnie (“Johnnie” is how we affectionately refer to ourselves). And Socrates does in fact tie philosophy and friendliness together—in a strange, puzzling, almost humorous way—in the Republic, which those of you in the Politics and Society segment will begin reading shortly.
As he founds his “city in speech,” Socrates finds himself trying to characterize the necessary traits in the people entrusted with guarding the republic. Such guardians must be fiercely spirited in order to fend off threats, but gentle towards their friends, their fellow citizens (375c). We at St. John’s also desire these seemingly incompatible characteristics in the members of our republic. If you don’t have the spirited courage to venture your interpretations, to fend off the allure of easy answers, to risk being wrong, to face the loss of cherished opinions, our classes will fail. On the other hand, if you don’t respect each others’ insights, cultivate each others’ potential, collaborate constructively with each other, our classes will also fail.
Socrates and his interlocutors overcome their initial suspicion that these qualities are impossible to unite when Socrates recollects that there is an exemplar combining them; dogs, he says, have a truly “philosophic” nature. “When [a dog] sees someone it doesn’t know, it’s angry, although it never had any bad experience with him. And when it sees someone it knows, it greets him warmly, even if it never had a good experience with him.” (376a) “How can the love of learning be denied to a creature whose criterion of the friendly and the alien is intelligence and ignorance?” (376b)
Now, as a direct analogy for your relations with each other and the outside world, this model fails. We at the College want to help you develop your ability to interact with one another, but we leave it to you to determine the character of your interactions with the outside world. However, after your initial double-take at the notion of a philosophic dog and in light of a certain respect for Socrates’ skill with images, you may begin to penetrate more deeply into this humble metaphor. Real love of wisdom may indeed require this black-and-white attitude toward truth. In fact, we at the College hope you have a genuine passion for the truth and eschew falsity in all its forms, not only lies, but also hypocrisy and ignorance—even ignorance of your own ignorance. Moreover, insofar as the right reaction to one’s own ignorance is to stamp it out, we even want you to engage in a spirited war (against yourself). This much of the controlled fierceness of the guardian dogs seems apt and desirable.
What the image fails to highlight, and what we at St. John’s (as well as Socrates in other circumstances) emphasize, is the difficulty in distinguishing what it is we know. Dogs don’t seem to have this problem. But a few Meno-like experiences trying to clarify the essence of virtue make one painfully aware that one’s opinions often masquerade as knowledge, thereby making one friendly toward falsity and hostile toward truth. Recognizing this possibility, we ought harbor a healthy suspicion of our immediate judgments. Unlike the guard dog in Socrates’ image, we must open ourselves up to the unfamiliar and be ready to abandon the familiar. We must be willing to be vulnerable. And we must feel secure baring our very souls to one another. So I find myself needing a very different model tying together friendship and philosophy—preferably one where I am not reduced to thinking about friendliness toward truth rather than toward another person.
Aristotle’s more explicit analysis of friendship may help. You may be surprised to learn that Aristotle devotes two whole books to this subject in the Nicomachean Ethics, the first text read in the Politics and Society tutorial. He turns to friendship after he treats of the ethical life in general and the various virtues specifically, remarking that friendship is “a virtue or something with virtue.” (1155a4) In your classes, you will no doubt assess the truth of this claim and investigate the role friendship plays in the ethical life. Here, I want to see if Aristotle’s analysis of friendship can help me characterize the special rapport immanent in a classroom full of people bound only by their passion to understand.
Characteristically, Aristotle begins from what is first (or most clear) to us, analyzing the various ways we commonly use the word “friend” –for people we invite on hikes and co-workers as well as our intimates. After stressing the necessity and nobility of friendship in the fully human life (1155a29), Aristotle, again characteristically, proceeds to make distinctions which will allow him to sift through our loose conceptions and isolate the essence of friendship. He identifies three species of friendship: friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue (1156a6-8). Although he notes that all friendships involve reciprocal goodwill (1155b34), he singles out the last type, the friendship based on character, as the most perfect (1156b8). Such friends are in fact both useful and pleasant to each other, but this friendship is more noble in that they are not friends for the sake of usefulness or pleasure, but for the sake of the good. These friends are engaged in helping each other to live the best and happiest life (1169b20-22)
No doubt you’re willing to believe that here at the College you too will assist each other to live the best life, but you probably would identify that assistance as an accidental side-effect of your desire to improve yourself. It remains to be seen whether Aristotle will account for a necessary connection between philosophy and a friendly commitment to the welfare of another.
Aristotle’s conception of the paradigmatic friendship embraces three primary characteristics: disinterestedness, like-mindedness, and activity. We can probably all agree that the best friends show a disinterested concern for one another. We genuinely wish a true friend well because of who the friend is and for his own sake (1156b9-11) rather than because of the job he can bring us (even if we are grateful for the job as well). Unself-interested regard for another and action on his behalf are at the core of the best friendships.
Initially, we might hesitate to posit like-mindedness as a necessary component of friendship. We tend to identify like-mindedness as a common world view, and we all have friends with whom we profoundly disagree. Aristotle rightly, I think, dismisses this interpretation; he points out that “it is not sameness of opinion, for the latter might belong also to those who do not know each other” (1167a21-22). Instead, Aristotle traces the harmonious interdependence of friends to their agreement about matters to be acted on, to having the same intentions regarding what is of common interest (1167a28). Insofar as we admire our friends, we must indeed be appreciating their virtues, their conception of the good (a conception we affirm and subscribe to ourselves). I think this is why Aristotle’s characterization of the friend as “another self” (1166a33) resonates so powerfully. It captures our sense of the special union of sameness and otherness we find in our most satisfying relationships.
The third element Aristotle claims as essential is that friends participate in common activities, especially those activities directed toward a good life. Indeed, he claims true companionship entails “living with” the other person (1171b29). Only then can we rejoice in the observation of a friend’s accomplishment of morally praiseworthy acts; only in close and regular contact can we find sustenance and indispensable support in his advice and counsel as we try to discern our own moral path. The best friends not only stimulate each other to action but also encourage each other to develop, assist each other to grow in wisdom. This realization of a practical, ethical element in friendship is the fruit of Aristotle’s insight that happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue (rather than a mood or emotion).
Now Aristotle’s treatment of friendship, as I mentioned, is embedded in a book on ethics. His portrait of the perfect, unqualified friendship depicts virtuous activity as the necessary basis for mutual respect and joint pleasure. But we here at St. John’s do not intend to be answering the question of what virtue is for you; in fact, we intend to raise that question in sharply provocative ways. While versions of justice and courage and temperance all are requisite in the classroom discussions, they appear as modes of speech and thought rather than action as such.
But Aristotle does link his perfect friendship with discussion, noting that above all“living with” one’s friend means:
“shar[ing] in discussion and thought—for this is what living together would
seem to mean for human beings, and not feeding in the same place, as with cattle”
Further, Aristotle broaches the topic of friendship only after a full treatment of the intellectual virtues, upon which he realizes true ethical virtue must depend. Now, the commitment you have made to attend the Graduate Institute emanates from a certain kind of intellectual virtue. You have signed up for more than a degree program; you’re exploring a way of life. The twelve of you have set a high standard for what you want to count as wisdom and you have refused to be mere passive recipients of such wisdom. You will rejoice to see these virtues shining forth in the “other selves” surrounding you here.
And while the activity you all engage in here is one of thought rather than philanthropy or politics, it will be shared in the fullest sense of that word. You will collaborate with every ounce of your energy in order to successfully think another’s thought, formulate a reaction, and use the text to constructively criticize that reaction. Even though we don’t share common histories, backgrounds, or creeds, you will feel the presence of a common goal, the quest for truth, and a common standard, reasoned argument, guiding every discussion.
The more fully you engage in this common activity, the more you will find your goals inextricably bound to the goals of your companions. The more the quest for truth dominates, the less concerned you will be that you were the one to utter that self-contradictory, absurd interpretation and the more pleased you will be to see someone else resolve the paradox and point the way to a new path where we can safely tread. In this way, a self-forgetting regard for the other will necessarily inhabit you. And in this sense, you will be friends.
Now, in the Nicomachean Ethics, friendship forms a bridge between an analysis of the ethical virtues and an account of the most perfect and pleasant activity, namely contemplation. A certain tension in the book arises: is the best life the more public, etchical life or the private, almost divinely self-sufficient contemplative life? Something like this tension probably pervades our classes as well. As the myth of recollection emphasizes, the experience of knowledge finally happens deep within oneself. But I think the experience of coming to know happens amongst us friends.
Let us go forge this new friendship then. Convocatum est.