Philia

I do feel – and feel is the right word – that Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ deserves a wider audience. So many important themes, from so many thinkers, rendered limpid in a thesis all of his own.

Of course there’s Aristotle in there. And as the title suggests, we are constantly accompanied by Aquinas. But, for me, it’s Herbert McCabe who shines through as having put together his own picture of what constitutes the human condition, in what I’d take as a summation of his life’s work.

I noted yesterday that people read more pulp fiction on Kindles than they’d dare have on their bookshelf or be seen reading in public. But the opposite is also the case. Truth is I’d never have found Herbert McCabe or bought his book without the web, connected devices and impulsive instant gratification via electronic delivery.

McCabe makes a powerful case for ‘philia’, mutual care and fellow-feeling, as the right basis for our relationships – not the functional rights and duties of justice and the law.

Justice is the minimum duty we owe to ‘strangers’, ‘philia’ is the care, respect, love, friendship, reasonable accommodation and interdependence we have with other people which constitute ‘humanity’ and ‘society’. Laws imperfectly capture the statutory minimum, ‘philia‘ is the gold standard for people, politics and society.

Stood on a grey suburban station platform this morning (the car’s bust again) I looked at the different shapes and sizes of punters, mums and pinstriped professionals all focused on getting their train. There were moments of ‘philia’. A shy ‘See you tomorrow‘ to the man serving a women her daily coffee, a jolly exchange between Ticket Collector and middle aged vamp.

Through the lens of ‘philia’ people look different. We judge less, tolerate more and look beyond face value. McCabe was right to remind us of this.

The Art of Friendship

I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast this week on the topic of ‘friendship’. It made me think afresh about the balance of ‘duties to all’ versus special treatment for a ‘selected few’ – i.e. our friends.

Alexander Nehamas’ argument is, post Immanuel Kant, many of us have come to believe that privileging our friends over others is less ‘moral’ than treating everyone the same – even strangers and people we’ll never meet. This is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, act in ways you would ‘will’ to be universal laws.

But friends are different than everyone else in our lives. For Aristotle – although he might not recognise the modern version – friends are the purpose of life and our virtue revolves around them.

Nehemas’ suggestion is we should think of friends on different plane than ethics. We should think of them more as we think of art and artists. We are interested in our friends for their ‘specialness’, what is individual and distinctive about them, not for their commonalities. We are friends to co-create distinctive, memorable, pages in our life stories.

And this is why drifting apart from friends hurts them so much. Not only do we reject them as people, we turn over – even tear out – the pages of life we created with them; in favour of new friends and new pages.

This is a very different take on friends – friends as narrative growth, not past history. Is what makes us different and how we are growing what matters most in friendship; more even than what we have in common or did together in the past?

Friends as bringers of difference, individuality and new embroidery in life’s rich tapestry, is a very different way of thinking of them. ‘Individuation’, creativity and art are very different registers from ethics, equivalence and fairness. Friends as ‘works of art’ we have a hand in creating, is a nice way of looking at each other.

Veni, Vidi, Amici

As I get on in life, I get to spend time with some interesting, clever people. But they can come with sizeable egos. And that can translate into ‘High Status Behaviours’.

That’s not necessarily a problem. ‘Happy High Status’ is feeling good enough about yourself that you can feel relaxed and good about the success and contribution of others. But not everyone manages to keep the ‘Happy’ in High Status.

The alternative is less attractive – being so concerned with your own status that you need everyone else to recognise it. Or worse, to knock down others to assert it. I wonder if there’s a Greek term for that? Narcissism is one.

But whatever you call it, loneliness seems to me to be an inevitable by-product. I think dominant High Status behaviours are completely missing the point of life.

For Aristotle, that central point is to attract and nurture better friends. Friends care for our virtue and excellence, as we care for theirs. The best of friends are the means and end of it all.

But, as Aristotle said:

No one loves the man whom he fears.

He who hath many friends hath none.

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.

So why do smart, successful, powerful people sometimes behave in ways that seem to get in the way of true friendship?

Seeking power, wealth and acolytes has always been a primal driver. And on the face of it, it helps not to be too sentimental. But an instrumental view of others – that they are means to your end, hammers useful only as long as there is a nail – is missing the point I feel. As Aristotle also said:

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.

Friendship of this type is earned, nurtured and freely given, not bought, demanded or taken. About the best thing in life, I reckon, is true Aristotelian friendship.

A contented ego is a prerequisite, but a conceited, instrumental or selfish one just gets in the way. Friendship, not conquest, is the purpose of the good life.

Equals and Similars

Aristotle has some interesting things to say about society and man as a social animal. In summary, man is by nature social. Intelligence and virtue are our best qualities. And, justice is the minimum common bond which keeps us from savagery.

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand.

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends.

Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. Justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society.

Aristotle also makes the same case for moderation and the ‘golden mean’ in social structures which he makes at the personal level in his Nicomanichean Ethics. In Book IV Part XI of ‘Politics the unlikely heroes of the Aristotelian state are the oft underappreciated middle classes.

In all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor and a third in a mean. Moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle.

Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves.

Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship; when men are at enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path. But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes.

It is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of a middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property.

The case for fairness and equality at the heart of good governance in 350BC. We can lament the absence of women, the somewhat florid descriptors and the injunction that the ‘degraded’ poor can only be ruled like slaves. But… justice, more ‘equals and similars’, citizens bound by ‘good fellowship’ and fewer rich and poor strikes me as a pretty good prescription for the city, the state and the workplace.

A pious hope maybe, and Aristotle explores a book full of less ideal alternatives. But just because it’s idealistic doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As Herbert McCabe points out in ‘On Aquinas: ‘There is a fashion at the moment among those who believe in the market economy for what Aristotle would regard as treating citizens as though they were foreigners’.

I’m all for the market. If democracy is the least worst form of rule, then the market is the least worst form of resource allocation. But some social justice, humanity, fellow-feeling and friendship is part of any flourishing person, workplace or state.

Perhaps if we were fractionally less worried about conspicuous consumption, salary and status we might get closer to Aristotle’s ideal polis. But fellow-feeling is more than sharing the spoils. It’s also a state of mind. Citizenship, like friendship, requires us to think of other people as fellow ‘ends’, not just means to our own ends. Here’s to more ‘equals and similars’.

Olympic Ideals

It’s easy to knock sport. Huff and puff, crass commercialism even corruption. But sport can also be pure human expression, ballet, drama and gladiatorial combat – sometimes all rolled into one. The Greeks knew this.

This morning I had a speech to do, at the British Museum, to school pupils and teachers from 29 countries all around the world. From Mongolia, the disputed border regions of northern India, Gaza as well as all over the UK – from Northern Ireland to the Shetland Isles.

They are following 29 very different athletes en route to London 2012. The UK schools are twinned with the international schools that 100m sprint star Usain Bolt went to as a kid, as well as less well know prospective Olympians like India’s best female boxer.

Looking for something to say, I came across Pierre de Coubertins’s Olympic values, first set out in 1894. I’m a great believer in ‘founding moments’. If you want to see the best of what human beings are capable of, the founding moments of great institutions are a good place to start.

And if professional sport – especially football – is eating itself, there is something transcendent and timeless about the Olympic values which is worth hanging onto. As I said to the 150+ pupils and teachers from all around the world, if we can’t all run like the wind or win a Gold Medal, we can all aspire to the Olympic values:

Respect – fair play; knowing your own limits; and taking care of yourself and the environment.

Excellence – taking part and giving your best in your sport and your life.

and Friendship – how, through sport especially, to understand each other despite any differences.

They feel as fresh and relevant today as they were in 1894.

The Harp Player

In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.

He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?

As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself. 

In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.

This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.

Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.

This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why. 

The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.