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.

Elemental

The late Herbert McCabe wrote with almost scientific beauty on Aristotle and Aquinas. There is a tightness and precision which bespeaks a lifetime’s reflection and contemplation.

The international physics community has just acknowledged two new superheavy elements – 114 and 116 – which can only be made by man. In his book ‘On Aquinas’, McCabe has fused together all the elements in philosophical symmetry from the two historic heavyweights: Aristotle and Aquinas.

He manages some lighter metaphors though. Describing the difference between following rules and developing virtue he draws on football. Learning the rules of football won’t make you a good player, practice alone makes perfect. Similarly our ‘friends’, in the Aristotelian sense, are our purpose, practice and team-mates. Here’s what he has to say:

From the point of view of moral philosophy the game is friendship (philia) in the sense which Aristotle described it as that relationship by which people are fellow-citizens; and it is more than justice. Justice is the minimum proper relationship with foreigners, but, in addition to this, citizenship demands a concern for the flourishing of your friends, a concern, therefore for their virtues and their concern for my virtues. Friendship is both the aim of all the virtues and also the necessary means by which virtues are cultivated, sustained and developed. Virtues can only be taught by friends. Friendship can only be sustained by virtues.

Past thinkers have discovered all the elements of the ethical periodic table. But McCabe showed there are still elegant and beautiful new ways to bring them together.