Friends for life

20 09 2013


Most people would agree that friendship is necessary for a good life. I can’t imagine living my life without my friends and some of my most precious friendships are with people I have known for forty years. Like most people I sometimes take my friends for granted and forget to call them for weeks at a time, and because they are my friends, they never blame me for my absences or my neglect. In the same way, I’d never dream of taking them to task for not calling me more often. With my close friends, I can assume that our friendship is worth preserving because there is so much shared history and humour.

Thinking about Aristotle’s ideas on friendship has made me wonder, though, about the qualities within friendship that I value most. For Aristotle friends are necessary at all times of life: to show us how to appreciate the good times and to support us when we fall on hard times. Dickens made a similar point in creating the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man too miserly for friends, who has to learn about benevolence from the ghosts of the past, present and future. The message of A Christmas Carol is that no matter how much money you have, without friends or people to care about, life is impoverished and not worth living.

Written more than three hundred years before Christ the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s series of lecture notes, develops this same theme. The Ethics develops the idea that friendship is essential in the pursuit of happiness or a flourishing life “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”

For Aristotle, friendship goes beyond the functional. We don’t simply need friends to avoid the abyss of loneliness. “Friendship is not only necessary, but also fine. For we praise lovers of friends and having many friends seems to be a fine thing.”

Still, he says, there are many disputed points about friendship itself. For some people being friends means seeking out people who are similar to them. Hence the saying “Birds of a feather stay together.” On the other hand it is said that similar people are so alike that they are bound to fall out, “like the proverbial potters quarrelling with each other.”

In attempting to unravel these seeming contradictions, Aristotle wonders whether friendship is possible among all sorts of people, or whether ‘vicious’ or unpleasant people can be friends. He also wants to know if there is one species of friendship, or more.

He begins with a general account of friendship. The object of friendship is to find what is lovable in a person. For Aristotle, not everything is loved, but only what is lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful. He goes on to note that what is useful is the source of some good so that what is good and what is pleasant are lovable as ends.

This raises the question: “Do people love what is good, or what is good for them?”

In other words, do we seek out friends just because they will make us feel good? If so, doesn’t this mean that all friendship is a reflection of our own egoistic needs and desires? Do we want to be friends with people who will make us shine?

Aristotle’s way of thinking is that friends are necessary in helping us to become better people. With certain friends I feel that I can be my ‘best self,’ not my most arrogant self, but my true self. I’ve just, as it happens, finished a long phone call with one such friend who always has me reaching for my note book as we speak. She makes me think in ways that make my brain sparkle. Our friendship creates a space where we discuss (often quite mad) ideas, and we are entirely comfortable with this. We ‘get’ each other and we both share a sense of the ridiculous. At the end of the phone call she had me hooting with laughter as she told the story of a long-ago marriage proposal from a butcher.  The italics do not do justice to the outrage and incredulity in her tone, for my friend is a vegetarian and devout friend to animals.  I’m writing the short story in my head for her, and this helps to explain what I think Aristotle means when he tells us that: Complete friendship is the friendship of good people.”

For Aristotle a complete friendship is only possible with someone who is similar in ‘virtue,’ someone who holds similar principles, beliefs and values to our own. I’d have to add humour to that list to make it complete. Still, it makes friendship a matter of morality.

Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.”

The aim of friendship, then, is to strengthen the higher qualities in people. For the Greeks friendship was of primary importance for the functioning of a healthy society. People could practise noble values through reciprocated acts of generosity and loving and concern for others. If enough people do this then society becomes less selfish as a result.

Aristotle admits, though, that such mutual friendships are rare, since people who are concerned with higher values are few. Not everyone wants to live a fully aware life. Most people would rather just spend a pleasant time hanging out with their friends without over concerning themselves with their moral well-being. We might say that this type of principled friendship is impossible now that we have so many other distractions such as the internet and the demands of our families and jobs.

Aristotle recognises that friendships change over time.  Friendships formed out of utility can be easily dissolved and Aristotle says we shouldn’t worry about this.

“There is nothing absurd in dissolving the friendship whenever they are no longer pleasant or useful. For they were friends of pleasure or utility and if these give out, it is reasonable not to love.”

Friendship which matters most is friendship that helps us to understand ourselves. Aristotle is clear that we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to another person. If we are good to ourselves, we wouldn’t wish to be anyone else even if that other person had every good going for him. Aristotle claims that a good person “practically never regrets what he has done. Every action is useful feedback. This strikes me as a pretty modern idea as does his conclusion that friendship is the highest form of benevolence. If benevolence is an expression of our highest self, we are complete when we give our best efforts to others.

Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Hackett 1985)

Failing better

4 09 2013


Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)


The start of a new school year always poses questions about success or failure. For many students, dreams and hopes often lie somewhere between A and B. Try telling a student who didn’t get the grades she hoped for that she didn’t ‘fail’ and she will probably bite your head off.

I think we need a new definition of failure. Samuel Beckett’s idea of failing again and again until we get better at whatever we are trying for is a useful place to start. Like so many writers I remember most the commissions I didn’t get, the staff positions I was overlooked for, the articles that didn’t sell, the novels that remained unfinished, the stories that didn’t quite make it, the terrible poems and the over ambitious film projects.

I have perfect recall of all my ‘failures.’ I could write a great book. I’d call it: Spectacular. It would be an account of all the things I tried that fell flat on their face, of all the things I tried that seemed like great ideas at the time.

Beckett reminds us that we can only get better at failing. I heard yesterday about a girl who has sat her GCSE English exam eleven times. The government has said that students who fail to get English and Maths will have to carry on sitting the exams until they pass at grade C. Some students are going to be sitting their exams more than eleven times; they will have to keep on failing until they pass.

No doubt this is a horrifying prospect for many parents and teachers of students who truly struggle with exams. To force a young person to fail and fail again seems cruel. We are right to want to protect young people from feeling worthless, but saving them from failure is not going to help them succeed.

Beckett’s definition of failure asks us to reconsider failure as possibly something positive. Say the word failure aloud again and again, and inevitably the flabby ‘f’ will depress all the air and energy from your body. The words failure and deflate feel the same in the mouth. Failure equals a slump. Failure is heaviness in defeat.

But whenever I read Beckett’s words I feel a lift, a racing feeling, a wanting to get back to where I left off, so that I can try again, do something different.

And that really is the key to understanding failure. When we fail, we are given an opportunity to do things another way, put a new spin on them, rip them up and start all over again. Looked at this way, failure is positively invigorating.

The trouble is that so many people (and I’ve been there) think that failure is the ‘end.’ It is the sum total of all we amount to. This is a form of zero thinking. It usually runs something like this: this is the best I can do, and obviously this isn’t good enough, therefore I’m a useless human being.  I can bet that girl who took her English exam eleven times wasn’t thinking about failing better each time she went to the exam hall. I bet she was running through the usual script of being useless at English.

If we take the deflation and defeat out of failure by instead thinking of it as a form of reaching then it can help us to stretch that much further. We might get within fingertip distance one time, but just knowing that we nearly got there, we nearly touched it, can push us on to the next level of failure. That is failing better. 

%d bloggers like this: