Thursday, January 15, 2015

Original questions from an email to Adriel Trott, prompting her response


thanks for answering my texts the other night. I reckoned that I better send you an email rather than text the other things that I was thinking. I also thought you might guest blog on my blog on the issue, if you were interested. I wouldn’t require more than answering these questions off the top of your head, if you wish.

Anyways ...

What do you think about that passage in the Nic Ethics where Aristotle says that (1) friends must live together? When I talk about that with students, they are skeptical because they think about long distance relationships and how that could be possible. They take their friendships as a fact, etc. So their articulated answer would be, the (2) different technical conditions of human social life today have enabled friendship over distances. And so one of the thing that they also take as explicit is that (3) communication is the primary part of friendship (and that this is something that can be done over distances).

I think that answer is compelling in certain respects. It does seem that if there is something like “complete friendship” for us today it would be rooted in intimate communication. For example, when we say things like “she gets me” or “I can talk to her.” But, on the other hand, there (4) are different forms of friendships and some of those (along the masculine forms) attempt to channel personal communication through non-verbal expressions. They may focus on shared activities through which a man can spend another time with another without having to try to explain himself. If the latter is true, then it would seem that distance would nullify a relationship.

And I think, even more so, that we learn a lot about other people through shared activities, time spent in that person’s presence. Those types of experiences are at least as valuable as the things that other people say, if not more so. That is (5) when we are capable of seeing how people act and those actions are a reflection of character, which I do not think that we could trust language to convey.

That being said, when I teach virtue ethics I mostly say this does not describe contemporary ethical life, for a number of reasons, and so I’m not sure (6) to what degree we can even speak of friendships in the same way that Aristotle does. In my syllabus one of the classes on friendship is labelled “Is Aristotle misusing the word ‘friendship’?”, which seems particularly appropriate in view of the fact that we would not call friendships of utility friendships, but instead might call them acquaintances or professional relationships, etc.

But this leads me to at least two more questions that I’ll pose to you. First, and this is something I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t taught or discussed in class, that I wonder (7) if romantic relationships make (same-sex) ‘friendships” impossible (or significantly impair them) or (8) if romantic relationships may be what Aristotle might have meant, given that they satisfy many of Aristotle’s other conditions. I don’t think this is the case, because of sexual difference and sexual desire and because of the meanings of contemporary marriage (which are political, financial and … ). It also seems simply wrong because women were not human in the same way as men for Aristotle (on which you would have more to say, I imagine, given your interest in Agamben, etc.).

Second, and this is really the problem from my teaching that forced me to write to you about this, I had my students try to write an essay criticizing the capacity of different forms of friendship (in which I included, merely for the sake of example and specifically not because I told them these categories were exhaustive, masculine and feminine friendships) to achieve friendship. I’ve attached the assignment for your perusal, and any comments you may have would be greatly appreciated. But it seems to me that (9) if friendships are necessary for happiness (and this we would agree with Aristotle, although we might disagree on what that means) then different types might be more capable than others (assuming happiness is one thing, culturally).

I could say more … much more.


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