Thursday, January 15, 2015

Response to Guest Blogger, Adriel Trott, on friendship and proximity

I am deeply surprised by Adriel’s disinterest in and perhaps doubt about the importance of friendship, as for me it is deeply rooted in the purpose of the Nicomachean Ethics, which is not merely to teach us about virtue, but to inculcate it within us (and this is not to mention the connection between friendship and justice). For Aristotle true or complete friendship is not for the sake of companionship (in as much as this can be abstracted from the following) but because it makes us into the people that we want to be--it allows us to be virtuous, and thereby to be happy.

My questions to Adriel emerged from teaching the NE for many years and, this semester, although encountering tremendous resistance, pushing the line that friendships are gendered--that there are (at least) male and female friendships. If we learn how to be friends and what friendships are by observing others and by having these friendships, and there is a preponderant tendency toward same-sex friendships, this seems to suggest that friendships are different between genders (see endnote).

If this is the case, many significant consequences follow from it. I asked Adriel about many of them, but she focused on one very interesting one (and actually abstracted it from the issue of gender and friendship, but I’ll come back to this). Namely, Aristotle says that friends must live together. When I teach this, my students often discount this because of the technical conditions we enjoy, that Aristotle did not, which make long distance friendships possible today as they could not have been for him. This seems reasonable, yet I wonder if there is not another way in which Aristotle may be right.

Adriel parsed this as bearing on our inability to see ourselves as we are: “proximity allows you to perceive one another and reflect the friend back to herself, sharing what you see.” She then develops this questions about whether complete friendships are possible and if complete virtue is possible, both of which, I must admit, are questions that I find absurd (yes and where does Aristotle say anything about “complete virtue”!, the notion of which contradicts Aristotle’s concept of virtue!). I think she’s right about proximity, because there is a natural kind of myopia in our experience, which has at least in part to do with our relation to the world and inability to “perceive the whole of the world,” by which I take her to mean the things outside our control and knowledge.

But it also has to do with the fact that concrete human experience is bodily, and we are our bodies or perhaps our bodies are us, but, at base, life is embodied, sexualized existence. That experience is most meaningful when we spend time within the physical presence of others, because that is when bodies communicate with each other. At those times bodies observe how to comport themselves, how to be the body that each is. Bodily expression includes communication in language, in tones and inflections and with the facial expressions and gestural tics that make each one of us what he or she is. All of that is inseparable from the things that people say--that is, the content of our talk, and that is precisely what we want to separate therefrom, these days. That is, these days we want to pretend that bodies and words are very separate things, such that our distances are superable and our intimacy is whole. But they are not and it is not.

It seems that this point then connects with my line that friendships are gendered. If bodies communicate in proximity, then gendered friendships are friendships in which bodies learn to be what they are (or what they want to be, might be a better way to put it).

Endnote: I grant that this is a more complicated issue confronting the relation between gender and sexuality. Also, I admit that these categories are at best models of which actual friendships partake to greater and lesser degrees, as well as that friendships have different meanings at different historical and geopolitical times and places.

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