Thursday, October 2, 2008

Aristotle nailed it!

Susan and I have committed to co-authoring a book titled Aging Together: Community, Friendship and Dementia, so this week I have been reading, thinking and writing about friendship. The obvious place to begin is with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, where he discusses three forms of friendship: friendships based upon utility, friendships based upon enjoyment, and friendships based upon virtue. In his view, only the latter is a "complete" friendship.

Aristotle believed that we could sustain only a modest number of such friendships because they will - and should - make real demands upon us, including the demand that we spend time with our friends. He therefore believed that we should be very cautious in forming a friendship, making certain that the potential friend shares our ideal of what constitutes "the good." Here I will quarrel with him a bit, not about the number of real friendships we can sustain, but on whether our deepest friendships are consciously chosen or are given to us as a gift. Certainly my deepest friendships are with a motley bunch, and in most cases it is hard to identify a moment where I chose to enter into them: like life itself, real friendship just happens. Or at least that is what I will argue. Pretty sassy, taking on Aristotle.

But it is interesting to ponder his views in the context of the culture of "social networking" - what in the world would Aristotle make of "Facebook friends" and "Twitter friends"? I now have more than 100 "friends" on Facebook, not all of whom I am certain I would recognize in real life: they ask, and I say yes if the request seems genuine. When I check into my Facebook account I can scan in 30 seconds or so what is new with many of these "friends." Rarely do I read anything interesting or important, but once in a while something stands out and I send a quick note. Is that "friendship" in any meaningful sense? I have come to believe it has meaning, even value, but it is a long way from Aristotle's "virtuous friendship" that helps us to form and live an ethical life.

One thing we are experiencing that reinforces Aristotle's argument is that as we get older our close friends become more dear and important to us, and that these friendships demand more of our time, which we are glad to give. Aging brings more challenges with our health, greater needs in our extended families, etc. - there are more occasions where people we cherish need the presence of a true friend to support and sustain them, especially a friend they have been close to long enough that we really know one anther's stories.

Which brings up the challenge of geography. Aristotle named five features of a complete friendship, and one of them is that we commit to spending time with our friends. How much time? Every month? Every week? Friends we cherish live in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon... Some we see once a year if we are lucky, others every third year. Can we truly be "present" to one another across the miles? Can phone calls and emails sustain Aristotle's vision of complete friendship? Increasingly I am thinking not: complete friendship requires regular "face time." This does not mean that we value geographically distant friends less, but rather than the nature of the friendship necessarily shifts a bit: we now know these friends less intimately, and we are not building a common story the way we did when we saw one another frequently.

Many, many Americans pick up and move on a regular basis, of course, forming new "friends" wherever they happen to land. Somehow, by the grace of God, a few of these friendships "stick" over time and are experienced as sustaining. But it is interesting that the same moment in culture that gives us Facebook and Twitter also gives us so many coffee shops. Many people sit in them alone tapping on a laptop, of course, but others are using them as a setting in which to be intentional about getting together with their friends. Aristotle would be pleased: the new lyceum serves espresso.


rick in cos said...

As esoteric as chatting Aristotle may be, you've identified the single biggest challenge of relocation...sustaining truly special relationships. I'm often asked, "do you miss living in Appleton?" I confess that I don't, I love living on the side of a mountain with no humidity and mild weather and bears and fox in my yard. But, I terribly miss many, many people...Rotarians, coworkers, neighbors, and particularly former pastors! It's unhealthy to dwell on it, so I don't, but there it is, nevertheless
Now, as for your baseball of my personal heros, the retired radio announcer Ernie Harwell who called the Tiger games for decades, the only one I ever listened to growing up....used a wonderful passage from the Old Testament to open the season every year, I think it was from Song of Solomon. I do think God favors baseball just a little, maybe because it rarely interferes with church services like football does...

colin said...

I thought maybe your post title was some strange reference to Palin V Biden, but I couldn't figure out who was Aristotle...