Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unlikely Friendships

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Bust of Aristotle

I remember my childhood friends well, and, when I do, I get nostalgic, as I suspect many of us do. I do so because when I was a child I never thought by category. I still try very hard not to, but as one grows up, the inclination to tidy up our thoughts naturally occurs, whether or not we’ve ever read Aristotle, I suppose.

Yet I doubt that very many of us take the time or have the inclination to categorize our friendships. Rather, we just do so without thinking about it. Yet were we to stay childlike in this regard and not think in categories, we may be the better off for it. There is, however, at least one good reason to categorize our friendships. That reason is, I think, to remind ourselves to try very hard not to do so. But I get ahead of myself in telling you the “moral,” as it were, to this story, before we hear the story itself.

That story begins even before Elaine settled down in New Hope. She had moved around Pennsylvania so often when I was a small child—from Kingston (Wilkes-Barre) to two areas of Philadelphia (center city and Oxford Circle) to Shermans Dale (near Harrisburg) and finally to New Hope—that by the time I reached the second grade, I had not been anywhere long enough to forge a friendship, except one, even before we began our convoluted trek. That friendship was with David Goldstein, whose family name still adorns Rutter Avenue’ Goldstein’s Delicatessengoldstein-deli-logo, though to my knowledge his family no longer owns the business. In any case, at age four, I was David’s friend, though it was long ago, before the endless vitriol of our progressive modern era, before such stark political divisions, before ancient dead white males were despised and their ideas discarded. Before micro-aggressions, before frivolous lawsuits were common, I remember well David Goldstein, my friend, and myself simply riding our bicycles together in the small parking lots on either side of 414 Rutter. We were simply friends. We did not categorize our friendship. We were just glad to have been allowed to play outside together.

Thinking in terms of friendship categories can remind us of friendships like that one, before we thought in categories at all (which are ultimately Aristotelian) and are, in a sense, themselves indication of a deep flaw in our nature, what some call humankind’s wretched fallen estate. That ancient but not antiquated philosopher long ago divided friendships up into categories. One, Aristotle said, was a friendship of pleasure, in the case of which the friends simply take delight in one another. This can, of course, be seen in young couples or friends who share like interests in which they both delight. Another, of a lesser hue, would be friendships of utility, in the course of which each party (or at least one, certainly) sees some benefit to be gained by becoming the friend of the other. The finest category of friendship that Aristotle posits is one based on goodness.

Now in our era, of course, one would have to begin any consideration of this last category by proving (if one could do so, which I doubt, to the satisfaction of the disingenuously quizzical interlocutor) that there is such a thing as goodness. But leaving that aside for the moment, let us indulge, if not me, at least Aristotle, by admitting that there is such a thing as goodness. If so, these kinds of friendships are forged based on shared virtues. Such friendship lasts as long as both parties maintain their virtue and pursue the good. These friendships, Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics,[1] are the best, finest, purest, even rarified. They are, at any rate, certainly rare.

Let us be aware of these categories and let us also beware of them. While the unlikely friendship that we may develop with Aristotle by reading him afresh can help to clarify our thoughts, the friendships we formed in childhood, particularly in our very early years are, perhaps, at a farther remove from the taint of the fall. Yet even if this is not true (and certainly not provable), we didn’t, as small children, think in the categorical terms that may both help us but also have the potential to drag us down. Perhaps, in the end, Aristotle’s useful terms might best serve as apotropaic symbols—maybe there is a danger in our thinking in terms of utility, pleasure, or even shared virtue.

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Vincent van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, Kröller-Müller museum

I want to posit as a different kind of model for friendship the most startling idea that I’ve ever encountered. It’s the moral of another story, not quite the one I alluded to at the outset. There once was a man, a social outcast religiously, who happened to be going between Jerusalem and Jericho and came upon another man, naked and bleeding, nearly dead, according to the tale. That religious outcast, known as a Samaritan, bandaged up the nearly dead man’s wounds, brought him to shelter and paid his bills. You likely know the rest of the story. That man’s action supersedes in every way the friendship based on goodness or virtue, for it is another kind of virtue yet. It is unqualified love for one’s neighbor that produces an unlikely friendship, one that quietly gives and seeks nothing in return. In closing, I propose a toast to dead white males—those dead and those nearly dead—whom only the gift of an unlikely friendship can revive.

[1] http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

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