“Il les laisse heritiers de cette sienne liberalité, qui consiste à leur mettre en main les moyens de luy bien-faire.” Michel de Montaigne, Essais Livre 1 (Flammarion 1969), Chapitre XXVIII
(amateuristic English translation: “He leaves them as heirs of his liberalism, a liberalism that consists in giving them the means to treat him well.”)
[Re-posted from http://quoughts.skynetblogs.be (the original was dated November 1st, 2007): I knew it was going to be awkward to read & review this old stuff, but it would have been cowardly not to do so. Still, I was shocked at reading this. Shocked to see how badly written it was; but mostly shocked at what I tried to write, back then. Shocked at having felt so lonely. Nothing much has changed since then, except for how I feel about these things which is – mostly – better. I rewrote a lot but kept the insight (which is challenging but which I can still buy) as well as the feeling (which I lost, for the most part, but which may resonate with some). Hope you like it.]
I am not sure I get it. It is not a pure coincidence that I start with something I am not sure of. A good quote is never the one-liner equivalent of a slam-dunk type of argument. A good quote always leads to wonder: it fuels your creativity, & it stimulates your thought.
I didn’t reread the entire chapter. I guess it doesn’t make a romantic plea for altruistic friendship of the kind that would make people forget themselves in an attempt to help others. Friendship – as a specifically human trait – involves at least two people. It would be self-defeating if one of them would forget herself. Although there may be a lot of benefits in that for the other, friendship will not be among those benefits. That being said, friendship cannot just be a relationship between two (or more) people. Indeed, friendship understood as pure reciprocal relationships is nothing else but the romanticized version of the economic quid pro quo. At heart we know for sure that friendship is of a different kind than a purely economical relationship. And, in the end, our interest in friendship is an matter of the heart so let us direct our reason to the feeling rather than to a redefinition of the concept that makes it more clear at the expense of keeping it to the point.
So this much is the fruit of my first wonder: friendship requires, at least, two people and something else. What can the something else be?
It has to be something that ties the befriended individuals together; something they hold in common (do not take my words too literally, if one could mean things with isolated sentences or words one wouldn’t be in the process of writing as many words as I am writing now). This is where the word liberalism in the quote comes in. Without it, the risk is that friendship is something that holds the ‘friends’ in common rather than something that the friends hold in common; or in other words, that friendship is something derived from The Greater Good. And although this is a most common view of friendship and also a common starting point for the lonely to seek friendship, it cannot be farther removed from it as it requires not only that one of the friends forget herself but, ultimately, that all friends forget themselves. That nobody is in the end treated well; and that all perish in order to further The Common Cause.
So, what then?
The only thing I can think of that individuals can really hold in common is an experience. If so, friendship shows by the intention to experience something together and by the commitment to make good on that intention because you want that experience and you know he wants that experience as well and he knows you not only want it, but want it together with him. If so, friendship allows for quite some egotism, insofar such an intention has its source in a single individual, and her wish to be treated well. This may be the way to come to the quote above, he/she who wants to experience some things in common creates an intention that can be the basis of a friendship. The point of friendship is then everything but being disinterested in the own benefit. It precisely consists in creating the possibility of having some benefit, to wit: the benefit of a common experience.
True, all of this is still quite foggy (but why would foggy be synonimous with suspect?). As with all words that attempt to denote something more interesting than what is purely scientific, ‘friendship’ is a messy word. But let us take the easy way: the most obvious common intention is the well-being of a specific individual. People not interested in their own well-being are mostly just lousy friends, they tend to care little about anybody else’s well-being and want to subjugate us to some overriding abstract concept. Not because they intend to reach something but because they believe (and want to make us believe) that we should humble ourselves in the light of Greater Things. So, our concept may be foggy, it may be messy but we can derive from it the falsity of understanding friendship as the derivative of believing in Things That Are Spelled With Capital Letters by the people that believe in it.
It’s the proud whom we love. From this simple intention it is not too difficult to generate the more complex actions and events of the social world (not that everything is friendship but, in a Carnapian constructivist way it seems that at least a lot of social concepts can rest on the notion of friendship). Material friendship can be seen as based on the intention of one’s financial security; monogamy as based on the intention of sexual security; &so forth &tc. Those having the time and the virtue of lengthy undivided attention can analyze it further.
[Note whilst reposting: deleted an unintelligible bit, but kept the next bit even if it is more problematic than most here – truth be told, in 2007 I was yearning for this but in 2010 it is more & more a don’t care. I think the intellectual stuff is a bit out of place here – see also the comment below which started me thinking in this line.]
A final note on a most special kind of friendship: intellectual friendship, where the common experience is intellectual in nature. Whether it be a creation, a thought, an invention or whatever other fascination; not of the kind that was already described higher, desiring us to be put under some abstract notion standing loftily outside of us (that’s a religion and religions are never good in themselves but at best only good as far as they promote something good inside of us), but of the kind that springs from within someone of us. That friendship is the most difficult to attain, but the most beneficial to all of us because of the creative power it can unleash. It’s difficult to attain because this type of friendship is not just gift but also, and very explicitly, a service delivered towards an idea of somebody else.
Pride is often an insurmountable hurdle for intellectual friendship. Intelligence is only possible in the proud – but pride that does not go beyond vanity is often enough not to assist in helping along somebody else’s ideas. It remains at the level of jealousy, to put it in one word. That word will have to rest, substantially, for another time but – rest assured – jealousy is based on a mere fallacy, to wit: the notion that the idea-space is finite and that the laws of our economy apply within that space.
[Whilst re-posting this I was listening to: “It’s Monk’s time.”, Thelonious Monk.]