Writing: Reflection and Action

In the works of Williams, Austen, Ishiguro, and Shakespeare, writing (or soliloquizing) is a means by which individuals, through reflecting on their lives, either express themselves constructively or repress themselves destructively. 


When self-reflective writing allows one to change or improve oneself, it allows them to re-engage the world in a productive way. Terry Tempest Williams’ writing in When Women Were Birds functions as a way of developing herself and her voice. Although she does not say it herself, her relation to writing can download-4be put in a Cartesian way: Scribo, ergo sum—I write, therefore I am. Specifically, she can interact with her past self, and her past in general, in the form of a dialogue with her mother’s journals. This can be seen by contrasting the beginning, when, still in shock and denial, Williams sees the journals as “paper tombstones” (15) to the end, when, having come to terms with her mother’s passing, and therefore with herself, she can re-encounter the journals and “adopt” them (197), “celebrate” them (226) as “an awakening” (224). Accordingly, the journals become fuller and fuller, mirroring Williams’ intensifying and recurring self-reflection in writing. The more she writes, the more she is, building upon her origins. On another level, by writing, Williams actualizes her voice and becomes active: as a child, she required speech therapy, but as she matured, as she spoke through written language, becoming an activist for women and the environment—something certainly unthinkable by her younger self.


Likewise, from a moral perspective, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, due to several cold encounters, Elizabeth forms a negative opinion of Darcy; though when, one day, he confesses his love and explains himself in a letter, she realizes how “she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd… ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!’… Yet, how just a humiliation! Till this moment I never knew myself!’” (141). download-3Compared to her sister Jane, whom she considers naïve and optimistic, Lizzy has a deeply analytical mind, and she is aware of this. All the same, she fails to recognize that analyticity per se is not enough; what she forgets is not only that overanalyzing is possible, but that if she does not have complete, perfect information, then she cannot be properly analytic in the first place—only presumptuous. Thus, when Darcy overturns her conclusions, she is actually thankful: it is “just.” Another thing she learns is patience, as she only thinks this some time after reading Darcy’s letter. By properly sitting with herself, thinking through her actions, and introspecting, Lizzy can take to heart her newly learned humility, such that, by the end, she and Darcy marry, seeing each other as they “really” are. Letter-writing serves, then, as a means to learn about oneself and others. Williams and Austen therefore illustrate how reflection on/by writing can facilitate personal growth by leading to conscientious engagement. 


However, when consideration of the past is a purely solitary and self-enclosed activity, writing/speaking is more often regretful. Hamlet’s eponymous “protagonist” wants to avenge his father by killing his uncle but, unable to overcome his nerves, having no one in whom to confide, he finds himself “thinking too download-1precisely on th’ event / (A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward)’” (4.4.43-6). What distinguishes Hamlet from Williams and Elizabeth is that his self-awareness has no outlet; his soliloquies, insightful as they are, remain trapped inside his breast, for no one’s ears but his own. He confines himself to a literal echo chamber of self-absorption, crushed not in spite but because of his reflectiveness. His vacillation between living and dying, doing and non-doing, purity and impurity, becomes its own end rather than a means. Hence, the metaphorical inscription of his father’s ghost’s commandment becomes a curse, a burden on his conscience, instead of a way of relieving it. Moments before dying, he thus implores his loyal friend Horatio to “‘Absent… from felicity awhile… / To tell my story’” (5.2.382,384) because he himself was never capable thereof.


Somewhat analogous is Ishiguro’s treatment of the matter through Stevens in The Remains of the Days. After saying goodbye to an old acquaintance, in a sincere conversation with a fellow butler, Mr. Stevens admits, “‘All those years I served him [Lord Darlington], I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?’” (243), and decides that he must “try to make the best of what remains of my day” (244). Like Hamlet, download-2Stevens, looking back on his life, is full of regret, for it cannot be said to really be his own life; he subordinated his existence to another person and struggles to even justify it retroactively, the object of his devotion—dignity—being deconstructed, exposed. Unlike Hamlet, though, Stevens has time left; he plans to fix up his life. However, I think the ending is as tragic as Hamlet’s, rather than hopeful: while it’s true Stevens’ life is not over, it has for the most part been wasted, leaving him with little time, and the little time he does have will be spent not in retirement, where can be happy living for himself for a change, like the other butler, but in further service of Mr. Farraday, the American, for whom he will “be in a position to pleasantly surprise him” (245). Like a moth drawn helplessly to a flame, Stevens has known nothing but service all his life; his father died a butler, and so shall he most likely. So Shakespeare and Ishiguro outline the pitfalls of re-engaging with the past when it is done too late, without action, and by oneself. 

Writing: Individual and Community

For Joyce, Danticat, Morrison, and Austen, writing—whether it be in the form of novels or letters—is a literal declaration of independence, a way of staking one’s identity and freedom in the midst of, and often in opposition to, one’s community and heritage. 


For a writer, their craft, being an intensely private and self-expressive one, establishes his or her autonomy and selfhood, which requires a radical break. To James Joyce, fictionalized as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his identity as a writer can only be affirmed against his Irish identity. Although “this country and this life produced me,” he acknowledges, “I shall express myself as I am” (207), which consists in “try[ing] to fly by those nets [nationality, language, religion]” that “are… download-1flung at [the soul] to keep it from flight” (208). Stephen is ambivalent because he knows that he can never escape his past, yet that is the only way to move forward with his career. He feels both gratitude that he is who he is and resentment that, if he remains there, he can never become who he could be. By staying in Ireland, adopting its language and customs, he would no longer be himself but an Irishman, his individuality subordinated and made to conform to an abstract whole; therefore, becoming an artist, which means being creative, experimental, and at times transgressive, leaves him no choice but to leave. His potential is compared to “flight,” which has a twofold significance: first, it relates to his mythic name, the Greek inventor Daedalus, whose wings let him escape from a labyrinth—Ireland—to freedom and clarity; and second, it means that artistry is something vertical, pure, almost unworldly, in which case Ireland, his friends, and family try to level and debase him.


This tension is also expressed by Edwidge Danticat. In Creating Dangerously, she recalls some of the negative reception she got for her first novel, when fellow Haitian-Americans criticized her depictions of Haiti as being false and exploitative. Her response is that fiction, while by definition a “lie,” concerns itself with what is “singularly exceptional” (32). Like Joyce, Danticat finds herself at odds with her community download-1because, as a writer, she is beholden not to them, but to something higher. What Danticat struggles with, above all, is the question of Truth: what is the writer’s truth, and how does it relate to that of others’? She experiences anguish that, as a result of her work, she is accused and villainized, even ostracized; though she is also well aware of the commitment she has to her truth as an artist, which means being faithful to her experience, her Haiti. This truth is both universal in that it partakes in a common human condition, but it’s also particular because she knows no one else will have her same experiences. She and Joyce recognize the danger of “self-censorship” (33), the falsification of who one is in deference to others. If she gives in, writes in an “accurate” way, then she will have betrayed herself, not just as an artist, but as a Haitian; and this devotion to a higher ideal—the truth of fiction—necessarily isolates her. Thus, Joyce and Danticat show how the writer affirms themselves against their community.


As a result, writing demands that the writer sever or resist their respective conventional circumstances. Morrison’s Beloved illustrates these consequences in its use of writing and orality, the former being used as a tool of exclusion and definition by white slaveholders, especially Schoolteacher, whose learnedness gives him power over his slaves, whom he catalogues as if they were animals (227-8). Of course, as a download-2tool of power, writing is neutral, not inherently bad; Halle learns how to write precisely so that he can counter this tendency (245). But more important than the material act of writing is what precedes it: narrative, story. If Paul D and Sethe could be defined by their owners, then, as freed people, they also have the power to redefine themselves. The power of language and storytelling allows them to, if not rewrite what has come before, at least write what is to come. Thus, they subvert the permanence of writing; a price value set on their humanity can be torn up and written over, whereas one’s personal story remains inviolate, capable of guiding a person’s life. This is a special kind of writing, a pre-writing, whose ink is experience itself, so that Paul D and Sethe reverse the dead detritus of the past to make room for a living future, by which they break free from slavery.


Another perspective comes through in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth and Darcy, through their letter-writing and rendezvous, transgress societal norms. In chapters 34 and 35, Darcy, an aristocrat, begins by confessing his love for Elizabeth who, although not poor, is nonetheless beneath him socially and economically; then, he proceeds to give her a long, revealing letter in which he discloses download-3his motivations and personal history. It’s only in private, one-on-one, that Darcy can possibly jeopardize his stature, but it’s his letter which is even more radical; for it’s the privacy, intimacy, and directness of the letter, its being for Elizabeth’s eyes only, which grants it its transgressive power. By writing, Darcy secludes himself from Lady Catherine, from the Bennets, from his cousin—in short, the self-containedness of the epistle lets Darcy shatter every norm of 19th-century society; and unlike speaking, letter-writing affords Darcy the time to formulate his thoughts, to get out his feelings in an uninterrupted, articulate way, hidden from what “they”—all who preserve the conventions of class—will say. The naked disclosure of the private letter, in contrast to the openness of the drawing room and company of family, allow them both to get away with what was then unconscionable, afforded only by the transgressive individuality of writing, setting them apart from notions of acceptability. Accordingly, Morrison and Austen depict the power of writing/storytelling as a critique and subversion of dominant structures.

Passion and Craft (4)

Read the previous part.


So to what extent is my role as a writing tutor futile? If I help a student out with their writing, then am I really, truly helping them as a writer? I think the most realistic answer is that I most likely have not converted nor will I convert anyone to becoming a writer—at least, not within a half-hour session. While I think the possibility of that happening exists, the conditions would have to be much different; a lot of time, enthusiasm, and patience are required—more than I can provide in a single tutoring session to mostly one-time attendees.


download-1Two metaphors are pertinent: The seed and the Sun. Of course, the seed metaphor is clichéd, expected, and perhaps overused: The mentor or tutor is someone who “waters the seed,” who manages to actualize and make grow the “seed”—the inner potential—of another person. According to this worldview, every single person contains within them infinite possibilities, but only some in their lifetimes are cultivated, more care and nourishment being shown to some over others. We might modify it to be more realistic by imagining some seeds to begin bigger than others, symbolizing predilections and skills, but the key point remains the same: Any seed, if shown enough attention, and watered by the right person, can grown, and this growth, while limited in some cases, is still growth nonetheless. Thus, as a writing tutor, my goal is to either “plant” the seed of writing if it does not already exist or to “fertilize and grow” that seed if it does exist yet needs the extra attention.


downloadAlternatively, I can act as the Sun: As the provider and source of light, of vision, I highlight and draw out otherwise-neglected or -unknown aspects. Based on this paradigm, my purpose consists in transforming the very vision with which one views writing. By altering their perspective, by “shedding light” on certain details, by “enlightening” them, and by letting them see what previously escaped their vision, I can hope to show them what they have been missing, that to which they have been blind. In a sense, I function as the omniscient overseer since I “circle” the globe and have seen all there is to see, which is passed down as knowledge and maybe even wisdom. To be sure, I can combine both metaphors seeing as sunlight is necessary for the growth of a plant, which by nature turns toward the light.


All of this is just to say that it is difficult to get somebody to see the value of an art, but it is possible nonetheless. Writing for the sake of writing makes long stretches of time bearable. This is because when I write, I am concerned with the choices I want to make, the intentions I want to convey, and the effects thereof; I am absorbed in my task, which sometimes, but not always, leads to flow state. As I write at this very moment, I am putting painstaking, meticulous thought into the exact words I want to use, the syntactical ordering of those words, transitions between ideas, punctuation, and sentence construction.


Everyone writes differently, of course, and some may find themselves cringing at the way I go about writing, which sounds stilted, forced, unnatural, and slow. Some writers will say that the best, or even the only, way of writing is to “put it all out on the page without thinking,” to “write first then edit later.” This download-1spontaneous, thoughtless, impulsive method works for many, I am sure, but I cannot do it; as I am writing these sentences, I am thinking along with them, thinking them through, allowing the words to feel themselves out across the page. Long sentences, which I love writing, are a good challenge because they require planning beforehand: I must know in advance to what end my sentence is moving, and it is merely a matter of removing the roadblocks which get in the way of its course, which might require taking detours, backtracking, and adding more connections. Then I might ask myself whether a semicolon, colon, comma, or em dash is required because they all do different things. I wonder whether it will read smoothly, if it has good rhythm, if any pronouns are vague or ambiguous; I am constantly thinking about how best to express myself, and this is how I lose track of time.


There is evidence of what I am trying to get at in the fact that anyone, regardless of whether they like writing, can recognize what to them is an “elegant” or “beautiful” sentence, an “expressive” or “good” word, a “seamless” or “smooth” transition, an “evocative” or “stunning” description or passage; in other words, even those who do not speak the language of writing, who do not consider themselves writers, and who are not familiar with the jargon of the craft exercise a fluency to some degree. They may not be able to identify what it is that lends a particular passage or sentence its eloquence, but they know it when they see/hear it—and that, I think, is an amazing, wondrous, and magical thing.


One time, as I was helping a classmate with an essay, I reworded one of their sentences to make it flow better, and they found it remarkable that I could do so. It struck me as odd and unwarranted, naturally, because all I did was change a few words around, yet it made me elated to know that such a small edit imageswas not only noticed, but appreciated and admired. I wanted to tell them that I had not done anything. But then it made me realize that the labors of a humble writer such as myself were worthwhile and actually had some effect—it usually just goes unnoticed. In fact, this is why we so often feel uncomfortable, demurring, “It was nothing, really,” when a skill of ours is pointed out: Intrinsicality, which develops as a result of devotion, practice, and skill, becomes so sedimented that it is interpreted as “natural,” something that inheres in us, no more questionable than the act of speaking, walking, or swallowing; that is, a writer who writes well and is marveled at feels awkward because, as a writer, what else could have been expected of them?

Passion and Craft (3)

Read the previous part.


download-1This widespread idea that people are at birth destined into some skill-based caste may seem very appealing, and perhaps there is more veracity to it than I have here considered, which will prompt some further research. A famous mathematician is likely to have a child with a knack for math and logic, while a poet will probably have a literary child—this seems to me likely. Yet it could also be the case that the environment in which the child is raised plays a much more significant role since a mathematician will have lots of books, for example, on mathematics, while a poet has poetry anthologies, thereby confounding the nature-nurture question. Again, I have not researched this in depth: These are my immediate, untested speculations.


downloadSo for now, suspending the question of deciding on this deterministic picture’s validity, but supposing that it is true, which is what I and my peers like to do—in other words, assuming that we each have predispositions toward different subjects—we can consider some new ideas. If a lot of my friends confidently see themselves as physicists, chemists, coders, and engineers who have no grasp of words or grammar, then I must proudly and readily declare myself a writer and own the fact that I have a poor grasp of numbers, logical problem-solving, and hands-on practicality. And assuming, as I said, that this set in stone, that there is little-to-no hope of immersing ourselves in radically different subjects, and that we shall be as foreigners who speak different languages which are unintelligible to each other, does this mean that we must necessarily live such short-sighted, monochrome, and insulated lives?


My own solution comes from thinking of this problem as a microcosm analogous to contemporary political issues, as a matter of fact: In the 21st-century, we find ourselves amidst crazy and overwhelming cultural, demographic, social, political, and informational changes due to a shrinking, globalizing world, which force us to contend with incommensurable and contradictory narratives, traditions, languages, download-2governments, religions, and more. In short, we are dealing with pluralism. Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and thousands of other religions must coexist; English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and thousands of other languages must coexist; the United States, Ethiopia, Turkmenistan, and hundreds of other nations must coexist; and so on. My own belief is that cultural relativism, or at least pluralism, with all its flaws and shortcomings, is the only tolerable and tolerant way forward; it is odd and problematic to say one culture is “superior” to another, that one language is “the best,” or that one religion is “more truthful.” Instead, we are faced with an unnerving, frightening openness. There are many issues with globalization, to be sure, but I think the benefits are important.


download-3Essentially, the optimistic answer to my initial question before diverting to politics—must we necessarily live such short-sighted, monochrome, and insulated lives?—is as follows: I neither think nor hope so; and consequently, returning to the original problem at hand, namely, varying talent in various subjects, I think the key is to appreciate that we are good at certain classes or practices while recognizing that although we may be bad at others, there is something equally valid and rewarding in those other activities, something that can be learned from them, leading to what the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called a “fusion of horizons.” 


Returning, now, to my original point about being a writing tutor, I will elaborate further on what this pluralism looks like in practice and how I think it makes life more fulfilling, beautiful, and significant. How much time I spend on writing, as any writer will know, is inconstant. People can talk about typing speed, e.g., words per minute, but as is true of any test, such a measurement does not wholly map onto the real world. For instance, timing oneself type a passage rarely matches up with the impressive, feverish speed at which the procrastinator writes the day before an assignment is due or the deliberate, timely rate at which the prepared stylist writes for their own pleasure. Depending on what I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, dialogue or description, I can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and a half to fill up one page.


imagesThe reason I wanted to write this post is motivated by the following event: A while ago, one night, I was writing a page for a fictional work, which usually takes no more than 30 minutes, yet I ended up taking an entire hour and a half to write the singular page. I had an imaginary conversation with myself as I was getting ready for bed in which I pretended to be a friend of mine in order to get a reaction, and it occurred to me how insane such a thing would appear to someone else that I spent 90 minutes writing one page—and not even for school or because it was expected of me, but because I actually kind of had fun. Normally, I and anyone else would be frustrated spending so much time on something rather straightforward; it seems normal that anyone, if it took more than an hour, would call it quits and take it up the next day when one had the patience and energy; however, I kept going until I wrote the entire page. At first, even I was confused by myself, by the fact that against all expectations, I did not consider my night wasted or my work “uninspired,” “not worth it”; it was a genuinely enjoyable experience.


The reason comes down to this: Writing, for me, is a craft. For many, writing is like Hell because it is an assignment, something expected of them, and because many do not find it fun or interesting to begin with, which is understandable. When writing becomes a craft, though, a skill, a passion, something one imagesdoes for its own sake—writing for the sake of writing, or for the sake of writing well—and which is intrinsically rewarding, things like time and energy do not matter as much as effort. But this does not solve the problem with which I began this discussion: It is great and awesome and wonderful that I should enjoy writing and see it as an end in itself, yet I cannot expect others to feel the same way about it as I do considering they likely have other interests to which they are devoted, writing not being one of them. At the same time, I want to avoid a form of solipsistic or tribal determinism according to which every single person, because he or she prefers and is better at certain things over others, becomes hyper-specialized in that one thing; otherwise, this discussion would be unnecessary, and everyone would stick to their own sphere. This is obviously undesirable and doomed for failure.

A Summary and Review of Huston Smith’s “Condemned to Meaning” (2 of 2)

Read part 1 here!


  • (4) Trust. Smith has a great passage in which he describes and criticizes what happens when trust is not upheld (he does not name names or movements, but one can easily identify nihilism and/or absurdism):

The opposite of trust is to see ourselves as targets of an inhuman and antihuman universe that is blindly pursuing its senseless course and gloating, without heart or brain, over the absurdity of the human predicament. It is to see ourselves against an infinitely extended and lifeless cosmos, an insignificant epiphenomenon thrown up by chance evolution on a tiny speck of cosmic dust called ‘Earth’—a bubble that has no destiny save to burst and be forgotten.

Though such a view seems contradictory in that it

mixes feelings with indifferences, hostility with indifference. But persons hold it, and when they do the universe for them ceases to be a home and becomes instead a terrifying, mechanical immensity in which thought and life have no satisfying place.[1]

  • download-3(5) Finally, the fifth category, mystery, is the awareness of the imponderable, the numinous, that at which one wonders: existence itself. Heidegger, like Plato, held that all philosophy begins in wonder, and Smith contends that so does meaning. To be able to appreciate that which exceeds our possible knowledge as such, i.e., precisely because it exceeds our knowing, is to acknowledge the mysterious awe of the world. He gives an example of what this might look like:

A leaf, a door, an unturned stone, how ordinary—until we begin to realize how little we see of it, and how arbitrary the fraction we do see. The aeons that lie behind this simple object, the vast forces that hold it in place, the ‘more’ it entails than we can possibly dream, and suddenly the worlds around the object begin to reel and spin, the space behind it rushes away, and that which we have known all our lives, that which is ridiculously familiar, becomes simultaneously fathomlessly mysterious.[2]

Whether intentionally or not, Smith’s first line invokes the famous epigraph to the American writer Thomas Wolfe’s semi-autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel (1929), which opens thus: “…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”


To recap, meaning can only be apprehended through the articulation of five categories: suffering, hope, endeavor, trust, and mystery. Just as Kant argued that all 12 of his categories were necessary for making sense of the world, so Smith writes that the five categories must be “balanced” and “complete” [3]; that is, it is not enough that we possess all five, for one must also not give one more influence or weight than the others.


His critique of meaning, then, like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, seeks a middle ground, a justification, between two extremes: objective lack of meaning and subjective meaning-creation. Nowadays, in a download-2Postmodern era, more so than in Smith’s time, we live according to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, when questions of value are decided not by appeals to God or even universal reason; rather, each person can decide their values based on their own criteria. This means that there is no essential, objective meaning to which everyone can turn. Every man is for himself. Yet this is not some entirely negative phenomenon as many like to think and exaggerate; for, as Smith earlier commented, existentialism, with influences from Nietzsche, champions this emptiness as an opportunity to be creative. As such, although meaning may not exist, we can create and construct it ourselves! There is no scroll or recipe off of which we can read life’s meaning; it must be brought, written, willed into existence.


download-1However, Smith perceptively, and in my opinion correctly, thinks even this unsatisfactory. Yes, existentialism is better than nihilism, but there is still something better. If the only thing which separates utter meaninglessness from the possibility of meaningfulness is the free act of creation, then we are staking our lives on a rather flimsy foundation, as we can just as easily say that what separates the possibility of meaningfulness from utter meaninglessness is the mere retraction or even the destruction of that creation. In other words, existentialism is dangerously precarious. Of course, one may object that it is precisely this instability which is essential to meaning; we should have the choice—should we not?—of changing our minds. Although this is true, it also makes meaning arbitrary. The solidity of choice is no solidity at all.


downloadAfter all, existentialism does not properly respond to the main contention of nihilism, but merely disguises it: if we are creating a meaning and projecting it onto the world, then this presupposes that, in itself, the world and our lives are without meaning; that our created meanings are just costumes worn by actors, deceiving us as comforting illusions; and again, that all it takes is a simple change of mind to take everything back, and thus to slip back into emptiness. Moreover, nothing begets nothing. In other words, if meaning is “created” or “conjured” out of nothing—since the world has no meaning in it—then that meaning will itself be nothing—and nothing else. Meaning takes on the character of being without meaning.


downloadSmith’s solution is to revise the existentialist analogy: we are not like God who creates the world and its values from the void (ex nihilo), but artists who work with a canvas, and whose role is to express and create what speaks within them. Put another way, it is not that we have pure freedom that allows us to spontaneously act; rather, we inter-act with the world—it is a mediated, two-way relationship, a dialectical process of passivity and activity, giving and taking, i.e., receptivity. The artist’s medium always has its limitations, yet these limitations also govern what can be made, allowing creative discretion; additionally, if the artist were truly working off of “nothing,” if they had no ideas whatsoever, if they were spontaneous in the fullest sense of the word, then they could create nothing. Art depends upon a certain receptivity, an ability to take things in, to discover, and this is the precondition for free creation.


download-3William A. Christian, who wrote one of the other reviews for Smith’s book, insightfully explains that the word “invent,” which we tend to use as a synonym for “create,” coming from the Latin invenire, originally referred to the act of finding or discovering. Hence, I agree with Christian in characterizing Smith’s approach to meaning as an inventive one: combining the modern and ancient sense of the word, meaning is a matter of discovery and appropriation: we first encounter meaning, and then we make it ours, create with it. This way, nihilism is fended off by attributing an inherent meaning to the world, and existentialism is satisfied because we still have a choice in the matter, meaning not being foisted upon us without consent.


Nonetheless, one might notice that despite this conclusion—that meaning exists—Smith has not said what this meaning (or meanings) actually is. To say that meaning is but not what it is, one may fairly say, is certainly a start, but certainly no conclusion to celebrate. There is a reason for this, though, and it is Unknownthe same strategy Aristotle takes toward flourishing (eudaimonia, εὐδαιμονία) in the Nicomachean Ethics and that Heidegger takes toward authenticity in Being and Time: Smith provides a purely formal account, that is, a bare outline, of meaning so that instead of being essentialist, it is pluralist. Postmodern critiques challenge universalist notions, i.e., values which have to be one way for everyone, and prefer pluralist ones in their place, i.e., variations that people can freely adopt. In this way, Smith can say that everyone ought to seek meaning while also leaving it up to them to choose how they go about it, so long as they keep the five categories in mind. Consequently, we really do become the artists of our lives.

Education


download-2Having arrived at his formal definition of meaning, Smith insists that this kind of inquiry is vital for education. He advises teachers to avoid reductionism and specialization whenever possible because the former encourages a simplistic and demotivating worldview while the latter promotes a one-sided, limited worldview. A better method is hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. This way, the world is invested with all sorts of meanings, and it is up to students to investigate this on their own, to arrive at novel conclusions, and to find ways of applying them to life. An exploratory and engaged approach, he explains, invoking John Dewey’s legacy in education, is infinitely more enriching than the kind which students nowadays receive, with its emphasis on memorization, test-taking, and detached facts.


download-4An argument like this is in no way radical or inappropriate, for schools, as we all know, are formatively crucial institutions for socialization for kids. On top of this, meaning is a good motivation. One of the most common complaints of students is “Why are we studying this?” or “Why do we need to know this?” They are yearning for meaning. If they understand the purpose of what they are doing, then it is more likely they will develop an interest in what they are doing; subsequently, they will learn better. Importance is a combination of relevance and justification. This meaningful motivation is vital for both learning and living itself. Accordingly, Smith suggests that if kids could be taught about meaning and how to find it for themselves throughout schooling (presumably when mature and conscientious enough), then they would be immeasurably better off.


Yet one of the impediments to this vision is the very movement which made possible the methods by which he arrived at his conception of meaning—Analytic philosophy. Many are skeptical, perhaps justly, of meaning, viewing it as a “pseudo-problem,” which in Analytic terms means any question or topic that does not actually exist due to unclear language. Smith takes up five (I’ve edited the order and combined some for clarity) of these criticisms and answers them:

  1. Isn’t all talk of “existential meaning” just vague and mythic-sounding nonsense? Smith says no, because the inherent ambiguity of meaning is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Because it is not completely decidable or clear, this means, again, that meaning is pluralistic. Also, just because something is vague does not mean that it is meaningless. Love, for example, can be vague, but that does not mean it is not real or significant.
  2. Don’t existential or religious propositions veer into paradox? Yes, but like with (1), paradoxicality need not be a negative. Paradoxes can be annoying, but they also have the ability to generate real insights seeing as they push up against the limits of language and conceptuality; they push the envelope in new and interesting directions.
  3. download-5Isn’t it impossible to prove/demonstrate or express said existential meanings? Well, it depends on what one takes to be the criterion for demonstrability and expression. Smith refers back to his forms of degrees of communicability: some things, it is true, cannot be put into words, but words are not our only medium of expression. Visual art, music, poetry, etc., not to mention action itself, are all ways of acting on and acting out our felt meanings. Just because something cannot be linguistically formulated, does not mean it does not exist or is invalid. Returning to the example of love—it is a universal, but not a univocal, feeling; that is, everyone feels it, but not always in the same way. Regardless, people can and do act on and out of love.
  4. Freud-bIs not the search for meaning a symptom, not the cause, of neurosis or some negative compulsion? Smith traces this objection back to reductionism, which he holds as a harmful view. If all we are is a determined system or machine, a set of genes and unconscious drives, or an irrationally power-driven animal, then this might be true. But that is not only a big “if,” but a detrimental one. The so-called “masters of suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—promoted determinism and irrationalism at the expense of reason, but this is not a glorification of Enlightenment reason, either: man is both rational and irrational, and neither takes precedence, according to Smith.
  5. Aren’t supposed existential meanings exploitative or uncritical?—that is, can’t immoral or plain nonsensical things be done in the name of meaning, say, consumerism or cults? Smith concedes this possibility, but to conclude from this that all claims to meaning are therefore not to be trusted is an overly hasty generalization. Those who speak ill in the name of meaning ought not be confused for those who are genuine. As Smith puts it, “[W]e do not honor truth the less because it turns to falsehood in the mouths of fools.”[4]

Conclusion


imagesIn concluding his talk, Smith expresses optimism for his audience. We’ve gotten this far! he seems to say. If life were truly meaningless, then not only would he not be giving the speech, but he and the audience would not even be there at all. Thus, meaninglessness is reaffirmed as a kind of malfunction, a disturbance, rather than the natural state of things. He notes, “What sustained them [those before us], articulated or tacit, was their sense of the worth of it all.”[5] Since our predecessors could find meaning—otherwise, they would not have lived on—then so can we. To some, this may seem a sly and fallacious line of reasoning, which it certainly appears to be; all the same, it carries some weight, and it clearly recalls Camus’ position that the true problem of philosophy is suicide.


Smith’s book deserves a larger audience, and I hope I have shown that in this post. He was an intelligent man who clearly cared about the lives of others, who wanted to help people find a reason to go on. To be sure, this book is not the most sophisticated treatise on existential meaning ever written; it is, mind you, a talk given to the public. But that should not detract from its power and sincerity. I think his solution to nihilism and existentialism/absurdism is worth paying attention/thought to, even if you ultimately disagree with it. His formal, categorial definition of meaning, in addition, would be helpful and enlightening for many. “For truly, man is condemned to meaning.”[6]


[1] Smith, Condemned to Meaning, pp. 51-2
[2] Id., p. 54
[3] p. 57
[4] p. 85 
[5] pp. 89-90
[6] p. 90


Sources:

Smith, Huston. Condemned to Meaning. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965.

A Summary and Review of Huston Smith’s “Condemned to Meaning” (1 of 2)

In 1965, then a philosophy professor at MIT, Huston Smith (1919-2016), a renowned scholar of world religions, delivered a talk entitled “Condemned to Meaning” for the John Dewey Society For the Study of Education and Culture—later shortened to just the John Dewey Society—which had been founded 30 years earlier. Shortly after, the lecture was turned into a slim book of 90 pages, making for a quick, accessible, and informative read.


downloadI came across the book by chance while browsing my university’s library, and, recognizing the author, and having a penchant for anything that has to do with the meaning of life—the title of the book is taken from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which itself borrows from his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous dictum in Being and Nothingness that we arecondemned to be free—I rejoiced at having discovered a text of which I was formerly ignorant; only to discover, upon doing a quick Google search to find out more about it, that so, too, was the Internet! On Amazon, the book has neither description nor review; and on Goodreads, which boasts a database of over 12 million titles, the book did not even exist (until I registered it myself)!


However, one can, at least, find two academic reviews, one from the Journal of Religion and one from the Journal of Thought [1], that skim its contents in addition to providing some critical comments; yet to think of doing so, requires that one know about the book in the first place! Accordingly, in this post, I will provide a brief summary, both explanatory and evaluative, of Smith’s much-neglected lecture, in the hopes of bringing it to more people’s attention.

Introduction


download-1Arthur G. Wirth, who oversaw the lecture series, states the main contention of the talk in the foreword: “Professor Smith argues that the loss of life-meaning is unnatural for man.”[2] This claim is telling because it is really two claims, which is worth noting since it will clarify the course of the book. First, it is assumed that there is, in fact, a loss of meaning, which also implies that there was meaning that was had beforehand. Second, this state of affairs, in which meaning is absent, is not normal, which suggests a moral claim: Although what is natural is not necessarily good, Wirth seems to indicate that, for Smith, what is ownmost to humanity has been compromised, and so stands in need of retrieval, reclamation, recovery.


download-2Man, by nature—the argument goes—lives by and with meaning, showing that the historical context in which Smith is speaking, the ‘60s, is somehow aberrant, off course; whereas it is his goal to explain and/or solve this crisis. Hence, in his introduction, Smith discusses how cultural pessimism characterizes the post-War world. He compares this zeitgeist with the Ancient Greeks, for whom pessimism was a fringe and extreme sentiment—“an occasional Greek,” he says, flirted with antinatalism [3]—in allusion, perhaps, to the wisdom of Silenus and Solon. This seems to be more rhetorical than accurate, though, given the popularity of the tragic worldview as espoused by Sophocles and Æschylus, and as celebrated by Aristotle and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, Smith is more spot-on when he points to the popularity and growth of Absurdism in contemporary culture, from the philosophy of Camus to the plays of Samuel Beckett, which depict the world as unforgiving, random, and devoid of significance.


The ‘50s and ‘60s, paradoxically, were a time of general thriving, especially in America, with its blossoming middle class, raging consumerism, and expanding higher education. For Smith, this is no paradox: inner poverty amidst outer prosperity is by no means contradictory but correlative, if not causative. He attributes this spiritual crisis to “the impact of science upon religious certainty and of technological progress upon the settled order of family, class, and community,” a perspective which, albeit true to a degree, is overly reductive (likely due to his bias as a religious scholar!) [4].


Preliminary_Cold_War_IIThe anxiety of the Cold War, the bubbling up of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of an American president, the push of second-wave feminism, the high expectations of conformity, the sedimentation of corporate culture—historical and social forces like these, all preceding his lecture, are unquestionably contributing factors, although it is unfair to blame Smith, who was in the middle of it all. Regarding “technological progress,” he most likely would have been thinking of the atomic bomb, the threat of which was magnified by the USSR’s arm race and the resulting quandary of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.), which came to a head just years prior in the Cuban Missile Crisis; but he could also have had in mind the contraceptive pill or even  mass-produced domestic utilities, both of which, in expanding freedom, led to more responsibility and questions of roles and duties.


Unknown-6Another implicit factor which I think Smith would acknowledge if pressed on is the symbolic and notorious announcement of Nietzsche about “God’s death,” despite its being an earlier development; because with it, an attitude of laxity and lostness sets in: without a transcendent foundation for morality or values, the nihilism of his and our day, Smith would contend, is only natural and to be expected. To fill this empty space, existentialism awards to humans the freedom to define themselves, to create their own values, a freedom which, as Kierkegaard and Sartre vividly put it, evokes immense angst and anguish. Although this is certainly a better position to be in than the pure empty abyss of nihilism, it still places a burden upon us to actually create these values.

Academia


To date, Smith believes that “meaning” has been given either insufficient or inadequate treatment within different academic disciplines. He highlights three in particular: anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.


  • Being the study of humans and the various ways in which they organize themselves, anthropology shows that civilizations require meanings; in order to succeed and thrive, they must have a sense of rootedness, a foundation from which to build and by which they understand themselves. A people imageswithout a meaning, Smith says, is directionless, and without direction, a civilization loses its way and flounders. He makes the provocative statement that we begin by posing answers and proceed from there to ask questions. For example, people create myths to survive, and from these stories, they create a narrative framework under which questions become possible and askable. It is on the basis of a story of the origin of water, for instance, that the question of its purpose can be raised. Yet this apparently insightful comment does not make much sense: an answer clearly cannot precede a question, for an answer is always an answer to something, which requires, first of all, that the something be raised, i.e., called into question. Anthropology, in short, teaches that meanings are vital.
  • download-3Psychology, because it is the study not of collective humanity but of the individual human, arises in the midst of individualism. As soon as the collective grounding of meaning was lost, having been subjected to critical and historical analysis, resulting in a condition of anomie in which norms no longer hold up, psychology took it upon itself to provide help to those struggling to find value in their lives. Hence, Smith highlights the contributions of Viktor Frankl, the existential psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor who invented logotherapy, which declares the will-to-meaning to be man’s innate drive. Meaning, then, is not a luxury but a necessity; a “why” is needed to live on.
  • Lastly, contemporary philosophy, with its split between Analytic and Continental, has its own take on meaning—or rather, two takes. To oversimplify, where Continental philosophy concerns itself with existential meaning, Analytic philosophy concerns itself with semantic/logical meaning. So a Unknown-3philosopher like Albert Camus will ask what it means for my life, or life in general, to have any meaning, but Rudolf Carnap will ask what this “meaning” means, that is, what significance, if any, such a proposition has. It is evidently Continental philosophy that is more closely aligned with Smith’s problem; however, rather than view Analytic philosophy as misguided or useless—which it is not—Smith wants to use its methods in application to Continental themes. While Analytic philosophy can get bogged down and restricted in its devotion to empiricism and cognitivism, its tools of inquiry can be carried over for better clarity. Such is Smith’s goal: to look at existential meaning through an analytic lens.

Analysis


He proposes four categories that can apply to meaning and, by distinguishing between their dichotomies, arrives at a more precise conception thereof.


  1. Meaning can be either atomic or global: does meaning relate to part of existence or to the whole of it?


  2. Meaning can be either extrinsic or intrinsic: is the meaning of existence outside of and “for” something else, or is it inside of and for itself?


  3. download-5Meaning can be either articulable or inarticulable: can meaning be expressed in words or does it remain outside the realm of expression? Here, Smith posits degrees of communicability. Some things are fully articulate and can be put into words; others are merely tacit, meaning they are felt in some way, intuited, yet they resist speech; and others are what he calls “subceptual,” indicating that they are unconscious, making them “unknown knowns”—things we do not know we know. These degrees, furthermore, are convertible, like when we attempt in painting to get across our unnameable impulses and feelings or when in therapy a psychologist tries to bring out an unacknowledged truth.


  4. Meaning can either be individual or generic: is meaning unique to me alone or can it be communal and shared, perhaps even historical?

The Problem of Meaning


download-4With these specifications made, Smith asks the official question that will guide his discussion: “What, insofar as it can be stated (rendered articulate), is the meaning of human life (global) considered in its own right (intrinsic) and as pertaining to all who live it (generic)?” [5] Additionally, as up until now he has not actually stated what he means by “meaning” except by saying that it is existential, he clarifies, “Is there a purpose which, if realized, would render life clearly worth living?” [6] Combining the two, we get a more exact guide: What, insofar as it can be stated (rendered articulate), is the purpose which, if realized, would render life clearly worth living (global) considered in its own right (intrinsic) and as pertaining to all who live it (generic)?


At this point, Smith takes on the mantle of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant by proposing a critique of the meaning of life, critique being understood not as negative criticism but positive analysis. In fact, he borrows Kant’s section on categories, but instead of using them as the conditions of experience, Smith uses them as the conditions of meaning. What elements are needed, in other words, for meaning to exist? Though unlike Kant, who enumerated 12 such categories, Smith mentions only five as constituting a theory of meaning.


  • download-6(1) First, meaning requires pain and suffering. Alright, then. It is a brutal and honest start, to be sure, but it makes sense. Many philosophers, from the Buddha to Schopenhauer, have maintained that the one truth of life is the fact of suffering. Life can be and often is unpleasant. Such an acknowledgment is important because, without it, one would be lying; anything said about existence that excludes suffering as a key component is a misleading and false one. Yet it is the existence of pain as a first category that makes possible the second.
  • images-1(2) Hope. A philosophy which espouses only the primacy of suffering and nothing else is just as incomplete as one without suffering at all—that is, if one actually cares about achieving meaning. Therefore, suffering is a good starting point because it assumes an ending point, namely, the end of suffering. By having such a goal and a means of working toward it, like a path to follow in the case of the Buddha, then human transcendence, i.e., progress and making choices, is possible. There is some good awaiting one at the end, a source of salvation; however, this good need not be otherworldly, like Nirvana, Heaven, or union with God—merely a cessation, or at the very least a mitigation, of suffering. Tied to this is the third category, which Smith names endeavor.
  • download-7(3) Endeavor. If I have a goal, an end to suffering, then I can work toward it. This presupposes, then, that I do have the capacity to do this; there is no point in having a goal which cannot be reached if one tries. Such a philosophy would be hopeless by definition. “The capacity for intentional self-transcendence,” Smith declares, “is the chief attribute that divides man from the lower animals.”[7] We humans are unique in that even if animals have consciousness, it is a difference of degree such that we can envision a future and in most cases make it a reality, self-transcendence being the capacity to change oneself and one’s situation by means of projecting—creating projects and throwing ourselves after them, so to speak. To imagine a better state of things is already a step thereto. Next is trust, the fourth category.
  • images(4) Trust. A meaningful life is one in which I have assurance not only in myself and the world but also in this assurance being reciprocated. Trust is a relational term, so it requires that the one who trusts be themselves trusted. Otherwise, if in doing something good I do not feel fulfilled, if the world actively pushes me back and resists me, then such a life is not sustainable. It may be the case, however, that the world is actively resisting me, but the key to trust is maintaining it in spite thereof: resilience is a matter of having faith.

[1] Cf. sources below. (If access is blocked, contact me for pdfs.) 
[2] Smith, Condemned to Meaning, p. 10
[3] Id., p. 13
[4] p. 15
[5] p. 41
[6] p. 42
[7] p. 49


Sources:

Christian, William A. The Journal of Religion, vol. 46, no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 56–56, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1201227.

Moore, Thomas D. Journal of Thought, vol. 2, no. 4, Caddo Gap Press, 1967, pp. 59–60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42588045.

Smith, Huston. Condemned to Meaning. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965.

 

An Evaluation of Aristotle’s Account of Friendship(s)

To my mind, Aristotle’s treatment and elaboration of the “virtuous,” “perfect,” “complete,” or “good” friendship stands to this day as one of his greatest and most enduring contributions to moral theory; however, a lack of rigor, not to mention the polysemy of Ancient Greek, prevents him from completely committing himself to his own definition of what it means to be a true friend, and so undermines his radical conception. 


Unknown-7A friendship, according to Aristotle, is a mutually virtuous relationship between two people who treat each other equally. Before defining friendship, he has to justify why it is even necessary in the first place, providing three core reasons: (1) friends provide an example for us to imitate (2) a friend is good, so having a friend adds more goodness to life (3) man is by nature social. The first of these is instrumental in nature: the friend is desired not for themselves, but what they provide me. This means that the value of the friend must come from something more basic to life itself, which is where the second argument comes in; yet it, too, is unsatisfactory because Aristotle merely states that the friend is a good without stating why; he presumes its value. Lastly, the third point appeals to human nature. Because we as humans desire companionship, to be companionless would be to lose a part of our essence.


While this is closer, it is still insufficient because such an appeal has no deeper explanation; but at the same time, one could argue that to ask, “But why are we social?” would be absurd since it names a basic fact. However, I would argue that Aristotle does in fact make a deeper, more complex claim: he appeals to life itself and how we derive pleasure from the mere fact of existing, such that the existence of another existence—another human being—not only increases our happiness but gives us another avenue through which to enjoy it. 


images-5This leads to his transcendental argument for friendship. He states, “[F]riendship would seem to be possible to the extent that… [its] extreme degree… can be likened to self-love” (1166a35-1166b). That is, friendship is not identified with self-love; instead, the condition of possibility of a friendship arising, the ability to make friends in the first place, finds its basis in our love for ourselves. As such, friendship is only analogous to self-love insofar as it shares formal similarities, namely, (1) a seeking of the good (2) a wish for life (3) the enjoyment of company (4) the sharing of desires and (5) the sharing of joys and sorrows. In declaring the friend to be “another self” (1166a30), Aristotle is making a subtle point: not only do we see the other as ourselves in the sense that our concerns are reflected and mirrored in them so that they are an extension of ourselves, but I also thereby gain the ability to love an other self, one outside of—separate from, beyond—me. 


Accordingly, a friendship is founded on affection which, for Aristotle, is a combination of goodwill, familiarity, intensity, and desire. Importantly, he says that goodwill is necessary but insufficient for friendship. Friends cannot exist without kindness and support, but kindness and support by themselves do not constitute friendship. Consequently, as the suffix “-ship” denotes, friendship is not a quality; it is a condition, a state-of-being, and an activity in which one partakes; it requires engagement and involvement in another’s life, a share in the life of an Other.


imagesWith all this in mind, Aristotle can define what he calls the “truest friendship”: it is a relationship between two good people who know each other, work to improve each other, and have each other’s trust. This level of reciprocity is understandably demanding, but it leads to equality in which, by making my friend’s good my good, and by being good to my friend, by doing good to my friend I do good to myself; so to be good to one’s friend is simultaneously to do good and be perceived as good. In other words, because my friend’s good is my good, to do good to my friend is to simultaneously do good to myself. To summarize, Aristotle believes that because life is good, a friend is good; though more specifically, the friend’s good is my good, and this equality between two selves, in which virtue is reciprocated, is friendship. 


Yet Aristotle’s reasoning causes him to contradict himself, leading to the unnecessary and unfortunate classification—and thus debasement—of the friendship he just described. One of the reasons for this is not Aristotle’s fault, and so cannot be attributed to him. The Greek word philia (φιλία) encompassed several relations, so Aristotle had to take this into account in his investigation. This is why he can classify the parent-child or the politician-citizen relations as “friendships,” which I think weakens his findings. The familial relation involves affection and goodwill, and the political only goodwill, but these two qualities, as previously stated, are insufficient; they alone neither create nor sustain friendships.


downloadFurthermore, in the case of familial relations, which is the closer of the two to proper friendship, there is an absence of equality due to power differentials, familiarity due to generational gaps, and choice due to the contingency of birth—a friend must be chosen, whereas a parent cannot. Part of what makes a friendship so unique and special is that out of everyone I meet, I pick, I make a selection, and this gives value to the person. To call a family or community member a “friend,” then, is inappropriate in my opinion, but Aristotle could not help this due to linguistic limitations—or rather, due to too loose limitations. The word friendship in his day was too broad, lessening its impact. 


Yet even when he does restrict its meaning, I still believe he does not go far enough. His greatest mistake, as I see it, was to differentiate friendships; whereas it is my conviction that friendship, being absolute, admits of neither degree nor kind. The two reasons he distinguishes types of friendships are because (1) degrees can belong to kinds and (2) it is a common practice which “everyone does” (1157a25-30).


images-1With regard to his first reason for classification—that degrees and kinds are not mutually exclusive—he neglects the possibility, first, that there are no kinds to begin with and, second, that neither degrees nor kinds should be thought of. For Aristotle, a teammate can be more or less a teammate, and a classmate more or less a classmate, of which there might be several kinds, but why this should apply to friendships, he does not say. And his second reason is an argumentum ad populum, which is odd for Aristotle since, in other places, he is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom if he has reason to; yet here he defers to what the majority thinks without providing any rationale. In spite of these questionable grounds, Aristotle identifies three types of friendships according to the three motives of affection: use, pleasure, and the good. If someone and I serve each other, then we have a friendship of use; if we please each other, then we have a friendship of pleasure; and if we are good to one another, then we have a true friendship. 


images-2Several problems arise from this typification, though. First of all, one has to ask whether the categories of use and pleasure are applicable to people; for while it is the case that we do seek the useful as a means and the pleasurable as a feeling, it seems that these refer not so much to thing related but to the act of relating; in other words, whereas in a perfect friendship goodness belongs both to the people and the relationship itself, in a utilitarian friendship the use lies in the using instead of the people. Second, we have to question the motives. Up to this point, the crux of Aristotle’s argumentation has relied on the distinction between the intrinsic and the extrinsic, i.e., the “good-for” and the “good-in-itself,” where the latter, because it is final, is the true good since we do it for its own sake.


downloadHence, when Aristotle writes, “We conclude, therefore, that to be friends men must have good will for one other, must each wish for the good of the other on the basis of one of the three motives mentioned, and must each be aware of one another’s good will” (1156a1-5, emphasis mine), he contradicts himself about the good of friendship. The phrase “on the basis of” defeats itself because the whole point of friendship is that we do not pursue it for pleasure or for use but for itself, for its own sake—because friendship is good. As soon as an external motive is provided, the friendship is nullified and reduced to a means rather than an end; it is not a final good, so it will not lead directly to happiness. He himself says, “[T]he friend is loved not because he is a friend, but because he is useful or pleasant” (1156a15-20), making the relationship incidental. On the contrary, “[O]ne will wish the greatest good for his friend as a human being” (1159a10, emphasis mine). 


For this reason, instead of creating three friendships, Aristotle should have only listed two: intrinsic and extrinsic friendship. Of course, even this would miss the point because an extrinsic friendship, directed beyond itself, would once again negate itself. At one point, Aristotle talks of “a motive of friendship” (1163a5), suggesting its inherent worth. When he calls intrinsic friendship the “truest” friendship, this images-4implies that there are “less true” friendships, but anything less than true contains a degree of falsehood; hence, anything less than the truest friendship is, to a varying degree, a false friendship, and thus not a real friendship. Still, my criticism would not change that a less-true friendship retains a kernel of truth. This all changes, though, if the useful and pleasurable, contrary to Aristotle, are not actually coherent, which I believe to be the case. Before he even introduces the classifications, Aristotle declares that what is useful is useful for pleasure or the good (1155b20). If utility is subordinated to pleasure, then all usefulness resolves itself into pleasure; in other words, utility is not a category in itself because a person will be used ultimately for the sake of pleasure. As a result, Aristotle says that the friendship of pleasure is truer but not the truest.


As we shall see, however, even pleasure is not its own independent category. The pleasurable is done because it is good, so this means the good is higher than the pleasurable. Both use and pleasure are encompassed under virtue. More importantly, though, pleasure proves itself to be useful: the friendship images-3of pleasure is good in that I do not desire something beyond or outside of the person; however, it is useful in the sense that I derive selfish pleasure from the other person, and so it concerns me. Therefore, the pleasurable is itself useful: I get something from it. Against Aristotle, the pleasurable is useful, and the useful pleasurable. The two values, therefore, are not independent but the same, while the good remains its own, above both. Just as virtue is done for its own sake and leads to happiness, so the complete or true friendship is sought for its own sake and leads to both use and pleasure; whereas either pleasure or use does not necessarily lead to the good. In light of this, the “truest friendship” is the only friendship, and those between families, communities, pleasure, and use do not live up to their name. 


Had Aristotle stuck to his original formulation and logic, including his observations that “A friend of all is a friend of none” (1171a15), that one must “win” and be “worthy” of friendship (1156b25-30), and that “The wish to be friends can come about quickly, but friendship cannot” (Ibid.)—had he kept all this in mind and emphasized the singularity and specialness of the one to whom we show our affection, I believe he would have made many lives happier.