The Harp Player
In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.
He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?
As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself.
In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.
This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.
Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.
This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why.
The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.
As I get on in life, I get to spend time with some interesting, clever people. But they can come with sizeable egos. And that can translate into ‘High Status Behaviours’.
That’s not necessarily a problem. ‘Happy High Status’ is feeling good enough about yourself that you can feel relaxed and good about the success and contribution of others. But not everyone manages to keep the ‘Happy’ in High Status.
The alternative is less attractive – being so concerned with your own status that you need everyone else to recognise it. Or worse, to knock down others to assert it. I wonder if there’s a Greek term for that? Narcissism is one.
But whatever you call it, loneliness seems to me to be an inevitable by-product. I think dominant High Status behaviours are completely missing the point of life.
For Aristotle, that central point is to attract and nurture better friends. Friends care for our virtue and excellence, as we care for theirs. The best of friends are the means and end of it all.
But, as Aristotle said:
No one loves the man whom he fears.
He who hath many friends hath none.
No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.
So why do smart, successful, powerful people sometimes behave in ways that seem to get in the way of true friendship?
Seeking power, wealth and acolytes has always been a primal driver. And on the face of it, it helps not to be too sentimental. But an instrumental view of others – that they are means to your end, hammers useful only as long as there is a nail – is missing the point I feel. As Aristotle also said:
My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.
Friendship of this type is earned, nurtured and freely given, not bought, demanded or taken. About the best thing in life, I reckon, is true Aristotelian friendship.
A contented ego is a prerequisite, but a conceited, instrumental or selfish one just gets in the way. Friendship, not conquest, is the purpose of the good life.
The late Herbert McCabe wrote with almost scientific beauty on Aristotle and Aquinas. There is a tightness and precision which bespeaks a lifetime’s reflection and contemplation.
The international physics community has just acknowledged two new superheavy elements – 114 and 116 – which can only be made by man. In his book ‘On Aquinas’, McCabe has fused together all the elements in philosophical symmetry from the two historic heavyweights: Aristotle and Aquinas.
He manages some lighter metaphors though. Describing the difference between following rules and developing virtue he draws on football. Learning the rules of football won’t make you a good player, practice alone makes perfect. Similarly our ‘friends’, in the Aristotelian sense, are our purpose, practice and team-mates. Here’s what he has to say:
From the point of view of moral philosophy the game is friendship (philia) in the sense which Aristotle described it as that relationship by which people are fellow-citizens; and it is more than justice. Justice is the minimum proper relationship with foreigners, but, in addition to this, citizenship demands a concern for the flourishing of your friends, a concern, therefore for their virtues and their concern for my virtues. Friendship is both the aim of all the virtues and also the necessary means by which virtues are cultivated, sustained and developed. Virtues can only be taught by friends. Friendship can only be sustained by virtues.
Past thinkers have discovered all the elements of the ethical periodic table. But McCabe showed there are still elegant and beautiful new ways to bring them together.