Foundations for Lasting Friendships

These types of friendships (based on pure love of the other person for their lovable character) are likely to be rare, since such people are few. Further, they need time as well, to grow accustomed to each other before they have shared their salt as often as it says, and they cannot accept each other or be friends until each appears lovable to the other and gains the other’s confidence. Those who are quick to treat each other in friendly ways wish to be friends, but are not friends, unless they are also lovable, and know this. For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not. – Aristotle 

Aristotle outlines three types of relationships that people might consider friendship – those that are based on usefulness, pleasure, or those based purely on virtue. Friendships based on utility/usefulness are prone to decay rapidly once the utility of the relationship no longer exists. Friendships based on pleasure (for example, someone who makes you laugh or that you have a good time with) are also prone to decay, since human emotions and whims and what entertains us is often changing, and much like friends based on utility, once the pleasure is gone, we may find that we actually have little in common with the other person.

In contrast, friendships based on mutual respect and admiration are the most enduring. Consequently, they may take much longer to form, but once they are formed, they do not so easily decay.  These observations from antiquity are still easily applicable today, with the lesson being that we should endeavor to form bonds of like-minded people whom we trust and whom we love by sheer nature of who they are and their character. These friendships will stand the test of time. It also means that introspectively we should work to be lovable and to develop a character that is worthy of others’ love, admiration, and respect. Surface level affections based upon humor, attractiveness, and what we can do for others, is much more fleeting.

 

Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom

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The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”

 

Quote of the Week

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There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.

                                                             -Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.

This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.

What is magnanimity? What the ancient philosophers can teach us about the deeper meaning of words, ethics, and the virtues

Keeping up with the Presidential race over that last few months, I get the pessimistic feeling that much of America and perhaps the entire Western world continues to erode in a sense of what are the virtues that are essential to upholding the freedom and liberties that we hold dear.  We seem to value and promote above all else elements such as wealth, presence, competence, and theatrical performance even if these values are accompanied by tremendous flaws such as lack of truthfulness, lack of self control, self-aggrandizement, and arrogance.  Many philosophers and leaders, both ancient and modern, have long argued that without some sense of morality, our experiments in relative freedom, a recent and modern phenomenon when put on a history of the world timeline replete with oppressive dictatorships and empires, will not long hold. Margaret Thatcher stated that, “…without a moral basis, such a society would not long endure.”  This was a sentiment that was shared by American founders and Presidents such as John Adams, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

The core of our values and the foundations that we lay in our educational systems seem to have descended into basic memorization and understanding of facts rather than a focused effort to build the mind and the character. If there is any attempt at defining values, virtues, and individual character, it is shibboleths of “respect and tolerance” as those that are chief among them (which can be fine things, but I believe there are far more important virtues that our children should learn and develop that truly defines character), meanwhile a significant strand of society pays lip service to these values but continues to be enamored with material success and conflates it as a proxy for virtue or leadership. Over time, I intend to write a series on what defines the various virtues, pulling on threads across multiple sources, from Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Bible, as well as more modern philosophers who hail primarily from the classical liberal tradition most predominant in 18th and 19th Century Britain.

The idea first occurred to me recently as I was reading Aristotle’s description on magnanimity as one of his virtues in Nicomachean Ethics, a book which I would firmly place in the category of “Great Books” that I mention above. This has long been a word that I was fond of using as a more high-minded sounding word in place of generosity. The reality is that the term encompasses much more than the singular definition of generosity, a deeper meaning of which I was ignorant of until recently. It would seem that my confusion and requirement to become an autodidact to learn words and their meaning is an anecdotal  indictment on society at large – we are losing our understanding of the richness of the vocabulary that is available to us and the variety that those words afford to us to more richly describe situations through our written and verbal stories. Only the bare minimum in vocabulary, writing, and speaking skills are stressed in our education systems of today. Magnanimity is one small personal anecdote. Long one of my favorite words, I failed to understand its full measure.  Judging by the graph below, all of the English-speaking polity is also failing to understand its full value, be being completely ignorant that the word exists in the first place. I suspect that many words would fit this same trendline, and I think we have lost something valuable in society with the loss of powerful and full of meaning words. The remedy would be a broader emphasis on the part of our education systems and parenting to promote the production of good and virtuous citizens of high character and with the ability to think, write, and speak with confidence and dexterity. This would necessarily involved learning the art of high-minded thinking, greatness, approaching a problem or a belief and being able to fully write or speak to it, and striving and getting validation on how their character is developing. In this vein, learning from the Great Books would be an essential component of such an education. Whether this approach is for the secular or the spiritual realm, I believe this sort of rigor in training our children and training ourselves is warranted.

Magnanimity

That is quite enough moralizing and lamenting on the decline of vocabulary and understanding of virtues. Now to get to the purpose of the post – the richness of the way in which Aristotle defines magnanimous as a virtue. With each virtue, Aristotle defines the optimum value as a mean between extremes. In the case of magnanimity, the deficient extreme state would be pusillanimity and the extreme positive state would be vanity. Magnanimity itself is explained as something that we might associate with being noble or high-minded. Indeed, many translations of Ethics describes this section using these terms rather than magnanimity. While generosity can be a subset of magnanimity, the two are not perfect synonyms in all occasions. Indeed, magnanimity as defined by Aristotle may be something that is far more powerful in describing a certain individual trait than generosity on its own could never achieve.  Magnanimity is one of few virtues described by Aristotle, so one would expect it to be an expansive word that encompasses some form of greatness. Indeed, the Greek word from which magnanimity comes from is megalopsucheia, which translates into ‘‘greatness of soul.” This inherently includes great generosity as one plank, but it is also covers such issues as how one responds to honors and praise and how one grants honors and praise. In this sense, a magnanimous person willingly accepts honors from their fellow-man and bestows them with matters that are in fact great, magnificent, and truly worthy of honor and praise. One might say that a magnanimous person is even somewhat driven by achievement in great things, and does not eschew honor as a motivation for doing so.

However, the magnanimous person is not concerned with petty matters, whether it be petty honors and praise (flattery), petty gossip, or revenge for petty wrongs done. The magnanimous person is somewhat above it all and quick to forgive. The magnanimous person is quick to assist one worthy of receiving assistance, but reluctant to ask for favors (where the generosity synonym likely derives from). The magnanimous person is honest in all matters, hiding nothing, as he is not concerned that being too honest might actually harm them in some way. The magnanimous person does not covet admiration of others but in turn does not admire much, save the truly great and magnificent.

There are other essential elements that Aristotle discusses, but the point is that this is far more expansive than a singular meaning of generosity. In fact, one may perceive some form of internal conflict and think that this definition of magnanimous steers disconcertingly far away from what we tend to correlate with generosity, which is the virtue of humility. One modern translation of Ethics, Terence Irwin, highlights this potential discord in his notes and even discusses that many Christians are uncomfortable with Aristotle’s description and find it antithetical to humility.  Echoing Irwin’s sentiments, these two virtues (humility and magnanimity) are not out of alignment in my view. Recall that the magnanimous person only receives honors that are truly worthy. Likewise, he gives honor and praise when it is deserved. If anything, the magnanimous person gladly accepts honors for a great action, fully recognizing that great actions are performed every so often in one’s lifetime, but otherwise is aloof and unconcerned with others’ praise. It is the vain person that seeks honor and praise for petty accomplishments. To further distinguish and define the essence of humility, I will echo C.S. Lewis that humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking less often or not entirely about oneself. Given that this definition provides plenty of scope for greatness and honor without veering into vanity, I believe that these virtues can live together in one great soul.

A bit of background context on Nicomachean Ethics is that it is essentially a quest to find the essence of human meaning, which he defines as achieving a form of happiness. However, this is not the hedonistic happiness we would associate the word with today, but more a form of achieving a fine life full of virtue that is worthy of living.  Much of the book defines the proper way to achieve happiness is to in fact be virtuous. There are no doubt hundreds of translations, but I find the following one that is very enjoyable to read and replete with useful notes for additional context:

http://www.amazon.com/Nicomachean-Ethics-Aristotle/dp/0872204642/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445982542&sr=8-1&keywords=Nicomachean+Ethics Th

The book concepts are paralleled in the thoughts of Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in which a central theme is that man desires to be esteemed and loved by his fellow-man, and that virtuous conduct is the surest way to win fellow-man’s esteem and love. In Plato’s Republic, a key critical concept is that leaders of society should be trained in the virtues in order to develop outstanding character and that only the truly great characters are fit to lead a society. I hope to draw on many of these texts and this theme in the near future as I discuss other virtues as well as apply them to the Presidential candidates.