This is the twenty-second issue of Letters to J
. We hope this one encourages you to either read some Aristotle or plan out a 2021 Vegas trip.
(Justin ⇒ Jasdev, 10/19/20)
> “N choose 2”-ing friends who’d gel in a chat feels similar to a question Leo asked recently: “what makes a great friend?”
> Which qualities come up for you when reading that question?
> — Jasdev, in letter #21.
You know, for a while now, I’ve worried that I’ve come off as a bit of a pretentious fop in these letters. I talked about naming my dog after a character in The Odyssey; I’ve titled some of these missives Lacunae and Antilibraries; I just now deployed the word “missive” to refer to these letters as if I was some sort of nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian diplomat.
Unfortunately, I am once again tipping my hand as a pretentious fop, because when I read your prompt my mind jumped to two things in particular:
- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
- My annual Vegas trip
Okay, so, first. Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics.
I’m not a big philosophy guy, truth be told. I went to a liberal arts college and consciously avoided any philosophy courses besides an “Ethics of Business” class (the farce of undergraduate business school is a topic to which we should return later!). The concept of reading rhetoric and abstract arguments about “what virtue is” is not just daunting but deeply dull to me. The concept of tracing the rich through line of English literary tradition from Chaucer to Spenser to Shakespeare to Milton is very fun, and the concept of tracing a bunch of dudes answer “what is life all about, anyway?” feels like intellectual doodling.
There have been three philosophers that I’ve really spent time reading, and all of them have been not from a grand desire to Understand The World but because people recommended them to me:
- Seneca is boring, and I hate him, and Stoicism is a much more coherent ethos when your dad is the wealthiest equestrian in Rome.
- Augustine of Hippo is glorious and a wonderful writer, and even as a non-religious person made me think deeply about mercy and redemption.
- Aristotle, though, wrote about friendship and partnership and pleasure in a way that felt not just prescriptive but useful: he describes moral virtue not in academic terms but as a framework to improve yourself in the world.
In the eighth book of his ethics he writes about the three kinds of friendship:
- friendships of utility (I am friends with this person because they are useful to me),
- friendships of pleasure (I am friends with this person because they make me feel good),
- friendships of good (I am friends with this person because they make me more virtuous).
As you might guess with any sort of rule of threes, ol’ Aristotle argues that the first two genres of friendship are inferior to the third:
> Now these reasons differ from each other in kind; so, therefore, do the corresponding forms of love and friendship. And thus [the first two types of] friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.
A lot of this coheres with what Aristotle argues elsewhere in the Ethics — namely, that pleasure, profit, or intellect are only good insofar as they enable you to be a better person and to enable others to be better in kind.
And a lot of this resonates with what Leo wrote! In particular, his denouement:
> There are of course other components that support a friendship, like having shared interests or spending time regularly for example. I haven’t listed them here, because although they are important, they have little do with the underlying workings within ourselves that we can work on to be a better friend, to ourselves and to others.
At the end of the day, all of that is important: my truest friends are the ones whom push me, in big ways (I will always be grateful to my friend S for essentially intervention-ing me to get me to re-examine my life and my working habits) and small ways (S also told me to be my “full weird self” to my partner after our first date rather than play it cool, so, uh, thanks for that).
Of course…I also mentioned Vegas.
For the past few years (this year of course not included), I’ve been going out to Vegas with some friends from college.
I don’t see a lot of my college friends. My alma mater’s alumni exists almost entirely in DC and NYC; moving out to Seattle was a little bit of a conscious rebellion against that, and a difficult sacrifice was having to leave most of my ties of friendship behind. I’m bad at remote communication (as you have no doubt realized, I am the worst texter in the world!) and I worried that a lot of those bonds would atrophy after so much time away from campus.
But seeing my college pals in Vegas every year wipes away those doubts. Last year, I spent most of the trip hanging out with someone who I hadn’t seen since 2013, and we caught up as if no time had passed at all — bonding over Don Quixote and the absurdity of our respective industries.
There is no pursuit of virtue or higher calling in these Vegas trips; we spend them being hedons. Now, we’re relatively washed hedons — martinis, sports betting, and a few fancy dinners is our idea of a wild time — but I think the bit Aristotle elides, and the bit that I’d add as a “yes and” to your prompt, is a sense of timeless camaraderie.
I think great friends are ones with whom your friendship cannot be eroded, be it by distance (temporal) or by distance (physical) or by distance (on life’s great and absurd arc).
When I first told my partner that I had an annual Vegas trip with college pals, she was shocked. I am not exactly a “Vegas” person — or at least I didn’t think I was. Cacophany and excess is not exactly how I comport myself, and I was surprised to find that Vegas is sort of a Dionysian choose-your-own-adventure: as long as you don’t mind the indoors and you are okay with spending money, there’s a world (in my case, cocktails and sports betting) tailored to make you happy — even if you can only handle it for a few days before needing fresh air.
What’s something you enjoyed more than you expected to?