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Ancient Greek Wisdom
Fellowship For Aristotle & Tolkien
Andy Owen explains what Aristotle was tolkien about.
“Without friends no one would want to live, even if they had all other worldly things.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII
In my early twenties a close friend committed suicide. He was a beautiful soul and I will always question myself as to what, as his friend, I should have done to help him. As Henry James advised; “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Maybe there was nothing, maybe there was something. At the time I had never really thought too much about what being a friend meant. I don’t think we reflect about the idea of friendship too much today. When we are young, we take the fact we have friends for granted without thinking too much about what type of friends they are. When we get older, we let work, distance and family get in the way. It is maybe only when we are much older and there is no work, family disperse, and our world gets smaller that we realise what we are missing.
One of Western philosophy’s greatest figures, Aristotle, spent a lot of time thinking about friendship. For him philosophy meant thinking about how we should live, and friends were central to the good life. He was not the first philosopher to value friendship so highly – Socrates is quoted as saying that friendship meant more to him “than all Darius’s gold” – but Aristotle was the first to dedicate sustained attention to the subject. In his Nicomachean Ethics, no less than two whole books are devoted to the topic. Even justice, in Aristotle’s view the highest virtue, only gets one book.
The classicist Edith Hall believes that for Aristotle, “the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities.” (‘Why Read Aristotle Today?’ Aeon magazine). We are animals, so we get pleasure from the fulfilment of our physical needs; but we are also naturally inclined to live together in communities – so we are, in Aristotle’s own phrase, ‘political animals’. He claimed, “no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature it is to live with others.” (Nicomachean Ethics Book IX). There’s a good reason solitary confinement is a brutal punishment.
Neuroscientists search our brains to locate our consciousness, but for me consciousness is not within, but in the space between me and you: what holds us together as persons are our interactions with those who know and love us. Accordingly, one of the great joys of life for Aristotle was friendship. He felt that a life well lived needed to be built around friendship throughout one’s life:
“In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge. And friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error, just as it is also to the old, with a view to the care they require and their diminished capacity for action stemming from their weakness; it is a help also to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for ‘two going together’ are better able to think and to act.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII).
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2020. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums
Yet for Aristotle not all friendships are the same. He identifies three distinct types. The first is a friendship of utility. In this kind of friendship, the two friends are not in it for the sake of any affection for one another, but because each receives a benefit from the relationship. This type of friendship is often temporary and due to a shared situation. When the benefit ends, so does the friendship. An example of this would be a work relationship. You might enjoy the time you spend together, but once the situation changes, so does the nature of your relationship. When you leave the business, despite the promises to keep in touch, you don’t. The second kind of friendship is based on pleasure in the friend’s company. Again, this is often a temporary friendship. It’s fine for as long as the two parties gain enjoyment through their friendship, but ends when tastes or lifestyles diverge. It’s seen with the old college friend you meet years later who was the life and soul of the party back in the day, but with whom you now find you no longer have anything in common. For Aristotle, most of the friendships we have fall into one of these first two categories. Whilst neither of them is necessarily bad, they can lack depth and be limited in their quality.
The third type of friendship, which I am going to call fellowship, is the most valuable. This type of friendship is based on a mutual appreciation of the character and goodness of the other rather than on transactional value or a shared pleasure. Here it is the qualities of the individuals themselves that bind them together as friends. To Aristotle, few things came close to the value of such a relationship. As he puts it in Nicomachean Ethics Book VIII:
“But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.”
The depth and intimacy of such friendships means that they most likely include the rewards of the other two kinds of friendship: there is utility and pleasure, too. When you respect and care for someone, and they do the same in return, you gain joy from being with them. When they’re a virtuous person, and you start to become so with their help, there is utility, too. The idea of mutual improvement was key for Aristotle in this type of friendship. Such friendships can last for a lifetime, but they take time and trust to build, or as Aristotle writes, “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.”
I think there is much value in understanding what type of friendship you’re engaged in with each of your friends. It helps you understand what you should expect from each of them, and what you should give. When you realise that your friendship is based on pleasure, you can resist the need to share the values of that friend and manage your expectations concerning the depth of emotional support you should expect. When your friendship is of the third type you should be prepared to invest the time and emotional support to help them become who they can potentially be, for themselves and for you.
This third type of friendship can develop even if on the surface two individuals don’t seem to have much in common, as long as there is an underlying respect and appreciation of their virtues. This was the case with one of the twentieth century’s more unusual friendships, between the conservative poet and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot, and the cigar-chomping comedian famous for his bawdy humour, Groucho Marx. Despite their obvious differences in character, in 1961 the two men bonded over their mutual respect for each other and their shared love of literature, and remained friends until Eliot’s death in 1964.
Aristotle believed that you’re more likely to develop the fellowship type of friendship with someone when you’ve seen them at their worst and watched them grow from there, or if you’ve endured mutual hardships together. This idea is supported by Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army during the American Civil War, who wrote, “The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity” (Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, CreateSpace Publishing, 2018). There can be an immediate bond between strangers who discover they have suffered in the same way: just witness the meeting of two old soldiers who fought in the same campaign. Maybe this is the flip-side of the idea that what holds people back from close fellowship, particularly young men, is a fear of revealing vulnerability. In hard circumstances your vulnerability is exposed whether you like it or not. Personally speaking, as a young man I believed that the route to friendship was to prove my usefulness, or prove I was entertaining, not because I believed that, beneath the bravado, I shared the same virtues and values. As a young man, revealing your true self to another can be a terrifying prospect.
This was something that French sixteenth century essayist Michel de Montaigne understood. Like Aristotle, Montaigne believed friendship to be an essential component of happiness. Montaigne had just this sort of friendship with fellow writer Étienne de La Boétie [see this issue’s Brief Life, Ed]. Of him Montaigne claimed that “He alone had the privilege of my true portrait.” He means that when they were together, he allowed himself to be himself. In fellowship our friends understand us for who we are. We can reveal our true selves and be accepted. As the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” (Journals & Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1838-1842, Harvard Univ. Press, 1969).
As Aristotle identified, true fellowship also involves helping each other grow. La Boétie died just four years after he met Montaigne, and Montaigne was hit by periods of grief for his lost friend for the rest of life. But even beyond his death La Boétie allowed Montaigne to become the same true self on the page that he had been in the company of his friend. La Boétie wrote a sonnet making it clear what he thought Montaigne needed in way of improvement. In this way their friendship helped Montaigne become the writer he had the potential to become. Montaigne replaced his dear friend with unmet multitudes who would read his work for centuries after his own death in 1592.
Mutual nurturing is evident in more of history’s most famous friendships. Twentieth century writers Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield provide another such example. When the pair first met, in 1916, Woolf, at thirty-four, was the author of just one novel, whereas Mansfield had carved out more of a name for herself despite being six years younger. They became close friends, but also jealous rivals. They would discuss their projects over tea and write thousands of letters to each other, pushing each other to be the best that they could be. Mansfield even wrote a negative review of Woolf’s book Night and Day (1919): she complained that the novel failed to address the damage that was felt after World War I, comparing it to a ship returning from a perilous voyage with a curious ‘absence of any scars’. After an honest discussion over lunch, Woolf accepted some of Mansfield’s criticisms and went on to write the first of three war novels, Jacob’s Room (1922), which would mark Woolf’s transition to the Modernist style for which she has become best known. She followed it up with two of her most celebrated books, Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
Writing about the friendship between La Boétie and Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell highlights an interesting tension that can appear in friendships. She notes that “The Renaissance was a period in which, while any hint of real homosexuality was regarded with horror, men routinely wrote to each other like love-struck teenagers” (How To Live: A Life of Montaigne, Vintage 2011). Bakewell argues that such couples were usually not in love with each other, but were operating under an elevated ideal of friendship absorbed from Greek and Roman literature. Such a bond between two well-born young men was the pinnacle of virtuous philosophy, but when friendship was as close as that there was also the risk of rumour. In my time in the army, and in sports team dressing rooms, I have seen behaviour less influenced by Greek and Roman literature that would not seem out of place in a gay sauna – while at the same time genuine homosexuality was still treated as a sign of weakness. A fear of being accused of being in a sexual relationship can discourage friendship to develop into fellowship: this is particularly acute, but not exclusive to, friendships between young men in environments where homophobia is also toxically present.
I am very lucky. I have several close friends from university, the army, and through life’s other contact points; but also many whom I have known since I started secondary school. They know me probably better than I know myself, and they allow me to be myself and forgive me for all that entails. Their friendships fall into Aristotle’s third category, and have made me a better person. These friendships have provided me with joy and utility, too.
In 1911, eighty-four years before we left school together, a writer who would famously write about a fellowship left the same school with his own group of close friends. They would not get the chance to see each other grow into middle age. The group of friends were Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who would go on to write The Lord of the Rings (1954/5). They had formed a secret society they called the ‘Tea Club and Barrovian Society’ (TCBS), due to their fondness for drinking tea in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores. Others joined this society, but Wiseman, Gilson, and Smith were Tolkien’s closest friends. Gilson dreamed of becoming an architect; Wiseman a musician; Smith a poet; and Tolkien had already begun to invent his own mythic languages and write stories of elves and dwarfs. But as the four reached their early twenties and were taking the first steps towards realising their ambitions, the First World War began.
By 1915 all four had signed up; Wiseman in the Royal Navy and the other three in the Army. By 1916 all three were in France preparing for most catastrophic, bloody battle in the British Army’s history, the Somme. Lieutenant Gilson was killed on the first day of the Somme, on 1 July 1916, leading his men in the assault on Beaumont Hamel. Lieutenant Smith was killed on 3 December 1916 when a German artillery shell landed on a first aid post. Both were twenty-two years old. On 27 October 1916, as his battalion attacked Regina Trench, Tolkien was struck down by trench fever. He was invalided to England on 8 November. Tolkien’s battalion was subsequently almost completely wiped out.
Tolkien survived the war, as did Wiseman, but they were never able to rebuild their close friendship in the shadow of the loss to their fellowship created by the deaths of Smith and Gilson and other members of the TCBS. Tolkien instead created a new fellowship on the page and sketched out his idea of loyal, lasting and deep friendship in the face of adversity in honour of those close friends he had lost. From beyond the Somme they inspired him to flourish.
Tolkien once claimed, “I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” Just so, the hobbits of his books were “a reflection of the English soldier”, their smallness emphasizing “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’.”
In The Lord of the Rings, the group of nine that undertook the epic journey to cast the One Ring, the most powerful magical ring, into the fires of Mount Doom, so ending the Dark Lord Sauron’s power, were known as the companions of the fellowship of the ring. Over the course of the story this fellowship breaks down into smaller friendships, the most famous being that between the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. They are not fighters, and never display more than a simplistic understanding of their task, but their friendship meets all the criteria of Aristotle’s third type. They grow together throughout the story and its adversity. They are dedicated to each other and love each other dearly for who they are. Indeed, as the Ring casts a malignant influence on Frodo, it is Sam who keeps him true to himself: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were… Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think… I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
I think for Tolkien, like so many who experienced the horror of war, the friendships he had in his life were the thing that he was holding on to.
I am lucky as I have been able to see nearly all my close friends grow into middle age. I have not had to cope with the scale of loss that my fellow alumni the TCBS did. Now, watching my children play with the children of my friends makes me think about the friendships they will make in their own lives. I hope they will have friends that are useful to them, and I hope they will be useful back. I hope they will have friends that will bring them pleasure, and I hope that they will bring joy in return. Most of all though, I hope they find fellowship with a few friends, and understand the difference. Maybe by doing so they might one day be able to provide what one of their friends needs in their darkest hour. I hope when they find friends that let them be who they are and help them become who they can best be, they are as grateful as I am for my friends. As Marcel Proust urges us, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
© Andy Owen 2020
Andy Owen is the author of the novel East of Coker (2016) and the biography All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War, the Story of a British Deserter (2017).