“Now we have said generally that the man with this virtue will associate with people in the right way [in gatherings and in social life]; but it is by reference to what is honorable and expedient that he will aim at not giving pain or at contributing pleasure. For he seems to be concerned with the pleasures and pains of social life; and wherever it is not honorable, or is harmful, for him to contribute pleasure, he will refuse, and will choose rather to give pain…”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
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The virtue he calls ‘friendliness’ has always stood out for me in Aristotle’s treatment of various virtues. Here is a virtue that concerns how we speak in social situations. This in itself says something fascinating about human life and the importance of our social gatherings.
The man with this good habit knows what to say, as well as when and to whom to say it, always with an eye to the comfort, pleasure, and edification of the people present. Feelings really matter; yet feelings don’t reign unchallenged by the discerning eye of reason. The ‘friendly’ man is willing even to cause discomfort in view of the greater good.
If Aristotle is right, in every gathering in which we find ourselves, from intimate family events to broader social ones and even chance encounters, we should see ourselves as capable and called to make a palpable contribution. This won’t always involve words—it could be a warm smile or attentive listening—but it often will be verbal. We can serve others by comforting, amusing, challenging, informing, even gently rebuking—all as appropriate to the circumstances. In the end this is a central way we treat others as persons, exercising our common humanity.
This virtue is truly an art. They always are.
The upcoming holy days are fittingly marked by social gatherings of various kinds—usually of the most important kinds. Herein will be opportunities, perhaps very challenging ones, for us to practice this every-day moral excellence.
Herein once again is an instance of a most remarkable truth: in developing a moral excellence we are both becoming our truest self, and also offering an incomparable gift to those around us.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
Image: Christmas Eve, by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), Swedish.
Because this section of Bk. IV of the Nicomachean Ethics is so rich, I here append the opening words on friendliness:
“In gatherings of men, in social life and the interchange of words and deeds, some men are thought to be obsequious, namely those who to give pleasure praise everything and never oppose, but think it their duty ‘to give no pain to the people they meet’; while those who, on the contrary, oppose everything and care not a whit about giving pain are called churlish and contentious. That the states we have named are culpable is plain enough, and that the middle state is laudable- that in virtue of which a man will put up with, and will resent, the right things and in the right way; but no name has been assigned to it, though it most resembles friendship. For the man who corresponds to this middle state is very much what, with affection added, we call a good friend.”
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