Friday, February 10, 2012

Aristotle on Facebook

My husband always wants to know what is discussed at my weekly coffee with friends. I think that that ONE episode of Sex In the City he saw ten years ago warped his thinking. He imagines that the conversation is tantalizingly shallow.  More often than not the topic is current events. Sometimes it's motherhood. Three of us are just wrapping up the hands-on part of that job while our cohort is managing all the adjustments of having twins at this age. Sometimes it's politics and the depressing array of candidates from the state house to the White House. Often it's religion since one of us is working on a Master's degree in that area. Education is a popular one. But of late, philosophy is taking its turn.

You can imagine how annoying we are to men trying to get any work done (Doesn't anyone have an office anymore?) as we swing back and forth between breast feeding and Nicomachean Ethics.

Sometimes I need a double espresso.

This week while reading up on my Aristotle in order to be prepped for next week's discussion, I wondered what the great philosopher would think of some of our social use of modern technology. Defining relationships was difficult long before Facebook created "friends" out of thin air. Aristotle went to great lengths to categorize different levels of friendship, and comment on the  morality of each. Our Greek friend broke it down 3 ways:

  • First we have the friendship born of utility. In business we call it networking. On Facebook it's more like "Please be my 4,572nd  "friend" so everyone will see how popular I am.

  • Following at a close second we have a friendship based on pleasure. This may be your "He always has the cleverest statuses" or "maybe that girl in my history class will post her pictures from Spring Break" friendship.  Some of these friendships can survive if both people are sufficiently amused, attracted, or charmed in some way.

  • Third, according to our toga clad Facebook guru, is real friendship defined by loving, rather than being loved. It's a level of friendship that desires the good of the other person. These are your "Please tell me what the doctor said",  "I'll clear my calendar when you are in town" or "How did your date go?" friends.

This level of friendship can encompass the other two. But according to Aristotle only good people are able to attain this nirvana of connection. The "I am but a worm" Protestant in me is having trouble with saying anyone is good. Especially myself. I do however have several friends whose happiness I sincerely desire, so I'm comfortable with saying that, at least by Aristotle's standards, I'm good. You probably are too.

The "virtuous friendship" is difficult to obtain because the type of person who is capable of it is hard to come by and there is a great deal of time and effort involved in tending to these relationships. Is it possible in this age of instant communication to make a long lasting bond with someone? Can a real friendship be grown among the weeds of status updates and "likes." Well, yes it can as it turns out. What every one worried about with the advent of social networking was that we'd all just be sitting at home in our underwear maintaining illusionary alliances in the dark--that just sounds like porn.

 ''My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.'' ~ Aristotle

In reality what has happened though, is that people have ended up using the social network phenom to facilitate real life interactions. I have some friendships that only have been possible to maintain and nurture because of Facebook. I have others that would have withered over time if my only choice had been the phone call. I have at least one that is based nearly entirely on words and ideas shared via Zuckerberg's creation. Aristotle was right about the layers of friendship. All friends are not equal and don't deserve an equal investment. Few people are "virtuous" (Aristotle's term) enough to move from the outer limits of friendship to what I like to call "the inner sanctum." It's that tiny center in the middle of the friend dartboard that Aristotle would recognize immediately as a home for virtuous friendships. They are the people who are interested in your well being. Maybe that means you are good,  maybe now you are even a bit better. And that is a status update to "like."

Next up: Aristotle on blogging...

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