By His Countenance and His Words

A Man's Head, Van Dyck

“For a friend, if he is sympathetic, is a consolation both by his countenance and his words, as he knows our feelings and what grieves and comforts us.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX

The ‘if’ clause is important. Not all the people we call friends are really sympathetic.

What grieves me and what comforts me are evident to me. These things are not evident to others. Only those who make an effort, will really see what grieves and comforts us. When a friend actually does, this is a great gift. In times of sorrow especially, so much is in his face, even without his saying anything. Like a healing salve, a friend is truly present through that face: whether in cherished memory, or in the flesh.

But then come the words; perhaps a few, perhaps a number, but always well-measured, springing from the root of compassion–a suffering-with-me. A friend knows what to say, as a way to buoy and be with me.

And to think that I can do this for others, in turn. May I live in such a way that my own countenance and words can be a consolation to those I hold dear.

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 main moral treatise.

Image: Anthony van Dyck

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged | 4 Comments

Kissing Honestly

Waiting for an Answer, W. Homer

“The physical kiss should be offered or accepted only for fixed and honest reasons.” Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship

Sometimes we need to stop and reflect on our anatomy. What a remarkable feature of the human body that it seems custom designed to give, and to receive, a kiss. Wherever I go I carry with me the power to kiss someone.

It is not surprising that something so beautiful, so powerful, would be subject to misuse and selfishness. Aelred suggests that proper use of the kiss is restricted: there are certain fixed occasions appropriate for kissing. A kiss is always a sign–of something honest and true. Such as a host’s welcome to a guest; a person’s joy upon the return of a long-absent friend; and spouses’ love for one another.

The kiss of a man and a woman in love is surely unlike any other kiss. Spouses look back to their first kiss, given and received with trembling, and fear, and anticipation. It uniquely contained a promise, and a foreshadowing. It gives occasion now for self-examination. Have I been true to that kiss; nay more, have I become less selfish? My kiss today, as likewise our very life together, should be more other-centered than it was then.

For married and unmarried alike our challenge is to kiss and be kissed as appropriate, when appropriate, for fixed and honest reasons. With some people, or in some circumstances, we show greater love, and respect, precisely by not kissing. In the end, a loving union of persons is the great reality to be achieved. Such spiritual communion, forged in self-denial and in joy, both enlivens and far surpasses all bodily signs of it.

St. Aelred (1109-1167) was the abbot of the English Cistercian monastery in Rievaulx. He is most known for his treatise On Spiritual Friendship.

Image: Waiting for an Answer, by Winslow Homer

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Singing in Pairs

Boy and Girl Singing,Rockwell

“Friends are said to sing in pairs.” Ancient proverb, quoted by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, IX

Aristotle relates this little proverb in the course of explaining that a person can have few true friends. True friendship involves such a depth of sharing, and intimacy of living that it can only be done with very few people. Likewise singing–from the heart, a kind not done into a microphone–is a rather intimate affair. Somehow it too is best done among a few people.

Here the human body itself is the instrument. Each of has our own, always with us. When I sing, the vibrations resonate from me and through me, and into those near me. To sing together, in unison or in harmony, or even out of tune, is to be together.

A millennium and a half after Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas in commenting on this same proverb writes, “It is a widespread custom for young people to stroll two by two singing in good fellowship.”

A widespread custom? Times have changed. We find ourselves wondering where are the innocence and the joy, so uniquely instantiated by young people strolling and singing in good fellowship. Wherever the innocence has gone, probably there too has gone the joy. They can and they must be re-discovered. Our instruments might need refurbishing; but they can be purified and re-tuned.

What better context for the intimacy and joys of singing than our homes, and among friends? Here our natural shyness of singing–itself a sign of its power as revelation and sharing of oneself–can be gently overcome. If as Augustine says he who sings prays twice, then perhaps those who sing together live-twice-together.

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 main moral treatise.

Image: Norman Rockwell

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Surfing into Forgetfulness

Phone in Hand

“And wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed when they are by themselves, but when they are with others they are disposed to forget.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX

The wicked find it hard to live with themselves. They shun being alone, and seek forgetfulness through distraction in the company of like-minded people.

Even if we are not wicked, Aristotle’s rather stark reflection still speaks to us. To the extent that we have wicked tendencies, or perform wicked actions, we too will shun the silence of being alone. Fleeing the challenge of self-encounter, we seek forgetfulness.

Aristotle sees men as avoiding solitude through keeping company with like-minded people; presumably he did not imagine how the practices and gadgets of our culture could aid and abet this avoidance. Today’s technology, perhaps most incarnated in the ‘smart phone,’ opens a whole new realm of flight from self and from remembrance. It encourages and enables our disposition to forget, as with unprecedented ease we turn away from what is at hand to what is in our hand. While digitally connected we avoid the being-alone that might occasion self-reflection, even while we are not actually with any people. Here is a lone-liness and forgetfulness of new depth.

To remember is to cling to life. He who remembers—including his own hurts and failures—is he who can seek healing. But to forget is to smolder, burn, and finally to die–in exile from our selves, and from others.

Aristotle warns: to the extent that we are sick we will be inclined toward forgetfulness. Especially luring will be forgetfulness-inducing distractions. In this way, technology that in itself might be neutral can become for us an instrument of dehumanization. To ignore this danger, focusing only on the technology’s neutrality or its usefulness, is to expose ourselves to great peril.

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 main moral treatise.

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Inexperienced in Pleasure

Henry VIII

“They are inexperienced in pleasure and so are deceived when they compare pain to painlessness, just as they would be if they compared black to grey without having experienced white.” Socrates, in Plato’s Republic

It is hard to imagine what it would be like never to have seen the color white. One thing seems clear: such a person could not see grey for what it is. Colors that in reality are dark would seem to be bright, given this person’s inexperience in color.

Socrates thus offers an analogy for the condition of most humans: we are inexperienced in pleasure because we have not really experienced the highest and brightest. This inexperience discolors our perception of all pleasures. Even the pleasures we’ve known we do not see for what they are.

The idea is arresting. Who of us have the self-knowledge to consider ourselves inexperienced in the pleasures of human life?

The lower pleasures are low-hanging fruit–they are quite readily available. The higher, or we could say deeper, pleasures of life are not so ready-to-hand. They must be cultivated. And in one of the most dramatic paradoxes of life they can only really be tasted by those who have learned to say no, to wait, to put other people first, and first things first. Daily. These people taste, and they see. They are experienced in pleasure.

Home life should be a school in pleasure. This school will unite a disciplined rejection of a myriad of pleasures, from the evil to the banal, with a cultivation of higher pleasures, from the wholesome (such as family games) to the sublime (such communal reading of great texts, or prayer). We adults must take the lead in pleasure-training, for ourselves and for our families. If we don’t, the degrading forces of our culture will.

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.

Image: Henry VIII

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Taking Care of Things

Learning to Read

“Come, then, let’s consider this: Is there some function of a soul that you couldn’t perform with anything else, for example, taking care of things, ruling, deliberating, and the like? Is there anything other than a soul to which you could rightly assign these..?”
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic

Some questions are so basic we are surprised when they are asked. Socrates was surprised that such questions are so seldom asked.

This quotation is Socrates’ answer to one such question: what kind of actions are most human? The human soul is most itself when doing what?

The list with which Socrates answers this crucial and difficult question seems a bit odd: taking care of things, ruling, deliberating, and the like. Aristotle gives what amounts to the same answer a bit more succinctly: rational activity; but Socrates’ words give us more specific things to sink our teeth into. Each in the short series deserves consideration. Yet the first is what has always stood out for me. Taking care of things.

What do humans do, in using their almost divine power of reason, that nothing else in creation can do? We can take care of things.  What a beautiful thought: I have the ability to understand, precisely so that I can protect, nourish, direct. Always in a spirit of taking care. What a gift to be able to take care of things, and most of all, to take care of other people.

Reason can be used in many ways; it can also be misused in many ways. The drama of human life is whether we use it well. Reason is only really itself when it is used reasonably.

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.

Image: Learning to Read

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

You, Child, are Our Bond

Daddy and His Girl

“And children seem to be a bond of union.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Moved by these words of Aristotle, I write here…
An Open Letter to My Child
Even your father can never tell you, because I cannot fully know, how good it is that you exist. You will ever be a mysterious wonder to me. Here is one thing, however, that I can tell you about yourself. You are a living bond. You bind me to your mother and your mother to me. By who you are; by your very existence.

You have not chosen this, nevertheless it is a truth about you. It is yours. And I cannot tell you how grateful I am.
It’s not because you look like both of us—though you do, and it always makes me smile.
It’s not because you act like both of us—which you do, sometimes in ways that make me blush.
It’s not because you love both of us—which is a gift beyond compare.
Perhaps it’s not even because we both love you—which we do with all our hearts.
I am not sure just why it is.

But this much I know: when I see you, I see not only you, but also your mother. No matter where you go, or what you do, your very existence will be a reminder, a sign of the gift that your mother has been to me, and that your mother and I have been one in love. And this is something no one can ever take from us, or from you.

Image: A daddy and his first daughter, a few years ago.

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 main moral treatise.

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , | 11 Comments