Friendship and the Good Life
Dr. Michael Pakaluk, the Chairman of the Philosophy department, is known for his work on the philosophy of friendship. In a recent interview, he explained how he became interested in the subject and why it is important.
Pakaluk: I wrote my dissertation on friendship at Harvard, and I can remember the exact moment when I decided on that topic. I was sitting on a bench in the hallway of the second floor of Emerson Hall, the philosophy building, looking at some notes, when a fellow graduate student, named Bill Haines, walked by and asked me what I was up to. It was 4:30pm. I told him that I was trying to decide what my dissertation topic would be: I had narrowed it down to three choices, and, just for the sake of deciding and getting going on it, I had resolved that I would settle on one of those choices by 5pm. The topic of ‘civic friendship’ as an issue in political philosophy was on that list, and that was how I got started on a dissertation which led eventually to a couple of books on friendship.—You see, grad students can waste years and years simply in deciding on a topic for their dissertation, but it was my view that the decision as to the topic was a relatively small thing, and that, so long as your topic was a worthy one, then, how you carried out what you had decided upon would be far more important. So I wanted to get going on the dissertation, and so I wanted to make some decision or other.
Ave Maria: But where did your interest in civic friendship come from?
Pakaluk: Well, I should say that I had an interest in friendship generally, too, as a philosophical topic, which derived from my study of Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle devotes one-fifth of his masterpiece on ethics to the topic of friendship, but modern ethicists had hardly discussed friendship at all. That contrast seemed interesting to me, an example of the divergence of modern from classical thought, which has always interested me greatly. Then I remember a remark of Michael Waldstein, who now is a very distinguished theologian and member of the theology faculty at the university, but back then was a graduate student at Harvard along with me (he was studying for a Ph.D. in New Testament studies). Waldstein and I would meet once a week for philosophical discussions. Once we read together St. Thomas treatise on human action in the Summa over the course of a year. For a while we were reading essays on so-called “virtue ethics,” including Philippa Foot’s book, Virtues and Vices, and Waldstein said, ‘People criticize Aristotle’s ethics for being egoistic, and yet they neglect entirely his treatment of justice in book V, and his discussion of friendship in books VIII and IX.’ –That struck me as a shrewd observation, and from that point on, really, I began to look at Aristotle’s account on friendship as providing the real ‘social philosophy’ of the Ethics.
Ave Maria: That’s fascinating. So a current colleague of yours at the university, back in graduate school, was a big influence even then of the shape of your philosophical investigations?
Pakaluk: Yes, that’s absolutely the case, and I am very pleased that Waldstein and I have begun meeting again on a weekly basis for philosophical discussions here at Ave Maria. But Waldstein’s astute observation was in fact only one influence among several.
Ave Maria: What were some others?
Pakaluk: Well, I had become interested in the philosophical movement known as “personalism” and (as I was a recent convert to Catholicism then) I was intrigued by claims—undoubtedly true—that Catholic teaching had changed, or, rather, developed during the Second Vatican Council, so as to be “personalistic” in tone rather than legalistic, as it had been in some non-official presentations in the past. So I studied those philosophers reputed to be important “personalists”, such as Max Scheler and existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber. But there was absolutely no one to study such thinkers with in the Harvard philosophy department back then, just as there would be no one today! That kind of approach to philosophy was completely alien to the analytic approach favored there. Therefore, I looked to build bridges and find connections. Aristotle’s ethics was highly regarded at Harvard, and if there is anything like “personalism” in Aristotle, it would be in his discussion of friendship. So, I thought, why not read Aristotle on friendship as an approach in a classical manner to those phenomena which today, it seemed, “personalists” are primarily interested in? It wasn’t until much later, and only after a great deal of study, that I saw that one of the primary expressions of “personalism” for Catholics, the great book Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla, is highly dependent for its analysis of marital love and affection on Aristotle, not the phenomenological school, as was typically claimed (and as still is claimed today, by people I think who don’t know Aristotle very well).
Ave Maria: But you mentioned “civic friendship” as the topic of your dissertation. So what was the relationship between your interest in friendship generally and in civic friendship in particular?
Pakaluk: Well, let me clarify something. My dissertation began as being about—its original topic was—civic friendship, but the topic transmutated. I wanted to write on civic friendship, because I was studying liberal political theory under John Rawls, and I was impressed by the individualism of liberal political thought (which I still believe is a mark of it, but Rawls denied that that was so), and it seemed to me that one reason that it was individualistic is that the notion of “civic friendship” or “political friendship” and friendliness, so important in classical theory, had dropped out. So I wanted to look at that: what civic friendship meant, why it dropped out, what were the prospects that it could be added, and whether it really had dropped out for all putatively liberal political thinkers. (Today for instance I would deny that it had dropped out for the American founders, who were much more classical in their sensibilities than, say, subsequent Supreme Court opinions would suggest!) Rawls in fact –though he was an extremely generous dissertation advisor, with extraordinarily good historical sense, which is why everyone wanted to work with him, almost no matter what subject you were writing on—was highly interested in my topic and eager to accept me as an advisee because his thoughts were going on a parallel track: his theory of “public reason”, as he himself says, was conceived of by him as civic friendship in liberal political theory. However, as I said, my topic transmuted. It had to change. It was a matter of doing research which was preliminary, and then preliminary to that, and so on ... (I have a friend, Stephen Menn, a prodigious scholar, who has written several books which were such ‘preliminary’ studies to the actual, main study he is working on!) I reasoned that one could not write on civic friendship without as a preliminary attaining a mastery of the locus classicus on friendship, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, VIII and IX. But then neither could I attain a mastery of that, it became clear, unless I improved my Greek considerably and write something like a straightforward dissertation in classical philosophy on that text. And so that is what I did. My French, German and Latin were in good shape (all necessary languages for classical scholarship, of course), my Greek was okay but needed to be expert, and I proceeded to try to master the 2000 year tradition of scholarship on the subject, to see if I could add anything else, perhaps. This engagement with scholars from the past is one of the great delights of classical scholarship. I remember with exquisite clarity the first time I picked up the volume of the Greek Commentators on Aristotle and started to read the commentary of Aspasius on Nicomachean Ethics VIII, on the classification of friendship into three kinds, a doctrine which looks superficially simple but actually is difficult and profound—and I saw that Aspasius was saying things and expressing an understanding that I had arrived at through great labor and which, I thought, no one had grasped: and here instantly was this communion of understanding with someone who had written two thousand years ago! That was remarkable.
Ave Maria: Your interest in classical scholarship seems to be something that still engages you.
Pakaluk: Certainly, without question. This semester at Ave Maria, for example, I was teaching a seminar in Classics on Aristotle’s De Anima – not in translation, of course, but in Greek!—with some of the best students at the university, and it was one of the most enjoyable courses I have ever taught. Classical philosophy is compelling for all the levels of skill it requires—from the level of getting the text straight (what is called “textual criticism”); to the level of accurate translation, which is extremely difficult for a thinker of Aristotle’s subtlety, and who writes with such compression; to the level of philosophical argument and philosophical vision. Moreover, you have to carry out your investigation along all these levels as situated in the context of centuries of scholars, from many different ages and cultures—and in times other than our own some of the greatest geniuses and “scientists” were classical philologists and commentators on classical texts, rather than experimental researchers, as in our day. I doubt that there is any field of study which is as demanding on so many different levels, and therefore potentially as fulfilling (when one carries it off well), as classical scholarship and especially classical philosophy.
Ave Maria: You have written many essays and given many talks on friendship for general audiences, “popular” philosophy, so to speak. How does that sort of thing relate to your scholarship?
Pakaluk: I see it that the two are complementary, that “popular” writing is best if it is rooted in solid knowledge and understanding (many people are not aware of what fine scholars both C.S. Lewis and T.R.R. Tolkien were), and that scholarship can be informed and get some of its “edge” or significance from a purpose which does not exclude the “popular”. (There are lots of activists—feminists, Marxists, and so on—who have adopted a similar stance, but they are often guilty of subordinating, and even perverting, scholarship to their activist goals, which is a different thing. They often subordinate truth to political utility.)
Ave Maria: You recently gave a talk to the Philosophy Club on the topic, “Friendship and Good Life”: was that popular or scholarly?
Pakaluk: It was both, but, look, it cannot be denied that friendship is a highly important and extremely vital subject for Catholic students in particular. To give just two examples: Vatican II describes the “apostolate of the laity” as an apostolate of “like towards like”, which inevitably involves friendship and (as Newman called it) “personal influence,” or, again, for a Catholic, the entire life of devotion is best construed as a life of “friendship with Christ.” Pope John Paul II’s repeated exhortations that we should “seek the face of Christ” were exhortations to friendship with Christ. The two main themes of the preaching of Pope Benedict, as far as I can discern, are that the purpose of human life is to reveal God to others, and that our solace and solidity in life all hinges on cultivating a friendship with Christ. I certainly have been very gratified that a topic I have studied philosophically and also as a scholar is so closely connected with vitally important matters of the highest personal significance.