Keep thy friend under thy own life’s key

I used to think I was unjaded, or innocent maybe, but now I wonder if naïve might have been more apt. You have to be careful how you characterize yourself when you retire. Anyway, I suppose I have been pierced by similar arrows to the ones I see sticking out of other people, but in different places, probably. Different times. And when you get older, I don’t think they hurt as much. You can just leave them in place –or air them like laundry on Facebook.

I find that I am not much bothered by posts from friends about their lives. If they go on too much about something, or repeatedly pretend everything is hunky-dory I just ignore them –or, in extremis– ‘unfollow’ them. I’m actually not certain what that means, but I think they remain blissfully unaware that I’m not longer drooling incontinently over their pictures.

I’m told that ‘unfollow’ is a different animal than ‘unfriend’, though: it’s an invisible snub. Nobody gets hurt. But, I do wonder what would cause me to ‘unfriend’ somebody. Would it be vengeance, or simply despair at the utter jejunity of their posts? The belief that, in the words of an almost forgotten high school motto, ad maiora natus sum? Anyway, I imagine that we all choose who to have as a friend on Facebook, so I would think those we select have similar world-views.

But life is a labyrinth, and the cost of negotiating its hallways is sometimes accommodation. Capitulation. Suppose they started off compatible and then transformed into Minotaurs… Then what? I can’t say I lie awake nights worrying about it, but I will admit that I have no break-the-glass-in-case-of-fire strategy –apart from rudeness. Or sociological divorce. Still, I imagine it would be best to prepare for the inevitable.

For some people, though -special people- it would take the wisdom of Solomon to eliminate them from the web -not only the internet, but from the lattice of shared years. And, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘Full oft we see cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly’. The ant-hill colony of social media is perhaps unique, and yet I can’t help but wonder if similar influences have been felt before in small, tightly-knit communities where privacy was improbable, if not impossible. Where everybody knew each other. Where there were no secrets. Only philosophers.

There’s something humbling in the realization that Wisdom transcends Time. Facts are not necessarily like that –facts can change as knowledge changes- nor experience: two people crossing one bridge is often two people crossing two bridges. And truth itself seems only a more substantial cloud in the fog of years we all must wear. And yet wisdom is different –it is something so fundamental that it is as applicable now, as it was centuries ago. But we have to be careful. Apples are still not oranges.

I’m thinking of the attempt to equate the apple of friendship with the orange of Facebook. It seems to me that they are fruits rolling in different directions, but I was intrigued by an article that attempted to use Aristotle to solve the question of whether or not to unfriend somebody on Facebook.

An ever-present issue in our roiling society is whether to tolerate disparate views, take arms against a sea of troubles, or simply cocoon ourselves in a hall of mirrors instead. And I wouldn’t have thought that using what Aristotle thought ‘real’ friendship should look like: perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue’ would be at all helpful. In fairness, the author, Alexis Elder, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Minnesota Duluth, tries to qualify it for us: ‘[…] Aristotle doesn’t say friends should be “alike.” What he says is that best friends can be different and yet share good lives together so long as each is virtuous in his or her own way. […] the only similarity necessary is that they both be virtuous. By “virtuous,” he means the features of excellent people, those character traits like courage and kindness that help individuals be good to others, their own selves and live good lives.’ Uhmm, really? And I can tell all this from a Facebook post?

Furthermore, ‘A virtuous character trait, he says, consists of having the right amount of common human disposition – not too much and not too little.’ I have to confess that this is very reminiscent of Goldilocks judging the porridge of the three bears and deciding she prefers the baby’s –just right baby bear

Anticipating my objections, perhaps, she goes on to say ‘For Aristotle, virtues are by definition those traits that help you to flourish as a rational, social animal. Being your best self helps you to live a good life.’ Once again, how does that help me to decide whether or not to unfriend somebody online –unless of course I define virtue as those characteristics which I happen to like, or with which I agree? ‘Character matters,’ as she says, but with the caveat that  ‘Repeated interactions, even on social media, can shape our character over time.’ To me, at least, this seems more like a desperate attempt to save Aristotle’s reputation than a reasoned argument –especially when she is forced to admit that ‘[.] in considering the question, should you disconnect from that Facebook “friend,” the short but unsatisfying answer is, “It depends.”’ Great.

In fact, in an attempt to sum things up, she resorts to an equivocation of which a politician of any stripe would be proud: ‘In the end, some reasons to connect or disconnect are rooted in concerns about our own character, and some revolve around others’ characters. We have reason to foster a courageous and compassionate willingness to consider others’ worldviews and to be mindful of our own tendency to vilify posts (and people) because we disagree with them. But we also want our friends to be good people.’ Amen to that, although it sounds suspiciously recursive. Autological. Of course, as she admits, the devil is in the details…

I don’t know, but it seems to me that after all this tergiversation (gotta love the word, eh?) if we still want to look to the past to answer the question about that sacred Facebook ceremony with which we began, there was a better authority than Aristotle on center stage –Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens actually: ‘Ceremony was but devised at first to set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes, recanting goodness, sorry ere ‘tis shown; but where there is true friendship, there needs none.


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