Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Aristotle and Meilaender on Men and Women Friendship

Carolyn Custis James has again quoted Gilbert Meilaender at Whitby Forum.  Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed had quoted him too.  Now friendship between the sexes."

Now what I'd like to do here is to review some of how Meilaendar quotes Aristotle.

As we all know, Meilaendar quotes Aristotle an awful lot.  Interestingly enough, the ethos of Aristotle has lots of appeal, because he's written a lot to quote with such tidy conclusions.  It's not surprising that Meilaendar appeals to Aristotle as one large authority on "friendship."  (And, likewise, it's not entirely surprising that more of you have read my quotations of Aristotle "On Love" than any other posting at this blog -- except that good-contemporary research post on Aristotle's "sexism").

Meilaendar wants to emphasize that there will be "a problem for friendships between men and women, even if it may also be enriching."  The warrant for his claim?  It's this:  "Eros always threatens; for, unlike friendship [i.e., 'philia'], eros is a love that is jealous and cannot be shared."

Meilaendar's presumption is that eros, at least as Aristotle conceives of it, is or might be between males and females as some sort of equally mutual, reciprocal love (or lust).  Of course, Meilaendar does acknowledge that Aristotle is not thinking about equals:  "he has in mind, it would seem, pederastic relationships."  And yet Meilaendar wants to explore something else, somehow, with Aristotle's endorsement:  "but this does not affect his view of the relation between eros and philia" ... as if Aristotle is interested in eros between the sexes.  He is not.  Just to be clear:  Aristotle is not interested in mutual eros or philia between men and women.  For example, when Aristotle talks about eros and friendship in the same paragraph, look at where the woman belongs; here's from his Politics:
For the constitution [at Syracuse in ancient times] underwent a revolution as a result of a quarrel that arose between two young men, who belonged to the ruling class, about a love affair [eros, ἐρωτικὴν]. While one of them was abroad the other who was his comrade won over the [male] youth with whom he was in love [eros, ἐρώμενον], and the former in his anger against him retaliated by persuading his wife to come to him.
In Aristotle's example of the problem of eros, the two male comrades get in a spat, and one uses erotic love with a younger male to get the other angry or jealous.  To get back at him, the other woos his friend's female spouse (although it's not, as Aristotle writes it, explicitly the same sort of relationship as with the male youth).  The woman who's the wife in the story Aristotle tells is used, but she doesn't even get the sort of love the boy who's used does; Aristotle is not interested in naming what comes to the wife, or what might or ought to come to her, as either love [eros] or friendship [philea].

And friendship within the heterosexual marriage, Aristotle says, is by Nature aristocratic, with the man as ruler and king over his wife, his subject.  Meilaender does well to repeat this notion, if in an understated sort of way:  "Aristotle recognizes, of course, that there is a kind of friendship between husband and wife, but it is one example of what he calls friendship between unequals."  So, we do well to get the fact that, for Aristotle, a female is a mutated male, never equal and always inferior.

Meilaender wants to appeal to Aristotle's "view of the relation between eros and philia," Aristotle's seemingly objective division and separation of love into types, in order ironically somehow to get to mutuality between the sexes.  But Meilaender must look beyond the patriarchy, beyond the gynophobia, beyond the misogyny, if he's going to succeed.  Fortunately, he does briefly.  He quotes Mary Hunt, author of Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (1991):
Nonetheless, it may be worth thinking briefly about what she recommends: namely, “new models of mutuality” which are most easily found among women friends. We ought not, she argues, take Aristotle's model of friendship and suppose that he simply forgot to include women when he talked and wrote of it—an omission we can then easily correct. We should not take his model and then just add women's experience “as if they should have been there in the first place” .... Thus, according to Hunt, women need not worry about classifying friendships as carefully as did Aristotle, nor need they worry about whether friends are best friends or just good friends. “Only ruling-class men whose survival is not in question have the dubious luxury of looking up and down at their friends, companions, and acquaintances.” Women, by contrast, in a society which—in Hunt's view—is oppressive, cannot concern themselves with levels of friendship. For them the simple truth is that “friends, lots of them, are necessary for . . . survival in an often unfriendly environment.”

Unfortunately, Meilaender goes on to box up "Hunt's view" and to eventually make her sound like Aristotle in very odd ways.  "Hunt is far more like Aristotle than she realizes," he says.  But we wonder if he knows what Aristotle is like.

Meilaender, with some other men he continues to quote, seems to have the "luxury of looking up and down at" various types of friendship and love.  He seems to continue find "classifying friendships as carefully as did Aristotle" important.  He seems to want to keep one thing different from and quite above the other:
[C. S.] Lewis believes that friendship and erotic love may go together, but in many respects he agrees with Harry and with Aristotle that the combination is an unstable one....  We ought not, I think, deny that friendships between men and women—friendships that are not also marked by erotic love—are possible. We ought not, that is, let a theory lead us to deny the reality we see around us, and we do sometimes see or experience such friendships. Nor need we express the view shared by Harry [Burns, the character in Nora Ephron's screenplay, "When Harry Met Sally"] and Lewis quite as crassly as did [Friedrich] Nietzsche: “Women can enter into a friendship with a man perfectly well; but in order to maintain it the aid of a little physical antipathy is perhaps required.” Nor, surely, need we hold, as my students sometimes do, that friendship between men and women is possible only if at least one of the friends is homosexual (a view that will make same-sex friendships difficult for those who are homosexual, unless, of course, their experience of eros is in no way jealous or exclusive). At the same time, however, there is no reason to deny some truth to Harry's claim, even without the additional support provided by Aristotle and Lewis, for our experience also suggests that there is something to it.
When Meilaender hints here that his experience (as "our experience"?) supports something that Aristotle says (and, therefore, that the support of Aristotle may be discarded since no longer needed), then we are not surprised.  We are not surprised when Meilaender finds himself turning again and again to Aristotle for support:
That is, to revert to the terms I drew from Aristotle, they [men and women] must find in the friend another self, another individuality, but one whose otherness is not so overwhelming as to threaten to engulf or invade their selfhood. No doubt this is not always possible, for reasons we noted earlier when considering the impact of eros on friendship.
Mainly how Meilaender quotes Aristotle is for support that love must be compartmentalized into various categories of difference.  He then can tell women and men how they must and must not love.

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