People used to have a lot to say about friendship. Aristotle wrote a long passage in the Nichomachean Ethics which described various forms of friendship and lauded true friendship as the highest relationship a person could have. Cicero, likewise, had a great deal to say about friendship in his essay on the subject, though he was a good bit more cautionary, concerned as he was with the Roman political machine. Perhaps one of the most recent writers to present one of these serious essays in the same vein – at least that I am aware of – is Montaigne, who was very much aware that the classical sense of friendship (the friendship of Cicero and Aristotle) was on the way out. He admitted that it was rare and truly valuable to find a lifelong, true friend in his day and age – and he was writing in the 16th century. Do we, then, have a chance at all?
Once upon a time, back before the novel was an art form, art was unrealistic and nobody expected it to ever be anything else. This is not to say that all art was downright fantastic: rather, there was an acknowledged artifice in the style and production of art that emphasized form over mimesis. For instance, nearly all of the literary arts, be they poems, plays, epics, or otherwise, tended to be written in poetry, not prose. And even when a work of prose was written (say, Malory), emphasis was not on internal consistency (Malory famously recalls the death of several knights multiple times) but on the arc and craft of storytelling. Let us pause, then, for a moment, and consider the change between this outlook and the one we bear now, which often aspires to realism far over the artistry of a work.
We Americans take a great deal of pride in our work ethic. Statisticians often point out that we take less vacation time annually than pretty much any European nation (even those legendarily industrious Germans); our first question upon meeting new people is usually “what do you do for a living?”; and we often hail our greatest entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, the Rockerfellers, etc.) as some of our cultural heroes, in the same breath as patriot politicians like Washington and Jefferson or war heroes like General Robert E. Lee or Dwight Eisenhower. On at least three separate Internet polls I’ve seen regarding the book that has the most influence on your life and outlook, Atlas Shrugged – that gigantic testament and ode to industry – came in second only to the Bible. Often times, we attribute this fanatic devotion to work to the “Protestant Work Ethic”, and imagine this nation’s earliest puritan ancestors building a town virtually overnight to survive their first harsh New England winters. But I’m not sure the Bible is really the Protestant Work Ethic’s best defender, and I really doubt we can claim it as the champion of our contemporary obsession with consumerism, capitalism, and industry.
The stated purpose of this blog is to discuss, somehow, Capital-T Truth, without hedging or bullying or misrepresenting positions or using any cheap tactics to reach it. And an obvious related discussion that I’ve neglected thus far is the discussion of honesty, which lies very much in the realm of what this blog is trying to do, and the lack of which troubles me to no end and is very much part of the reason I wanted to start this blog in the first place. So this week I want to talk about what is perhaps one of the most subtle, ugly, and obstructive problems to trying to talk honestly: namely, false honesty.
With the start of the semester, my time has been limited, so rather than examine a wide variety of entertainments, I prefer to concentrate my attention for a closer look at a select few.
Alright. Time for another serious conversation. This one’s going to be directed mostly at the religiously-minded, but it applies across the board to academics, laypeople, and basically anyone who is trying to be a decent human being, which should include anyone reading this, and anyone generally. See, the funny thing about the Internet is that it was largely expected to bring many people of different cultural and ideological backgrounds together, and ended up spawning innumerable echo chambers in which like-minded people can meet over large distances and confirm their own biases in endless circuitous pandering conversations.
Like this one.
For a couple of weeks now there’s been a trend circulating on facebook for readers to reveal the top ten books that have most seriously influenced them as people. And I have noticed, first by reading these lists and then considering my own reaction to the matter, that there is a surprising amount of discrepancy between the books that seriously affect us on an artistic level: that is, books that are masterpieces of form, craft, insight, and beauty; and books that affect us intellectually. To put it concretely: Anna Karenina may be, by consensus, the greatest novel ever penned – but nobody (with some few exceptions) has it on their list. So let’s talk about that for a bit.