Life can be dangerous and unpredictable, and although the world eventually breaks everyone, according to Hemingway, some of us become strong in the broken places, or, to borrow a tai chi image, we learn to bend like blades of grass in the wind. Whether we break or bend, our physical lives are like drops of dew on these blades of grass, given the age of our sacred planet and the universe. And as the Talmud says, every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow!” And our growth produces the fruits of the outer and inner way, especially good friendships.
In the West, many roads lead back to Aristotle when discussing friendship. In “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle argues that the superior kind of friendship is the friendship of good individuals alike in virtue. In “De Amicitia” “On Friendship”, Cicero embraces and expands on many of these themes. “Friendship can only exist between good men. ... True friendship is rare. ... There must be complete sympathy in all matters of importance, plus goodwill and affection. ... Without virtue, friendship cannot exist. ... No life is worth living without the mutual love of friends.”
We can circle around the topic of friendship from the many historical perspectives in our Core texts and discover remarkable convergence on some key themes. And we can circle around this topic of friendship one more time from the perspectives of these key themes. Given the constraints of time, and the problems of vertigo with all this circling, I shall cover briefly only three of these themes in this letter to you.
Allow me to address first the theme of suffering and friendship. No one has a corner on suffering. It is part of life and one of the central themes of Contemporary Civilization. We suffer in our bodies, as part of nature, and because of other people. As you well know, we also suffer over the suffering of others, a very primal emotion. Suffering makes us more human and grounds us in our emotional and physical states.
The Core is not an abstraction, especially not CC. It is about life. The themes we discuss in class are confronted through our private and public lived experiences, sometimes at the very moment we are reading a particular text, such as Romans 5, where Paul says, “We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” A good friend helps us to build a character of hope and not despair.
The second theme of my letter to you involves self-love, self-knowledge, and friendship. “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare puts these wise words into the mouth of a fool in “Hamlet.” The highest forms of friendship require self-love and self-knowledge.
In discussing self-love and friendship, Aristotle argues that each of the precepts applying to one’s best friend ought to apply to one’s own life. This is interestingly derived from Aristotle’s deepest philosophy of part/whole relations, where the coincidence of the parts (common qualities and events, for example) leads to a coincidence of the whole. So the mathematical limit of a friend is one’s own self because of the ultimate degree of coincidence in proximity, similarity, common wishes, and a common struggle for survival. Since one is a friend to himself most of all, hence he should also love himself most of all.
The third and final theme of this letter to you is on friendship and the human heart. Forty years ago, a small commuter plane crashed high in the Andes above Chile. Over half of the young members of a Uruguayan rugby team died, including the mother and sister of Nando Parrado. Recently, Parrado wrote “Miracle in the Andes,” a retrospective account of his 72 days in the mountains and his long trek home. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, he climbed 17,000-foot peaks in temperatures 30 below zero, and was a key figure in saving 16 of his teammates and friends. In reflecting on this episode and the loss of great friendships, Parrado writes:
“Before the crash, I took so much for granted, but the mountains showed me that life, any life, is a miracle. Now, miraculously, I had been granted a second chance to live. ... I would live with passion and curiosity. I would open myself to the possibilities of life. I would savor every moment, and I would try, every day, to become more human and more alive. To do any less, I understood, would be an insult to those who hadn’t survived. ... I also know that I would be a happy man ... as long as I am close to the people I love.”
I conclude my letter by reminding you, dear students, that the company of an old friend, or the recollection of the company of an old friend brings us a miniature eternity and the deep and profound truth that the opposite of death is love, especially the love of a dear friend.
Live life fully and from the heart, and remember that “love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words” (thank you, Ignatius Loyola).
With my best wishes to each of you for great friendships of joy, virtue, goodwill, shared activity, comfort, and affection during your days at Columbia and beyond, I remain
Peter Pazzaglini is an adjunct professor in the department of history at Columbia College.
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