About a year ago, we had a teacher’s meeting about the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. The meeting had some intriguing moments, such as when I suggested that the concept of a “dating history” might be a nice road into the problem of history for the students; this suggestion was not well-received. The image to the right may go some distance in explaining that.
However, arguably the most interesting evaluation of the book came from a very well-respected professor, who stated that “the last page of this book could be torn straight out of your prayer book.” Keep in mind that I teach at the Catholic University of America. And that we were talking about Nietzsche. Generally speaking, those two things are not simpatico.
But the professor was right. On the last page of the book, after chapter upon chapter attempting to convince you of the dangers of history (that’s right, history), Nietzsche tries to end on a hopeful note by invoking the example of the ancient Greeks. According to Nietzsche, the Greeks were in danger of “losing themselves” at a certain point. There were simply too many historical influences upon them, and too many different cultural forms competing for their attention. But the Greeks saved themselves by learning to “organize the chaos.” As Nietzsche writes, they did this “by reflecting on their genuine needs, and letting their sham needs die out. Thus they took possession of themselves again.” (trans. Peter Preuss).
Nietzsche then calls upon us to do the same, to reflect on our genuine needs, and let this be the guide to our appropriation of knowledge. So, for example, if you are a English teacher, perhaps it would be appropriate for you to read the Wikipedia entry for Shakespeare (since your students will attempt to plagiarize it). That is a genuine need. A “sham need” would be my need to look at this picture of a totally awesome unicorn mask.
It sounds good. But if you have made it to your second cup of coffee for the day, then you should have enough presence of mind to ask yourself: “But how do I know my genuine needs?” Nietzsche presents it as unproblematic, but it can get complicated.
Parents usually need to work (to support their families), need to eat (to stay alive), need to spend time with their families (to give their spouses and children love and support), need to clean up around the house (to avoid living with rats), need to pray and meditate (to have the patience for all of the prior activities), need to recreate (okay, this has been going on for long enough). You know what I am about to say: figuring out which need is paramount at the moment can be exceedingly difficult–and that is if we are being totally honest with ourselves, are of a good frame of mind, and are not distracted.
Here’s one thing that might help the process, though: friends.
I take this from Aristotle, who understood that we best achieve truth when working together:
“The study of truth is in one sense difficult, in another easy. This is shown by the fact that whereas no one person can obtain an adequate grasp of it, we cannot all fail in the attempt.” (Metaphysics II, 993a-b, trans. Hugh Tredennick)
But the paradigmatic case of this is not when you attempt to have a conversion with some idiotic troll on a blog or with some “friend of a friend” on Facebook. The paradigmatic case of cooperative thought it when we spend time with and converse with our friends.
It is not just an issue of trust, that we are able to speak our minds more freely, although that is part of it. No, it goes deeper, and is even kind of creepy: we contemplate ourselves in our friends. They are like mirrors, in a strange way:
“For friendship is a community, and we are related to our friend as we are related to ourselves. Hence, since perception of our own being is choiceworthy, so is the perception of our friend’s being. Perception is active when we live with him; hence, not surprisingly, this is what we seek.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. IX, ch. 12, 1171b-1172a, trans. Terence Irwin)
This is why we instinctively reach out to friends who are like us–married people tend to have married friends, for example. There are, of course, practical reasons why we want to spend time with such friends (“our kids entertain each other so we can drink”), but perhaps it is also because they help us to understand our vocations, how to prioritize and rank our various needs. They can do this through discussion, but also just through their personal example. And, to narrow the circle, this is one of the great benefits of the friendship that is marriage–together, you are wiser.
Friendship doesn’t take away all the difficulty in sorting out our real needs, or guarantee success. But it surely raises the odds in your favor–provided your friends are actually good.