Friday, December 4, 2015


230. The virtue of distinction

In classical Greek, next to eros, passionate love, and philia, loving friendship, there is agape, generalized, undifferentiated love for one’s neighbour. The latter became a paramount value in Christianity, seeing people equal as creatures of God. Nietzsche, and following him several others (e.g. Onfray), rejected this, opting for variety and distinction. Achieving distinction and making a distinction between people one deals with.

For making distinction, maintaining emotional distance to people, Onfray recalls Schopenhauer’s parable of the hedgehogs. In winter they are cold and want to creep close to each other for warmth. But then they prick each other and move out again. So they move in and out until they find a distance with maximum warmth with minimum pricks.

Onfray proceeds to use the notion of concentric circles.[i] In the innermost circle loved ones, eros and philia, with whom one has a sense of shared destiny, or identifies with, in mutual dedication, sharing, and altruism. In the second circle acquaintances one associates with regularly, socially and in work, with forbearance and empathy. Next, a circle of people one meets and deals with superficially, haphazardly and incidentally. Then, a circle of anonymous people one is indifferent to. Finally, a circle with enemies or people one despises, or hates, and avoids.

The closer the circle, the more one needs to maintain and nourish the relationship. For this, the innermost circle especially needs to have a limited number, five or so, to achieve this quality and closeness of relationship. With Internet, a large number of ‘friends’ on Facebook, impossible to all attend to closely, this quality is bound to deteriorate.

I have two qualifications to make. First, while fairness, altruism  and reciprocity apply more for closer circles, justice should apply to all. Second, even towards more distant circles one should remain open to the other, for pleasant or constructive surprise, even when perhaps also guarding against threat. Open to strange beliefs and their possible warrant, and open to debatable ethics. This basic openness and respect remain from Levinassian ethics.   

For achieving distinction, there is the notion of virtú, with classical and Nietzschean virtues of excellence, courage, strength, agency, creation, and putting up a fight when challenged or constrained.

Here, autonomy is sought even while the self is socially constructed. Achieving distinction meets openness in making distinction, in the opportunity from openness to others to improve or transform oneself.

Machiavelli extended the notion of virtú with leadership, effective use of power, in conduct of the prince or war-leader, acting for reasons of state, ruthlessly when needed, including actions that by any other morality would be seen as outright evil. There is debate on whether this was intended as a normative statement of how a ‘prince’ should behave, or no more than a descriptive statement of actual conduct.

What is my answer to Machiavelli? I do grant that on the collective level of the state morally bad actions may be needed to survive. But one should be prepared to give arguments for them, for each specific case, in front of a tribunal, again and again, in terms of necessity (there were no alternatives) and proportionality (to the threat that was inflicted). That is part of what I called ‘debatable ethics’.
 


[i] Michel Onfray, La sculpture de soi; La morale esthétique, Grasset, 1993.