Relationships are all about character. Period. That is a durable truth Aristotle left us 2400 years ago, and it was never more true or poignant than this summer, as I tried to think about the unthinkable: the possibility that my relational life had come to an end. As I look at the past, and experience the present, deficiencies in character, primarily my own, produce a glaring, garish raspberry to some of my pretensions.
Let’s begin with Aristotle, whose thinking on this matter will provide a conceptual framework for understanding the details. Most translations describe the topic central to Books XIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics as “friendship,” but that word has been so diluted and bastardized by the Facebook mentality and rampant self-absorption of our current times, that I feel it is no stretch to say that he was writing about what we today would call relationships, and I’ll continue on that reasonable assumption. There are three kinds of relationship, he felt, and if we’re lucky we’ve experienced them all at one time in our lives.
The most profound, and also most elusive, is what he terms “complete.” Not perfect, mind you, or must I send you to the final blog about LA? A complete relationship is based upon character, both yours and the one you love — not a term that ought to be excluded from discussions of this sort. You are drawn to someone of an admirable character motivated primarily by that fact and you wish to further the activities of that character for two reasons. One, because you recognize how wonderful that person is, and, two, because you yourself are of admirable character. No one of good character would want to further the aims of someone who is a scoundrel; to do so would reveal that you are deficient in character. Character feeds character, and in this sort of relationship, your aim is to increase the good that the other is creating, and serve that good. Of course, if the other person does truly act out of a good character, he or she will also attempt to further your good. But because we are autonomous, and of good character, we define our own good in our own way, and it is the role of love to uncover what is the lover’s good as he or she envisions it, and act to make it more wonderful through what you do.
A tall order, I know. Aren’t there some relationships that aren’t so demanding? Does Dirty Don’s have expired whipping cream on sale today? He does, of course. I bought some. The other two are incomplete, but that does not mean unsatisfactory. They can produce a measure of fulfillment within the limits of their aims, but they are also prone to failure in a way that complete relationships are not. One is a relationship based on sensuality, pleasure, passion. You know: sex. Aristotle says this is what young people think love is, but he is not being critical of their mistake. Not having developed much of a character by that time, it’s all they’ve got going for them. I take it that his view is that they ought to go for it! There’s nothing wrong with infatuation, attraction, and rutting away like crazed weasels, a quote I never cease to enjoy employing.
Of course, the goal of such relationships is to gain romantic and sexual pleasure for oneself, and as long as it’s happening this relationship works fine. Of course, if both people are looking for the same thing — gratification — and both are getting it, they can carry on for quite a while, and in quite a few different locales. But this is a fundamentally unstable relationship for at least two reasons. One is that erotic drives and focus are unstable, and a wandering eye can lead to a relationship crash. The other is that there may be an imbalance in what each partner perceives he or she is getting out of it. And since this sort of relationship is founded on what you want to get for yourself, when you think you’re not getting what you deserve, you move on. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a relationship like this, so I’ll move on to the next type. But since both of them exhibit crucial structural and motivational similarities, I felt it was necessary to talk a bit about that one. One thing Aristotle doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with is what I might term a hybrid relationship, which is one in which the basic features of the relationship are, say, erotic, and most of the activities are sexual in nature, but one of the partners is looking for something other than mere sex. Maybe for him or her, it started out as just the fun of boinking but eventually he or she began to desire a more complete relationship, while the partner just wants to get mindlessly naked as frequently as possible. At this point in my life, it sounds like a wonderful quandary to have, but differential goals eventually destabilize this kind of hybrid as well as most kinds of hybrid relationships.
The kinds of relationships, or — I think a far more accurate word — “associations” I am currently engaged in, and ones which have dominated my last few decades of connection with women, Aristotle calls ones based on “utility.” It is coldly correct and painfully accurate. These are associations in which one or another of the partners identifies something useful in the other that they wish to take advantage of for their own benefit, and they use the polite framework of a relationship for the impolite purpose of getting what they want at as small a cost as they as forced to pay. These are relations of what he calls coincidence and convenience, and they have been almost my entire social life for a long time.
I don’t believe in false modesty or false bragging, but I have a few qualities that a vanishingly small number of women find useful, and maybe even marginally pleasant. “Culture” might be the general term under which they can be collected. I love to attend concerts and am generous when I have an extra seat, which is always. I have excellent taste in wine, 350+ bottles in my house, and am generous with them as well. Rather enjoyable and interesting art hangs on the walls of my house and I am pleased to share the experience. I cook a decent meal and am generous with that as well. I can hold a conversation of some hours duration if necessary, and never once have to resort to a phrase like “How ’bout them Chiefs!” I am also a good listener to voices other than those in my head that keep telling me to flee before she brings out the Glock from her handbag. I presume that a few women find it useful to avail themselves of experiences of this sort, and it also seems to have been true in the past.
However, as it was with the erotic relationship, these associations, in order to work, need to have a kind of parity of benefit. If I am providing something useful to you, and you wish to have it provided in the future, you need to provide me with something useful to me. Not just something you didn’t want anyway, but something that, on my own terms, I desire and feel will benefit me. The women in my current associations seem to have the view that their mere presence in my life is far more than I deserve, and my ingratitude, when it infrequently surfaces, is puzzling to them. Such naïve narcissism, if that’s what it is, might be somewhat charming were the person in question a bright elementary school prodigy, but in an adult, it is nothing better than calculating and callous. They make some sort of bloodless computation that they can get what will benefit them in they way they want it, but never have to provide anything comparable in the bargain. These people may sport the language of friendship and even affection or love, if the occasion seems to warrant it, but it is nothing more than a cynical mask for base self-interest. Aristotle claims that the imbalance I have described and am experiencing is also inherently unstable, and yet, in my life, this genera of association seems sadly durable.
The first sentence of this blog mentioned the centrality of character in relationships, but I seem to have abandoned it after only a couple of paragraphs. Let me try to reinstate it. Most of the individual associations of the sort I have been recently describing are unstable and disappear, but the phenomenon remains in my life. Thus, the fault would appear not to be in my stars but in myself. Just as manipulating someone for personal gain is a despicable character flaw, so is permitting it to happen to yourself at least a lamentable one. Here is where I must invite Kant to the party, or wake, whichever it turns out to be. He would not have acknowledged any but the complete relationship as a legitimate sort of relationship, and since I have it from a very reliable source — the Internet — that he died a virgin, the sensual variety seems to have passed him by anyway. By regarding people as a commodity or object to be used just for the purpose of self-aggrandizement was to dehumanize them. All human associations should aspire toward the Aristotelian complete relationship in his mind, and if you let yourself be used you are dehumanizing yourself as well. There’s not much character in self-debasement, and if character is key, my own willingness to settle for imbalanced treatment is a defect that interferes with anything like a life with healthy relationships to sustain it.
What am I left with? Currently, it seems like I must accept the ugly, bitter taste these associations leave in my mouth, or walk away and have nothing at all. Those sporadic times in which I am not even exploited are lonely, devastating months. It has begun to feel that a horrible taste is preferable to none. But is there a third option? In part, that’s the subject I will pursue in the next blog. If I can find a way to develop a relationship closer to the complete one described by Aristotle, I will rinse my mouth of the bitter ugly tastes I have become accustomed to, and spit them on the ground.