With Friends Like These...

Who Needs Serenity?

AN OLD GREEK named Ibycus said a long time ago that "an argument needs no reason, nor a friendship." For me and my friends, friendship is argument. Friends have to argue. And friends that don't aren't really friends.

My roommates and I get into arguments all the time. And we almost always end up shouting so loud that people can hear us all the way down the hall. Voices get hoarse, tempers flare, sometimes we throw insults or furniture at each other, some of us stomp out of the room fuming--but only to come back to get that last, trenchant word.

Don't get me wrong--I think we're one of the closest bunch of roommates at Harvard. It might be better, then, to think of our arguments as dialogues. Or even better, dialogues of friendship. (Does that somehow ring a bell?) To give you an idea of what I mean, here's an excerpt from our most recent spate of angry, but friendly words:

DAN For I suppose that cooling is not the work of heat, but of its opposite.

ALBERT Yes.

DAN Nor wetting the work of dryness but of its opposite.

ALBERT Certainly.

DAN Nor is harming, in fact, the work of the good but of its opposite.

KENJI It looks like it.

DAN And it's the just man who is good?

LARRY Certainly.

DAN Then it is not the work of the just man to harm either a friend or anyone else, Albert, but of his opposite, the unjust man.

ALBERT In my opinion, Dan, what you say is entirely correct.

Just kidding! I plagiarized this stuff from Plato's Republic (Book I, 335d--in case you don't believe me). Speaking seriously now, what follows is a sampling of what really happens. This is part of an argument we had a few nights ago. And to protect the privacy of our real interlocutors, I've changed their names.

SOCRATES I don't think you're being honest in your essay, Glaucon. I think you're rationalizing a lot.

GLAUCON Don't say that to me! I wrote here what I honestly thought when I decided I didn't want to study chemistry anymore. I want to do art. You can't tell me what I think! I don't say what you say. You can go to--

ADEIMANTUS Yeah, Socrates, I think you're not being very fair to Glaucon.

SOCRATES Glaucon, are you still taking the chemistry GRE?

GLAUCON Yes.

SOCRATES Why are you still taking it, when you've said you've decided to commit yourself to art?

GLAUCON I've already signed up for it. Plus, I want to prove to myself I could have done chemistry if I wanted to.

SOCRATES But you said you don't want to do chemistry! You should cancel and get your refund! If you're really being honest when you say you want to do art, you should cancel your chemistry GRE!

GLAUCON (Fuming) I'm not going to cancel this GRE just to prove to you that I want to do art!

ADEIMANTUS Socrates, you always want to impose your opinions on everyone else. You just want everyone to be like you.

SOCRATES Hey, if I believe in my standards, why shouldn't I want everyone else to live up to them?!

ADEIMANTUS Socrates, if taking the chemistry GRE is just a drop in the bucket for Glaucon, then it would just be plain stupid of Glaucon not to take it. There's a small chance he might change his mind and want to go back to chemistry.

SOCRATES No! If you're going to make a commitment, you've got to burn your bridges! When I decided to quit the premed track, my mother told me to take the MCAT just in case I change my mind. I even registered for it. But I didn't take it because taking it would've meant that I wasn't sure about my commitment to going into politics.

ADEIMANTUS But that's not rational. Look, Glaucon is just being rational by hedging his bets a little.

SOCRATES (Fuming) But commitments aren't supposed to be rational! I don't know about you, Adeimantus, but when I get married, I'm going to treat it like a real commitment. I'm not going to sign a prenuptial agreement even though you probably think that's the only rational thing to do. Through sickness and in health, for better or for worse--you turn that all into crap when you sign a prenuptial agreement! That's what Glaucon's doing! He's signing a prenuptial agreement while he's declaring his commitment to a career in art! You can't keep your options open and be committed to something at the same time! Making a commitment means closing off your options. That's what a commitment is!

GLAUCON Okay, you've made your point. I'll think about what you've said.

This dialogue illustrates what I value about my friends.

"True friendship is never serene." Thus wrote Marie de Rabutin-Chantal--whoever she is--in 1671. Friendship is the rough average between a courtroom trial and a self-affirmation tape, the middle ground between the disinterested search of truth and maternal caring. that middle ground is full of heated arguments that get really personal. Friendship is that place where it is painful to tell the truth and hear the truth, but where you also know that the truth is the best thing for everybody involved. Friends point out each other's hypocrisies and get past the resentment that comes out of it. Friends help you be honest. Friends guard your integrity both for you and from you. As wise old Mencius said many years ago, "Friendship with a man is friendship with his virtue."

I'd like to see Beavis and Butthead get into a real argument sometime. (Something more substantial than, say, "Shut up, Butthead, or I'll kick your ass!") I think it would make them better friends. Better people, too.