"O my friends, there is no friend"
Each of Derrida’s lectures began with a recitation of this gnomic trouvaille. (An English-language version of the lectures has been published as “The Politics of Friendship.”)
This “performative contradiction,” which Derrida and his followers have found so revealing, was not in fact uttered by Aristotle, who was too intelligent to spout such nonsense.
The mistaken ascription to Aristotle goes back to Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” a compilation from the third century CE. In this text (V, 21-22), the saying goes as follows: “He who has friends can have no true friend.” This b.s. was ostensibly reported by one Favorinus. It is found, Diogenes tells us, in the seventh book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That citation is doubly misleading, for the remark seems to be a garbled rendering of a remark in the ninth book of the Nicomachean Ethics: “Those who have a great many friends and greet anyone familiarly are felt to be friends of nobody.” For his part, Aristotle is simply reporting this notion as conventional wisdom; he does not necessarily endorse it.
Empirically, the generalization could be true of some people: Ronald Reagan was said to know many people, but to have no true friends. Yet Bill Clinton appears to have lots of friends.
At all events, from Aristotle to Favorinus to Diogenes Laertius to Montaigne to Derrida, we witness a display of the phenomenon of “Chinese whispers,” alluding to the old parlor game in which a message is passed privately from one person to another, becoming distorted in the process.
To come back to Derrida, this supposedly profound quotation reveals a crucial flaw that is all-too-typical of that wayward magus. Working hastily and carelessly, he will commonly seize upon a garbled quotation, making it the centerpiece of his remarks. This touches on a broader problem of experimental writing in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce: is it creativity or carelessness?
At all events, the result may be startling. Yet in this case it is not philosophy, but Derri-dada. It may be, however, that the principle alluded to does apply to Derrida, a thinker so slippery and arbitrary that he could never be a true friend to anyone--certainly not to his readers.