Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"O my friends, there is no friend"

Some twenty years ago Jacques Derrida gave a seminar in the Salle Dusanne of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He began with the apostrophe "O my friends, there is no friend" that Montaigne attributes to Aristotle. In his essay “On Friendship” (I, 28), Montaigne is reflecting on the mutability principle whereby friends can become enemies and vice versa. In ordinary life we must reconcile ourselves to the possibility that there are no friendships that we can rely on as absolutely permanent. (“You must employ that saying which Aristotle often repeated: ‘O my friends, there is no friend.'”) That is the context of Montaigne’s adoption of the saying.

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.



Blogger vikt0r said...

ahahah you must be kidding. Derrida was absolutely aware of the numerous ways the quote might have been wrongly attributed to Aristotle, and how the many of the interpretations, in and out of its "proper" context, generated a host of different meanings. words are essentially polysemic. I think you understood Derrida poorly, typically, or not at all -- especially when you accuse him of being clumsy and careless. Deconstruction is the complete reverse. To think Derrida wasn't familiar with the Nichomachean Ethics, especially the most popular sections on friendship... Ahhhahaha, are you joking???

12:07 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

For some reason, Derridada's endless parade of sophistries continues to attract fervent admiration.

It is a delusion Ha ha ha.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am no disciple of Derrida. I am no Aristotelian. Derrida is aware and states that this quote (as Montaigne uses it) might be erroneous. The fact that Derrida gave a series of lectures on what might have been said by Aristotle is of little consequence either way. Derrida's queries are useful, as are Aristotle's. Aristotle made similar queries based on hearsay.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

The subtext that probably underlies Derrida's obsession with this mantra is one of Freud's pet theories, namely that in the primordial stage of all languages words had both their primary meaning and the opposite one. Thus, in Latin "altus" meant both high and deep. In reality, the meaning is the same: remote from the observer.

Derrida is probably simply relying on a faulty text. As he later acknowledges (p. 208 in the first edition), there is an alternative reading, whereby the vocative omega that opens the passage is read as aspirated and thus becomes the dative of the pronoun; thus, "He who has friends can have no true friend" (which is the translation found in the Loeb edition). In short, much ado about nothing,

10:20 AM  

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