Nietzsche and others made the idea that humans can really be friends suspicious. How Tai Ji Men, and its protests, show us how to rehabilitate it.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Building Friendships Around the Tai Ji Men Cause,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 31, 2021.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on August 6th, 2021.
Centuries of philosophical discussions about friendship are based on a typo. In several manuscripts of the famous Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written in Greek by Diogenes Laërtius in the 3rd century CE, we read this statement, attributed to Aristotle: “ô philoi, oudeis philos,” whose translation is “My friends, there is no friend.” Up to the 19th and the 20th century, pessimistic philosophers including Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida (and before them, Immanuel Kant) used this quote to strengthen their point that friendship is largely a delusion. This is important for the modern anti-religious critique of religious and spiritual concept of love and peace, such as those advanced by Tai Ji Men. Love and peace, Nietzsche and later Derrida would say, are impossible. “There is no friend.”
However, Aristotle never said this. Already at the end of the 16th century Isaac Casaubon, who was a very fastidious textual critic, had demonstrated that “ô philoi” is a typo, and the only acceptable versions of the text of Diogenes Laërtius are those that replace “ô philoi” with “oi philoi.” Technically, the Greek letter omega is formed with a different diacritic and a iota subscript is added. The small difference is crucial. With “oi” rather than “ô” the sentence translates “The person who has [too] many friends, has no friend.”
So translated, Aristotle’s sentence makes perfect sense, and may even have been written for Facebook. We call our contacts in Facebook “friends,” and are allowed to have up to 5,000 of them, a limit I once reached. But these obviously are not “friends” in the usual sense of the term, and the misuse of the word “friends” on social networks may have negative consequences.
The French 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne, despite making the usual mistake about Aristotle’s quote, is credited with putting friendship at the center of the Western philosophical reflection on the person. He noticed in advance the problem how we can be sure that friendship exists, and is not just a sugary delusion alien to real life. He answered by returning to the notion of friendship advanced in the first century BCE by the Roman scholar and lawyer Cicero, who identified three components of friendship: common purposes, benevolence, and charity.
Interestingly, Cicero saw the root of benevolence and charity in conscience, and in fact was the first scholar in history to use the word “conscience” (conscientia) in the moral sense we are familiar with. We can summarize his thought by stating that friendship is possible when two or more persons who have some common purposes in life systematically act towards each other with benevolence and charity (caritas, which is a non-erotic form of love), guided by conscience.
Unfortunately, the same Nietzsche who criticized friendship and religion also offered a destructive criticism of conscience, as something that creates feelings of guilt and represses our natural drive to go beyond rules and traditions. This criticism has remained, supported by parallel critics by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, deeply ingrained in our culture, and has created a skepticism toward conscience.
This explains the importance of the contribution Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the leader of Tai Ji Men, offered to our contemporary world when he started going from country to country rehabilitating the idea of conscience. His efforts were so successful that the United Nations established an International Day of Conscience in 2019.
This month, commemorating the U.N. Resolution that established the International Day of Conscience, Dr. Hong said that “Conscience is the lighthouse of the soul, providing hope and direction for sailors on a dark sea. A society with an awakened conscience will have a stronger cooperative power to break through the current darkness.” The International Day of Conscience has a special relation with the International Day of Friendship. Conscience makes benevolence and charity, hence true friendship, believable and possible.
What happened to Tai Ji Men with the injustice vested on them by physical persecution first, then persecution through taxes, was a tragedy. But it was also the opportunity to prove that what they tell the world about conscience and friendship is not just made of empty worlds. When thousands and thousands of young and less young people took to the streets to protest, a friendship rooted in conscience appeared as a lighthouse of the soul, to borrow Dr. Hong’s words, proving that yes, benevolence and charity directed to a common goal are a reality, not a delusion.
One minor miracle was that with their protests the Tai Ji Men dizi made many friends beyond Taiwan and throughout the world. We are part of this friendship. Friendship is real, and Nietzsche was wrong. While we ideally walk with the dizi, in friendship and calling for justice, we live this love between friends called charity, and savor the truth of the words of Apostle Paul in the Bible: “faith, hope, and charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).