14 February 2007

Schopenhauer and friendship

This is what Schopenhauer says about friendship:
In many cases, there is a grain of true and genuine friendship in the relation of man to man, though generally, of course, some secret personal interest is at the bottom of them - some one among the many forms that selfishness can take. But in a world where all is imperfect, this grain of true feeling is such an ennobling influence that it gives some warrant for calling those relations by the name of friendship, for they stand far above the ordinary friendships that prevail amongst mankind. The latter are so constituted that, were you to hear how your dear friends speak of you behind your back, you would never say another word to them.

Apart from the case where it would be a real help to you if your friend were to make some great sacrifice to serve you, there is no better means of testing the genuineness of his feelings than the way in which he receives the news of a misfortune that has just happened to you. At that moment the expression of his features will either show that his one thought is that of true and sincere sympathy for you; or else the absolute composure of his countenance, or the passing trace of something other than sympathy, will confirm the well-known maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous deplaît pas.” Indeed, at such a moment, the ordinary so-called friend will find it hard to suppress the signs of a slight smile of pleasure. There are few ways by which you can make more certain of putting people into a good humour than by telling them of some trouble that has recently befallen you, or by unreservedly disclosing some personal weakness of yours. How characteristic this is of humanity!

It is not only that people look pleased at one's misfortunes, they may sometimes be observed to look dismayed at one's good fortune.

I was once in receipt of some financial support for a period of seven years. During this period I moved into a larger house. Speculation among my friends and well-wishers may well have arisen that I would not be able to maintain myself, along with my various colleagues, in this more desirable house once the financial support came to an end. One of these colleagues paid a social call on a Professor and his wife. "And what will you do when your grant comes to an end?" the wife enquired, operating under cover of the social convention which enables people to enquire into your affairs on the assumption that their intentions are benevolent. "Oh, we will go on living in the same house," my colleague replied, and told me afterwards how the face of the Professor's wife dropped with surprise and regret. One may add, of course, that the Professor's wife was living in a more than comparable lifestyle to any we had ever enjoyed, and with far greater social status and security, so that her reaction was not due to our continuing to have some advantage which she did not have herself.