Philosophy, friendship, and ideology

It’s been interesting to watch how I’ve lost the will to discuss philosophical or theoretical or intellectual topics with certain acquaintances over the years.

The first batch of conversation partners flamed out, I suppose, late in the Obama/Harper years. The other main grouping went up in smoke “late” in the Trump/Trudeau years (if, as I hope, Trudeau doesn’t remain in power too much longer and Trump doesn’t get back into the White House). The first group was made up of very unreasonable, angry young progressives, and the second of very unreasonable, angry young right-wingers.

I don’t claim that I was indefatigably blameless or perfect in all these interactions, though in my defence it can be difficult to know quite what the right thing is to do when seeking to have an intelligent conversation with someone whose brain has been thoroughly corrupted by prepackaged ideologies. But my purpose here isn’t to assign blame, but rather to consider the after-effects of these conflicts, as I’ve experienced them.

I think that a truly philosophical friendship, a friendship that facilitates genuine shared inquiry into philosophical questions, requires a deep trust. It’s a trust that attributes to the other person a particular sort of virtue, trusting that the person will be willing to question assumptions, especially the sorts of assumptions that the questioners would have personal reasons of one sort or another to accept unquestioningly. It is a kind of lighthearted, hungry intellectual freedom that underlies these partnerships.

That sort of virtue exists. The people who exhibit that virtue are out there. Long chats with them can be a delight. But you never know how deep the virtue really goes in a person, I find, until it’s actually tested.

The average person, without that special something that makes the soul inclined toward philosophical questions, will react to many sorts of questions with defensiveness, horror, fear, uncertainty, disbelief, anger, disgust, contempt, no matter the apparent motives for asking, and that is an entirely natural and suitable way to respond.

Someone who wants to think through the assumptions underpinning our view of the world will learn relatively young to avoid broaching these questions with such people, as it can only cause pain to both sides. By the same token, such a person learns to rejoice when encountering another inquisitive mind that can bracket dogmatisms for the purpose of exploration. This can grow into the sort of friendship that allows for strong differences and disagreements without ever really deteriorating into ugly emotions.

But such friendships seem to be fragile things in one way, depending in the end on a trust that is strong and yet breakable. Philosophical virtue, it appears, can reach its limits and revert back into vice, especially under the influence of a potent dose of dogmatic ideology. I don’t think ideology is bad as such, but it does seem it can have an anti-philosophic effect on precisely the sorts of minds that may be most drawn to inquire into it.

It’s relatively rare to find the delightful people I’ve described and to establish such bonds of trust, and it is a deep misfortune to lose that aspect of the friendship. There’s a friend of mine who broke with me in this way over a decade ago, and while we still enjoy one another’s company, there’s a guardedness now that for the moment at least seems permanently insurmountable.

My instinct at present seems to be to put some friendships on life-support during social moments of ideological fervour and agitation; I communicate less, try to stay more superficial, with the hope of returning to normal when the social crisis has run its course. I’ve learned I’m happier not knowing how deep the virtue runs in a given person. Those trusted few are too precious to lose, even if it means having to remain somewhat ignorant about the extent of a friend’s trustworthiness, in a way. I realize that this probably sounds like a bit of a grim piece of calculus, and I agree. I don’t claim to have found the right way to approach these things, but this is what I’ve managed to arrive at so far.

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