Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aristotle, Montaigne, and Friendship: A Piano Lesson

It is always great fun (for me, anyway) to teach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to first-year students. It contains a deceptively simple recipe for rearing children, or reforming oneself. One does not follow a list of rules; rather, one becomes the sort of person for whom the rules are no longer necessary. The virtous avoid injustice not out of fear of punishment, but out of horror of dishonor. They refrain from drinking too much not with an eye to law enforcement or the waistline, but because the thought of over-indulgence strikes them as disgusting. It is not difficult, once one has achieved these heights, to be good. It is a pleasant, joyful, noble life.

How does one achieve such a life? This is the good part: you simply thoughtfully imitate those who are already there. You confront a fear, refrain from manipulating your colleagues and friends, give generously even when you have needs of your own. But there are some painful caveats. Among them is this: the way that you acquire vice is the same as the way that you acquire virtue. In other words, if you become excellent by behaving well, you become morally lost by behaving badly.

And so it is with your fingers.

Suppose you are learning to play the piano. You attempt to play Vivaldi’s "Spring"—and since you are just learning, you follow dutifully the fingering markings placed above some of the notes. They tell you that after you play 3 (the middle finger) of your left hand, all you have to do next is place the 2 (index) on the key next to the one that you just played. But 1 (the thumb) will have none of it. The thumb remembers the piece you were practicing last week, or the scale that you used to warm up, where it pulled that neat trick in which it slides gracefully under those impertinent fingers and catches a key behind. It wants to move.

Unfortunately, when it moves, number 2 is no longer in place to make the easy move to the next key. You fumble and mess up—and play on. The next time, the thumb’s presumption has not been corrected, and so it tries again to move. The next time too. Congratulations. You have now engraved in your hand the memory of how not to play the piece.

When one of your fingers chooses to rebel in this manner, the punishment must be swift and proportionate. A mediocre, sloppy performance of a piece will remain mediocre and sloppy as long as you continue to play it through over and over again. In fact—such a method is an excellent way to train yourself to play the piece very badly indeed. Your fingers, like the soul, develop habit in resemblance to action. The only way to escape is through slow, precise, and dedicated attention to the action that has become difficult.

Now we come across another problem: when you first begin to play a piece of any complexity whatsoever, the whole thing is difficult. Here, the above corrective technique will not work. You cannot stop at every measure and learn it by itself. Or I cannot, at least. Besides the profound tediousness of such a procedure, it ensures that you will never learn to connect the measures to one another.

The trick is to know when one has played the piece through enough times to discern where the genuine difficulties are. Do you see how delicate this will be? Playing through the rough places too many times will train you in the habit of playing them badly. Stopping at every moment where the piece becomes difficult will train you to play haltingly and hate the piece. And in my experience, there is no predicting when you will reach the horizon between one ocean and the other.

If it is this difficult to identify the problems in a piece of music, consider how much more difficult it must be to find the problems in that infinitely more complicated instrument—the human soul. Its mysteries have no notation, and we have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to look at the sheet music at all.

Here, Montaigne insists, is why we need friends—of the right sort. These are not—as we may be tempted to think—those who insist that our most feeble, awkward efforts are dulcet, lilting tones. They are rather those who can tell us where our faults lie. He identifies as a crucial disadvantage of greatness the lack of fellows who are willing to challenge a ruler. This lamentable condition does not really honor the ruler; it insults and stultifies him. By yielding every point to those in power over us, “we confirm and authorize the defects and vices they have.”

It is no accident, I think, that Montaigne places this essay before “Of the art of discussion,” wherein he describes an excellent friend as one willing to oppose and contradict—“a strong, manly fellowship and familiarity, a friendship that delights in the sharpness and vigor of its intercourse, as does love in bites and scratches that draw blood.” “It is not vigorous and generous enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is civilized and artful, if it fears knocks and moves without constraint.”

In action, as in music, it is far too easy to play the notes one has always played, however discordant the result. We need other ears to hear us, and to remind us that we are capable of more. I suspect Montaigne is right that harmony in life requires friendship open to the contrast of dissonance.

One final, important note: I am not saying that this is why I am here.


  1. This is an excellent and provocative reflection. A few questions that it provokes:

    1. To reach the point where the thought of over-indulgence in a particular domain strikes one as positively disgusting, is it necessary to have experienced over-indulgence in that domain? Helpful but not necessary?

    2. If the answer to the above question is yes, does that imply that vice is a precondition of virtue?

    3. I love the piano analogy. Like Aristotle, you illustrate the conditions of good practice by analogy with art/craft (techne). But how far, I wonder, should we take the analogy? At what point do we reach its limits? Are the differences between identifying the problems in a piece of music and identify those of the human soul differences in degree? Or are they differences in kind?

    4. "Harmony in life requires friendship open to the contrast of dissonance." Very true, I think. How about the following corollary? Attempts to force harmony, closing themselves to dissonance, will inevitably result in chaos.

  2. Margaret WatkinsMay 6, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    Very generous of you. Some thoughts:

    1. With respect to forming noble disgust, I think that it is not only not necessary, but likely harmful, to experience over-indulgence. This *may* be a way to inspire the requisite disgust, but it also may simply encourage one in a Calliclean project. (Third seconds!) Which happens probably depends on one's nature, but given that part of the problem is discerning one's nature, we have another vexing issue here. (I am reminded of Montaigne's "Various outcomes of the same plan.")

    2. N/A

    3. Nope, we can't possibly push the analogy too far. Ebony and Ivory, after all.

    Actually, I'm not sure what to say about this. With respect to certain problems, I think the difference is only one of degree. Consider the following sort of person: she believes that she must better herself, and tries sincerely to do so by reflecting each day on mistakes she has made. She is unable to discern which ones express an underlying serious fault, and which are, e.g., simple mistakes or caused by occasional weakness. Here, I think, a friend of the sort Montaigne mentions could help, and this situation strikes me as closely analogous to the piano example--a difference only in degree.

    But then there's another, perhaps more common, situation: one is repeatedly acting viciously (or merely failing to act virtuously), and one is unaware of it entirely. Here we have a difference in kind, at least with respect to the kind of example I've presented. When one's fingers misbehave in this way, one knows it instantly. The note jars, and the hand fumbles. Not necessarily so, in the case of vicious action. And yet . . . there *is* a kind of musical mistake the player has trouble hearing--or perhaps many kinds of mistakes.

    4. Excellent. Such attempts, however, might also result in insipidity, which can be even worse.