Socrates and De Charny on Friends and Enemies

The Arms of Geoffoi de Charny

Geoffroi de Charny was one of the greatest knights of France, a bold adventurer who features prominently in the chronicles of Froissart. He was a member of the Order of the Star, and was chosen to bear the sacred banner of France at Poitiers. He died with it in his hands.

He also composed a serious work of ethics, from the perspective of a knight trying to explain to other knights and men-at-arms the best way to live. He makes an argument about friendship, and relations with enemies, that ought to interest us.
There is a supreme rule of conduct required in these good men-at-arms as the above-mentioned men of worth inform us: they should be humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful toward those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies, pleasant and amiable with all others.... Love and serve your friends, hate and harm your enemies, relax with your friends, exert yourself with all your strength against your foes. You should plan your enterprises cautiously and you should carry them out boldly.
He goes on to warn against quarrels, so we may take 'enemies' here to be enemies of the deadly serious sort. There were enough of them for any man in the Hundred Years War.

Recently we considered an argument that questioned whether it was possible to accept an account of patriotism as a virtue, given that it was not universal as many philosophers believe justice ought to be. The good doctor referred us to The Republic, which is supposed to challenge the idea of in-group loyalty. The men who lived in Athens at and after the time of the Peloponnesian War, though, also had real enemies and real friends: this audience understands the proposition. Socrates' arguments are problematic, and I'm not sure that he should be read as undermining the idea he is taken by moderns to criticize.

Socrates' first argues not that it is wrong to be more interested in helping your friends than your enemies, but it doesn't make any sense to say that justice is the art of 'helping friends and harming foes.' But Socrates has set us up, by portraying justice as a kind of skill -- techne, in the Greek. If justice were 'the skill of helping friends and harming enemies,' then Socrates' argument would be right: justice would be of little use, since the actual power to cause help or harm is always found in other skills. Justice isn't a skill, though: it's a disposition. The just man is disposed to use your skills for the help of your friends and the harm of your foes.

Socrates goes on to prove that justice is theft. Again we see the skill/disposition problem, though. It is true that the same skill is involved in knowing how to keep money from being stolen, and knowing how to steal it. Justice doesn't lie in the skill, though, but in the disposition of the man who employs the skill. The difference between the just man and the thief is how he is disposed to use the skills that he has.

Both of these objections are answered by Aristotle's system of ethics, whereby virtues are not skills but a kind of habitual response to a kind of problem. This is to say that Socrates is treating a man as having skills, of which justice is one; but Aristotle adds the layer of a man having character. There is a reason you can trust the good guard, but not the thief, even if their skills are just the same. The virtue of justice is part of the character of the one man, while the other one is vicious.

Socrates, though, has another set of arguments that are more troubling. First he asks who our friends and enemies are:
S: By friends and enemies do we mean those who are so really, or only in seeming?

P: Surely, he said, a man may be expected to love those whom he thinks good, and to hate those whom he thinks evil.

S: Yes, but do not persons often err about good and evil: many who are not good seem to be so, and conversely?

P: That is true....

S: Then I suppose that we ought to do good to the just and harm to the unjust?
Here there is another problem, which is that the definition of justice has become circular. Justice is helping the just and harming the unjust; 'the just' are defined as those who help the just and harm the unjust; 'the unjust' are defined as those who fail to help the just and harm the unjust. So how do I know whom to help? It can't be that I pick the man who helps everyone, unless no one is unjust: for failing to harm the unjust makes him unjust, and so I have a duty to harm him.

Socrates goes on to argue that harming anyone makes him less just, and thus that the just would only help. In practical fact, of course, that isn't true; punishments sometimes do reform, or at least dissuade. But it's also a logical problem even on his own terms. Say someone goes about harming everyone. That makes those people less just. I have a duty to harm the unjust; thus, everyone who was a victim of the first person is a more legitimate target of harm from me simply by virtue of being a victim.

There is a sort-of hope that we might be able to lift people up by doing better by them than they deserve. If we always help (and if the assumption were true that helping people makes them more just), we could ratchet our way up to justice meaning helping everyone because everyone is just. Of course, in practical fact, it's not true: but again, logically, if I help someone who is unjust I am not being just according to the standard, and my choosing to be unjust damages me. I become less just (and thus more worthy of harm, by everyone) because of my act of charity.

Ultimately, then, Socrates' arguments do what Socrates loved to do -- they raise problems for you to struggle with. Socrates isn't proposing an answer, he's making you question the assumptions in the hope that you will come to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Notice, though, two things:

1) In his earlier arguments, Socrates doesn't abandon the idea of an in-group morality: we are to help our friends and harm our enemies. The question is merely whether justice helps us do this.

2) Likewise, in the later passages, there is an in-group morality: the distinction between 'the just' and 'the unjust' is still there. Unfortunately, the circularity of the definition, and the misapprehension of justice as a skill, gives rise to logical problems that confuse the discussion.

We learn more of practical worth by reading de Charny, but we learn more about how to think -- and how to avoid the traps of thought -- by reading Plato. Both things are worthy. As de Charny says:
Refrain from remonstrating with fools, for you will be wasting your time, and they will hate you for it; but remonstrate with the wise, who will like you the better for it.
Socrates was like that: he loved no man better than the one who would argue with him.


douglas said...

"Socrates isn't proposing an answer, he's making you question the assumptions in the hope that you will come to a deeper understanding of the issue."

Perhaps then, the answer could be said to be the gaining of discernment through experience and consideration. Formulaic answers only go so far, and always have an exception or flaw.

It strikes me that his techniques could be compared to those of Eastern men of wisdom, in that questions tell you more than answers.

Grim said...

Well, there may be several answers that might work. What he's trying to do is to get you to question things you take for granted.

For example, you could make the first formula work if you take justice to be not a skill but a disposition. But if you want the second formula:

"Justice is helping the good and harming the evil."

...then you need a way of rooting "good" and "evil" that doesn't refer back to "justice." If you have one, that formula can work too.

Of course, that just happens to be one of the harder philosophical problems. :) Socrates would be delighted if you got hooked into it.

Eric Blair said...

In life Experience is the great teacher.

(In Whiskey, Teacher's is the great experience)

Grim said...

Now that's a good line.

Cass said...

Socrates was like that: he loved no man better than the one who would argue with him.

So.... what you're telling me is that your new nickname should be "Socrates"? :p

/running away

Grim said...

Nah. I like to argue with women, too. :)