Miller School of Albemarle

“Friendship is the Only University”, Miller School Headmaster’s Dinner, September 28, 2011, Robert Wyllie

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[Thank you, Mr. France, for inviting me to speak this evening. Thank you, my friends, for inviting me to believe you will listen to me speak this evening.

This was helpful for me to think about an important question—why am I here?

I teach history, as many of you know, but my training is in philosophy. For the last two years I have been writing an article about why a favorite philosopher of mine—Søren Kierkegaard—does not believe in historical knowledge. So it is ironic that I teach history. But Kierkegaard thought the best teachers—Socrates, Jesus…—were ironic.

Tonight I am not going to speak ironically. And I am not going to speak about Socrates, or Jesus, or even Kierkegaard. And I am certainly not going to speak about myself.]


Tonight I am going to speak about one of the great eternal topics of ethical philosophy. Perhaps it is the greatest subject of ethical philosophy. [The editors to whom I am indebted, Steve and Annie Knepper, agree. Kierkegaard does  not.[1]] To my mind, it may be the most important question philosophy can contemplate.

[Questions about this subject were very much part of the great debates of the philosophers of classical antiquity. It takes up entire dialogues written by Plato, like the Lysis. It is a major theme of three of Aristotle’s five great works. Cicero devotes a book to it. My subject has been called the “crown of life and the school of virtue.”[2]]

I would like to thank Miss Landseadel for suggesting this topic to me. Miss Laina Landseadel my newest friend here at the Miller School.

This evening I am going to talk to you about friendship.

By the end of this little talk I hope to show you something that will look strange. I hope to show you that friendship is the best university in the world, that friendship is the only real university in the world.

To see this we’ll need to open up two questions, like two eyes.

What is friendship?

Why is school first and foremost a place and a time for friendship?


Being friendly is not being a friend.

The Miller School is a friendly place. We are a small community. If we do not all know each other already, we soon will. The Miller School is cozy, close-knit, warm. Mr. France is kindhearted, welcoming, affectionate. I have not been here long, but already I have heard him say many times, “We stick together, and we take care of each other”. Bodies sticking together make warmth. People sticking together, in the same way, act warmly towards each other. They show concern for their fellows. In this way, I think, we are friendly. In some ways, we are like a family.

[The Greeks call this activity—let’s say “fostering intimacy”—the Greeks call this activity of intimation stergein. στοργή is a quality of friendship Aristotle says, because friends are friendly to each other. Friends take care of each other. But that is not the whole story. Being friendly is not being a friend.]

That’s nice.

But being friendly is not friendship.

After all, you can be friendly to people you don’t like terribly much. I hope you do. You can be warm, caring, and supportive of people you do not regard as your friends. Being friendly and being a friend are two different things altogether.

Two very different things.

[They are different things so Greek has a different word. You will please pardon a Greek word here and there. It truly is a language better suited to philosophy because it makes distinctions about important matters.]

[Friendship, or what the Greeks call φιλíα—think Philadelphia, that city called “brotherly love”… think Francophile, “love of things French”… think philosophy, “love of wisdom”—φιλíα is different from στοργή. Being a friend is more than being friendly.]

Being a friend is more than being friendly. An analogy will help us see this more clearly.

Being an athlete involves a great deal more than being athletic. After all, to be an athlete, and to be a good athlete, takes practice. It takes a specific practice of athletics: basketball, soccer… baseball if you consider that athletics. Being a good athlete will involve good coaching. Being a good athlete takes more than raw natural athletic ability. Being an athlete requires being a good teammate and a good sport. In the same way that being an athlete requires more than being athletic, being a friend is about moe than being friendly.

You are probably very friendly to many people, even other students at the Miller School, who you would not call your friends.

That’s OK. I think that’s right.

Friendship is more than being friendly.


Coming to the Miller School, surely you have left some friends behind. No doubt you had friends at other schools, perhaps you left friends behind in different parts of the world. I am sure everyone here can remember someone who used to be her friend, but is not really their friend any longer.

At this very moment, I am losing friends I had in college. Some I will never see again in my life. Some I will never think about again. Why do you stay friends with some people and lose track of others?

I have been a little misleading already. We are probably not interested just in knowing what [friendship] is, but in becoming friends. I paraphrase Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “we are not investigating to know what virtue is, but to become good.”[3]

What is friendship? I am also asking, “How can I make good friends?” “How can I be a best friend.”

A good thing to wonder.

Aristotle says that the activity of friendship, more than being friendly, is this: “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”[4]

A friend is someone who you wish the best, or what you think is best for them, and someone you will help out.

That’s pretty broad.

Good thing Aristotle has a particular way of teaching. He breaks down complex ideas into parts to help us understand what he is talking about. This technique makes him such a good teacher, so clear a guide to important subjects, that for many centuries the great teachers of humanity (Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, etc.) called him “The Philosopher”. Well then. How does the “Philosopher” break down friendship?

Aristotle breaks friendship down into three categories.

Let’s see how they might work here on the Hill.

Scene one… It is good to be on good terms with Chase Cannon, your Old Main RA. After all, if you’re on good terms with Chase Cannon, I presume, you get the advantage of not having to go to bed after check-in. Being friends with Chase Cannon, it seems to me, is a useful thing.

Scene two… It is good to hang around with Jake Sorrels. After all, if you hang around with Jake enough, you will have the distinct pleasure of hearing a lot of funny things come out of his mouth. I certainly do. Being friends with Jake Sorrels, it seems to me, might be a fun, pleasing, or pleasant thing.

Scene three… It is good to have a friend who tells it like it is. A teacher like Mr. Ross who uses a story, Fahrenheit 451, to teach you the virtue of being an independent thinker. Or a parent who gives you good advice. It is good to go to Yiming, I have heard, to have him settle a dispute you may have. Being friends with Mr. Ross, your mom and dad, or Yiming, it seems to me, might be a good way to learn what you think is right.

Now what among these three kinds is the best friend to have?

First, utility-friends are people who are useful to us. He is my friend because he cheers me up when I am discouraged. She is my friend because she helps me with my homework. Here, friendship arises from usefulness: “utility friendship”. Perhaps you might find a great advantage in being friends with Chase Cannon; after all it is useful to stay up after nightly check-ins. You might gain an advantage from his friendship.

Second, pleasure-friends are people that make us happy. Friends please us. He is my friend because he is handsome. She is my friend because she is funny. This friendship arises from pleasure: “pleasure friendship.” Perhaps one would enjoy being friends with Jake Sorrels, because after all, he is funny. You might enjoy or gain pleasure from his friendship.

Third, virtue-friends are people who we admire for their good character. We see in these friends a person who is of the same mind as us about what is right and virtuous. We can call this friendship of character or friendship of the good “virtue friendship.”[5]

Perhaps Chase and Jake, as well as Yiming and Mr. Ross and your parents, are virtue friends.

What kind of friends are your friends?

Virtue friendship, Aristotle believes, is the highest form of friendship. Virtue friendship is the whole shebang. Virtue friendship is the ultimate pleasure friendship, because you will find the deepest enjoyment in people whom you respect and admire.

Virtue friendship is the ultimate utility friendship, because your virtue-friends will be useful to who you really are, to your soul, Aristotle might say.

A virtue-friend is not simply someone who both pleases you and works to your advantage. Virtue-friendship is not a combo pack of pleasure-friendship and utility-friendship.

For Aristotle, a whole is always greater than the sum of their parts.[6] So is virtue-friendship greater than the highest pleasure, better than the greatest advantage… Virtue-friendship endures the times when friends aren’t making you very happy. Virtue-friendships last when it’s not very useful to be someone’s friend.

Virtue-friendships will last because virtue-friends admire each other for who they are.

We all have friends who make us laugh, and friends who help us out when we’re in a rut. But hopefully we have friends, maybe best friends, who are virtue friends. If you don’t, Aristotle says, hurry up and make such friends while you are still young. “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often,” Aristotle says, “since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly but older people do not…”[7]

Make your friends, especially your virtue-friends, soon. Really soon. Now.

After all, that is why you are at school.



I got ahead of myself a little and stumbled into our second question.

Why is school a place for friendship?

A story first.

This summer I was sent to a New Teacher Institute, where I learned some things.

A woman who was there, and she was really a nice woman, warned me of the perils of getting too “friendly” with students. I never have this problem, because, thank goodness, I am not too terribly friendly.

But then she said, “Be professional,” she said, “you are your students’ teacher, not their friend.” The disjunction is improper. Why can’t you be a teacher and a friend?

I do not think this woman knew the first thing about education or friendship.

So I didn’t ask why you can’t be both a teacher and a friend.

She may have known some things about education, but she did not know what Aristotle calls the archai, the “first things”.[8]

She may have thought that the first thing about friends are that they are equals. Not so. Friendship is not about equality. Your parents are your friends, I hope, but in an important sense they are not your equals. They do, however, teach you about virtue. I hope.

And first thing about friendship… about the best kind of friendship… is not that you like someone.

The first thing about the first, or best, kind of friendship is that you admire someone for being a good person, a person who can show you meaningful and virtuous ways to live your life.

I hope your teachers do that. I hope they are good friends of yours. Friends in the highest sense I am talking about.


I was starting to say that school was first and foremost a place for friendship.

School is a place where you ought to get an education, and we have begun to see how the best kind of education comes from friendship. Admiring what is good, true, and meaningful. Friendship is for school; school is for friendship.

I realize you are expected to do more than make friends here at school.

[School takes some “work”. After all, there are things you need to know. Facts. A curriculum. A curriculum comes from the ancients’ word for a course for athletes to run around. Latin students will know that the Romans called their curriculum the Big Circus.

It’s all the same word.

For some of you, this might be more than an etymological coincidence.  Some of you might think that history and chemistry and math and English are just a Big Circus. Each period, each subject, each item of schoolwork. just lays out hoops for you to jump through.]

But schoolwork is a contradiction in terms. The word school is derived from the Greek word skhole, meaning leisure.[9] If a school is really a school, it is supposed to be a place not for work but for leisure. For enjoyment. A time to kick back and relax with your friends.

It is.

But remember who your friends are. Your real friends, I mean. Your best friends. They’re not just people you have fun with, not just people who you like, not just people who are useful to you. A good school should be a place where you and your friends delight yourselves with the highest kind of enjoyment, education.

Education is supposed to be leisurely and delightful. Or so the ancients thought.

Is that ridiculous?

No doubt some of you think that education is not terribly fun. (But no doubt some of you are not really being educated.) Education does not mean imparting outside knowledge you never knew upon you, impressing knowledge into your brain like stamp into hot wax.

Education means educing, leading you out of yourself. Leading who you really are out from under a jumble of mindless habits and unthinking routines and stupid things people have told you during your life. Education assumes that you are not the real you.

Who are you? You are a basketball player, a favorite son, a scientist, a becoming young lady, a cyclist, an aspiring engineer, a precocious student. Sure. You may be those things right now. But someday, if you are lucky, you will be old. And you will no longer be a basketball player or a favorite son or a scientist or a becoming young lady or a cyclist or an aspiring engineer or a precocious student. But you will still be you.

Education is meant to bring out who you are that you will always be. What are the values, the virtues, the commitments, the passions that will make you you? And of course finding a good friend means recognizing these values, virtues, commitments, passions. Friendship, good friendship, is the highest education.

If you do not think about these things, the first things, you will never become the master of your destiny or the captain of your soul. Without taking the time to think about what you believe in, life will just be one thing after another. You will never take a stand for what you think is right, or good.

Aristotle says that is what life is like for animals and slaves.


It is fun to imagine that right now all of your teachers, my colleagues, are squirming in their seats and squirming the backs of their minds, saying, “Nonsense! Students are here to learn facts and figures they will need in life. Skills they will need for jobs. Grades they will need to go to university. The Miller School isn’t some place for them to relax and enjoy each other’s company!”

And maybe more than one of them sits there thinking, “Why did Mr. France let Mr. Wyllie talk about all this philosophical nonsense? Sure it sounds nice. I guess Aristotle is a big deal to some people. But the fact of the matter is that I teach good writing, or I teach ideal gas laws, or I teach differential equations.”

If these kids never learn how to write or perform sums, they will never go to college, they will never get good jobs, they will never be able to do work…


Hmm. That’s true.

Work is making something useful, something external… an object… something that is not you. You can work on a kayak in design/build. You can work on your homework, sure. It is important to know how to do these things.

But school is not school unless you learn how to work on yourself. If the things we have you do, like homework, are not part of you working on yourself… well we’re forgetting the first things.

First things first.

Working on yourself is not working on something external. It is not working on an object like a kayak or a homework assignment. In the true sense it is not work at all, but leisure. School is a time to escape working on things and work on yourself.

School is not school unless it is leisure.

Aristotle would say it is slave-training.

And that’s not a job I ever really dreamed of doing.

If the Miller School was simply a preparatory, a place to prepare you for the next step, college… And then college is a place that simply prepares you for a profession or a career like medicine or professional ski-jumping… Well then we could do a much better job.

Over Christmas break in the ninth grade you could pick a career. You would get ahead of so many other kids learning about medicine or ski-jumping. And why not? You could sack me… of course… and also get rid of Mr. Ross and Ms. Winck and Mr. Knepper. Mr. Hufnagel could teach the ultimate English-course, “Writing for Business and Law”, to some of you. For others, it could be Ms. Simpkins, “Writing for Medical Science”.

[The European Union is doing this in high schools. It’s called the “Bologna Process.” Baloney process.]

Aristotle would call this slave-training. Whoa there, Aristotle, I just want to get a good job, man! Aristotle is not being melodramatic or hyperbolic. If all you learn at school is how to do work. If all you learn are skills. If all you do is get disciplined… then where is your freedom?

Because you cannot be free unless you take responsibility for the citizen you are going to be, not just the worker you are going to be. You will not be free unless you gain some thoughtful insight… a look inside… thinking about who you are. You will not be free unless you feel the same way, learn to have the same passions and feelings about important things, as other people.

Only then can you act freely and make your own decisions.

You cannot call someone free if they have no control over the person they are, if their life is just automatic responses to one thing after another.

Take a quick look sometime at the mission of this school: building responsible citizens, insightful thinkers, and compassionate individuals… We promise to give you an education, and it looks like that education will come from friendship.


There is no higher education than this.

Of course we talk about college, university, and higher education. I hope all of you will go to college.

But I don’t want to say that higher education is for later, for when you leave here, for down the road.

Virtue-friendship is when two people, or a group of people, all look to the same one good. The real meaning of university, “the many looking to the one”, is synonymous with virtue-friendship.

Virtue-friendship is when two people or a lot of people look towards the same good. The many look to the one. Universitas. Friendship is the school of virtue, and virtue-friendship is university.

Virtue-friendship is university.

There is no higher education than this.

There are only more specific skills to learn. Many, many techniques to be learned at a polytechnic institute, perhaps a polytechnic institute that tells you on every shirt and jersey and mug and building that it is a university. But at these places many people do many different things and nobody is looking to “one” good. At these places there may not be universal agreement about what is right or good. At these places there may not be virtue-friendship.

So while you may go somewhere called a university, and be at a place called a university, you will never really be in university.

You will not be in university until you make strong friendships, and until your help you acquire the virtues you think are important.

You could be in university right now.

If you do not do find true friendship, you will be tricked into being what a half-insane philosopher called Hegel calls slaves without masters. Slaves to others’ ideas, or animals because you have no ideas of your own. If you do not find true friendship, you will never be an educated person.


Has anyone told you this before?

I suspect that you are going off to face a world that has forgotten what it means to be a friend. One of my friends is one of the best-read bloggers in the United States. Here is what he says: “We have almost forgotten how to achieve [friendship] today.  [Friendship] is a form of union which is truer than love, stabler than sex, deeper than politics, and more moral than the family.”[10]

Sociologists in June 2006 said Americans have fewer friends then they once did. That is not a problem. Aristotle figures you’re lucky even to have a few real friends.[11] Ian Kim figures about three.

The problem in the study is that 25% of Americans report having no real friends. Do you think it is a problem?

Perhaps they have never looked.

In your life, you may look for a good job. You may look for true love. But you probably don’t think of looking for true friendship.

That would be a real mistake, I think.


Look for it here. Look for friendship, now, with new eyes.

The best kind of friendship is the admiration of a good person, a person who will display the virtues you will need to be a person with a handle of your life and some control over your destiny.

Have friendships of the many looking towards one idea of what is good or right. Virtue-friendship is the definition of university.

You will forget many things we teach you here at this school.

You would be wise to have friends that you will not forget. Perhaps even your teachers. Perhaps even me. You would be wise, because friendship will be a higher education.

[1] WL 59.

[2] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. 57.

[3] 1103b27-28

[4] Rhetoric. 1380b36–1381a2

[5] EN 1156b7-8.

[6] Metaphysics.

[7] EN 1158a2-4.

[8] Phys. 184a10–21

[9] Josef Pieper. Leisure: The Basis of Culture and the Philosophical Act. 19-20. Ignatius, 2009.

[10] Andrew Sullivan. Love Undetectable. 228

[11] EN 1171a20.

Written by Miller School of Albemarle

September 30, 2011 at 12:48 PM

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