I’m a terrible friend. I never conceal this fact. I am blessed to have friends better than I deserve, but I only get away with that vanity because friend is a catch-all word that means two different things:
I am your friend.
You are my friend.
I know my wife is my friend. I hope I am hers — but I have good cause to doubt this. I plan to write a country hook-song for her: “You’re my heaven, I’m your hell.”
And I know I am nobody else’s friend. If I say something like this where people can answer back, they insist I am wrong. That’s sweet, but it’s incorrect. I know how I behave, a subject we will return to, and I know what I am not doing. I have not earned any credit for being a friend to anyone for a long time, and I don’t take things I haven’t earned.
But Jimmy Klein has been a good friend to me, much better than I have deserved, for the many years I have known him. One of my goals — one of my values — is to come to be a better friend to Jim.
Here is what I know about Jim Klein’s life: Almost nothing.
Here is what I know about Jim Klein’s thoughts: Almost everything.
Both statements are exaggerations, I suppose, but it’s the second one that jumps out at me. I know almost nothing about almost everyone, but I know more about Jim Klein’s philosophy than I know about anyone else’s in the world, including my own wife.
Why? Because his mind is as much like mine as anyone I’ve ever known. We come to many of the same conclusions, and, so, of course we came by very similar routes. But I think we have thought in very similar ways for our entire lives — perhaps before either of us could think in fathertongue.
That’s fun for me. When we inventory for motes and beams, each of us can find forests of errors in the other’s thinking, but that’s just because each of is making fine distinctions. But when you zoom back to a room full of people, Jim and I are philosophical twins — fraternal twins, if you like, but much closer to each other than either of is to anyone else in the room.
I’m not bragging. Jimmy’s much better at this job than I am. I’m good at illustrating the link from ontology to teleology — that’s really all I’m ever doing — but Jim is far better than I am at exploring every stone in the edifice of ideas we work in.
Which is what, precisely? How about Anarcho-Post-Randianism? Jimmy and I first met on humanities.philosophy.objectivism in Usenet — a long time ago in net.years. We were both personae non gratae to the big-O Objectivists there, but we were very close to each other, intellectually, from the time we met.
That was a first and so far unrepeated experience for me, to know someone whose thoughts on very arcane issues of philosophy were so close to my own — and I do not ever forget how far out there I am from the point of view of just about anyone else. Jimmy and I both know people who can speak our argot, as it were, but, Jim Klein is the person I know who comes closest to speaking my native language.
That’s fun for me, and it has never stopped being fun for me — all to Jim’s credit. I know for sure that I am still married because — not for a want of trying — I never quite managed to chase my wife away. And I’m pretty sure Jim Klein is my friend despite my efforts to push him off. You gotta know who you are: If I ever write a country song about my own past behavior, the hook will be, “I kinda like my bridges burned.”
And this leads right back to the issues I raised in “How you came to be a slave” — but from the other direction.
I don’t know how Jim got to where we are, but I know how I got here: From the time I was four-years-old, I have pre-emptively rejected just about everyone I have ever met. I was never the slave of the group, nor of anyone’s bad opinion. It would be far too much to say that I had disdain for other people’s opinions. For the most part, I didn’t notice them at all, except to make fun of them. The truth of my life is a joke you might well hear me make: “There are two kinds of things in the universe, and the other kind is not-me.”
It’s funny, but it is a huge part of how I lived my life until I was 19 years old. That’s when I ran into Missy Rand, and she threw me for a loop. She showed me Howard Roark, and I thought she had been reading my mail. But then she showed me Gail Wynand and I took a long, hard look at my own behavior.
Philosophy is ethics — what should I do? — and you live or die by how you answer that question. Art is the tight-wire running from ontology to teleology, and I am who I am now, as distinct from being someone quite different, because of Gail Wynand.
Rand was playing with ideas of egoism, of course. Wynand represents the egoism of Friedrich Nietzsche or Max Stirner. Roark is an exemplar of Rand’s ideas of rational self-interest. My own philosophical galaxy has egoism at its core, and my egoism grows straight out of Rand’s — which concession I see as being gracious on my part, where Rand’s minions-on-earth may regard it as a gross insult. Your mileage may vary.
But I’ve been realizing over the past two years that my behavior, even still, has not been in line with my own ethical views. I remember one day in New York City, a long time ago, I looked up and realized that the things I saw everywhere were not simply moving obstacles, they were people, just like me. That sounds like a dumb-ass epiphany, but it had a profound effect on my behavior: For the first time in my life, I started making an effort to try to treat people well. The birth of empathy!
I was never a bad guy. But like my young friend Robbie, I was always good at getting exactly what I wanted. I was an INTJ and a high-D, naturally dominant but with an indifference if not an outright contempt for other people. That’s a lone wolf, and that’s where I have been all my life: Alone, working. Rand gave me credit for that, too, but what I owe her for is showing me that a lone wolf doesn’t have to be a predator.
But like a lot of people with a strong connection to Ayn Rand, I was where she was before she got around to me. My own flavor of home-grown Nietzscheanism consisted of the unmasticated conviction that other people — any other person — would attempt to dominate me, sooner or later. If I had ever thought to say that out loud, I would have laughed at myself. But that’s the power of habits-of-mind: You can be very smart or very dumb, all on automatic-pilot.
The error of knowledge is the same one we’ve been talking about, just reversed: I didn’t argue, as people seem to do with their choices, that the group cannot be wrong. Instead, I staked out the equally absurd position that other people cannot possibly ever be right.
This is the error I am taking pains to correct. I want to be a better friend to my wife, and I have devoted a lot of attention to trying to work out how to do better by her, now and in the future. But I want to do this for my friends, too — the people who have been gracious enough to be friends to me — starting with Jimmy Klein. I am honored to know him, and honored to be known by him. He deserves better from me, and I want for him to have it.
And I tricked you, didn’t I? I told you I was writing about Jim, but I wrote mostly about myself. But you’re twice-fooled, because I’m really writing about you.
That kind of friendship, that kind of intellectual and emotional marriage of like minds — that’s something that each of us wishes for. We want it from our spouses, to be sure — and lucky is the couple who are best friends to each other. But we want to be to be able to have that kind of easy, intimate authenticity with platonic friends, too, a celebration of shared virtues.
This is not an experience you will ever get from a group. To the contrary, when you are trying desperately to figure out who it is the group expects you to be, you cannot possibly be yourself.
That’s a mistake — all of it is a mistake. The imagined power of the group is a bad joke. But what’s worse is how many of your own values you sacrifice to win the evanescent approval of the herd. You can be buddies with thousands of people — any one of whom will turn on you without a blink the second the rest of the mob turns on you. But you can only have a friend like my friend Jim Klein when you dare to stand all on your own.