An holistic approach to life coaching explores the niche in which you are living your life, including the nature of your friendships. In 2019 few people think of Facebook friends as actual friends. However FB started out, it’s an altogether different sort of thing now. Yet, true friends remain important to us if we want to live good lives that feel authentic. True friends are people the Ancient Philosophers Seneca and Aristotle would have recognised as not just friends but people we enjoyed friendship with. The Stoics, like other ancient philosophers, took true friendship seriously, and Aristotle thought friendship of the right sort was the greatest external good in human lives. To the ancient philosophers a friend could be a great aid for living a morally sound life.
In his masterpiece The Letters to Lucilius the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca castigates Lucilius for sending a ‘friend’ to him, even while advising Seneca he can’t be trusted. This was an outrageous suggestion for Seneca because first and foremost, a friend is a person you can speak openly to, a person to whom you can reveal yourself. Without that trust, a person can not be the sort of friend with whom we enjoy the experience of friendship. In this life coaching article I explore these philosophers principles of friendship and authenticity using the Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) characters from the film La La Land, as an example of two true friends whose experience of friendship is central to the creation of their vision of an authentic life.
In our popular culture, dominated as it is by hedonists, romantics and superficial connections, it can be easy to neglect our special need for trusted friendships in the challenge of creating and living an authentic life. In The Ethics of Authenticity Charles Taylor discusses how central dialogue is to the sort of self-definition that facilitates authentic living. Dialogues with true friends enable spontaneous expression that leads to self-definition, and often the initial recognition we need for that created identity to flourish. However, we have a problem Seneca and Aristotle didn’t have to face, our self-defining dialogues are not governed by convention in the way they were in pre-modern times. In our age, we have to assert our self-created identity, and we all live with the problem that these attempts can fail. The way we define ourselves in one community or group may not be accepted in other sections of our society.
La La Land illustrates many of the challenging aspects involved in creating an authentic life, especially in the arts. Seb and Mia share a defining life theme: they live for their art, it’s history and its day-to-day creation. They also share an experience of the ongoing indignities they have to endure in the niche they have carved out in their respective industries. The actress Mia’s life is a succession of auditions for dozens of very badly written parts to try and win a TV or film role. In each of these auditions Mia’s self-definition as an actor is simultaneously reiterated to her, and represents another failure because she never wins a part allowing her to perform a role in a production, which is a standard of success in her chosen profession. Mia has to constantly draw on her ideal of a good life for the courage to continually apply herself to actions that may increase her interactional effectiveness in her chosen field.
Loving relationships are a, if not the, primary field of activity for the unscripted dialogues that enable us to articulate an authentic mode of living. The relationships that enable us to have those dialogues are often our deepest and most trusted friendships. The spontaneous nature of unscripted dialogues in these relationships help give expression to our inner voice. In La La Land it is in an unscripted dialogue that Seb calls Mia a prodigy playwright and actress. That reframe has a far reaching influence on Mia’s creation of an authentic and meaningful career.
The sort of relationships that provide a space for these dialogues that contribute to the creation of an authentic mode of living cannot be instrumental (i.e. they cannot be based only on the usefulness of a person for our own needs at a particular point in our life). Nor can these relationships be a form of entertainment for us. It is often the case that when you enter into a relationship knowing it will only be a passing phase for you, then that relationship is either a form of entertainment, or the other person is being used as an aid to self-ish expression. For an authentic mode of living to emerge we need deep authentic friendships, the sort of relationships Aristotle called philial, or the best sort of philia.
Seb and Mia have just this relationship. Mia’s relationship with Seb is grounded in his virtue – the goodness of his piano playing. She does not start out seeing him as someone useful to know in LA. While she enjoys his company the sheer seriousness of his approach to music ensures she never sees their relationship as a form of entertainment. She has too much respect for his artistry.
Aristotle on friendship
For Aristotle, friendship was something that developed when two people find something good in each other. That good can be either pleasure, usefulness, virtue or a combination of the three. The strength of the affection tends to be in proportion to the pleasantness, usefulness or virtue of the friend. The friendships that develop from pleasure or usefulness can be unstable because they often dissolve when the pleasure or usefulness fades. This doesn’t mean friendships based on utility or pleasure can’t be valuable, they often involve genuine affection, and over time engender the development of a deep regard for the other.
If a friendship stays based on a shallow understanding of the other – focused only on the narrowness of the pleasure or utility they supply – they are likely to be unstable. Without the development of a broader and deeper appreciation of our friends character, a relationship is unlikely to become the type of friendship Aristotle took to be the greatest of external human goods, the type of relationship he thought should be included in any conception of a good life that is genuinely good.
Seb begins to gain a broader and deeper appreciation of Mia’s character when she requests A Flock of Seagulls 1982 hit song I Ran(so far away) at a party where he is playing in a band. He recognises Mia and acknowledges that he was uncommonly rude to her. I think he also recognises her request was actually a very appropriate retort to his rudeness. The deepening of Seb’s appreciation of Mia’s character lays the foundation for his breakthrough moment, when he is able to appreciate the synergy between his vision of Jazz and that of his colleague Keith. That appreciation of Keith enables Seb to commit himself artistically to Keith’s band later in the film.
The best type of friendship
The best type of friendship was called philia by the ancient Greeks. The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote about the importance of these relationships in her ground breaking book The Fragility of Goodness. She highlights the importance of personal mutuality in the philial relationship, and how emotion and reciprocity are the key characteristics of these friendships. This includes the obvious reciprocity of attention and well-wishing, but also of esteem and respect. It is an important element of philial reciprocity to do actions beneficial for our friend where possible. It is also important to have frequent, preferably daily interaction with our most significant friends.
Although Seb and Mia become lovers, I’m not sure their’s was ever destined to be a life-long passionate relationship. They had a strong commonality in their engagement in their respective arts, but they both sensed something might not be there. I don’t think they entered their relationship thinking it would only be for a period. They knew there were intimate friends, “I will always love you” they say, they meant it, and it was true.
Philial relationships are characterised by the love of the other for their own sake. This is one reason this class of relationships in Ancient Greek society included family relationships. While we may take pleasure and find usefulness in our friends, the sort of friendship that should be included in a conception of the good human life is one where the friend is loved for who they are. It is the sort of relationship where we feel love for our friend at the deep level of their dispositions, values, and their patterns of feeling and thought. Our love is deeply connected to their central aims and aspirations, at the goals and values and characteristics which they identify as primary to their sense of self.
This depth of regard is central to Mia and Seb’s friendship. Seb doesn’t hesitate in urging Mia to put everything into her big break. When he learned she had achieved her big break from doing her one woman show, like a true friend he put himself on the line to drive out to Boulder City. He knew even though she had quit on her dream, she could still pull off her big break, and make good on her vision of an authentic and meaningful acting career.
Friendship and learning wisdom
One of the ways a deep friendship can help us attain wisdom is through the development of self-awareness. Friendship is especially helpful for learning about what actually motivates our actions, not just what intellectualised theory of living we are prepared to defend. It’s not easy learning about ourselves and Aristotle thought philio could create a mirror of the self over time. By observing and reflecting on our friends character, we can come to know our own. The objectivity we can arrive at with our friends is more securely attained than the objectivity we develop about ourselves. As our understanding of our friend grows and deepens and sustains itself through a close and prolonged association, we learn more about what character and virtue is, and this knowledge can help to deepen our own self-awareness.
So a friend as a mirror for the self can improve our understanding of our self, and become an important source of authenticity by adding a sense of depth to our self-awareness. We see this in Seb’s joining Keith’s band as the next step to being able to create the Jazz club that is his artistic dream. Also, by seeing how Mia has to do her own thing to get her career off the ground in LA, Seb Is able to grasps the fact that he needs to join Keith’s band and pay his dues again as the next step in his career. Seb had pulled together a stake to start a club and was ripped off. In the film he has slid down the greasy pole of fortune and has to make his way back up again. He understood instinctively that Mia needed to put together and stage a production of her one woman show to move forward. That knowledge once it emerged from their unscripted dialogues brought him closer to the realisation Mia, his sister and his older school and band mate could see as clear as day — that he couldn’t move forward on his musical dream without moving beyond the narrow comfort of his traditional Jazz club.
Wisdom gained from double descriptions
The anthropologist, psychotherapist and systems theory pioneer Gregory Bateson was interested in how people can learn about the nature of their self, in ways that can create a change in their self. He found the sort of learning that could trigger such a change mainly occurred in relationships, or in relating with others. He thought it was correct to begin thinking about the two parties in any interaction as two eyes, each giving a monocular view of what was going on. The two views together gave a binocular view of what was going on. The resulting double view is how Bateson thought about the relationship in a holistic way – that is free of distorting purpose and usefulness.
In Mia and Seb’s relationship each had a singular vision about what was going on in their niche. Mia saw LA as an outsider forced to suffer the indignities of auditioning with scores of other actors. She also saw the city as the place where many of the classic films were shot. In fact, she sees LA through film as that was how she connected with it as she grew up in Boulder City. Seb on the other-hand is an LA local. He knows the city from living in it, and he also has a locals understanding of how it’s most high profile industry works. What he learned listening to Mia talking on the phone was that she had the belief that he would find a way to start his club. He was able to recognise Kieth’s band as his way forward only because of his relationship with Mia.
We know that binocular vision provides a different dimension to what we are able to see. We call that dimension depth. When information from two sources are combined, information of a different logical type is generated. It is this information of a different logical type that is the further dimension. Another way to think of this is as a reflection of the hierarchy that moves from data to information to knowledge and then to wisdom. Each person in the relationship percieves sensory data which their mind turns into information. They develop knowledge by learning how to apply that information in a wide range of circumstances. Finally, by learning when to apply their knowledge and when not to apply it, they attain a degree of wisdom.
One of the issues that develops with Mia and Seb’s friendship comes about because of Mia’s misunderstanding of what joining a band meant to a professional musician. To Mia it seemed like a stepping stone towards getting his club going. Seb instinctively understood you could not join a band like that for your own purposes. Yes, he saw it as the way to pay his dues again and take the step towards opening his club. But he also knew by joining, he had to commit to that role for as long as it took: which would be several years at least. Bands are more like TV series and if they are successful you have to stick with it if you have a principle role. To be successful requires the work or many and that needs to be honoured for as long as it needs to be honoured.
Aristotle did not mean for us to think literally of our friend as a mirror. The mirror is a metaphor just like the word depth is a metaphor. Friends are a mirror for us to gain a wiser understanding of motives, character, aspirations and qualities – those of our friends, our own, and about the experience and nature of those categories of human life. The mirror metaphor does entail a measure of symmetry, as we tend to have some things in common with our closest friends. Friendship can provide a double description creating information that adds depth to our understanding of ourselves and human life.
Mia does come to understand that success is an ongoing process after a big break. That is something Seb knew would happen if Mia wins the film role in Paris, and if the band is successful. Breakthroughs create their own demands and obligations. Mia also learns that her going away to Paris and Seb staying in the band was the only way both of them could achieve their singular artistic dreams. While both of them were fellow travellers in the modern moral ideal of an everyday life with someone you love, they both also had artistic natures that had demands that could only accommodate normal quotidian life within the paradigm of an artistic career.
A close friend can provide a double description of our self (same, same but different) which can be an important well-spring for the self-awareness needed to create an authentic way of living. One of the first questions to ask ourselves in the quest of a good life that is actually good is not “can I be open and reveal myself to my friend?” Rather we need to ask “can my friend trust me enough to open up and reveal themselves?” Seneca in his third letter to Lucilius gives advice on how to make friends but what he doesn’t say until the 6th letter is that all sound friendship begins with ourselves, with the commitment to lead a good life and be a good person that our friend can rely on, and most importantly, by learning to be a friend to our self.
This is one of the overarching themes of La La Land. Seb in particular had to learn to be a better friend to himself. Mia helps him achieve that by acknowledging that she had failed enough in the ritualised indignities of auditioning; the suffering and pain of failing artistically; and by reinforcing to Seb that playing with others was what important to his passion for his art, and that playing on his own was more often than not a miserable or worse experience. Friends acknowledge these realities of life, and to ignore them or dismiss them as not happening cannot be an act of friendship.