David, Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence

David, Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence


For some years I had a brilliant friend, male, with whom I used to talk far into the night about the most sublime and transcendent matters. We were sufficiently drawn to one another to be lovers, other colleagues assumed we were, but we were not. “I like you too much,” I once said to him, “to sleep with you if I don’t love you.”

One time he borrowed five hundred dollars from me, in return for a post-dated check for the same amount. I was flattered! He trusted me so much that he felt safe asking me for a loan! I forget why he needed it. Only slowly did I recognize that his call the following month, telling me not to deposit his check, signaled an intention to – as I put it some time later – “rip me off.”

About two years after this transaction, late one night he came to see me in my studio apartment. He had a question. I had mentioned en passant my view that, when we do a bad thing and leave it unrepaired, it’s highly consequential for our character and fate.

“You said that as if you knew. How did you know?”

What I knew intuitively, I replied, was that

the moral strings by which we are strung together

are more fragile than they look.

The strings can break.

He began to sob, in my armchair in the half-dark. I was sitting up in bed and voiced sympathy for his anguish. But he made no move to return the money.

I wanted to get the $500 back, but not because I couldn’t part with it. We had discussed such fascinating things: what Plato meant, the profession to which we had consecrated our working lives, the meaning of life and death, and so on. There was no built-in terminus or limit to these explorations. What I couldn’t part with was the quest for the ideal, which we brought to all that earnest talk.

Finally, just before the statute of limitations for pressing the case in Small Claims Court ran out, I got the money back, with the help of the family lawyer. In my own mind at least, I had saved the sincerity of our conversations about sublime matters. They hadn’t been just a mask for underhanded intentions. But I sure as hell lost the friendship.

Mutual friends who were also men explained: he couldn’t get at you one way, so he had to screw you another.

But why?

Why can’t idealization be preserved — and masculinity too?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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