Sense and Nonsense: Amiability

On Tuesday, May 14, 1751, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler that “it is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious, and severe. For, as they seldom comprehend at once all the consequences of a position, or perceive the difficulties by which cooler and more experienced reasoners are restrained from confidence, they form their conclusions with great precipitance.” In other words, it is not pleasant to be around such young gentlemen who, however “natural,” lack manners, if not insight.

If young men (or anyone else) come across as being “vehement, acrimonious, and severe,” surely qualities of soul no one particularly desires, we rightly strive to avoid them. Aristotle, in fact, gave this unrestrained characteristic in young men as one of the reasons why law also needed “coercion.” It restrains the effects of such undisciplined actions on the public order. This issue is probably why we need parental guidance and the refinements of a liberal education, wherein “liberal” means inner attention to the virtues.

In the fourth book of his Ethics, Aristotle lists a virtue that is being nice to others, particularly to those we do not know. All human beings, while not naive or overly innocent about our fallen nature, should have a basic good will toward other human beings. Aquinas, in his commentary on this book of the Ethics, calls the virtue simply amiability. It is a wonderful, much-neglected virtue, one that should cut across cultural, religious, and national differences. But it is also an everyday reality that needs constant practice in our own ambience.

Obviously, amiability has something to do with the Latin verb amare, “to love,” but it is milder and less particular than what we usually associate with that noble word “love.” Amiable means being nice, agreeable, considerate, going out of one’s way to make people, usually those we do not know, feel at home or comfortable even in passing situations. Amiability is not friendship, good will, justice, or kindness. Rather, it has the connotation of actually doing or saying something appropriate to those we run across but do not know.

 

Aquinas begins his consideration by recalling a vice opposed to this virtue. He warns us not to be “obsequious.” Such obsequious people strive “to please men,” ordinarily a fine thing, but they “praise everything that others say or do for the purpose of making themselves agreeable. They never contradict people for fear of giving offense, thinking they must live without causing pain to anyone.” Clearly, Aquinas implies that at times it is necessary to “contradict people.” We may have to cause pain for someone’s good or for the sake of truth. The man who praises whatever we do will end up encouraging our vices simply because we do them.

Thus, a graciousness can be sought by which “a man accepts what others say or do, or rightly rejects and contradicts it.” This friendliness does not forget the standards by which good and decent things are upheld. We ought not approve or agree with what is evil just to be nice. This virtue of amiability, though related to it, is not the same as friendship. Both amiability and friendship agree that we should “live amicably with others,” but neither friendship nor amiability can become excuses for doing what is disordered. One needs courage to disapprove of what is wrong.

Amiability extends beyond friendship, which can only be had with a few. In short, the amiable person strives to converse and accommodate himself to the persons he deals with. Within the limits of good judgment, while knowing that he can also make things worse and that others can be annoying, he seeks to make his exchanges with others a generally pleasant experience.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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