In the past few years, I’ve become more aware of the nature many of the relationships that exist in my life. Among them are friendships that I’ve been blessed with. Yesterday as I was shoveling the driveway, I reflected on the nature of friendship, and here are my thoughts:
St. Thomas Aquinas insists that we are naturally born to be in communion with one another. Precisely for this reason, we can look at all of our actions as either entering into communion with or keeping us away from others. One of the many ways that we draw closer to each other is through friendship. But the nature of friendship is never easily understood, simply because of the different kinds of friendships that exist.
Aristotle, that wise Philosopher, observes that there are, in general, three different kinds of friendships: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and genuine friendship. As you can see, only one of these kinds of friendships seems desirable.
A friendship built out of utility is one that objectifies the friend as means to my desired end. This is to say that I only became a friend to you because I can see some usefulness in you, whether materially or spiritually. Thus, it is that which you possess, and not you, that is object of my love in this friendship.
The second kind of friendship that Aristotle observes is friendship of pleasure. The Philosopher notes that this kind of friendship exists more commonly in the youth. In his own words, “they quickly become friends and so quickly cease to be so; their friendship changes with the object that is found pleasant, and such pleasure alters quickly.” As a high school instructor, I witness this daily. Two people could be friends today and enemies tomorrow. When they are friends, they are only so because of the kind of pleasure, or “happiness”, that such friendship brings to them. They value the friendship because of what it can do for them and how it makes them feel.
For Aristotle, the above kinds of friendships are never long lasting. Never fear! There is a third kind of friendship, the genuine friendship, and it lasts! Genuine friendship, for Aristotle, is founded upon both the similarity in the characters of the two friends, and their object of love in the friendship is the other person as person. This kind of friendship is found when the two friends are virtuous and good-charactered friends; otherwise there is no genuine friendship. It should be said, however, that the first two kinds of friendships could possibly bloom into a genuine friendship, but this would require the friends to realize the nature of their friendship and intentionally fix it. In other words, the first two kinds of friendships could possibly grow for the better, however rare.
The Christian’s Friendship
For the Christian, Aristotle’s understanding of friendship is good but incomplete. The “features” of Christian friendship may retain some of Aristotle’s prescriptions, but the nature and meaning of Christian friendship is completely different from Aristotelian friendship. There are two reasons for this:
First, for the Christian, not only friends are gifts to one another, but that the friendship itself is a gift. This is because Christians understand themselves as actors in a historical narrative authored by God. With this realization comes the realization of the constancy of friendships as, not the act of our own will (though we will ourselves into this or that friendship), but that of the will of God. Consequently, the friendship between Christians is not one of mutual enjoyment; rather, a task that has been given. This is a task to participate in a new way of life made possible by Christ himself.
Second, Aristotelian friendship understands love in a different way than Christianity’s love. For Aristotle, one’s love for a friend has a sort of limit, and a virtuous person knows when such limit is reached. For instance, it is not virtuous for me to suffer for a friend if I know that I may lose my own life. The Christian friendship, on the other hand, sees goodness in suffering for the friend, no matter how “foolish” it may look to everyone else. The Christian’s love in friendship is fully realized when love takes the form of utmost humility. Indeed, in this sort of friendship, friends will suffer with and for one another, even if it means laying one’s life down for one’s friend, an action that Jesus calls the greatest act of love.
So what sort of friendship do you have?