The Virtue of Friendship
Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski
In Search of a Friend
It is in St. Augustine’s Confessions where we find one of the poignant and penetrating psychological and moral analyses of true friendship. The example which he employs from his own life occurred during his 20th year when he had returned to his home city of Thagaste after a two-year study of rhetoric at Carthage. It was his meditation on this friendship which was “sweet” to him and, yet, ultimately, a failure, which serves as an admonition to St. Augustine that in the absence of God, every human heart must feel discontented, even in the most intimate of friendships. The young man who “had gone to school together and had played games together” with Augustine as a child, would become a far greater friend when the two met again. For St. Augustine, the two became “one soul in two bodies.” The young man was “flowering like me with youth and very dear to me because of our common studies”;1 just as it would be impossible for any man to be without himself, so too “my soul could not endure to be without him.”
This friendship, which in so many ways resembles the ideal friendships of the biblical David and Jonathan and the Iliad’s Achilles and Patroklos, was suddenly held up to the light of Divine Truth when the young man fell mortally ill less than one year into his renewed friendship with Augustine. Due to St. Augustine’s early defection from the Catholic Faith to the Manichean sect, his friendship with the young man had caused the young man himself to renounce the Catholic religion of his parents. This bond, not based on truth or charity, was thrown into crisis due to the young man’s parents’ insistence that their son be baptized when he lost consciousness due to his illness. When the young man regained consciousness and heard Augustine’s derision of the sacrament, he “was horrified with me as if I were an enemy” and insisted that if Augustine was to remain his friend, he must desist from such words. St. Augustine says that he was “struck dumb.”2
When the young man died a short time later, Augustine relates, “My heart was made dark by sorrow and whatever looked upon was death.” Here St. Augustine makes reference to the psychological state in which everything that he experiences is understood to be a privation, a lack, rather than an actual and intellectually satisfying reality. The internal state of experienced emptiness and the felt emptiness of all things overwhelms St. Augustine: “My native place was a torment to me, and my father’s house was a strange unhappiness….I had hated all things, because they no longer held him. Nor could they now say to me, ‘Here he comes,’ as they did in his absence from them when he lived….Only weeping was sweet to me, and it succeeded to my friend in my soul’s delights.”3 Looking back on his sadness at a distance of some 20 years, St. Augustine realized that if he had invested his greatest love in Him Who has no beginning or end, he would not have mourned so violently, nor been so disconsolate over the death of his friend. If he had loved his friend “in God,” he would have been filled with hope rather than with emptiness and nausea over life itself.4
Friendship as Virtue
What St. Augustine recounts concerning a friendship long past, expresses in perfect psychological and spiritual clarity the reality of a “true friendship” or “character friendship” as this was classically presented in Books VIII and IX of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Why would true and perfect friendship be spoken of at all in a text on ethics? Why especially would two out of ten books of Aristotle’s primary ethical treatise be dedicated to friendship in its various forms and manifestations? In his usual way, relying on the common experiences of the philosophical part of the population and that of the general mass of men, Aristotle writes at the beginning of his discussion, “the next topic to discuss is friendship; for it is a virtue or involves virtue, and besides is most necessary for our life.”5
Friendship’s necessity for the life of virtue is mentioned first in regards to friendship’s connection to the life of happiness (eudaimonia); just as virtue is a necessary component in the life of human happiness, so too “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”6 Moreover, not only is friendship the sine qua non of happiness and flourishing in one’s personal life, but it also “seems to hold cities together and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship and they aim at concord above all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity.”7
The generic “friendship” which involves a reciprocal exchange of goods is not the form of friendship which Aristotle, St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas understood as an ideal condition for the perfection of the virtuous life. Even though the “object” of all friendship is the “loveable,” there are two forms of friendship (i.e., the useful and the pleasurable) in which what is loved in the “friendship” is not the persons themselves but the good that we receive from them, the useful or the pleasurable. Even though Aristotle understood all economic relations to be forms of useful friendships and mentioned that the young are known for pleasure friendships, such friendships, because they love the thing gained from the person rather than the person himself, are referred to by St. Thomas Aquinas as “a kind of concupiscence.”8 What makes a friendship a true and perfect example of friendship is not loving yourself in the friendship, but truly loving the other for their own sake.9
What is crucial to understand here is that the good which we wish to the friend for his own sake is a manifestation of the good which we wish to ourselves, since the friend is another self. Here we see how closely St. Augustine’s experience of being “one soul in two bodies” fits into Aristotle’s schema of true friendship. The critical qualifying word in Aristotle’s portrayal of the friendship which is “love of another self” is the word decent. The decent or virtuous person wills to his friend what he wills to himself. What does the decent person will to himself and, hence, to his friend? For Aristotle, perhaps the greatest benefit of virtue is the satisfaction the virtuous man has contemplating his own life. He can take pleasure in the objective goodness of his friend’s existence because he takes pleasure in his own existence; hence St. Augustine’s, “sweet to me above every sweetness of that life of mine.”10
What else does the good man wish for himself that he also wishes for his friend? One interesting thing that is present in Aristotle’s portrayal of the good man is that he enjoys spending time with his friend, because he finds it pleasant to spend time with himself. Since he has filled his mind with many studies and beautiful and good things he has plenty to think about and share. Also, he finds spending time with himself agreeable because “his memories of what he has done are agreeable and his expectations for the future are good.” Spending time, sharing the experiences of the virtuous life are spoken of by Aristotle when he says that true and perfect friendship cannot be attained until men have “shared much salt together,” have had, literally, a convivial relationship over a decent span of time.11 Since it is the intellectual part of himself which is loved most by the good and virtuous man (he gratifies the most controlling part of himself, obeying it in everything), it is conversation or the mutual verbal engagement of that controlling intellectual part, which manifests “a certain mutual love…since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication.”12
Charity as Perfect Friendship
It is written (JN. XV, 15): I will not now call you servants…but My friends. Now this is said to them by reason of nothing else than charity. Therefore, charity is friendship.13
Even though Aristotle indicates that the most sublime love for a friend for his own sake is still rooted in one’s love for oneself, his grasping of true character friendship as the manifestation of an altruistic love of another for the good to be found in him, surely is a high point in Classical Greek morality. What is relatively unknown is how closely St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of the theological virtue of Charity resembles Aristotle’s account of true character friendship.
This is rendered with perfect clarity by the fact that St. Thomas has as the first question in the section on the highest theological virtue of Charity, “Is Charity a type of friendship?”14 The above citation of Our Lord’s statement recorded in the Gospel of St. John proves that the answer to this question is in the affirmative. What is of great significance, however, and indicative of the very essence of the life of grace, is the clear allusion St. Thomas makes to Aristotle’s analysis of the different kinds of friendship and their relation with the theological virtues. Whereas Faith adheres to God because of the truth we receive from him, and whereas Hope leans on God because of the eternal good which is expected from him, “God is loved by charity for His own sake: wherefore charity regards principally but one aspect of loveableness, namely God’s own goodness, which is His substance, according to Ps. 105, 1: Give glory to the Lord for He is good.”15
1 Peter Chojnowski, Saint Augustine as Educator: The Confessions (Post Falls, ID: Pelican Project, 2005), p. 31. The quotations from The Confessions come from Book IV, chapter 4.
2 Ibid., p. 33.
4 Ibid., p. 34.
5 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1985), p. 207, Book VIII, 1155a.
7 Ibid., pp. 207-209, 1155a10.
8 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Providence (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981), II-II, Q. 23, Art. 1.
9 Aristotle, p. 210, 1155b20.
10 Chojnowski, St. Augustine as Educator, p. 32.
11 Aristotle, p. 213, 1156b30.
12 ST, II-II, Q. 23, Art. 1.
13 ST, II-II, Q. 23, Art. 1 sed contra.
14 ST, II-II, Q. 23, Art. 1.
15 ST, II-II, Q. 23, Art. 5, ad 2.