March 2015 Print

Friendship in the Modern World


by James Vogel

Friendship is one of the most neglected virtues in the modern world. I say virtue deliberately; in its highest form, it is a habit or disposition to do good. And while the ubiquity of social networking may seem to indicate that friendship is flourish­ing, I think a careful look at the question will demonstrate otherwise.

Aristotle, in Book Eight of his Nicomachean Ethics, provides the basic framework for this discussion. Although others in this issue have delved into Aristotle’s teaching more deeply, let me share a quote from the Philosopher to lay the groundwork:

“Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends?...And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs...”

It is this character of universality which is striking. People of every age, before and after Christ, valued friendship and saw it as one of the components of living the good life. Elevated and ennobled by Our Lord, the theme of friendship would find recurring praise in the writings of the Fathers and the saints. But if friendship can be claimed by Greek pagans, Christians, and deracinated moderns alike, there must be a distinction or a multiplicity of definitions.

Elements of Friendships

Aristotle notes that true friendships are rare because of the time and familiarity necessary for their development. Facebook may tell us we have hundreds of “friends” but the term is cheapened in such a way. Furthermore, virtual communication, even by text or video chat, hardly affords us the opportunity to have long and profound conversations, to discover where similar perspectives and opinions exist, and to challenge one another to higher or better things. A wise man once noted that in the modern world, colleges are often the place true friendships develop, specifically because they are obliged to spend so much time together in the context of study and reflection.

C. S. Lewis, the famous Anglican writer of the 20th century, treated friendship in his work The Four Loves. Although flawed in some respects, there are several sections where he follows Aristotle. As a voice closer in time to our own, I will share some reflections.

Lewis argues that friendship is the least jealous of all loves because it is not limited to two people and is often better when there is a small group of friends. He says that by ourselves, we are rarely sufficient to “call the whole man into activity” due to our unique temperaments and personalities. Assuming all the other conditions of friendship, a third and even fourth friend can bring out elements of each other that no one person can on his own. In Lewis’s words, “within those limits we possess each friend not less, but more as the number of those with whom we share him increase.”

The Implications for a Catholic

The most profound reality relates to the God Who “no longer calls us servants, but friends” (Jn. 15:15). That topic is addressed elsewhere in this issue, so I will simply mention some other aspects of the question. On the broad side of things, the nature of the Mystical Body of Christ is such that we are all intimately connected through our baptism and the life of the Trinity that dwells within us. This gives friendship a dimension that the pagan Aristotle could never have imagined.

We know that our penances and prayers can strengthen and fortify the Mystical Body and that our sins and failings can harm it. We are not spiritual individualists like the Protestants who reduce the spiritual life to a merely personal affair. We bear a serious responsibility not just for our own salvation, but for those of our friends.

Fr. Servais Pinckaers, a 20th-century Dominican, reflects on this broad view of friendship as it relates to the entire moral life:

“Several important themes in ancient moral thought have disappeared from modern ethics precisely because of the latter’s emphasis on the concept of obligation....The theme of friendship was prominent among the Greek Fathers, even those who lived in the desert....It reached its climax in St. Thomas, who defined charity as friendship with God (IIaIIae, q 23) and who described the work of the Holy Spirit in the world as a work of friendship.”

On the stricter and more specific level, one also sees the universality of friendship in the economy of salvation. If Aristotle correctly notes that friends tend to be similar in age, disposition, and station, the example of the Church makes it clear. Priests tend to have friends who are priests, religious with religious, husbands with wives, and so on. In any case, the centrality of friendship is evident.

Friendship and Marriage

St. Thomas says it is natural for husband and wife to be friends. Because of the different types of friendship, the profundity of this comment can easily be missed. It is easy to see how the friendships of utility and pleasure play a role, and not too difficult even to see how both spouses, in a healthy marriage, mutually pursue the good for each other and their family.

The reality, however, is much more profound. Those of us who are married know that we take a vow “till death do us part.” Unlike priests, who bear the mark of the sacrament on their souls for eternity, the wedding pact is not forever. That being said, the love of friendship is something that, God willing, will last in Heaven, even after the marriage bond no longer exists.

Can we then say that friendship is, in a way, the most important aspect of marriage? I stress the phrase in a way because the purpose of the sacrament is to provide grace and to signify something visibly. This eternal aspect of friendship should be an encouragement to husbands and wives to strengthen the bonds of charity between them.

Further, the conditions of family life should provide a normal and fertile soil for friendship even on a natural level. The shared time together, the common interests of domestic life, and the real, not virtual interaction, lend themselves to friendship easily. And echoing Lewis’s point from earlier, friendship with other married couples is an enormous support and help, especially in the modern world.

On the Practical Side

Cicero, in his famous treatise On Friendship, says the following:

“Let this be ordained as the first law of friendship: Ask of friends only what is honorable; do for friends only what is honorable and without even waiting to be asked; let zeal be ever present, but hesitation absent; dare to give true advice with all frankness; in friendship let the influence of friends who are wise counselors be paramount, and let that influence be employed in advising, not only with frankness, but, if the occasion demands, even with sternness, and let the advice be followed when given” (13, Loeb translation).

Seen through the eyes of a Christian, we can apply Cicero’s advice still today. We are all born into communities (the family), nourished by communities (schools and communities), and grow to join new ones (marriages, religious houses, etc.) In every circumstance, we need the candid advice of friends to help navigate life’s choppy waters. It is often the “other self” alone who can speak to us candidly, correct us, and help us grow in virtue. Far more often than not, it is our friends who correct the inevitable blind spots we all have.

As I mentioned earlier, Aristotle notes that friendships tend to develop among those who share similarities: sex, age, interests, etc. It’s not that friendships are impossible between men and women, or sinners and saints, but that the circumstances for the birth of such a friendship rarely exist. Nevertheless, Aristotle mentions that “such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each” (Ethics, 8, III).

One of the reasons we experience a dearth of friendship today, even if we value it properly, is because we rarely eat salt together. Without going into the manifold debates over the Internet, smartphones, and technology in general, no one can deny that the day-to-day “living together” is increasingly rare. We truly have no companions, a Latinate word meaning someone with whom we eat bread. Without this real interaction, with the necessary conversations, and arguments, and even games, the soil in which friendship can be cultivated is very thin indeed. And without experiencing human friendship, how much more difficult is it to befriend the God-Man who took on flesh so that we might be friends with Him?

James Vogel is Editor-in-Chief of Angelus Press. He has an M.A. in philosophy from Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has written and lectured on a variety of topics related to history and Catholic culture.