perfect friendship

After discussing the characteristics of true friendship, it seems appropriate to discuss the ideal human friendship. In examining the sources, one discovers a certain progression of thought on the matter.

The nature of ideal friendship

To begin with, the ideal friendship is a combination of all of the qualities of friendship. It is generally agreed, however, that the essence of ideal friendship is the perfection of one quality in particular. Aristotle asserts that this quality is a sort of justice: “This… is perfect and complete friendship, both in terms of time and in all other respects… Each partner receives in all matters what he gives the other… that is what friends should be able to count on.” This notion of perfect friendship seems insufficient, however. Even Cicero, writing before the time of Christ, rejects this simplistic description: “In my opinion true friendship is too rich, yes, too affluent, for this sort of thing, and does not keep a sharp eye out for fear it may give more than it has received.” He instead chooses to call it a perfect agreement of goals and feelings. This conception, while closer to the Christian idea of friendship, fails to recognize it as a fusion of souls, which is the definition laid out by Augustine in his Confessions: “There is no true friendship unless You [God] weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by the Holy Ghost.” Friendship takes on a supernatural quality here which allows for the union of two people on the level of the soul. In an explanation of Augustine’s principle, Paul Henry, SJ, says “that God is the perfect, in fact, the only prototype of that which all love between persons tends to achieve — absolute unity and yet distinction — to be one with the other, not by losing one’s identity but by perfecting it, even at the very source of one’s being.” This is the full Christian understanding of friendship as a union between persons in and through Christ. Secular writers adopt the concept to varying degrees. Montaigne eliminates the mention of God but maintains the notion of unity: “Our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.” He also states that the sort of exchange mentioned by Aristotle is not even a consideration in perfect friendship: “In this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed, do not even deserve to be taken into account; the reason for this is the complete fusion of our wills.” Emerson, writing in a later period, rediscovers the supernatural quality of this ideal friendship: “…The Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance… and now makes many one.” Thus, there seems to be agreement that ideal friendship involves a sort of unity.

Exclusivity and perfect friendship

The above quote by Emerson urges us to address another aspect of the ideal friendship: Can this perfect relationship apply to more than one of our friends? Aristotle says that true friendship cannot be shared among many: “To be friends with many people, in the sense of perfect friendship, is impossible… For love is like an extreme, and an extreme tends to be unique.” To his practical mind, having many ideal friends is a physical impossibility: “The number of our friends [is]… limited. Perhaps it is the largest number with whom a man might be able to live together, for, as we noticed, living together is the surest indication of friendship.” Montaigne offers an even more exclusive description of ideal friendship: “…He who supposes that of two men I love one just as much as the other, and that they love each other and me just as much as I love them, multiplies into a fraternity the most singular and unified of all things, of which even a single one is the rarest thing in the world to find.” Emerson hesitates to make this assertion but claims that “this law of one to one [is] peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship.” Earlier writers are more fervent in their description of the exclusive nature of friendship. Both Cicero and Montaigne speak of the rarity of this relation; Cicero, speaking through the mouth of Laelius, says he can only name three or four such relationships and Montaigne claims that his relationship with politician Etienne de la Boetie “has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself.” Emerson makes a response to this view: “Friendship may be said to require natures so rare and costly… that its satisfaction can very seldom be assured… I am not quite so strict in my terms, perhaps because I have never known so high a fellowship as others.” Common to all of the above perspectives is the idea that true friendship has a certain intensity that lends itself more to an individual than to a crowd.

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