I’ve been thinking about putting together a short book on friendship in the spiritual life, by expanding on a paper I wrote on the topic of friendship as part of my Great Books seminar during college. I posted the sections of that paper on my blog back in 2005.

Since many visitors arrive at my blog while searching for the posts on friendship, and because recent technical difficulties with my Blogger account have rendered the original posts a bit hard to find, I have reposted the articles here on my new WordPress blog.

I introduced my paper in this way:

The topic of friendship has been addressed through the ages in a variety of ways that reflect the very personal nature of friendship; each of the writers that I have researched for this paper have distinctive views on the subject, probably the result of their own personal experiences. However, my goal in writing this paper was not to discover why these writers have arrived at different interpretations of the nature of friendship. Instead, I wanted to examine recurring themes in order to arrive at a description, however incomplete, of what friendship truly is. I chose to analyze the ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Michel de Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Hugh Benson. What follows is a summary of my discoveries.

Here’s the outline for the college paper, along with links to each section:

Friendship as Natural for the Human Person

Types of Friendship

Characteristics of True Friendship
* Familiarity
* Choice
* Shared situations and interests
* Pleasure
* Charity
* Self-love
* Trust
* Respect
* Justice
* Criticism
* Virtue

Perfect Friendship
* The nature of ideal friendship
* Exclusivity and perfect friendship

Aims of Friendship

Friendship and Happiness

Caution in Friendship

The Degree of Loyalty Proper to Friends

Can Friendships Last?

Friendship with God

Personal Reflections on Friendship

I’ve added a few sources and quotes this time around, and amended some sections.

personal reflections on friendship

One reason that I think friendship is so enjoyable is that it allows us to appreciate qualities in others that we do not ourselves possess. God has made each person unique – indeed, unrepeatable – and friendship gives us a chance to recognize the gifts of others. It can liberate us from some of the narrowness of our own point-of-view. While we possess certain qualities in common with our friends, I think that much of the pleasure we receive from friendship arises from the uniqueness we discover in others.

As a final comment, I would agree that ideal friendship is singular in nature. I think it describes the relationship we can share with God. We can have strong and vital friendships with others to the extent that we have this primary friendship with God, a relationship that, with His aid and our cooperation, will reach its fullness in the life to come. His love becomes the source and stimulus of our love not only for Him, but for others. Our friendships in this world can help prepare us for the self-giving love of beatitude, in which our union with God and our communion with others will finally be experienced as a single movement of love, as the gift of friendship fully realized and shared, corresponding completely to the desire and design of the human heart.

friendship with God

Paul Henry, S.J., explaining Saint Augustine’s concept of friendship with God, writes: “Divine existence is the ideal of all personal existence – to be fully oneself, but only in dependence upon, and in adherence to, another in the communion of unity.” We are naturally ordered to God, and our union with Him can be perfected when, aware of His love, we respond to it by developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Robert Hugh Benson writes that

the consciousness of this friendship of Jesus Christ is the very secret of the saints. Ordinary men can live ordinary lives, with little or no open defiance of God, from a hundred second-rate motives…. But no man can advance three paces on the road of perfection unless Jesus Christ walks beside him.

He continues by observing that human friendships are incomplete unless these relationships are informed by our friendship with God:

Even the most sacred experiences of life are barren unless his friendship sanctifies them… The purest affection – that affection that unites my dearest friend to myself – is a counterfeit and a usurper unless I love my friend in Christ – unless he, the ideal and absolute friend, is the personal bond that unites us.

Through our friendships with other people we can come to understand in a limited way the sort of friendship we will one day enjoy with God. Aquinas, recognizing the parallelism between the two types of friendship, uses it to explain the dependence of charity on the other two theological virtues:

Charity signifies not only the love of God, but also a certain friendship with Him…. Just as friendship with a person would be impossible, if one disbelieved in, or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or colloquy; so too, friendship with God, which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God, and to hope to attain to this fellowship. Therefore charity is quite impossible without faith and hope.

Saint Francis of Assisi expressed a similar insight. G.K. Chesterton, in his biography of the saint’s life, recounts a letter that Francis had written to a friar who was, in the words of Chesterton, “struggling between humility and morbidity”:

Do not be troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.

Saint Paul tells us that charity is not only dependent on faith and hope, but is also superior to them: “Faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Friendship is an instrument through which this supreme theological virtue can be expressed.

can friendships last?

Since friendships must sometimes come to an end, it seems fair to inquire whether or not the best friendships can endure. Opinions are varied on this topic, and can be divided into two basic groups.

The first body of opinion claims that good friendships are lasting by their very nature. This is the opinion of Aristotle, who writes that a relationship between virtuous people “lasts as long as they are good, and [that means it will last for a long time, since] goodness or virtue is a thing that lasts.” Cicero shares this sentiment; he claims that “our essential nature cannot be changed, and for that reason true friendship endures forever.” These writers believe that the very goodness of the parties involved holds a friendship together.

In contrast, the second body of thought asserts that friendships are outgrown because no two persons are perfectly suited for each other. This is the opinion of Emerson, who implies that a permanent relationship with someone else would require an abandonment of personal ideals:

Though I prize my friends, I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own. It would indeed give me a certain household joy to quit this lofty seeking… and come down to warm sympathies with you; but then I know well I shall mourn always the vanishing of my mighty gods…. So I will owe to my friends this evanescent intercourse.

Emerson hints at the idea that his highest priority is a spiritual one, a priority that is deepened when viewed in the light of a Christian’s journey to God. Robert Hugh Benson speaks of human friendships as temporary relations through which we seek a divine friendship:

We form friendships, and grow out of them. It might almost be said that we cannot retain the faculty of friendship unless we are continually making new friends: just as, in religion, in proportion as we form inadequate images and ideas of the divine which for the time we adore, and presently change for others, we progress in the knowledge of the true God…
Here then is one of the more princely passions which… points to eternity only for the place of its satisfaction, and to the divine love for the answering of its human needs.

In the Christian tradition, it is ultimately a relationship with the divine that all people seek because this is the only type of friendship that will truly satisfy the human heart.

the degree of loyalty proper to friends

If we cannot trust other people unconditionally, what degree of loyalty do we owe to our friends? Aristotle offers two criteria for weighing our obligations. First of all, he believes that “it is our sacred duty to honor truth more highly [than friends].” Second, Aristotle states that our obligations to a friend should be weighed “in terms of the closeness of his relation to us and in terms of his excellence or usefulness.” He thus implies that we owe the highest loyalty to our families and to those who are useful to us. Cicero is more generous than Aristotle in this regard, adding that “old friendships must always have their proper place reserved for them, for nothing carries the weight of the old and familiar.” Thus our friends deserve the highest degree of loyalty when they are familiar as well as beneficial and closely related to us.

In contrast, what situations demand that we break off our relations? According to Aristotle, one factor in the dissolution of friendship is a change in virtue: “If one partner were to remain as he was, while the other became better and far outdistanced him in excellence, ought the latter to treat the former as a friend? Surely, that is impossible…. How could they still be friends, when they neither like nor feel joy and pain at the same things?” Cicero expresses a parallel sentiment: “The good cannot be friends with the wicked, nor the wicked with the good: there lies between them the widest imaginable gap in character and in interests.” Both writers believe that a divergence of interests (caused by a change in virtue) makes it impossible to maintain a friendship. In regard to those who have fallen from virtue, Aristotle qualifies his statement by saying that the friendship should not be broken off unless “a friend’s wickedness has become incurable… If there is a chance of reforming him, we must come to the aid of his character…” There seem to be certain situations that demand the end of a friendship. In the words of Cicero,

It happens many times in life that important considerations compel us to part from our friends. Anyone who tries to keep us from doing what we must and should in such cases, simply because he cannot bear the thought of losing us, is weak and self-indulgent, and for that very reason no true friend.

The pre-Christian writers focus on human affection in relation to personal needs rather than in relation to the Christian virtue of charity. Herbert Deane, developing the Christian theme of love of neighbor as presented by Saint Augustine, writes that

…when we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are meant to apply this injunction to all men, and not simply to our friends or relatives. There is accordingly no one in the whole human family to whom kindly affection is not due by reason of the bond of a common humanity, although it may not be due on the ground of reciprocal love…. Love and kindly affection are due to all men, even to our enemies…

Embracing a Christian way of living does not mean that our enemies should become our friends, but it does require a generous attitude toward adversaries, thus outstripping pre-Christian ideas vis-a-vis human relations.