Called to Friendship
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fox asks the little prince to “tame” him, to which the little prince replies, “I want to, very much. But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.” The fox tells him, “One only understands the things that one tames. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all readymade at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”1 “To tame,” the fox explains means “to establish ties.” The English translation has a connotation of dominance and control that is misleading. The original French, apprivoiser, has a more loving and reciprocal meaning. When the fox asks the little prince to tame him, he is referring to a process of building friendship that unfolds with time, effort, patience, gratitude, and love. He tells the prince that he is still like a thousand other boys to him but “If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”2 What seemed at first to be a chance encounter between the two becomes a fated friendship full of purpose and meaning.
When I first read The Little Prince, I was overjoyed with the wisdom and truth I found in the story. “Tame” seemed like a strange word to use for friendship-making, but the language of reciprocity, effort, gratitude, and sacrifice deeply resonated with me. This article is about friendship; more specifically it is about human friendship that makes possible moral transformation, and it is about friendship with God that makes possible spiritual transformation. First, I discuss Aristotle’s thoughts on companion friendship, and then I show how Jesus’ teachings on spiritual friendship do not dismiss Aristotle’s beliefs but rather embrace many of them within the story of God. What is it about friendship that challenges us to grow and change, and what kind of friendship makes this possible? What does Jesus teach us about friendship and how does this build on Aristotle’s understanding? Within the framework of Jesus’ teachings, I will share my belief that we are called to be in friendship with one another and with God. What the fox teaches the little prince about the importance of effort in building friendships applies to both Aristotle’s companion friendship and Jesus’ spiritual friendship. With love and effort, we may establish ties with people and with God until we can no longer imagine living without them.
The fox, quoted above, calls attention to the commercialization of friendship in a world where humans expect to buy and invest in everything they want. But of course, friendship cannot be bought. In approaching social relationships as an investment, we replace trust, intimacy, love, and commitment with “mutual satisfaction of individual interests.”3 Aristotle characterizes these kinds of relationships as friendships of utility, where those involved seek gain for themselves. He also discusses friendships of pleasure, where those involved seek enjoyment and physical satisfaction.4 He does not denigrate pleasure entirely because he believes that companion friends experience a pleasure that flows from their friendship grounded in each person’s concern and goodwill toward the other.
Reciprocated goodwill is an essential quality for companion friendships. According to Aristotle, “it is those who desire the good of their friends for their friends’ sake that are most truly friends.”5 Their care for one another is neither egotistic nor altruistic. This common binary of care for self or care for other misses Aristotle’s meaning. It fails to capture what it means for companion friends to thrive together, neither exclusively self-interested nor other-interested. They grow, learn, care, and live together. They are interested in both their own and their friend’s growth, and they take great pleasure in challenging one another and growing together. Aristotle believes that “nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things.”6 He claims further that “a happy man needs friends.”7 There is something indispensable and incredibly beautiful about friendship. To explore what makes it so desirable and necessary, I will share my own experiences followed by some modern scholarship on the subject.
My story is about my spiritual journey. After five years in Catholic school, I realized I did not feel close to God. Perhaps my relationship with Him had been superficial and scripted. Perhaps I did not learn how to put effort into my relationship with God. I did enjoy singing in church, performing the life of Jesus at our Christmas and Easter plays, and listening to the parables the nuns used to share with us. But I began to doubt God’s presence in my life and in a world I saw as broken and full of suffering. Where is God in all this pain and brokenness? Surely God does not want us to suffer? A common question many of us struggle with. I concluded that I could put my heart in humanity without making God a part of my life. I never rejected God, but I did ignore His presence. Without the scripts and Catholic masses, I did not know how to put effort into knowing God and so I had become distanced from Him.
When I came to college, I met a friend who introduced me to something called small group, where students study the Bible to understand and apply God’s Word to their lives. Never before did I know Christians who were so active and eager in their relationship with God. I was never taught to engage with the Bible in order to know God for myself, to listen to His whispers and cries in my own life. I grew close to the friend who introduced me to small group. We shared the stories of our lives – our childhoods, families, schools, friendships, fears, and hopes. Though we discussed faith at times, many of our conversations did not explicitly mention it. Instead I grew to understand and admire the underlying, foundational role of faith in her life. We felt comfortable and safe sharing anything with one another. My friendship with her and others in SCF helped me to ask what faith and God could mean in my own life. This challenged me to take a step back from my prior conclusions that I did not need God, who I had regarded as too distant from our broken world. Having reassessed those conclusions, I began to listen attentively to inspiration from God in other areas of my life.
I will soon continue to discuss what Jesus shares with us about spiritual friendship. First, I want to keep my promise and talk about the potential for moral transformation in human friendship, drawing from a neo-Aristotelian understanding. We learn about our(moral)selves, the people we want to become, the dreams we hope to pursue, and the beliefs that we hold deeply through our ties with the people around us. Within this landscape of human connections, close companion friends in particular offer us the possibility for incredible growth and transformation. I use growth to mean a fuller articulation of shared moral values and transformation to refer to a deeper reworking of character.
We are most attentive to and take most seriously our companion friends because we love them for their unique particularity, echoing the words of the fox from The Little Prince. Companion friendship is unique because each has a “commanding perspective” of the other through mutual self-disclosure.8 We can examine ourselves through reflective dialogue with our companion friends because we trust that they will listen without judgment as they understand our motivations, virtues, and vices comprehensively. But we cannot reduce our growth or the ways we share and care to intense dialogue. The mundane everyday conversations, laughter, and storytelling are important in getting to know one another and building trust.9 Shared trust between us and our friends invites us to take one another seriously, including our differences. Differences between friends can help open us up to deeper change, if we truly listen.
Within friendship, good listening enables us to reach a deeper understanding of one another. According to Joseph Beatty, good listening involves the openness to revise our sense of right and wrong, the capacity to empathize with the other without reproducing the same prejudgments in ourselves, and the humility to revise our view of both self and other.10 The listener must make a decision to really reconsider and rework her own views, thus good listening makes possible transformation of character but does not require it. It brings us to understand ourselves and the other in our full complexity while showing us that they may not be who we thought they were and that we may not be who we thought we were.
I don’t believe that Jesus would dismiss most of the secular and philosophical views on friendship that I put forth above. Rather, He expands on them by offering us a spiritual friendship with Him. Effort and patience, which we learned from the fox in The Little Prince, are crucial in cultivating a strong relationship with God. Though our companion friends have a “commanding perspective” on our lives, no one knows us better than God but we must put effort into building trust with Him just as we do with our companion friends. Self-examination and good listening (central pieces to companion friendships) are possible when we trust God, but it is sometimes difficult to know what He says and what He wants us to do.
This is why faith is not present in the complete and utter absence of doubt. Some kinds of doubt are damaging to our relationship with God, but some kinds, I believe, are spiritually productive. When we come to know God intimately through our rebirth in Christ, which is more than just knowing about Him, we rest in our knowledge of God and our salvation through the gift and sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. We do not doubt this, but this faith strengthens us to grapple with other doubts in our lives, wrestle with truth, and examine our(moral)selves.
During a conversation at lunch, someone challenged me by asking, “How do you know God? How do you know you are a friend with God?” I told him about how I discover God through the Bible and through prayer. I told him that prayer for me is about calling on God to help me become who He wants me to be. Though we may not see Jesus in the flesh today, I believe that we see the power of His Spirit at work in the world. I see God in the healing He brings to my family and in the awareness He brings to me. I think that the central point is that though God’s friendship is a gift and an act of grace, it is not one we receive passively. I opened with The Little Prince to frame this discussion around the idea of putting effort into a friendship, because I believe that we are called to pour love, effort, and gratitude into our friendship with God when we receive His gift. Thus a friendship with God is not merely about hanging out with Jesus on a park bench, because God calls us tomore radical and difficult things, to transform ourselves and live radically as Jesus lived. But what does this look like?
Jesus embodied a love so radical that He laid down His life for us. Jesus teaches us that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”11 Aristotle argues that people of good character would sacrifice much for the sake of their friends, including dying for them.12 The little prince tells a rose who has no friends, “You are beautiful, but you are empty. One could not die for you.”13 Friendship that is strongly characterized by each person’s goodwill toward the other embodies a commitment and love so powerful that laying down one’s life is the supreme expression of that goodwill.
Jesus embodies His very own command, “Love each other as I have loved you.”14 Throughout His life, He brought His Father’s loving presence into the world through acts of healing and restoration, especially for the marginalized and the abandoned. This is what He commands us to do, to love one another in a way that brings God’s healing and restoration through care, generous giving, and forgiveness. Jesus tells his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”15 This is incredible! We are invited to share in God’s knowledge and love as friends of Jesus. Of course, this friendship is different from companion friendships between humans, because we are fallible, whereas Jesus is fully divine. But as the incarnated Word and as God fully human with us, He experiences human emotion and temptation and engages with us as a friend.
Now I am ready to explore why God chooses to be our friend. We could think of Him as our Creator and King (and we would not be wrong), but He chooses to be our friend, first in flesh and then forever in spirit, who is always with us. I believe that friendship’s tremendous potential to teach and transform is perhaps one important reason. Friendship is also a choice; true friendship is not coerced. God gives us the choice to be in relationship with Him because it is in His loving nature to do so. It is also an expression of His humility. Our transformation in this spiritual friendship does not pull us out of this world for Jesus brings the power of God’s kingdom here to us. Our friendship with Jesus calls us to engage with and love this world as He did, which is not the same as loving the things of this world. He envisions a community founded in Christ and called to peace, as Paul shares in his letter to the Colossians: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”16
It appears that there is a disagreement between Jesus who calls us all to love one another and Aristotle who believes that we can love only those who are lovable. Aristotle also believes that each of us can only have one or two companion friends because he believes we cannot commit to more than that. Must we try to reconcile Aristotle’s argument that we only love those who are lovable and we may only have one or two companion friends with Jesus’ call for all of us to love one another, including our enemies, as He has loved us? Jesus expands on Aristotle by teaching us that we are radically equal under God, and so, all are lovable. As Jesus begins to prepare to return to His Father, He washes the feet of His Disciples and tells them to do the same with one another.17 Again He loves so radically that He cares even for our dirty, broken selves. Perhaps He could have chosen to remain with His Father, loving us from afar. But He did not; rather, He involved Himself in this dirty, messy, and corrupted world of ours out of love. He wants us to love one another in the same way, as friends and with radical compassion, gentle patience, and generous giving.
1 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 59.
2 Ibid., 58.
3 Barry Schwartz, The Cost of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 186.
4 Aristotle, Trans. J.A.K. Thomson, The Nichomachean Ethics (New York: Penguin Group, 2004) 1156a.
5 Ibid., 1156b.
6 Ibid., 1155a.
7 Ibid., 1169b.
8 Laurence Thomas, “Friendship and Moral Self-examination,” Living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p.140.
9 Rose Mary Volbrecht, “Friendship: Mutual apprenticeship in moral development,” The Journal of Value Inquiry (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990) 24, p.311.
10 Joseph Beatty, “Good Listening.” Educational Theory (University of Illinois: Board of Trustees, 1999) 49(3), p. 286-8.
11 John 15:13
12 Aristotle, The Ethics, 1169a.
13 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 60.
14 John 15:12
15 John 15:15
16 Colossians 3:16
17 John 13: 1-17
Nick Palazzolo ’13 is from Limerick, Pennsylvania, and is a double major in laughter and repetitive storytelling. He enjoys eating oranges with friends because they are fruits specially designed for sharing.Tags: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Aristotle, beauty, Catholicism, doubt, faith, friendship, God, grace, Jesus, Joseph Beatty, love, The Little prince