Whom Are We Friends with and Why?

Whom Are We Friends with and Why?
On Philosophy and Friendship

That Americans are expert consumers is nothing new. That we are consumers of relationships, however, is disturbingly true. The hookup culture of college campuses and accruing friends on Facebook exemplify this current trend of a kind of libertarian individualism. In The New York Times article “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” contemporary philosopher Todd May describes today’s friendships in economic terms, as consumeristic and entrepreneurial.i Consumeristic friendship is the kind one consumes to satisfy one’s own emotional needs or physical desire, typically in youth; entrepreneurial friendship is the kind one invests in an other in order to derive a future, external benefit (e.g. a job offer). Our culture’s superficial, self-serving type of friendship should alarm us as relational individuals, especially knowing that it was criticized by the ancients. May’s economic portrayal of consumerist and entrepreneurial friendship reflects not only Aristotle’s taxonomy of pleasant and useful relationships, but also Cicero’s assertion that most men do not invest in relationships unless profit can be derived, and when they do, a calculated balance is kept.ii Our time pushes these imperfect relationships upon us, often at the expense of true friendship—the virtuous kind based on man’s goodwill for another, as described by the ancient philosophers. Our culture pressures us into climbing up the ladder by having the right connections instead of teaching us how to experience and love other human persons; the college hookup culture and high divorce rates across the country attest to our deprived state of meaningful relationships. In a time when personal gratification and material gain can be accessed via people, we so easily overlook the importance of those we call friends. Even the definition of “friend” is already blurred by Facebook. Why are we friends with the friends we have? Why be friends at all; what makes friendship important? And what does Christianity inform us about friendship that secular philosophy has not? This article demonstrates how the Christian perspective, instead of dislodging the classical philosophy on friendship, embraces it while also contributing a notion of spiritual friendship based on the theological virtue of charity as a gift from God.

Perhaps the finest articulation of the classic model of friendship lies in the Nichomachean Ethics of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (385-322 BCE), who classifies friendship under three causes—pleasure, utility, and virtue. Pleasure refers to physical satisfaction; utility, to practical advantage. When friendship is based on either or both these objects, it is susceptible to disintegration because it is not motivated by self-giving but by self-serving interest. One finds happiness not in the person of the friend, or in the relationship of friendship itself, but in an extrinsic quality (e.g. physical/ emotional pleasure, economic/social utility, et cetera). True friendship is “reciprocated goodwill”; it is only through virtue, or goodness, that friendship is complete.iii A friend is, according to Aristotle’s definition, he who wishes good for his friend’s own sake, like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, who gives selflessly for the boy’s happiness. The tree does not give to the boy for the sake of her own happiness; rather, her happiness is in the giving, in the boy, and in the friendship itself. However, this children’s storybook example is only half the picture; the boy exclusively takes the tree’s gifts, making the relationship one-way, and hence not a virtuous, or complete, or true friendship. Even if the boy did give something back to the tree, the friendship is incomplete insofar as the giving is done for the sake of receiving something in return. A true friend is a virtuous person, whose friend is at the same time “another himself ”; true friendships, therefore, can only exist between men who are alike in virtue.iv On this matter of equality, Aristotle poses a “puzzle”: “do friends really wish their friend to have the greatest good, for example, to be a god?” for upon being a god, he will cease to be a friend.v You do not wish your friend to be a god—even if that is the greatest good—because by being a god both parties must forgo friendship, which is not only necessary for happiness, but also the greatest good attainable by man. Aristotle’s conclusion, however, will be challenged later by Christian philosophy.

Nearly three centuries later Cicero (106-43 BCE), a Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher, took Aristotle’s classic model of friendship, specifically his emphasis on virtue, as the framework for his own. Positing friendship as the utmost priority of humanity’s concern, Cicero argues that virtue initiates friendship and builds on Aristotle’s model, adding that virtue is what sustains the mutual relationship. Cicero reveals the optional nature of friendship by contrasting friends to family: “once goodwill [virtue] has been lost, the friend is no longer a friend, but the relative is still a relative.”vi Whereas family ties remain even if virtue is lost, friendship wholly depends on the human goodness we choose to give and receive. We cannot choose our family but we choose to have our friends, and the friends we do have come from decisions we have made ourselves. Friendship is therefore anthropocentric: man is to decide for himself whether to be and have a friend; neither a god nor any other man chooses our friends for us. Cicero further explicates the unnecessary character of friendship: because we are self-sufficient and our destiny is in our own hands, we feel no need to have friends.vii Hence it is not deprivation or need that drives us to friendship but rather a voluntary desire, rooted in our human nature, that begins a friendship.viii Paradoxically, however, Cicero argues that it is this optional quality that makes friendship so “universally essential,” striking a keen resemblance to Aristotle’s claim that friendship is necessary for man to live happily.ix The ancients therefore celebrated the good of friendship as a gift from the gods for man’s happiness.

The medieval philosopher and Christian historian Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), while embracing the secular thoughts of Aristotle and Cicero in Book I of De Spiritali Amicitia (“Spiritual Friendship”), diverges uniquely by imbuing it with Christian theology, particularly the Bible. Taking Christ as the model for true friendship, Aelred introduces the groundbreaking idea that friends must be willing to die for each other, just as Christ died for humanity on the Cross. Before his death Jesus says to His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”x Jesus is called the exemplar of a true friend because He defies His own superiority as God by taking the flesh of man and invites His disciples to be His friends: “I no longer call you servants… Instead, I have called you friends.”xi Aelred’s innovation, that true friendship is realized in Christ the Son of Man, stems from Jesus’ death on the Cross—not as God but as man—and as a friend. Aristotle had treated the “puzzle” of wishing a friend to be godlike as unreasonable, and that of man’s friendship with God, insoluble. To Aristotle, such an intimate relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary could not exist because communication of a finite being with God was impossible.xii But Aristotle could never have imagined the Incarnation, the Christian mystery in which God became Man: Jesus Himself, as God, calls us His friends by becoming man in the flesh, and we are invited to the friendship Aristotle rejected as unthinkable. Moreover, this same event, unimaginable to the Greeks and Romans alike, solved Aristotle’s second paradox, the impossibility of wishing the highest good for one’s friend—that he become a god. The redemption in Christ and His promise of eternal salvation resolves this kind of wishing that Aristotle lamented as inconceivable: the wish to become friends with a totally perfect god—without wishing him to be something alien to his personhood. This undreamt possibility of Christian revelation offers the way around Aristotle’s dead end.

Aelred further expounds on his case for true friendship by disqualifying the pleasure and utility-based Aristotelean friendships as not true, calling the former carnal and the latter worldly friendship.xiii Both types of friendships mirror May’s economic model of friendship: carnal friendship “is consumed by its own self ”; worldly friendship burns out as soon as the spark of profit is extinguished.xiv True friendship, then, is spiritual friendship—in the spirit of Christ’s undying love for man as a friend.xv Aelred describes this spiritual cornerstone of friendship as a “virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love.”xvi Rather than diluting the ancient philosophy, Aelred enriches the virtue-based friendship by adding a spiritual, theological virtue to the natural, philosophical one. This spiritual virtue is what Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the foremost philosopher of the medieval Scholastics, denotes as charity (caritas in Latin; agape in Greek). Supporting Cicero’s view that man becomes friends by nature, Aelred provides a theological basis that explains why we are inherently inclined to have and be friends. He reveals that God created woman to create friendship as an inspiration to charity:

How beautiful it is that the second human being was taken from the side of the first, so that nature might teach that human beings are equal and, as it were, collateral, and that there is in human affairs neither a superior nor an inferior, a characteristic of true friendship.xvii

It was the Creator’s design to make humans not as disconnected individuals but as equal friends, and this point about equality and friendship echoes those made earlier by Aristotle, that friends are alike in virtue. However, Christianity expands Aristotle’s frame that one can only love the lovable. Christianity agrees, yet it reveals that through the sacrifice of Christ, all people, according to their intrinsic human dignity, given through their being created in the image and likeness of God, are lovable. While friendship does depend upon equality of virtue, the lovable good in the character of the other—an equality received through the identity as children of God—opens the way for an even deeper friendship. Cicero had claimed that friendship originates from within us, not from an external need, and here we see that Christianity deepens this innate source of friendship: God has placed friendship at the innermost core of human beings, all made in the image of God.

Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most eminent medieval Christian philosopher, also develops his ideas using the philosophical foundations of Aristotle and Cicero, centering their secular notions of virtue-based friendship on the spiritual, theological virtue of charity, mirroring Aelred’s account. As the ancients have discussed—that friendship (amicitia in Latin) comes from love (amor/philia)—Aquinas extends this derivation and applies it to Christianity. He articulates a specific kind of love—love based on fellowship with Christ—as charity, and this “charity is the friendship of man for God.”xviii Aquinas calls charity a virtue but specifies it by describing charity as a theological virtue acquired not by man’s own efforts but by God’s gracious love. Thus, like Aelred’s discussion of spiritual friendship, Aquinas’ explanation of charity completes, rather than competes with, the famed accounts of Aristotle and Cicero, two of the greatest pagan philosophers. In fact, this spiritual attribute of friendship appears in ancient philosophy: the Greeks did not believe that friendship would end because they thought the human soul itself was spiritual.xix Aquinas’ treatise on friendship does not replace but perfects the ancient archetype by defining the apex of virtue as charity, expanding the foundations of virtuous friendship to include not only human reason, but also heavenly revelation. Aquinas therefore presents friends as providential gifts of grace from God—gifts that human reason and natural virtue alone cannot merit.

Though exalted as one of the highest goods of human existence by both secular and Christian philosophers, true friendship has been largely ignored by modern society. It remains an under-researched relationship in sociology compared to the immense studies done on marriage and family relationships.xx Unlike marriage, friendship serves no biological purpose and has no direct legal ramifications. Exploring friendship as a kind of love in The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis (1898- 1963) argues that true friendship is rarely experienced, simply because it is biologically unnecessary. Lewis echoes Cicero’s philosophy that friendship is mutually developed on purely voluntary grounds: “I have no duty to be anyone’s friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine.”xxi It is precisely this optional quality of friendship that makes it vulnerable and at the same time profound. Lewis, the former atheist who became a Christian apologist, further elucidates that “this love, free from instinct, wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual.”xxii Lewis takes the friendship between David and Jonathan as a salient biblical example of the true, spiritual kind as noted in the Book of 1 Samuel: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.”xxiii In David and Jonathan’s friendship we see precisely Aristotle’s (and Cicero’s) definition of a true friend as one who is “another himself ” and who is involved “more in loving than in being loved.”xxiv Friendship is this heavenly kind of relationship that is based on love, the virtue ancient and medieval philosophers held as the centrality of true friendship. At the end of the chapter, though, Lewis presents an extraordinary thesis by defying the ancients. We think that we have chosen our friends. However:

 In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances.xxv

Lewis maintains that for the Christian, it is God who has been at work for friendship to have begun between two perfect strangers. Jesus tells His disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”xxvi We do not choose our friends, but friendship itself is chosen for us. Hence friendship is selflessly theocentric: God allows us to cross paths with those whom we think we ourselves chose as friends, but whom in reality were chosen for us by God. Unlike Aristotle and Cicero who held that friendship revolves around human choices, Lewis, Aquinas, and Aelred all maintain that it is God who brings friends together in love, through their own cooperating volition, by His love for us. Thus, Christianity explains that our friends are not accidents but gifts.

Just as reason and faith need not collide against each other, the Christian philosophy of friendship does not contradict the ancient. Instead of dismantling the secular discourse on friendship, Christian thinkers cemented it with theology, capping Aristotle and Cicero’s virtuous friendship with spiritual friendship. Establishing the theological virtue of charity as the highest virtue, Christianity views the voluntary nature of friendship as a providential boon from God. It is not by chance or luck whom we become friends with— or that we have friends at all—but from a work done by God out of love that spills over to our friendships, a love so great that God as man called His disciples His friends. While the ancient philosophies ultimately culminate in virtue-based friendship, the theological virtue of charity leads us to spiritual friendship that natural virtue and reason by themselves cannot attain. Christianity, therefore, offers a unique perspectivexxvii to the secular philosophy—both ancient and contemporary— by appreciating friendship as God’s gift to us out of His love; our friends, then, are a blessing. As the ancient philosophers recognized the ease with which we can settle for less from our relationships, the current cultural context challenges us, diverts us from what it means to have a true friend and be one. In this age of economics, we must consider how we approach our friendships and, as Flannery O’Connor writes, push back against our age “as hard as the age that pushes against you.”xxviii


i. Todd May, “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” Opinionator The New York Times, 4 July 2010. Web. 15 June 2012. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/friendship-in-an-age-ofeconomics/

ii. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, in Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, ed. Michael Pakaluk (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991) 1156a-1156b; Cicero, De Amicitia, trans. Frank Copley, in Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, ed. Michael Pakaluk (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991) XXI.79, XVI.58.

iii. Aristotle 1156a-1156b.

iv. Ibid. 1166a. Cicero makes a similar statement in De Amicitia: “the true friend is, so to speak, a second self ” (Cicero XXI.80).

v. Aristotle 1159a.

vi. Cicero V.19.

vii. Ibid. IX.30.

viii. Ibid. VIII.27. “[F]riendship takes its beginning from our very nature rather than from our sense of inadequacy…”

ix. Ibid. VI.22, Aristotle, 1155a. Cicero absorbs the Aristotelian thought that friendship is the best gift and greatest good from the gods for human happiness: “of all the gifts the gods have given us, this [friendship] is our best source of goodness and of happiness” (Cicero XIII.47).

x. John 15:13, as cited in Aelred of Rievaulx, De Spiritali Amicitia, trans. Eugenia Laker, in Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, ed. Michael Pakaluk (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991) I.30.

xi. John 15:15 NIV.

xii. James V. Schall What is God like? (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992) 146.

xiii. Aelred I.37, I.38.

xiv. Ibid. I.41, I.43.

xv. Ibid. I.45, I.9.

xvi. Ibid. I.21.

xvii. Ibid. I.57. In agreement with Cicero: “nature abhors solitude” (Cicero XXIII.88).

xviii. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, ed. Michael Pakaluk (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991) Q.23, A.1.

xix. James V. Schall, “Aristotle on Friendship,” The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008) 109.

xx. Kong, Kenneth C. C. “‘Are You My Friend?’: Negotiating Friendship in Conversations between Network Marketers and Their Prospects,” in Language in Society 32.4 (2003): 489.

xxi. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960) 71.

xxii. Ibid. 77.

xxiii. 1 Samuel 18:1 NIV

xxiv. Aristotle 1166a, 1159a.

xxv. Lewis 89.

xxvi. John 15:16 NIV.

xxvii. This article is not to argue that a Christian is any truer a friend than anyone else, but that Christianity opens up the possibility for us to discover and discuss even deeper, truer friendship.

xxviii. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor Ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979) 229.


Hannah Jung ’15 is from Seoul, South Korea. She is an English major.


Image by Temis from Stock Free Images.

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