Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The Virtue of Friendship

I caught part of a piece on NPR this morning on the subject of friendship. It reminded me of some things that others have written about the subject, and it made me think a little more on the issue as a Christian. Friendship is an issue we don’t often reflect upon, but I think it holds some great benefit for the believer and the development of a virtuous and Christ-like life.

Among other things, I believe that friendship, true friendship, helps to develop the virtue of humility in our lives. Consider some of these things written by Aristotle in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. In this passage he argues that friendships built on utility (usefulness) or pleasure are inherently selfish and dissolve quickly-it is the very nature of selfishness to use something up until it becomes useless and then discard it. On the other hand, friendships built on love, goodwill and reciprocation (a degree of selflessness) are longer lasting, and in reality, relatively rare. Aristotle says:

Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.


…but to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake. But to those who thus wish good we ascribe only goodwill, if the wish is not reciprocated; goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship.

He goes on to say that this true notion of friendship is not only a virtue to be treasured in one’s life, but it presupposes virtue. It requires good people to make good friends. Otherwise, you are left with a one-sided relationship which does not reach the level of true friendship. One person may have true feelings of friendship toward the other, but if the other is lacking the virtue of selflessness, the relationship will inevitably dissolve over time.

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends;… But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare.

As a Christian I see in this the virtue of humility. Tending for a friendship over a long period of time will force me to pay more attention to the friend than to myself. In this way it is not too much different from a marriage in which two people should pay more attention to the other and to the union than themselves. Friendship requires us to put up with the give-and-take that so often happens between people. Friendship requires us to hang-on to a friend when they don’t feel like a friend. But in the end, true friendship cannot thrive if there are not two people who are, in Aristotle’s terms, “good people.”

Following Aristotle, a relationship is no longer a friendship if it is carried by one person. That is care taking, or mentoring, or parenting, but not friendship. It is exactly the reciprocal nature of friendship which makes it different from these other activities and which makes it a good to be sought after over the others. Friendship is a higher good than these other relationships in that in their humble and selfless state, friends find themselves fulfilled.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is truly a wonderful passage and it helped me a lot