The Art of Friendship

Facebook has given new meaning to the saying, ‘Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit’. Social media has brought with it great benefits, but one of the biggest problems associated by many with them is that there seems to have come about post hoc if not propter hoc a diminution in understanding of friendship. This chimes in with an earlier piece that featured in this blog about Family and the Common Good,and it rather reinforces the idea that human connections are vital to the functioning of society, both inside and outside the family. It would seem that if we establish a bedrock of stable families this would naturally lend itself to the development of friendships, since friendship has much in common with the love that the lucky among us encounter in the family.

In order even to begin recapturing friendship, we must understand what it is. For this it is worth turning to the ancients. Aristotle, after much thought, concluded that there were essentially three levels of friendships. The first and lowest is that of utility: born of mutual dependence and little more, such that the ‘adhesive’, however powerful, tends to dissolve the moment one of the individuals becomes surplus to requirements. 

The second is friendship of pleasure: begotten out of a shared love or interest, whether music, sport, film or something cultural. This is more stable because there is genuine, mutual affection and the base is more stable. However, just as needs change, so does that in which we take pleasure, so this, too, may dissolve. 

The final and highest form of friendship is that of virtue in which the one genuinely seeks the good of the other in all things. This implies, unlike the other, lower forms, a mutual understanding that the other is to be treated as an object of love and not of use. Pope St. John Paul II declared, ‘The capacity to love is determined by the fact that man is ready to seek the good consciously with others, to subordinate himself to this good because of others, or to subordinate himself to others because of this good’. Clearly then for true friendships to occur those involved need an understanding of, and a capacity for, love – and this is taught to most first of all in the family.

Another key to friendship is reciprocity. The fact that friendship requires mutuality seems obvious, and yet many overlook it – for a very good reason. Often true friendship is founded upon a common vision of the world.

If friendship at its deepest form calls to an alignment of wills, with a constant determination to put the other’s good first, then there needs must be intellectual alignment, too. Like so many other things, whilst friendship might appear to sentimentalists to reside in emotions, and how one feels, it really resides in the intellect. 

We need to decide where we want to go and with whom we shall travel the journey. This is a rational process, and it is certainly preferential. This is not to advocate selfishness. If we believe we are aiming at the ultimate good we should be motivated to bring others with us. Reciprocity is not mutual feeling, but more a shared understanding and all but a single will. St. Aelred of Rievaulx in the twelfth century made plain that he believed friendship needed guarding by the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

Friendship is of great importance to each of us. Cicero says of it that it, ‘improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief’. 

More even than that, however, friendship is an encounter with love, and an opportunity to love – the highest and richest act of a human person. It can be particularly destructive of the personality, therefore, if people do not have real friends. It is worth reflecting then on who one’s true friends are. If we can learn to make a gift of ourselves, and reach a determination to do so steadily, those are key steps to establishing real friendships.

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