Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John J. Conley, S.J.April 15, 2014

A historian once noted that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the most commonly taught text in the philosophy classrooms of Jesuit colleges. A member of the great Jesuit Aristotelian procession, I always look forward to teaching the Ethics in my moral philosophy courses. It is a particular joy to gloss Books VIII and IX, where Aristotle presents his theory of friendship.

For Aristotle, friendship comes in three sizes. In the friendship of utility, we exercise good-willed sociability as we engage others in pursuing our own interests. In the friendship of pleasure, affection easily turns erotic as we desire to pursue the other for the romantic ecstasy he or she promises. In authentic friendship, the rarest kind, utilitarian interest and erotic desire recede. We come to love the other for his or her own sake. A bond between the morally and intellectually mature, this authentic friendship helps the partners to grow mutually in the virtues, those hard-won habits of intellect and will necessary for human happiness.

In the Aristotelian perspective, friendship does not confine itself to the private sphere. It constitutes the soul of the political order, enabling citizens to work harmoniously in promoting the common good through laws and actions. The virtues generated by mature friendship free the moral agent to face reversals of fortune with a courage unobtainable elsewhere.

Students react favorably to the Aristotelian portrait of friendship. They often claim, much to the consternation of the faculty, that the friendships made at college are more important than the courses undertaken. But they are also baffled. What does friendship, a private relationship, have to do with politics? Whatever is happening in Washington these days, it is obviously not driven by philia or agape. Moreover, they rarely experience their own friendships as a place for growth in temperance or justice.

The students’ bafflement reflects the broader difficulty of comprehending, let alone promoting authentic friendship in our society, although we vaguely sense its importance. Conferences on ethics routinely feature endless sessions on sexuality, marriage and family life. Panels on friendship are rare.

The church is not free from this blind spot. We are preparing for yet another Synod on the Family. But the celebrated questionnaire preparing the ground for the synod poses no questions concerning friendship inside or outside the family. A synod on friendship would be dismissed as eccentric or a hoax. The current ecclesiastical inattention to the phenomenon of friendship is an odd omission in a church that otherwise prides itself on the Aristotelian pedigree of its ethical doctrine. It is also a costly omission, since it is only in the authentic friendship of the virtuous that we are free to love each other neither as instruments of self-aggrandizement nor as objects of sexual desire but simply for own sakes as rational but fragile creatures in need of encouragement.

When I was a graduate student at Louvain, I often attended services at the Benedictine convent of St. Gertrude. One day I was struck by the feast they were celebrating: Saints Mary, Martha and Lazarus, friends of the Lord. The preacher related the friendship of Jesus for these siblings to the eternal friendship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity.

Unsurprisingly in our sex-drenched culture, a thousand novels and films have reduced the friendship of Jesus with Mary Magdalene and St. John the Apostle to a sexual romp. Chaste friendship built on virtue and the mutual love of God can no longer be easily grasped, let alone esteemed. St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Teresa of Avila counsel their disciples to engage during prayer in conversation with Jesus or the saints “as one friend speaks to another.” But when the simple believer claims that “God is my best friend,” we are quick to pounce on the remark as a cliché of civil religion.

In discovering God as eternal friend, we unearth the mystery of freedom, personal vocation and mutual love God offers us in the covenant. The coolness of the Supreme Being recedes. In discovering other human beings as mature friends, we give the lie to our society’s myth that other people exist only to fulfill our economic or sexual ambition. The path to a truly humane life, one built on virtue, disinterested service and an ungrasping praise of God, is suddenly open.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
10 years 1 month ago
Scholastically I know little to nothing about Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” but as Fr. Conley pointed out in “Just Friends,” I know a lot about “discovering God as Eternal Friend” and in that enlightenment I choose to see everyone as my friend. If we are heaven-bound where all dwell in everlasting friendship and if it is true as Catherine of Siena asserts, that “heaven begins on earth,” then I see universal friendship as a moral prerequisite to intimacy with God. As model I take the eternal Trinitarian Friendship of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, One to the Other, prayerfully accepting through inner study some of the vast reservoir of friendship that is the heartbeat of the Trinity. We humans have a way with people we hold dear, like friends, to give them “pet names” often known to no one else. Pope Benedict XVI in “Jesus Of Nazareth” in Chapter Five on “The Lord’s Prayer,” says, “God addresses every individual by a name that no one else knows …”. Why? Because God is our Friend and that’s what friends do – have secret love-names, buddy-names, one towards the other. Revelation 2:17 puts it this way. “I will give him (her) a white pebble, and upon the pebble a new name written, which no one knows except him (her) who receives it.” Pebbles are little rocks. If the incalculable number of white named-pebbles lovingly given to humanity, past, present and to come, are put together they would form that massive rock on which Christ built the Church! We’re just friends, God and us. That’s true, not just a nice sounding phrase. Once preparing for Confession the thought came to mind, that Jesus is my friend and Brother. Confession made the first thing the priest said to me surprisingly, as there was nothing confessionally said to elicit that response was, “Jesus is your Friend and Brother.” I knew that, but on that occasion my Friend reminded me twice of what I already knew, changing a moody frame of mind into buoyancy!
10 years 2 months ago
My parents are about to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary with their 13 surviving children. Brother Rob joins us from heaven For as long as I can remember my Dad has always said that the key to their marriage is that they are best friends. I see them growing even closer each day as, now in their 90's, they cope with my Mom's blindness, Dad's loss of hearing and memory. They joke that between them they make up one person! Indeed! I could not have put it better. Thankyou for this column.
Monica Doyle
10 years 1 month ago
Every time I read a biography of the Saints I feel as if I have a new friend. I am in the middle of a biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and boy, does she help me get through my day! At work, when things get busy and potentially stressful, and there's no time to talk to anyone, I imagine myself conversing with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who also worked long hours. It helps just the way a nice phone chat with a dear friend helps. Some would think this is crazy, but if the end result is greater temperance and patience, and I can grow in the virtues, I am fortunate to count her as a spiritual friend.

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”