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What is a True Friendship?

Half of Americans report loneliness of some sort. The research varies but roughly 40-50% of adults claim to be lonely, +50% claim no one really knows them, and our young adults 18-22 claim the highest rates of loneliness. Various reports show people, married or single, young or old, having no close friends. Instead of discussing what may or may not be the cause, let's discuss a great medicine for loneliness.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. -Ecclesiastes 4:9-10


Friendship was a natural bond that formed the Western World. Mutual affection, willing of the good, and a sense of reciprocity that helped for Just friendships were frequently manifested through good deeds between friends. The picture above is a portion of Raphael's famous School of Athens depicting an elderly Plato and younger Aristotle walking and talking as friends.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII) lays out three kinds of Friendships:
  • Pleasure

  • Utility

  • Virtue

Each of these types of friendships is characterized by the goal of that friendship.
Pleasure: people who give us pleasure
I.E. people who make us laugh, drinking buddies, a friendship around a hobby (cycling, fishing, hunting, sports), friends with benefits or adulterous affairs, drug dealer friends, etc.
Problem: if a person's pleasure changes, e.g. they have a new sense of humor or drug or hobby of choice, then your friendship ends. "I guess we weren't ever really friends."
​E.G. your friend talks to a funnier person and abandons your friendship, your drinking buddy finds a new bar without telling you, your best friend switches from cycling to running thereby leaving you, your cohabitating 'partner' breaks up with you and moves in with their newfound lover.
Utility: people who are useful to use
I.E. co-workers, political alliances, classmates, families with kids the same age, retirement communities, youth ministries, partners in crime, affinity groups, groups you go to get a friend - any friend, people you like to look at because they look handsome or beautiful, etc.
Problem: if what is "useful" for someone changes, then your friendship ends
E.G. Judas was known to steal from the common purse of the Apostles, when he couldn't get anymore, he asked the Pharisees how much he could get for betraying Jesus - 30 shekels. Also, when businessmen who know each other's wives and children backstab each other after 20 years of "friendship" to make an extra buck.
Virtue: people who will our good
I.E. friendships of virtue, spiritual friendships, friendships of the good, true friendship, real friendship
Problem: they take forever to cultivate, require goodwill, mutual affection, and common activities in common life and therefore rootedness to a place
​E.G. Achilles and Patroclus were friends and fellow soldiers in the Achaean army. Also, think of Frodo and Samwise Gamgee. Both of these have a common goal, see each other daily or weekly, engage in the same activities, and have a mutual but often unspoken understanding of what qualities (virtues) are good and which are evil, which will help them get to their goal, and which will stop them from goodness.

True vs. False Friendships

Aristotle argues that sense the essence of friendship is "common life," that it is those enduring friendships that can best claim to be friendship proper. Since friendships of virtue alone are perpetual, since pleasure and utility change as we age and with fashion, only friends of virtue can claim to be true friendships. The unchangeability of the good is what provides a strong rock for friends of virtue. Thus, properly speaking, friendships of pleasure and utility are not friendships. In other words, if you feel lonely, this is another way of saying you desire a friend of virtue


Obstacles to friendship are either our fault or the other's fault, or both. Frequently we don't want to change our schedules, open up our self or family to others, sit on our screens too long, etc. The sad but honest truth is that if we are lonely, the problem is probably with us. We cannot have a friend of virtue if we are not seeking virtue. If you are looking around and see nobody to be a friend, then you are wasting time looking around. Love yourself. Seek virtue, live the good life, run the race, and once you start running you'll discover others are running next to you. When you find those people, befriend them. Don't waste your time waiting.
Concrete problems include being too driven by a hard and fast schedule, not being open to changing your Personal or Familial Rule of Life to set apart time for others, spending hours on social media, etc. Sometimes we are exhausted after coming home from work. This is not an excuse. If we come home and fall on the couch and ignore community, family, and friends, then we only do justice to our co-workers and boss but ignore those perhaps closest to us. Our bodies must be in shape enough to have the required energy to do justice to friends.


Do you have any friends of virtue? Do you want some? One must begin with The Good. If we don't know what is good, we can't possibly know if we're doing it for a friend, or know if a friend is doing it for us. If we jump to "being practical," we'll find ourselves unable to discern between good and bad friends. Seek virtue, cultivate goodness in your own soul, and then you can love your neighbor as yourself in a proper way.
Having looked at Natural Friendships under Aristotle, we'll look to St. Aelred sometime for what a Supernatural or "Spiritual" Friendship is. Both are friendships of virtue, but the second has more virtues to consider, chiefly Charity. We'll discuss how Jesus taking on friendship redeemed it, transformed it, and how a Christian Friendship is something higher still than a friendship of virtue.


Q1: How can friendships of virtue be useful and pleasant? I thought you said those were two other kinds of friendship?
A: As you practice an activity you begin to love it, e.g. horse trainers take pleasure in horse races and gardener's take pleasure in cooked vegetables. If you practice virtue, then you come to take pleasure in virtuous acts and in the good. Two people doing this together will find each other's company pleasant, like men who fish together or women who grab coffee together. Likewise, since their goals are the same, they will find each other "useful" and "practical" and the viceful they will find "impractical." (They will find people who use the word "practical" a lot to probably be the most impractical people in the world, for they are never clear on what it is they are working to or working for.)
Q2: Why Friendships of Virtue endure if those of utility and pleasure do not?
A: Friendships of Virtue do not dissolve easily because their rooted in The Good. Whereas our passions or desires are subject to change like the seasons or with fashions that are here today and gone tomorrow, The Good cannot change. The Good is not based on anyone's passions or affections, it has an objective existence, and thus an external cause that is above both friends binds them in an image of eternity. Thus the dissolution of this friendship is only broken if one gives up seeking The Good (i.e. abandonment or treachery, the latter being Judas' sin).
Q3a: How do Friendships of Virtue have mutual affection? I thought virtue is when you dispassionately do your duty despite its difficulty or unpleasantness.
A: Not quite. That's Stoicism, which is still rampant in the Old South. Virtue puts reason first, that our affections come to take joy in what is good. Stoicism tries to get rid of passions altogether, Virtue purifies them. Stoics would have you be a rational creature with no passions, like Spock. Virtue would have you be rational and passionate, just a better version of yourself. (The notion of joy only being passions by putting reason aside would be Romanticism aka Brutishness, which is opposed to Virtue)
Q3b: Sorry, I'm still on the mutual affection bit. So, do I need to like the person with who I'm trying to be a Friend of Virtue with?
A: Great question. Yes. Without mutual affection, you are either in a one-sided relationship, which is not friendship. How do we know? For example, if only one side has affection, it could be possible the other side wishes to kill the first person. We do not call this a "friend" but an "enemy." Thus it is that friendships of virtue require mutual affection! But if this is what a friend is, then it is fine if we start out not liking someone a whole lot and work on it! This is the role of goodwill.
Q4: They need mutual goodwill huh? That seems pretty simple since you said friendships of virtue are rooted in the good.
A: It is quite simple. However, some tend to go astray here. The good of a person, family, city, or state cannot be The Common Good because none of those is necessarily the "common" good betwixt people. For example, two Nazis helping each other by killing opponents seems sacrificial and courageous, but it is only seeming goodwill. In reality, their mission is evil, and thus their friendship is not good and they do not have goodwill for each other. Likewise, if two thieves would give up the clothes on their backs, the money in their banks, and undergo immense torture of the most inhumane skill just so their "friend" wouldn't be harmed -- this, would not be mutual goodwill. Indeed, it would not be "friendship" proper since their relation is rooted in the evil of stealing, rather than the good. What they have we might call camaraderie, but this not necessarily to be lauded as the example above shows.
Q5: So each has to know the other is mutually affective and willing the good of one another? Why?
A: If someone doesn't know you're willing the good for them then you are doing an act of charity, which is good, but this does not make you friends. It makes you a well-intended stranger.
Q6: Common life is the essence of friendship? But I have friends who live far away.
A: Common life encompasses the same kinds of activities: work, labor, eating, educating, recreation, etc. In order to will the good for another, you have to know not just what in general is good, but what particulars are good for a particular friend. If I say I have goodwill for Fred, but Fred is allergic to peanuts and I accidentally kill him by slipping peanuts into a recipe without him knowing, then I wasn't actually willing his good, I only intended on willing his good. Common life is the journey of life whereby we commit in rootedness to get to know some people, that we might actually will their good. Without this, a friendship of virtue is nigh impossible. I salute you on your friends who live far away, regular visits are necessary to keep the friendship where it's already at. It is difficult if not impossible to move it forward to a more virtuous stage. Without regular visits, they quickly dissolve, as all youth lament, and the elderly admit.
Q7: Can only Catholics or Christians have a friendship of virtue?
A: Of course not! If you notice I've used Aristotle to talk about friendship, a Greek barbarian, a pagan, a gentile, a pre-Christ person. In simple terms: the Natural Virtues of Courage, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice are available to anyone in virtue of being human. The Supernatural Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity are available only as gifts of The Holy Ghost to the baptized. This means there is a distinction between a Friendship of Virtue (Aristotle, Cicero, et al) and a Spiritual Friendship (Augustine, Aelred, Aquinas). We'll go over that next time.
Q8: Where'd you get this list of questions?
A: I've been talking and reflecting on Friendship for some 12 years now. I also teach Philosophy at a Catholic High School. Surprisingly most of my high schoolers questions or concerns are nearly identical to those of different generations. There is something all too human in this conversation that transcends age limits. People want to be happy.
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