Friendship: Nothing Greater

The holy friends of Christ rejoice in heaven; they followed in his footsteps to the end. They have shed their blood for love of him and will reign with him for ever.

Magnificat Antiphon for II Vespers, Common of Several Martyrs

In his work On Friendship, Marcus Tullius Cicero, an ancient Roman philosopher and orator, treats the subject of friendship as he also extols his late, beloved friend Scipio. He writes:

Who would not lose in his loneliness the zest for all pleasures? . . . ‘If a man could ascend to heaven and get a clear view of the natural order of the universe, and the beauty of the heavenly bodies, that wonderful spectacle would give him small pleasure, though nothing could be conceived more delightful if he had but had some one to whom to tell what he had seen.’ So true it is that Nature abhors isolation, and ever leans upon something as a stay and support; and this is found in its most pleasing form in our closest friend.

The pain of loneliness is one of the worst that can be felt by man. Not only does the wound of loneliness afflict the emotions, but at its worst it can cause psychological trauma, illness, and even physical pains. No doubt, Christ’s lament from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34) was in part an expression of this painful loneliness. Countless writers through the ages have spoken of its causes, depths, and terrors, as well as of its remedies. It can creep into man’s heart at any time; even when he is surrounded by friends, associates, and loved ones. But how can man be lonely when he is surrounded by friends?

There are several kinds of friendship. Sometimes we associate ourselves with someone who provides some “good” to us that we want or need, in what Aristotle calls a friendship of utility. This is not a perfect friendship, for when the need is fulfilled, the friendship often dissolves. Man can also call someone his friend who entertains him with a quick wit or funny jokes, or whose company he finds pleasurable in some other way. Again, this is not true friendship, since what is loved is that which is pleasing, not the friend in himself. When this friend is no longer in a joking mood, he is no longer pleasant, and his company is no longer desired. Man can have either of these imperfect types of friendship and yet find himself isolated and lonely.

To find the nature of perfect friendship we must investigate the nature of love itself. St. Thomas Aquinas divides love into two kinds: love of concupiscence and love of friendship. Love of concupiscence is the love directed to goods we wish toward another or to ourselves, whereas the love of friendship is the love I have for another for his own sake. This distinction introduces a third kind of friendship, which Thomas takes from Aristotle.

In loving a friend men love what is good for themselves; for the good man in becoming a friend becomes a good to his friend. Each, then, both loves what is good for himself, and makes an equal return in goodwill and in pleasantness.

(Nichomachean Ethics VIII, 5)

In Aristotle’s view, men become good by pursuing virtue and establishing virtuous habits; therefore the more virtuous a man is, the more he becomes “a good” to his friends. This also means that the more virtuous a man is, the more lovable he is. It is in this way that we may say that the basis of true friendship is virtue and the virtuous life. Now we are in a position to identify the true model and ultimate exemplar of friendship:

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

(Jn 15:11–14)

Notice that Aristotle’s definition of friendship harmonizes with Jesus’ commandment: the truest friendship occurs when we love the virtue in our friend and become virtuous ourselves; then our friend’s joy is in our virtue. When we love Jesus and seek to imitate His life, we come to realize that He is our true joy, and that His joy is in us.

Today’s feast of the martyrs Paul Miki and companions is a special feast of true friendship. These martyrs imitated Christ, laying down their lives for His sake. Let us, then, never be lonely, remembering that Christ is our truest friend and constant companion and that every perfect friendship draws us closer to Him who completes our joy.

This is all I had to say on friendship. One piece of advice on parting. Make up your minds to this: Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship.

(Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Friendship)

image: The Nagasaki martyrs, Cuzco School

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Dominicana, the Dominican student blog of the St Joseph Province and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

By

Br. Raphael Forbing entered the Order of Preachers in 2009. He is a graduate of Northern Michigan University, where he studied public relations. He worked as a para-social worker before entering the Order.

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  • Lee

    Friendships carry us through our good and bad days.Be a friend to those who are in need, knowing that we are fragile.God is not the friend that we need to fear leaving us to fend for ourselves, but the one who is always with us. He works through our friendships, we need that human touch.

  • noelfitz

    “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship” (St Thomas
    Aquinas).

    This article shows Dominican scholarship at its best. Referencing St Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle is challenging and links our modern age with our past. The emphasis on virtue, dominant in earlier times, is now returning.

    In the past the Church was slow to emphasize friendship, due to the fear of misunderstanding and the dangers of inappropriate friendship.

    In more recent times John Henry Newman has written encouragingly on friendship.

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