"A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
"What is a friend? A single soul in two bodies."
–Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
"No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father, I have made known to you."
Friendship gets a bad rap – most particularly in the single life. One of the most common things I hear after someone goes on a date is, "He/she JUST wants to be friends", followed by a heartbroken sigh. When one is involved in the dating scene, the LAST thing people generally want to hear is the now infamous "let's just be friends" line or variations thereof. And that's simply because people are looking for romantic relationships – and being considered a friend is, in their minds, being relegated to second best. For them, it is a little bit like a dog being thrown a bone.
And that mode of thought gives great disservice to friendship in general. So it seems to me that it is high time for us to take a look on what some of the great minds have said about friendship and re-evaluate the way we look at friendship. For, if we fail in understanding the value of friendship, we will fail in cultivating true and holy friendships and most likely fail in other relationships as well. And, in turn, we ourselves will suffer. To quote Cervantes: "Tell me what company thou keepst, and I'll tell thee what thou art."
To begin then, let us consider what some of the great minds of the past have said on the value of friendship. Cicero, the noted Roman orator, states: "Life is nothing without friendship." He is also often quoted as saying: "Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief." To him, friendship has a value beyond price.
In his discourse on friendship in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says: "For without friends, no one would choose to live though he had all other goods. Even rich men, and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends?" He goes on to say that: "But it is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends."
So then, we see that Aristotle too considers friendship as one of the highest, if not the summit, of earthly goods. More modern minds have also made similar statements about friendship. In Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life", Clarence the angel tells George Bailey: "Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends." C.S Lewis continues: "Friend is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival." So, no man is alone who has friends – and those who have solid friendships are most richly blessed. To sum up in the words of Sacred Scripture: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who has found one has found a treasure." — Sirach 6:14
"Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together"
– Woodrow Wilson
"I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man's milk and restorative cordial."
- -Thomas Jefferson
Now that we have seen that friendship is of great value, how do we, as Christians, be good friends to others? What does it mean to be a good friend – especially in today's self-centered and sex-saturated society? Let's first look at the words of Jesus. He tells his disciples in the Gospel of John that they are to "love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another." A short time later, in that same Gospel, Jesus also makes a strong point of calling his disciples not servants, but FRIENDS. Putting these two verses together then, it seems that to be a true friend, one must have love for the other.
But, what kind of love? Because as many of us know, the conception of love in modern society and the Christian's notion of love can differ greatly. In the Ethics, Aristotle says: "to be friends, then, they must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other." In other words, a real friend loves when he wills the good of another. Jesus goes a step further when He says that no greater love has a man than he who lays down his life for his friend. (See John 15:13) So, love then, clearly involves self-sacrifice (mirroring Christ's sacrifice on the Cross) and true friendship involves love. So real friendship has to revolve around mutual self-sacrifice and self-giving. So from this, it becomes clear why nurturing one's friendships properly helps in preparing for a marital relationship.
"The only way to have a friend is to be one."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Two are better than one: they get a good wage for their labor. If the other falls, the other will lift up his companion. Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up."
- Ecclesiates 4:9-10
It also becomes clear that if we fail to nurture our friendships (i.e. if we fail to be true friends) we will fail in our other relationships, especially those of a romantic nature. The expression "friends first" often gets dismissed because it is trite and cliched – but the funny thing about cliches is that they are often true. So, if we want to be a good spouse, it is critical that we appreciate the value of friendship and nurture our own friendships (specifically by centering them around serving one another and Christ) – even when, in our own minds, it may be "less" than we might want.
So, the next time somebody tells you that they simply wish to be friends – don't let your automatic response be a roll of the eyes and an inward groan. They could be offering you something very precious and real–a part of themselves. And then it helps to bear in mind the words of the Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." By being good and holy friends, you are being Jesus to another.