On Friendship
August 20, 2019

Aristotle isn’t fundamentally wrong about friendship, nor is the long tradition that follows him. But you might not gather that by reading some of the more pointed critics of the classical conception of friendship. I think, however, that the classical view is not only viable but taken up and fulfilled in Scripture’s consideration of servants, friends, kings, and prophets.

Every serious discussion of the “history of ideas” about friendship begins with Aristotle. For him, friendship (philia) is the mutually-recognized relationship between two persons who bear goodwill for and wish well toward one another. The three kinds of friendship are three ascending and accumulating levels which correspond to the goods which the two persons will toward one another. At first, two persons love one another for their mutual usefulness; then, for the pleasantness of each other’s company; and finally, friends who would be perfect love “the good” together. “The good” is both goodness in the abstracted, the habituated pursuit after which is called virtue, as well as the good that one friend sees realized in the other’s virtue. 

Where there is usefulness, it may cease, and where there is pleasantness, that will cease as well, but because “the good” lasts forever, so will the friendship that builds itself on that rock.

And so friendship is a moral thing. So much so that Hugh Black could write, in 1898, that friendship is at once “the flower of Ethics and the root of Politics,” uniting the personal and communal aspects of the person (and two of Aristotle’s major treatises). 

The upshot of the Aristotelian view is that friendship is of primary importance. Friendship is the chamber in which virtue is formed. It is not only the goal of society but the bedrock upon which the flourishing society will be founded.

Is Aristotelian Philia Really Friendship?

Dr. Alexander Nehamas, professor of philosophy at Princeton, is one of a number of modern critics of Aristotle, and also one of the most constructive I’ve read. His book, “On Friendship,” summarizes modernity’s three main issues (and this interview he gave with The Atlantic summarizes almost all of his book’s argument).

First, friendship is not a moral good because the partiality essential to it contradicts ethics, both Christian and modern. 

This makes sense. After all, “if you show partiality, you are committing sin,” but the “royal law according to Scripture” says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Jas. 2:8-9). Christian ethics, per Kant, requires putting away friendship, which is an earthly love, for the heavenly agape, which is the sacrificial love of one’s neighbor. Nehamas points out that Christian agape transformed the world by teaching us that we are all fundamentally alike, and that morality means treating everyone equally: “To say, ‘I like him and I’ll do this for him and I won’t do that for another person’--that would not be a moral statement or moral position.”

Second, philia should be left untranslated, because Aristotle doesn’t describe friendship as we understand it, but a kind of relationship that is exclusive to men in the ruling class of his culture. As noble as Aristotle’s ideas appear, they did not bear good fruit in Greek society. After all, the only explicit mention of philoi in the gospels is a bad one: “And Herod and Pilate became friends (philoi) with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Lk 23:12). Enmity with Herod is not a bad thing. Pilate’s salvation would have required him to forsake philia in order to properly serve God and love his neighbor. 

Philia is not only irrelevant to most people in society, but it is not even a good example to take by analogy.

Third and finally, friendships are not built on a mutual pursuit of the good but on doing things--anything, really--with or for one another. Friendships are built on loyalty. That a person would “lay down his life for his friend” does not mean that he will lay down his life for a moral reason. Oftentimes, when friends ask each other for favors on the basis of friendship, it is because asking for it on the basis of “it’s the right thing to do” is insufficient.

Nehamas points to the film, Thelma and Louise, for an example:

“There you have two women who have a terrible event—one of them shoots a man who is trying to rape the other woman and then they become outlaws. They’re going to go to Mexico because they don’t want to be caught and in the meantime they do all kinds of bad things, like they rob a store or they shut a policeman in the trunk of his car. In the process they become true friends. But their friendship depends on acts that commonly, generally speaking we consider immoral. And yet at the end of the film, when they drive over the rim of the Grand Canyon, they become admirable. They are people who have become something that they can be proud of, even though it depended on immoral means.”

Allegiance is not necessarily moral and, when wrongly appealed to, can lead to ruin. Moses warns Israel against being enticed by friends who are “as your own soul” to go and serve other gods (Deut. 13:6). But then he says more: “You shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him (13:7-8). The only friendship explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch before this is Judah’s friend, who Hirah the Adullamite, who helps him repay the “prostitute” he met on the road to Timnah (Gen. 38).

It would seem that whatever grand place Aristotle had envisioned for friendship in our ethical and political imagination, friendship is simply a bond of loyalty that could be noble if you found the right people, but could just as likely get in the way of one’s primary allegiance, whether to “the good” or to God.  

Scripture Redeems and Situates Aristotle’s Vision

Several members of the Bible’s “Hall of Fame” are called friends of God. Scripture calls Abraham “friend of God” (Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23). Yahweh speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). John the Baptist is “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice” (John 3:29).

In John’s gospel, Jesus acknowledges a particular development in his relationship with his twelve disciples. He says that he has now called them “friends” because all that he has heard from his Father, he has made known to them (15:12-15). Before they knew “what his master [was] doing,” he called them “servants.” If they apply this knowledge toward obedience--doing what he commands them, loving one another, and laying down their lives for one another--they will remain his friends indeed. 

Part of the friendship described recalls the theme of loyalty in friendship, but it modifies the idea of loyalty in two ways.

First, the kind of loyalty expressed in these friendships is that of a subject to their king. Both the friends of God and the friends of Jesus are first servants. This recalls the time when King David elevates Hushai the Archite to the status of “friend” as he commissions him to thwart the counsel of Ahithophel (2 Sam. 15:32-37). Hushai the Archite’s part in the tragedy ends well: Ahithophel’s counsel is shown to be misguided and, together with all the men of Israel, Absalom recognizes Hushai’s counselor to be superior. The Chronicler’s memorial of his life confirms this: “Ahithophel was the king’s counselor, and Hushai the Archite was the king’s friend” (1 Chron. 27:33).

Second, loyal counselors don’t remain subject-friends but become friends both of their superiors and of their peers. Hushai was a servant who became a friend. Through their obedience, the disciples will deepen their friendship with their king, who is Jesus. But what interests me most is that each of these men who begins as a loyal subject takes on the character of the biblical prophet: they have special access to the will of God or their king, and they serve kings in the role of counsellor. Abraham intercedes for Sodom; Moses haggles with Yahweh; Hushai debates Ahithophel in the house of Absalom; and John the Baptist witnesses to Herod.

While this by no means exhausts Scripture’s treatment of friendship, it offers a particular form to which we ought to aspire: Having reach the maturity of the prophets through our allegiance to Christ, we will become counsellors of kings. The wounds we inflict on kings, like Nathan’s, will be faithful (Prov. 27:6; 2 Sam. 12). Jesus is king, but he is a king of kings. He sends Paul to carry his name before kings (Acts 9:15), and Paul anticipates the day on which he and all those who love Jesus’ appearing will receive crowns of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8).

For a final word, I’d like to commend Geoffrey Rush’ and Colin Firth’s friendship in “The King’s Speech,” as a microcosm, or an illustration, of this biblical idea. It is a paradigmatic example of a prophet befriending a king. Would that all God’s people were prophets; would that they all were kings, too. And would that each man spoke prophetic words of counsel to one another in their parallel callings to rule wisely, whatever domain God has granted them. 

Jack Franicevich teaches high school humanities at Maryvale Preparatory Academy, a classical, Title I charter in Phoenix, AZ. 

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