In the second of two articles, Digby Anderson looks at the people and ideas responsible for the contemporary neglect of Christian friendship
ne loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives’, said Euripides. Aristotle thought friendship the best thing in the world. St Augustine was devastated by the death of a friend: ‘All we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him.’ For men as different as St Aelred, Newman, Dr Johnson, Cicero, St Theresa, St Gregory, Burke, Cicero and St Ambrose, friendship was a great moral love.
This was high friendship, a friendship of pleasure but also of a shared moral life. Friendship today is in trouble. What modern society calls friendships are pathetic affairs. In the Church, friendship is ignored. Who are the people and ideas which have killed high friendship? There are at least three.
It has to be admitted that the enemies are not new. St Antony said, ‘Flee from men.’ St Francis wrote, ‘The Lord alone who created the soul is its friend and no one else.’ A Kempis thought friends distractions. De Sales warned of the special dangers of friendships in religious communities. The first three can, I think, be explained. But the last is key. Brian McGuire, who quotes them all in his Friendship and the Monastic Community, traces a long concern about ‘particular’ affections. It has to do with the possibility that friends will conspire against the wider community. This is simply impossible if they are true friends, impossible by definition for high friendship. It has also to do with homosexuality, and this concern is with us still.
There is an idea that affection for fellow men runs along a single line. One starts with genial cooperation, proceeds to affection, mutual pleasure passes to some sort of love and ends in sodomy. But most people who have dear friends of the same sex do not have, or wish to have, sexual relations with them. Some, among those who do, find with heterosexuals that sexual relations, far from fulfilling love, may kill it.
The second enemy of friendship is any institution competing for the friends’ time, affection or loyalty. The most powerful is the family – no, not the family but a sort of family, insecure and dominated by a greedy, romantic ideal. What looks like love of spouse for spouse can so easily become an effort to destroy competing ties of loyalty and affection to other individuals and institutions.
Our Lord’s example
Finally there is an ideological enemy of friendship. Modern ethics are obsessed with the universalizable and with disinterested good. But friendship is particular, preferential and partial. I love my friend specially, more than others. All that can be said about this disagreement here is that at least a few persons in our tradition did not dismiss the particular as non-ethical. Our Lord had an especial love for his Mother, for St John, for the disciples and for his own people. Holy Church teaches we are to love our mothers and fathers, our own ones, somebody else’s will not do. So why not our friends? And once again dear Newman comes to the rescue:
‘How absurd it is when writers talk magnificently about loving the whole human race, with a comprehensive affection, of being friends of all mankind… that is not to love men, it is to talk of love… Real love… must depend on practice which on so large a scale is impossible… private virtue is the only sure foundation of public virtue.’
There is much more on the importance of loving those immediately about us rather than engaging in schemes of expansive benevolence. Newman, when canonized, could well be called the patron saint of friendship.
Digby Anderson’s book, Losing Friends, is published by The Social Affairs Unit ND