Properties of Blood I.4: Friends and Neighbors, Conclusion

I realized that this chapter, as I reread and edited it,  needed more work.  I had intentionally left a hole for a brief passage discussing the conventional ancient view of friendship to be found in the Scriptures.  This is a necessary anticipation of the ending of the chapter.  

First, the omitted passage, with the preceding paragraph.

For ancient Greeks and Romans, then, “friendship” was a complex notion that might include kinship, an affectionate bond between men who respect each other, and a practical alliance for some agreed upon purpose.  However complicated the idea(s), these connections—and not some rational abstraction like rights or justice--were the foundation of social and political life.  Good men tried to be just, but it was not always entirely possible then (nor is it now) to keep personal loyalties from interfering in the discharge of public responsibility.

Greek and Roman writers celebrate friendship with idealistic enthusiasm and praise the relationship as the source of benefits and pleasure, but they are also quick keenly and cynically aware of the frequency with which friends betrayed each other.  If faithful friends are a joy, faithless friends are a curse.  The archaic poet Theognis is forever condemning the friends who betrayed him and warning his young friend Cyrnus to beware of friends and comrades who say one thing and think another.  In the Fourth Century a speech of Lysias condemns an opponent for reversing the moral code by harming only his friends and not his enemies. [VI.7]

The Old Testament offers a similar variety of judgments.  “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  [Proverbs 17:17]  David and Jonathan, as has already been noted, were exemplary friends.  The Lord speaks to Moses face to face as one friend speaks to another [Exodus 33:11].   On the other hand, David complained that a friend had proved faithless and lifted up his heel against me.” [Psalm 41:9].  Still worse,  a wife, close relative, or friend might seduce you into worshipping strange gods.  [Deut 13:6]  Micah sums up the perils of life succinctly: “Trust ye not a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of they mouth from her that lieth in they bosom.”  [7:5]  These dire warnings might be misconstrued as condemnations of friendship; in fact, however, they are the opposite:  The examples of wives, kinsmen, and friends are cited precisely because they are the strongest and most significant human attachments.

In everyday matters the Gospels paint a conventional picture of friends.  The friend makes merry with friends [Luke 15:29] and rejoices over the happiness of the bridegroom [John 3:29], After Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he explains part of the significance by referring to the obligation of friends to help each other:

Which of you shall have a friend, and shall to unto him at midnight, and say unto him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have noting to set before him?

The friend appealed to is at first reluctant to get out of bed, but being importuned, he complies with the request.  Thus we must not be reluctant to beseech the Father. [Luke 11: 5-8].

The relation of friend to friend, like that of close relatives and kinsmen, is taken for granted both in the positive sense—as when Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back to life—and in a negative, when it is said that friends and relatives may be a obstacle to faith and will even betray the followers of Christ [Luke 21:16].  Nonetheless Jesus refers to his disciples and hearers as his friends [Luke 12:4) and goes so far as to define his faithful disciples as his friends:  “You are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you. [15:14]

Now the Conclusion

The Justice of Friendship

Friendship is not itself a moral principle, much less an abstract or universal proposition, but, if the family is the seedbed of the commonwealth, then friendship is the seedbed of morality, and if we can once grasp the significance of friendship, we shall have an enriched understanding of the moral complexity of human experience.

We have, then, a stark contrast between the modern way of analyzing moral duties and the older way of looking at moral relations.  On the one side stand the principles of right and wrong that each society advances as true, while on the other are arrayed the primary bonds of attachment that claim our loyalty.  Since Descartes (for sources we may even go back to the ancient Stoics), Western man has tended to maximize the importance of abstract concepts of right(s), while ignoring or denigrating or condemning sub-rational loyalties.  To some extent, this unrealistic attitude has been the product of utopian philosophers from Plato and the Stoics to Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.  By the 18th century at least, moral and political philosophy were dominated by abstractions that made the common sense of everyday life as irrelevant as the Gospel learned at my mother's knee.  These abstractions have alienated ordinary men and women not only from the traditions of their ancestors but from the reality of human nature.

This is not to say that moral philosophy does not require principles and universal abstractions, but that such principles must be induced from the historical experience of the human species and not imposed from on high by the semi-divine legislators known as moral philosophers.  Friendship is, as I have been trying to show, a rather messy moral category that includes a variety of relationships that are not necessarily reducible to neat formulations and explicit rules, but on a fundamental level it is, like hunger and sexual desire a part of human reality.  Friendship is also, however, a necessary pre-condition for moral life, and in overlooking it—you may search the indices of academic books on ethics and not even find the word friend—the philosophers have dreadfully misled their students and their readers, and, through those of them who became teachers and writers, virtually everyone who has gone to school.

At its highest level, friendship is, after all, a non-erotic form of love that seeks the good of the friend even more than the good of the self.  In this aspect, friendship resembles that form of love which St. Paul termed agape and which was translated into Latin as caritas.  St. Thomas asked if friendship were charity, and answered the obvious objections to this equation by pointing out that friendship is a mutual feeling that requires communication.

Accordingly, since there is communication between man and God, inasmuch as He communicates happiness to us, some kind of friendship must needs be based on this same communication of which it is written, 'God is faithful: By whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son.'  The love which is based on this communication is charity: wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God.

Christ was not reluctant to call his disciples his friends nor to describe his voluntary submission to torture and death as the action of a friend:  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  [John 15:13]

Friendship, which may exist at the lowly level of fishing buddies and brothers who have grown apart but continue to do favors for each other, may rise, as we mature, to a self-sacrificing love that brings us closer and closer to God.  Greater even than faith and hope, this concrete and pragmatic love of the other--and not any abstract conception of duty, rights, or equality--lies at the heart of the two Great Commandments enjoined by Jesus Christ.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina