Among the “first things” of life in the classical world of Greece and Rome was friendship. As an intimate, affectionate, and loyal bond between two (or a few) persons, a bond unlike those of kin or tribe in that it is not simply given with birth, friendship will always have about it something a little mysterious. In David Konstan’s terms, it is an “achieved” rather than an “ascribed” relationship. “An achieved relationship does not necessarily mean one that depends essentially on free or personal choice. One may meet friends by accident and be drawn to them for mysterious reasons having little to do with decision.”
Konstan’s account of friendship—which is historically, philologically, and philosophically informed—begins with Homeric Greece, proceeds through the classical and Hellenistic periods, discusses Roman views, and ends with some of the fourth—century church fathers in the world of late antiquity. This is a scholarly book, but one with some bite to its central thesis. Konstan wants to argue for a good bit of continuity in our understanding and experience of friendship. Against scholars who argue that friendship as we understand it does not exist prior to, say, the Renaissance, he contends that an “abiding image of friendship as an intimate relationship predicated on mutual affection and commitment” has persisted from ancient times to our own.
This does not mean that the history of friendship is without change. Thus, for example, where modern discussions of friendship might emphasize the importance of “self-disclosure as the basis for intimacy and trust between friends,” ancient thinkers simply did not value self-disclosure. They praised qualities such as candor and frankness as essential for friendship, but, because they did not suppose that the most important thing about each of us is our uniqueness, they did not have to see in friendship a way by which one unique self builds a bridge to another. Likewise, although the ancients thought of friendship as a personal bond based on the mutual attractiveness of certain qualities, they did not emphasize individual or idiosyncratic traits as this basis. Instead, they focused on “traits that are good . . . rather than singular.”
Allowing for such changes, Konstan still argues persuasively that the personal intimacy and affection that we today associate with friendship was also part of the ancient concept. Modern scholars have often argued that ancient friendship—certainly in the Homeric period but also later—was more an economic or political relationship than a personal one. It was marked more by “obligatory reciprocity” than by “sentiment.” The contrary evidence marshaled by Konstan begins with philology. He suggests the necessity of distinguishing between the Greek words philos (friend) and philia (usually translated “friendship,” but perhaps more accurately, he says, translated “loving relationship”). Philia, on his showing, may have a wide range of meanings, but, within the circle of those with whom one had affectionate relationships, the ancient Greeks were quite ready to designate some as friends in a narrower sense corresponding more closely to that “abiding image” of friendship we still share with them.
Konstan’s argument is also philosophical. He readily grants that an element of reciprocity is built into the classical concept of friendship. Greek (and later Roman) thinkers often emphasized the usefulness of friends. Konstan is quite persuasive, however, in arguing that this alone does not reduce friendship to a selfish or mercenary relationship. Classical thinkers, he writes, “saw helpfulness as confirmation of kindly intentions” rather than as the ground or basis of those intentions. They “exploit metaphors of succor and riches to exalt, not reduce, the sense of an unselfish relationship.” That is, far from thinking of friendship as grounded simply in utility, they pointed to the mutual helpfulness of friends in order to show what a wonderful bond it was. If, on occasion, Konstan seems to press this argument too far, bypassing a little too quickly the sense one sometimes gets that classical thinkers did have tendencies to ground friendship in utility, his argument nonetheless makes a strong case for a significant degree of overlap between ancient and modern views of friendship.
No doubt the single most important and influential piece of classical writing on friendship has been books VIII and IX of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of which Konstan provides a lucid discussion in which he treats some of the issues noted above. For Aristotle there are three sources of friendship: usefulness, pleasure, and respect for character. This does not mean, however, that friendship can be reduced to utility, pleasure, or even respect. Friendship arises “through” or “on account of” these qualities but cannot be reduced to them. This is especially important to note with respect to the first form of friendship, which we are most likely to think of as a mere “bargain.” Thus, Konstan notes, Aristotle never suggests that two people who are useful to each other are therefore automatically, and on that basis alone, friends. They may, of course, become friends. “In such a case the origin of the philia is in utility, but the affection is not reducible to the mutual appreciation of one another’s serviceability.” And, to press the matter still further, “even in the case of friendship that derives from regard for character, . . . there is no indication that all men with sufficient virtue and consequent admiration for one another are friends.”
This case is powerfully argued. It is also quite important to our understanding of the Nicomachean Ethics. The entire structure of Aristotle’s ethic there is built upon the desire for eudaimonia, or happiness. Such an ethic of self-realization may have grave difficulty in really getting the good of the other person, the loved one, at the center of the agent’s concern. It is, if anywhere, in books VIII and IX, in his discussion of friendship, that Aristotle attempts to do just that and thereby move beyond the confines of self-realization. Whether he really manages it I am a little less sure than Konstan is. He argues that Aristotle does not seek to derive philia from self-love. To be sure, the relevant passages are puzzling ones, but there are moments when Aristotle’s argument never seems to transcend the individual’s quest for personal happiness, which quest the friend then serves.
If friendship was among the “first things” of life in the classical world, its place changed significantly as Christian belief transformed the world of late antiquity. When the church fathers considered friendship, they were often less concerned with its normal sense than with “relations among monks, priests, or other devotees who lived together in religious communities.” When Ambrose, for example, emphasized the importance of mutual self-disclosure among friends, he did not have in mind our contemporary concern for intimacy for its own sake. Indeed, he had in mind something quite different, something we might almost incline to see as contrary to friendship. “Self-disclosure, indeed, may work to advance the cohesion of small societies precisely by inhibiting private relations among individuals. . . . Under conditions of collective living, where group cohesion and spiritual progress were central concerns, the emphasis fell more on generalized charity and the need for honesty than on ties between pairs of individuals which might be disruptive to the community” (emphasis added). The patristic discussion of friendship thus became a discussion of what we regard as a rather different sort of love: a brotherly love founded not on special preference but simply on a shared religious commitment. “The effects of this shift are discernible as well outside the restricted sphere of the cloister and seminary.”
Many Christian writers, especially after the fourth century, avoided the language of friendship altogether—perhaps, Konstan suggests, because the classical notion of friendship, which required a mutual awareness of virtue, seemed incompatible with Christian humility and with the sense that all of one’s virtue was ultimately the fruit of God’s grace. Even Christian thinkers who did continue to use the language of friendship turned more often to the language of brotherhood, “preferring to represent themselves as brothers united in Christ by virtue of their faith rather than claim the name of friend on the basis of their own excellence.”
On Konstan’s account, Christians in the early centuries of the Christian era were “profoundly reevaluating the kinds of solidarity that had characterized the social life of classical antiquity.” “When friendships were the noblest things in the world,” Jeremy Taylor once wrote, “charity was little.” And, by contrast, a world in which charity was magnified was one in which friendship was nudged more and more toward the periphery of life. The displacement of philia from the center of life was not just a kind of theoretical issue. It was a vast transformation of Western Civilization and an important shift in our understanding of good character and the good life. This shift helped to create a world in which—not only for better but also for worse—equality rather than special preference moved to the center of public consciousness. Konstan’s account will serve well anyone who wants to learn more about the classical thinkers who gave us our language and our understanding of friendship, or who wants to contemplate what we have made of that inheritance.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.