I have had many friends in the course of my life, but only since growing older have I given much thought to the nature of friendship. I have amassed a collection of quotations on this theme that have impressed me deeply.
The English essayist William Hazlitt: “He will never have true friends who is afraid of making enemies.” Less truculently, C. S. Lewis: Friendship requires being “drawn apart together from the herd.”
Montaigne: “Friendship is a companionable, not a gregarious, beast.”
From antiquity, Cicero’s On Friendship: “Without friendship life is no life at all.” Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, a Christian interpretation of Cicero: “Scarcely any happiness whatever can exist among mankind without friendship.” Cicero again: “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.” And Aelred: “Friendship, therefore, heightens the joys of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity.”
The Wisdom of ben Sirach: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who has found one has found a treasure. . . . A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him” (Sir. 6:14–17). The Wisdom of Solomon: “Wisdom is an unfailing treasure; those who find it obtain friendship with God” (Wisd. 7:14).
And, of course, Shakespeare. Sonnet 104: “To me, fair friend, you never can be old, / For as you were, when first your eye I ey’d, / Such seems your beauty still.” I am partial to Sonnet 30, in which “old woes” are recalled and bemoaned anew, only to be made good by thoughts of friendship: “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend / All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.”
If you have had a friend about whom you could sing Shakespeare’s sonnet, you have been most blessed. I had such a friend, and one of the joys of my life was that our friendship lasted for fifty-five years. We met when he was seventeen and I sixteen, and we grew up together intellectually and spiritually. We launched our little boats on the same sea, then sailed into unknown waters, ate dissimilar fruits, but were nurtured on the same solid food, and when we became old began to contemplate the reality of death. I visited with him after he had learned that death was approaching. As we talked and reminisced, he said: “Have you ever thought who would die first?” I had not, nor had he. He died three weeks later.
The loss of a friend of many years brings not only absence—the loss of his presence, love, understanding, support, the invigorating tonic of his ideas. The death of a friend is a loss of self.
A friend is a self that is not yourself. A friend is a self who knows and loves the self you are and reflects your hidden worth. A friend does not mirror what stands before him, like the pool before Narcissus. In Ovid’s telling: “There was a pool, limpid and silvery,” where “never bird nor beast / Nor falling branch disturbed its shining peace.” When Narcissus approaches, he is so charmed that he lies down to slake his thirst. As he drinks, “He saw before his eyes / A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart / A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.” The tale of Narcissus is about self-love: “The image is my own; it’s for myself / I burn with love; I fan the flames I feel. / . . . My love’s myself—my riches beggar me.” In his famous painting, Caravaggio has Narcissus’s arms and their reflection in the pool create a circle—as if to say that when one looks at an image of oneself, one is closed in on oneself, cut off from everything but the selfsame self.
In the 1960s, “T-groups,” a form of sensitivity training, became fashionable. Twelve to fifteen friends would spend a night sitting on the floor engaged in frank conversation about one another. The point was that the way others viewed you revealed a truth about who you were. The experience taught me not only about myself but about the subtleties of human relations. Not surprisingly, the young men had the greatest difficulty acknowledging that what others said about them was “true.”
Around the same time, I began a serious study of the critics of the early Christians, and my experience in the T-group prompted me to think differently about the place of Christianity in Roman society. It was common among scholars to correct what pagan critics had said about Christians on the basis of what was known from Christian writers. Surely Pliny was mistaken to call Christianity a superstition! But as I studied the intellectual world the pagan authors inhabited, I realized that they had said things about Christians that were true. The way forward was to understand the early Christian writers not only as they presented themselves, but as others had seen them. The result was a book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.
Friendship is a way of seeing, of being able to look at oneself with another’s eye. But it is also integral to memory. To live without a friend is to suffer amnesia. Memory does not operate in isolation; it is yoked to places and things, to sounds and smells, to persons. The efforts of the intellect to remember, wrote Marcel Proust in Swann’s Way, “prove futile”: “The past is hidden somewhere . . . beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us).” His narrator tells of being offered tea and some “short, plump little cakes” called “petites madeleines.” As he drinks the tea and eats the madeleines, “the vast structure of recollection” becomes available to him; events and places and persons, irretrievable by the intellect, take “shape and solidity.” We have all had similar experiences, upon returning to the places where we grew up. Suddenly and miraculously, the shape of a tree, the turn of a street corner, a certain smell, the tiles on a roof give rise to memories long forgotten.
So it is with friendship. A friend, by his or her presence, preserves things that time has locked away. When one loses a friend of many years, what was knowable through shared memories moves beyond reach. Weakening of memory is a drawback of growing old. In the words of Horace, “Time shuts up the story of our days.” But the death of a friend severs connections in our minds, yanks them out by the roots. Slowly you realize that a part of yourself can no longer be retrieved. Even before death, the swift and relentless turning of the wheel of time challenges friendship. The friendship of youth is unlike the friendship of middle age, and the friendship of middle age is unlike the friendship of old age. In old age, one has more to give but is more cautious in revealing oneself.
Augustine wrote: “Time is not inert. It does not roll on through our senses without affecting us. Its passing has remarkable effects on the mind.” Few friendships remain unchanged through the course of one’s life. So many things intervene: conflicting interests, changes in character due to success or misfortune, differences of opinion on matters of substance.
A friend calls to discuss something in the morning news. The two of you begin from different perspectives, but as the conversation progresses, dissimilar views are modified, and perhaps by the end your view and that of your friend are merging. If they never come together but regularly diverge, the bonds of friendship will fray and finally be severed.
The friendship of youth is as fragile as it is ebullient. “The most ardent attachments of boyhood are often laid aside with the boyish dress,” wrote Cicero. The sincere vows one makes upon graduating from college, the high hopes of a common endeavor that collapse, leaving disillusionment and disappointment, fade with the passage of time. The self that one was is not the same. Maintaining a friendship as years pass requires constant solicitude and attention. Marriage does likewise. Without forgiveness marriage cannot endure; without forbearance and pliancy friendship cannot endure. The success of a friend can lead to envy; if your friend does not grow as you grow, the friendship withers. But if it flourishes, it lends a radiance, subtlety, color, and sparkle to life.
Romantic love bursts on the heart in a twinkling (“Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, / You may see a stranger across a crowded room, / And somehow you know, you know even then . . .”). It is unitive, driven by the yearning to be one, to give oneself wholly to the other. Friendship is different. It begins quietly, unnoticed, often through the surprise of discovery: that among the many people you know, one appears who sees what you see and hears what you hear. Lewis says a typical beginning goes something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” It could be a book, an idea, a hobby, a kind of wit, a cause. And it is sustained by simple pleasures. Augustine:
To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity—just as a person debates with himself—and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another.
Friendship leads to a communion of thinking and willing. It is a moral relation that occurs only among human beings who are free. It is not just about knowing someone but is a growing together of mind and spirit. In friendship my will bends to the will of the other and his to mine, and as the two interact I become more myself. Aelred wrote that friendship is desired not for some advantage, “but from the dignity of its own nature and the feelings of the human heart, so that its fruition and reward is nothing other than itself.”
Friendship is, however, not simply a relation between two persons. We picture lovers face-to-face, says Lewis, but friends side-by-side, their eyes on something larger, which draws and holds them together. You don’t stare into the eyes of a friend; you fight beside him, read with him, fish with him, pray with him.
Again and again, writers on friendship say that genuine friendship exists only among good men and women, that virtue is its parent and binding force. At first, I balked at this. Can’t there be friendship among thieves? But that is doubtful. Perhaps a pact or alliance. But with a turn of fortune, the thief will steal from his thieving friend. The things we seek—riches, power, reputation—can never be the basis for friendship, because they serve particular ends. Friendship is not based on expedience.
Friendship is based on goodness. Friends will the good for each other and help each other strive for virtue. As Aristotle put it, “Those who wish their friend good for their friend’s own sake are friends in the truest sense.” Not everyone we know or love can be received into friendship, for not all are worthy of it. Cicero: “You should love your friend after you have appraised him.” Friends are handpicked.
Friendship requires a period of probation, says Aelred. It means entrusting yourself to someone from whom you fear nothing. You can be a friend only to one who judges by standards you acknowledge. Friendship then takes root after a time of testing. Seldom is the testing self-conscious; friendship grows as judgments are made, pleasures enjoyed, memories built. “Ask of friends only what is honorable and do for friends only what is honorable.” Without virtue, says Aelred, friendship cannot exist. Cicero had a more instrumental view: “If by some chance the wishes of a friend are not altogether honorable and require to be forwarded in matters which involve his life or reputation, we should turn aside from the straight path, provided however that utter disgrace does not follow.” Aelred disagrees: The idea of working for a friend against faith or honor is to be detested. My friend’s will is not external to me, something to which I submit or refuse to submit. My will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine. In this way, I become truly myself.
The deepest friendship exists only among those whose lives are oriented to a higher good. Many things bind friends together—reading, painting, sailing, travel, adventure, ideas—but there must be some other thing, some immaterial quarry. In the Christian tradition that quarry can only be the good, as Augustine explains. We may speak of this being good and that being good; we must take away “this” and “that” and “see good itself.” The good itself is God, “not good with some other good, but the good of every good.” Not the good one can hover over with judgment, but the good one can cleave to in love. And what is this but God?
Aelred puts it: Friendship is a stage on the way to love of God. In my life, love of God was the good that sustained my friendship with the friend of my youth until the years of old age and death, the good that inspired and emboldened it, that was always present in conversation and in prayer. True friendship requires a third person, God, who looks on, delights, beckons us, directs us, and carries us beyond ourselves.
The medieval theologian Richard of St. Victor understood that joy is fuller when it is shared. Supreme perfection cannot be found between two persons who love each other. God is not a monad, nor a dyad, but a Trinity, and the Holy Spirit is the love that delights in the love of the Father and Son. Human friendship is fuller and deeper between friends who share in the sublimity of truth.
Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.