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On Friendship and Charity:
President McLean’s Remarks
from the 2017 Summer Seminars

Posted: July 26, 2017


Note: Dr. Michael F. McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College, delivered the following remarks at the 2017 Summer Seminar Weekends. Participants in the seminars examined Leo Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, Aristotle’s consideration of friendship and its relation to virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics, and St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on charity as the love of God and our neighbor in the Summa Theologiae.


On Friendship and Charity
By Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.


Aristotle begins our reading from Book VIII of the Ethics with, if you will, a celebration of friendship. He notes the importance of friendship for the well-to-do, for the poor and those who suffer other misfortunes, for the young, for the old, for those in the prime of life, for parents, for offspring, and for the state, a warning that seems particularly appropriate for our time.

“Friendship,” he says, “seems to hold a state together, and lawgivers seem to pay more attention to friendship than to justice … for they try their utmost to drive out faction, which is inimical to the state.”

All of this being so, we can see why a consideration of friendship was important to Aristotle, Cicero, and other pagan philosophers. St. Thomas himself relies heavily on Aristotle when he argues that charity, which St. Paul says is the greatest of the theological virtues, itself is friendship, and so reminds us that friendship is at the very heart of the Christian life.

Aristotle’s discussion of the kinds of friendship is one of the great contributions of the Nicomachean Ethics. In our time, however, his more controversial remarks about the impossibility of friendship between man and God and the superiority of a husband to his wife are some of the things most likely to be remembered. These cases, because in his judgment they involve a kind of inequality between the parties, present particular difficulties for Aristotle because his discussion of the kinds of friendship emphasizes equality — as he says, “the friendships which have been discussed depend on equality of exchange” of one sort or another.

Interestingly enough, in my opinion, though Aristotle asserts the impossibility of friendship between man and God in one text of our reading, in a later text he mentions, in something of an offhand way, “the friendship of men towards gods…” I’ll say more about what he thinks of this friendship in a moment.

Regarding husbands and wives, while Aristotle does seem to believe in a certain inequality between a husband and wife (note that I‘m not taking a position on which one is superior!), he nevertheless speaks of a “friendship between husband and wife.”

Cases like these provide occasions for some of Aristotle’s greatest insights. He points out, for example, “that friendship depends more on loving than being loved” and adds that “such is the manner in which unequals can be friends in the highest degree, for by loving they can be equalized.”

This anticipates, without the advantage of Divine Revelation, what St. Thomas says about the friendship between man and God and what the Church teaches about the complementarity between husband and wife. Aristotle says, “the functions of a husband are different from those of a wife, and so by contributing to the common stock whatever is proper to each they supply each other’s needs. It is for these reasons, too, that this friendship is thought to be both useful and pleasant, and if both are good, it may also be a friendship through virtue, for there is a virtue for each of them.”

Another aspect of Aristotle’s discussion that might cause some confusion in our time is the emphasis he seems to place on friendships between men. He says, for example, that “friendship between young men is thought to exist for the sake of receiving pleasure, for they live by their passions and pursue mostly what is pleasurable to themselves … young men are also amorous, for the greater part of amorous friendship occurs by passion and for the sake of pleasure.”

One has to be careful about drawing conclusions from texts like these, just as one has to be careful about drawing conclusions from similar texts in Plato’s works. First of all, Aristotle’s discussion of friendship is only one part of his Ethics and occurs after a robust discussion of moral and intellectual virtue — moral virtues such as temperance, courage, and justice and intellectual virtues such as practical and philosophic wisdom. In all cases, moral virtue requires practical wisdom — reason’s moderation, or control, of bodily appetites and passions (including sexual appetites and passions).

Moreover, it is clear from our text that Aristotle thinks that “perfect friendship exists between men who are good and are alike with respect to virtue,” adding that “those who wish the good of their friends for the sake of their friends are friends in the highest degree.” Friendships of pleasure and utility are lesser friendships, “for a man is liked not in virtue of what he is but insofar as he gives some good or pleasure. Accordingly, such friendships are easily dissolved.”

When it comes to his discussion of pleasure later in the Ethics, Aristotle will argue that contemplation — ultimately, contemplation of God — is man’s highest activity, is facilitated by perfect human friendships, and is the source of our greatest pleasure. More to the point for our purposes, perhaps, contemplation of God does make possible, even for Aristotle, a kind of friendship between man and God, again anticipating Christian revelation.

Aristotle’s teaching on love and friendship, by the way, owes much to his mentor, Plato, who in his Symposium offers this guidance about the mystery of Love: “One goes always upwards for the sake of beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs; from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful souls, thence to beautiful customs and laws, and from these to learning of beauty, truth, and goodness themselves.”

Plato’s account anticipates Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendships, a hierarchy which St. Thomas, aided by divine revelation, brings to completion with his account of friendship between man and God. In citing, as he does, the words of Gregory: “The soul learns, from those things it knows, to love what it knows not,” St. Thomas reminds us of the importance of moving from lower loves to higher loves.

Father Sergius seems to be a man intent on making the ascent of love and friendship alluded to by Plato and Aristotle, and formalized by St. Thomas, but at the same time is a man who, like all of us, struggles to do so.

He has mixed motives for entering the monastery; experiences years of spiritual conflict stemming from doubts about his calling and lusts of the flesh; vacillates between living for men, motivated by worldly vanity and pride, and living for God; falls into sin with a merchant’s young daughter; and finally seeks, and arguably finds, salvation not in the religious life, but through his friendship with Pashenka and his acceptance of exile to Siberia, where he works for a peasant, teaches children, and attends to the sick.

While friendship is not necessarily an explicit theme in Tolstoy’s story, Fr. Sergius spends most of the story torn between the love of self, which characterizes our transitory friendships, and the love of virtue and goodness, which characterizes perfect friendships. As Tolstoy notes at the end of the story, “the less importance he attached to the opinion of men the more did he feel the presence of God within him.”

So we see that in Fr. Sergius’ case, one set of loves receded, another took hold, helping him finally attain what, in this life, we all should be striving for — what St. Thomas calls genuine, if imperfect, friendship with the divine.



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President Michael F. McLean at the 2017 Summer Seminars
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