Reclaiming Friendship

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he found that democratic principles animated nearly every aspect of American life.  He found that these principles even affected the English language itself. In particular he found that Americans have a “passionate addiction” to generic terms because they condense many objects into a few words (Vol. II, Ch. 16).  The problem with this of course is that it also condenses thought and does not readily lend itself to seeing important distinctions between these objects.  There is perhaps no more glaring example of this than the word “love.”  Proponents of gay marriage have been quite insistent that “love is love” and that “two people who love each other ought to be able to marry each other just like everyone else.”  But without an emphasis on the different kinds of love it is very difficult to show where their thinking is flawed.

In his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict posits that “the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings.” He goes on to ask if “all these forms of love basically one, so that love, in its many and varied manifestations, is ultimately a single reality, or are we merely using the same word to designate totally different realities?” (Deus Caritas Est, 2).While the Pope Emeritus answers this question by differentiating human love from the love of God, he also briefly mentions that there are differences in human loves as well.  There are a number of terms that can be used to describes these human loves, usually the Greek classification of storge (affection), philia (friendship), and eros (love between the sexes) is used.

To address this question properly it is necessary to begin by making a philosophical distinction between differences in degree and differences in kind.  Two things differ in kind if one possesses a characteristic totally lacked by the other or if one can do something that the other cannot while a difference in degree is a characteristic that one has more of it and the other less.  For example, while beer and wine are both types of alcoholic drinks, beer is different in kind than wine.  Adding hops (or anything else) to wine does not make it beer.  Meanwhile different brands of beer are merely differences in degree—one is less filling, while the other tastes great, but both are beer.

I think we all instinctively know that there are differences in kind when it comes to love.  Let’s suppose that a brother and sister are engaged in a sexual relationship with each other and want to have that love recognized in marriage.  We would all agree that this could never be recognized, but why?

One might say it is because of the fact that a consanguine marriage could end up with a child with serious birth defects.  Putting aside the fact that this seems to prove that marriage and children are somehow intrinsically yoked, what if they both agreed to be sterilized before marriage?  Most of us would still recoil at the idea.  This is because we all seem to almost instinctively know that the love between a brother and sister is a distinct type of love from the love of just any man and woman.  Simply adding sex does not make it eros.  There is nothing that can be added to sibling affection that will make it eros.  Only when a man leaves his father and mother (and his siblings) can he find eros because man is truly social by nature and not just familial.  In other words, the consequences are not the reason why there ought not be a sexual relationship between the two.  The consequences are a result of the fact that there ought not be a sexual relationship.

Although this example is based on an improper sexual relationship, sex need not be the only type of expression that makes it wrong.  We have all met people who provide way too much information about themselves after meeting you.  It is not that we don’t care, but that the sharing of personal information is proper to friendship and not simply the affection that follows from first meeting and liking someone.

And here is the point—each type of love is unique and each unique type of love has a proper form of expression.  The expression does not make the love what it is.  It is a sign of a healthy love.  There may be a hierarchy in the loves, but this hierarchy is more like stairs than an inclined plane.  Each step represents a different kind of love, not merely a growth in the degree of love as if we were walking up a ramp.  A couple may certainly have eros without philia even if it is closer to agape when there is both.

These philosophical musings have a rather important practical implication.  For all the talk we have heard about homosexual unions ruining marriage, we should also be greatly concerned about its poisoning effect on friendship.  Gay relationships are not so much a distortion of eros, but philia.  A relationship between two men or two women is limited to the love of friendship.  Friendship cannot bear the weight of a sexual relationship.  “Friends with benefits” always end up ceasing to be friends, whether they are of the same or opposite sex.

While I said that a “relationship between two men or two women is limited to the love of friendship,” this doesn’t mean that friendship is somehow defective.  The author of the Book of Sirach says that “friendship is the elixir of life” (Sir 6:16).  What he means by this is that a life that is healthy is one that is blessed with friendship.  I think we must fight to restore it to its proper place.

It seems to me that there are very few people over the past century who knew both what it meant to be a friend and what friendship meant better than CS Lewis.  He formed a literary group called the Inklings that included his dear friend JRR Tolkien.  In fact, he credits Tolkien for his role in Lewis’ conversion.  Because of the profound effect that friendship had in his life, Lewis wrote extensively on the subject.  Perhaps the greatest of these writings (and arguably the greatest writing on friendship is general) was presented as one of the chapters in his book The Four Loves.

Webster’s defines a friend as one attached to another by affection or esteem or as an acquaintance or a favored companion.  I, and Lewis I think would agree, find that definition limited.  He says that what many people call “friendship” is truly only companionship.  Friendship is something deeper.  Lewis says that friendship “arises out of mere companionship when two or more companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden)…The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend.  He need not agree with us about the answer.”

So Lewis agrees that a friend is a favored companion, but the reason why he is favored is not merely because of affection or esteem, but because he agrees that there is some truth, some question, of utmost importance.  He doesn’t even need to agree with us in the answer, merely that it is an important question.  The deeper and more important the truth that is looked at, the deeper the friendship is.  This is why Christian friendships seem to be the deepest and longest lasting—they are both looking at He Who is Truth itself.

Friendship also is different from other relationships.  “Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.  They would be glad to reduce it.  The first two would be glad to find a third,” says Lewis.  He presents friends as side by side absorbed in some common interest.  Friendship is also different from the other loves in that it is the least jealous and best when it includes a third person.  This is because it is usually the third that brings out a side of the other people that would not have otherwise been seen.


All of this is greatly jeopardized when the State promotes a poisoning of friendships.  People come to think that friendships with members of the same sex can sometimes organically go “to the next level.”  What first starts as a reservation ends up becoming a program of life and a fear of friendship develops.  This fear has always been there to some extent between the sexes.  Friendship can be a mere pretext for eros between the sexes when one of the people may not actually want it.  Now this same reservation will be present in nearly all same-sex friendships.  Many heterosexuals can appear tolerant as long as they are not the ones being hit on and being called a homophobe for cutting off the friendship when this happens.

What results is that the number of true friendships greatly diminishes.  We all begin to suffer from what Fr. C. John McClosky calls Friendship Deficit Syndrome.  What is already in danger because of a completely utilitarian culture, becomes obsolete.  Friendship, because it is based on a relationship with another person, is always an end in itself.  That is why when we were in high school those people who merely wanted to have friends and sought to be popular never were.  As Lewis says, “(T)he very condition of having friends is that we should want something else beside friends.  Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? Would be ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend.”  How many people do you know that are like this?  They have many friends just for the sake of having many friends.

How can we redeem friendship?  It all begins by seeking to engage in meaningful conversations with people.  There is such an unbelievable hunger in the world for meaning and depth in conversation.   These conversations are the seeds of friendships.  We have to break free from the shackles and political correctness and sound bites and discuss those things that matter.  I always call to mind when GK Chesterton was told he could write about anything other than politics and religion, he responded that there was nothing else and then proceeded to spend the next 20 years writing about nothing other than politics and religion.  We gladly talk about the weather or sports, but we are timid when it comes to talking about the King of the Universe.  We have it so backwards!

In closing we turn to Lewis one last time.  In a personal letter to his friend Arthur Graves he wrote, “[I]f I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.”  If he were with us today he would add that we need to be present to our friends in very real ways—emails and text messages are not enough.  We need to waste time on your friends and be available to them in very real ways.

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