Three kinds of friendship

In his treatise On Spiritual FriendshipAelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century Cistercian abbot, insists that we need to test our beliefs about friendship with Scripture. The treatise is a series of dialogues in which three monks join Aelred to examine their ideas about friendship in light of their Christian faith.

One of the most important passages in the treatise is the discussion of the three kinds of friendship—carnal, worldly, and spiritual—found in Book I, paragraphs 33-49. (This division of different kinds of friendship is not original to Aelred: Aristotle drew similar distinctions in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapters 2-6.)

We might think that Aelred is talking about kinds of friendship in the same way that we think of planes, trains, and automobiles as three different kinds of transport vehicles. Although a car is very different from a plane, and both are very different from a train, each is a legitimate kind of vehicle.

This is not Aelred’s idea, however. He thinks that only spiritual friendship represents a true form of friendship. Carnal and worldly friendship are not real friendship, although many think they are. In speaking of different kinds of friendship, then, Aelred means to distinguish between true friendship and two different kinds of false friendship.

In true friendship, the friends are jointly responding to God’s call by loving Him and loving their neighbor. These are, to them, the highest goods of human life, and they encourage and sustain each other in answering God’s call by pursuing and attaining these goods. Aelred describes friendship based on encouraging each other to love God and neighbor spiritual friendship.

However, many people (especially young people) falsely believe that the highest good is pleasure. Those who pursue pleasure as the highest good will find others who share their pursuit, and enjoy their pleasure more by sharing it with others. Thus those who share in the pursuit of pleasure enjoy a kind of appearance of friendship. (Augustine writes about this kind of friendship in the early books of the Confessions.) This kind of friendship Aelred calls carnal friendship.

Many other people (and this error is more common among those who are older) falsely believe that the highest goods are found in worldly success, in acquiring money and accumulating power. Those who value worldly success will form relationships based on mutual advantage. These, too, enjoy an appearance of friendship, which Aelred calls worldly friendship.

Now it should be clear that both those who pursue pleasure above all, and those who pursue worldly success above all, will frequently transgress God’s law. Thus, if we think of friendship as including carnal and worldly friendship, we will think of many examples where men or women have sinned on account of friendship. But, Aelred argues:

Those who share a vested interest in vice falsely claim the fair name of friendship, because one who fails to love is not a friend. One who does not love a comrade loves iniquity, for one who loves iniquity does not love but hates his own soul (cf. Psalm 10:6), and one who does not love his own soul will certainly be unable to love the soul of a comrade (paragraph 35).

True friendship must never ask the friend to sin. Indeed, Aelred has previously argued that a friend is the guardian of love, or even the guardian of the soul itself (paragraph 20).

Although I believe that what I am about to say is consistent with Aelred, for the remainder of this post I will speak more in my own voice, and try to apply the previous points more directly to practical problems in contemporary friendship.

First, it is easy to read too much into the condemnation of pleasure. Here, an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters may prove helpful:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart. (Letter 9)

The problem with carnal friendship is not that the friends enjoy pleasures together. Pleasure is a legitimate good, and in its proper place, pleasure is no sin. The problem with carnal friendship is that the friends place the good of pleasure ahead of either love of God or love of neighbor. Indeed, the more that pleasure is subordinated to love, the more joy one will experience. Lewis again, this time from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

An older friend of mine, now deceased, used to tell the following story to illustrate how to deal with temptation.

While on vacation in Washington, DC, he had happened to pass an adult bookstore. In his younger, wilder days, he had frequented adult bookstores, and as he walked by, he suddenly felt all the old temptations return.

Instead of simply trying to push away the temptation (“Don’t think about that! Don’t think about that! Don’t think about that!”), he thought of the guesthouse where he was staying, and of two of his fellow guests, one a woman from Japan and the other a man from Holland, both of whom had seemed to be interesting people who had been through many fascinating experiences.  He imagined walking back to the guesthouse, inviting the two of them out for dinner, going out to a nice little restaurant in the area, then returning to the guesthouse for an evening’s relaxed conversation, perhaps over a bottle of wine.

He walked back to the guesthouse, invited his fellow guests out to dinner, and had a wonderful evening.

When he told this story, he would quote Proust:  “It is in the imagination, Celeste, that paradise is regained.”  For him, an important part of separating himself from his lustful life involved learning to direct his imagination to healthy and productive outlets.

The pleasures promised by the adult book store involve disobedience to God and using neighbors as sexual objects. In fact, doing so would have involved exchanging the truth of God for a lie.

But though the evening with his fellow guests did not have an explicitly religious focus, it was entirely compatible with charity. He was not trying to use or take advantage of his dinner companions. Nor was any disobedience to God involved.

To make love of God and neighbor our highest good, then, does not involve denying that there is any good in pleasure, any more than loving God above all precludes loving our neighbor. Instead, it involves recognizing each good in its proper place, and never choosing lesser goods in preference to greater goods. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind or degree of love which is appropriate to it. (cf. De Civ. Dei, xv. 22; ix. 5; xi. 28)

Spiritual friendship involves properly ordered affection. God must be loved above all, and all other loves subordinated to Him. Friends should encourage each other to love God and neighbor rightly, and cherish each others’ love in the degree proper to their situation. Friendship should not be an excuse to avoid duties of charity; Aelred is very clear that we must love everyone, including our enemies (paragraph 32; cf. Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-35).

Both here, and in the rest of the treatise on Spiritual Friendship, Aelred is trying to show us how to rightly order our loves, so that our friendships will help us to grow in love for God and charity towards all.

Ron Belgau

Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.

(Cross-posted at First Thoughts)

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