Morally Exemplary Friendships

We often hear that friendship is undervalued today because it’s been eclipsed by romantic love. If marriage (or simply sexual partnerships of one sort or another) are the places to experience true love, then friendship gets demoted. But in his book The Feast of Friendship Paul O’Callaghan suggests another reason friendship may be relegated to secondary status: it has no obvious moral appeal. Making his case by contrast, O’Callaghan points to the widespread adulation for someone like Mother Teresa, whose form of love—unconditional, indiscriminate charity—for Calcutta’s poor was acclaimed even by those who didn’t share her religious commitments. And in the same week that Mother Teresa died, the world also mourned Princess Diana, not least for her humanitarian work.

O’Callaghan is right that it’s hard to think of instances in recent memory where friendship has had the moral force to elicit that kind of wide praise—though reading his observation makes me want to look for examples that would disprove it. (What does it mean that so few spring readily to mind?) I asked for examples on Twitter yesterday, and people mentioned FDR and Churchill, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I thought of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz and the remarkable (and, for those holding to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, not uncomplicated) William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne. One reader sent me a message about a friendship he knows personally between two long-time Campus Crusade for Christ staff workers, Mary Graham and Ney Bailey, who have been roommates since 1976.

When I originally announced that I was working on a book about friendship, Ben Myers suggested I pick up Uncommon Friendships: An Amicable History of Modern Religious Thought by William Young. The book focuses on three pairs of friends—Franz Rosenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, and Julia Kristeva and Catherine Clément, all of whom were influential twentieth century religious thinkers—and tries to show how their particular friendships were essential to the intellectual work they accomplished. Ben’s comment to me, after passing along the recommendation, was, “I reckon someone ought to write a history of theology along these lines!” And that wouldn’t be hard to do: think of Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge, and that’s not even venturing beyond a small slice of twentieth century German Protestantism!

If Newman was right that friendship is a school in which to learn love for others outside its circle—“the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us”—then friendship should have moral appeal. Why we don’t notice that appeal as much as we do that of other forms of love remains a puzzle.

6 thoughts on “Morally Exemplary Friendships

  1. Pingback: Friendship and “Hooking Up” in College | Spiritual Friendship

  2. Pingback: Friendship and “Hooking Up” in College » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  3. St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen 🙂

    From the words of St. Gregory:

    “…When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognised that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

    “The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

    “We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other…”


  4. Second to the Saints Gregory and Basil suggestion… although that relationship was pretty choppy later on, Gregory’s remarks in his funeral sermon for Basil notwithstanding. As one would expect, Gregory uses classical rhetorical tropes describing ideal friendship when eulogizing his old friend. Which is not to say that the friendship wasn’t real, and true, and valuable, but… maybe more complicated than he admitted on this particular occasion. (Some of his other writings suggest other parts of the story. See Fr. McGuckin’s outstanding “Intellectual Biography” of Saint Gregory for one view on the ups and downs of this friendship.)

  5. Pingback: A Friend Loves At All Times (Part 2) - ✝ Fall And Die...

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