It was a crisp Friday night in late September, about fifteen years ago. I had accepted the invitation to an informal gathering of friends in the common area of one of the college dorms.
A popular game among us was Apples to Apples, not so much for the pursuit of winning but for the desire to be entertained: to see who could be sillier or more amusing.
In case you’re not familiar, each player receives seven “red apple” cards with nouns on them and needs to play those which best work with a “green apple” card possessing an adjective. Dorky, yet fun. It was a loose group of perhaps a hundred students who all kind of knew each other, but of course, each had his or her own group of closer friends.
A Friend Is Made
A freshman who lived in that dorm walked in late, a bit harried from looming deadlines and piling collegiate work. I had never met him before, but my other friends had spoken very highly of him. We exchanged a few words, but he was on his way out of the building. Over the years that followed, though, a friendship began to blossom. I tell this story, because my friend, Victor, was later the best man at my wife’s and my wedding and the godfather of our first child. Even though we haven’t lived in the same city (or even region) since graduation, we’ve visited each other from time to time and stayed in touch by email, text message, and video chats. We were doing regular video calls years prior to COVID, before it was cool.
Whether your friend lives near or far, whether it is a friendship of a long or short time, whatever the particulars, friendship is a common, natural phenomenon that’s part of our DNA, part of who we are as human beings. We were made to have friends and to live in community with those around us.
Tripods and Aristotle
My wife, Cassandra, is currently reading aloud John Christopher’s The Tripod Series with our older three children. They absolutely love it and, in fact, this dystopian science fiction series from the 1960s bears some remarkable similarities to our own dystopian fiction series. I bring this up, because at one point in the series an alien “Master” wonders what friendship is all about and how it is truly possible. He questions one of the main characters about this human phenomena and muses about what it means to have friends. I won’t spoil the particulars of this delightful tale, but do recommend it as a wonderful read aloud with pre-teens!
Like that Master, friendship is often poorly understood in contemporary Western culture—at least here in the United States. At the risk of making a fool of myself compared with my friend, Victor—who is a scholar of ancient philosophy, especially Aristotle—I will do my best to recount this great Greek philosopher’s teaching on the three kinds of friendship. Most friendships start simply as a “friendship of utility.” You have something I need, and vice versa, so we are in some way associated as “friends” in order to get what we lack. The world of business revolves around these kinds of transactional relationships, and of course, when everyone is treated justly and charitably, there is nothing wrong with them.
From Utility to Pleasure to Virtue
However, we need to move beyond friendships of mere “utility.” The next stage for Aristotle consists of friendships of pleasure. Think of teammates on a sports team or fellow pursuers of the same hobby. One could also classify “drinking buddies” as this kind of friend. Again, these friendships are lacking firm roots and can be transient. While they have the potential of leading to a solid friendship over time, something is missing.
Yet thankfully, Aristotle highlights for us a third kind of friendship: friendships of virtue. Friends of this kind share the same values and these values boil down to moral principles, to virtues. Friends of this kind see eye-to-eye on what true virtue is and why it’s worth pursuing. These are men and women of good will who can forge solid and lasting friendships.
Befriending Those With Different Morals?
Does this mean, then, that we shouldn’t try to befriend those whose moral outlook we don’t share? Yes and no. It does mean that it will be very hard, if not impossible, to form a deep, mutually-beneficial, and authentic friendship with such a person until they do indeed share your morals. However, it doesn’t mean that you should shun such a person. In fact, we should make ourselves available to help guide those whose morals we don’t share to a life of virtue. We can still be friends with them in a different way (perhaps a friendship of utility or pleasure). And maybe over time the friendship will grow to a close friendship of virtue because both parties have grown toward their highest ideals.
So what are some practical ways we can foster more friendships (of all kinds and with all kinds of people)? First and foremost, we have to “get out there” and both meet new people regularly and keep up with the people we do know. There is an image I like that describes a friend as “spread open like a fan” rather than closed up, hidden beneath some bunker.
Meeting and Keeping Up with Friends
There are many ways to meet new people, whether through our professional responsibilities, hobbies/interests, our children’s schools and extracurricular activities, our neighborhoods, or a whole host of other regular activities we engage in.
But what about keeping up with friends we already have or getting to know better new friends we’ve just met? Persevere in inviting them to get together, whether for coffee/tea, lunch, or perhaps having a family over for dinner. This is a reminder to me as much as it is to you.
Sometimes time is short, so another idea is to invite friends to join you on fun activities you’re already planning to do, such as taking the kids to the park, seeing a sporting event, or going skiing or ice-skating. This builds your friendship while not needing to wait for a blank spot on your calendar to make it work.
A Treasury of Friendship
Much more could be written about friendship and there are indeed some worthwhile resources available on the topic. Besides Aristotle, I recommend C.S. Lewis’ classic work: The Four Loves and also a lesser-known author’s short work entitled, What Ever Happened to Friendship?
We interact with many people each and every day. Let’s find a way to authentically befriend those we meet and spend time with, loving and serving them as best we can. Thus, we will be blessed with true friends, which, as we know, are hard to come by.
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves