Getting By Without A Little Help From Our Friends

Digby Anderson | Posted on 09/01/05

“A four-legged friend, a four-legged friend, he’ll never let you down. He’s honest and faithful right up to the end.” With these words, cowboy singer Roy Rogers explains why horses make such good companions – loyalty. But outside of our relationships with our horses, and, of course, dogs, loyalty has become a neglected virtue, and not surprisingly then, so has friendship.Loyalty is a virtue that has to do with time. It’s a concept like perseverance or fidelity, in which the goodness has to do with continuing to do good, and doing good even under difficult conditions. So, for instance, if love is a virtue, then it is all the more virtuous if someone keeps on loving over time and under trying circumstances. That’s why one can get around mentioning loyalty as a virtue: if someone loves a lot, that says it all. The virtue is in the whole lot of love. There’s no need to add “over time and in difficult circumstances.”

Or there wouldn’t be, if this aspect of love – the keeping on with it over time and in difficult circumstances – were not rather forgotten today. Modern Western society, in its confident belief in itself as a result of and agent of progress, is so wedded to the idea of change that it is willing to allow change to happen to all sorts of relationships and attachments – the most obvious case of which is marriage. Christian marriage is almost defined in terms of loyalty: “to have and to hold ... for richer, for poorer, ... in sickness and in health, ... till death us do part.” While we may still believe in love as the initial impetus toward marriage, these longer term aspects of committment have been lost. Indeed, one might argue that our moral decline is not so much a matter of our having abandoned the traditional virtues as of our having made them transient, negotiable, and adaptable to our convenience.


The Greeks saw friendship as a sort of marriage. It was as important, if not more so, than family. Becoming a friend gave one the rights and obligations associated with kinship. Indeed, some went further: In Orestes, Euripides writes that “one loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” Aristotle thought friendship the best thing in the world: “No one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things.” For the Romans as well as the Greeks, friendship, as C.S. Lewis once explained, was “the happiest and most fully human of loves.” The Romantics lauded friendship too. Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes of Robert Southey: “On what grounds ... did I form friendship with him? Because our pursuits were similar, and because I saw plainly that compared to the mass of men, Southey was pure in his Habits, habitually indignant at oppression ... a far better man than the vast majority of young men whom I knew.” In the book of Samuel, David speaks of his relationship with Jonathan in these terms. Upon hearing of his friend’s death, David says, “Your friendship was a miracle-wonder, love far exceeding anything I’ve known ... or ever hope to know.” The words of the Christian marriage service could well stand for the classical ideal of friendship too. Modern friendships, shorn of the high demands of loyalty, might look like older friendships, but they lack at least one crucial ingredient, permanence.

The ancients also had plenty to say about loyalty’s opposite. What modern society treats as the evolution of attachments, the growth and waning of relationships, the old morality condemned as treachery. Every time that a wife is dumped in order that a husband may indulge in self-fulfillment, that a child is cast off for adults’ convenience, a friend at office or golf club passed by in favor of someone more useful to advancement in career or society, an aging mother neglected, a sick friend not visited, God forgotten, and the duties of faith ignored, treachery is done.

What sets off the saving events of the central story of Christian redemption? The treachery of Judas was not only a betrayal of God and the teachings of Jesus. It was also the betrayal of the man Jesus who was Judas’s friend. Judas had been with Christ for three years. He had been a friend, even trusted with the funds of the apostolic band. He had shared in their joys and troubles, in conversation, and in the gradual understanding of the import of the Incarnation. Indeed, he used his knowledge of Christ’s and the disciples’ movements to betray them in Gethsemane. He used the sign of friendship, the kiss, to betray his friend – the gesture of love perverted into treachery. The Bible records that the first words Jesus said to him after that kiss were, “Friend, do that for which thou art come.” The horror of that moment was the horror of loyalty and trust shattered and friendship betrayed.

The friend betrayed and killed was the same friend who only hours before had said to the assembled disciples, “Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.... I call you friends.” Then Jesus dipped bread in a bowl and handed it to Judas. And Judas, knowing full well that to share bread with another was the sign of trust, takes it and eats it, and then goes out and betrays Jesus. The payment Judas received for his treachery was thirty pieces of silver. That was the price of a slave. It is no surprise that Dante reserves the worst pains of hell not for gluttons, heretics, or thieves but for Judas and Brutus, those men who betrayed their friends.


Because friendship is so closely tied to loyalty, its neglect is partly a reflection of the contemporary neglect of loyalty. But only partly. True friendship involves more than loyalty, and its neglect has as much to do with other qualities it possesses, ones which are today not so much ignored as controversial.

The high ideal of friendship, one often associated with Aristotle but also found within the Christian tradition and articulated by Augustine, Aelred, Jeremy Taylor, Newman, and C.S. Lewis, is that of a moral partnership. The friendship may start with some sort of empathy – as Montaigne wrote, “because it was he, because it was I” – but it matures into what Alasdair MacIntyre describes as “a shared recognition and pursuit of the good ... Friendship is even more important than justice. Justice is the virtue of rewarding desert ... within an already constituted community; friendship is required for that initial constitution.” It is because of this aspect of friendship that Aristotle regarded the institution as the foundation of society.

This sort of friendship involves honesty and sincerity as well as trust and loyalty. Friends are obliged to tell each other the unpleasant truths. Indeed, it was once understood that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. As Seneca wrote, “Speak as boldly with [your] friend as with yourself. Share with [him] at least all your worries and reflections.... Why need I keep back any words in the presence of a friend?” It is one of the main duties of friendship to help one another become better persons: one must uphold a standard for one’s friend and be able to count on one’s friend to do the same. This profound notion of friendship, in which one loves one’s friend, but before that, the good in one’s friend, applies to conjugal friendship as well. The unconditional acceptance that is supposed to go with true love and friendship did not mean the abandonment of moral standards, even in the most intimate of relationships.

So the friend is a source of advice, a partner in moral progress, one who engages in friendship not for any advantage it might bring, but for friendship’s sake. He is a person of permanent character. He is all this as well as being loyal. And all of his qualities come together in his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friend: “Greater love hath no man ...” That says it all, for it is clear that the key attribute of friendship is love – love of the good in the friend, an incarnation of love. Here is St. Basil writing of his love for St. Gregory Nazianzen:

As time went on we mutually avowed our affection for one another.... Thenceforth we were all in all to each other, sharing the same roof, the same table, the same sentiments, our eyes fixed on one goal, as our mutual affection grew ever warmer and stronger ... envy was absent.... There was a contest between us, not as to who should have the first place for himself, but how he could yield it to the other, for each of us regarded the glory of the other as his own. We seemed to have a single soul animating two bodies.

This type of noble friendship is not well understood today and is often neglected. Look at the treatment of friendship in the academic sphere, the number of books, learned papers, research centers, and experts on the family. They run into the thousands. Those on friendship can be counted on two hands. More specifically, if we look for books on friendship, full-length books treating the subject in depth and breadth, there are next to none. There’s a recent book on friendship and monasticism, some preliminary findings from an English research project, C.S. Lewis’s short book on the four loves, which contains only a very brief discussion of friendship. There is one prominent philosophical collection. Otherwise the main sources remain Aristotle, Augustine, Aelred, the Bible, Seneca, and Cicero. Until two years ago, only one sociologist and one psychologist had published anything on friendship in England. The closest we may come to modern sources on friendship are Montaigne, Johnson, Bacon, and Newman. And from each we have only a few pages.

This is surely staggering: a central institution of society, enjoyed and valued by most people, almost totally ignored in scholarship. Andrew Sullivan sums it up well: “We hardly talk about friendship.... The twentieth century has seen almost no theoretical exploration of friendship, no exposition of what it means, or even attacks on it .... One has to journey far ... back to ancient and medieval times, to glimpse a world where friendship was given its full due and seen as something worth examining in its own right ... as a critical social institution .... ”

But the evidence of friendship’s neglect is not only its omission from the philosophical and academic spheres but also its exclusion from public life. It is not viewed, to use Sullivan’s words, as a social institution. Friends have none of the rights enjoyed by relatives, for instance, including the right to be informed of their friends’ critical illnesses. There are no public records of friendship. Friends rarely appear in obituaries. Rarely are friends left legacies. There are no recognized oaths, contracts, or pacts that apply to friends, as there are for family members.

And in the few instances where friendship is not neglected it is treated lightly. Look for instance at greetings cards which are exchanged between friends. At first sight the old characteristics of friendship are there: enjoyments shared, confidences kept, advice offered. But there is nothing about bringing out the moral best in each other, nothing about the sacrifices and costs of friendship. In short, friendship in modern society is about having a good time, and even that at a relatively superficial level.


What are the reasons for this decline in the status of friendship? If friendship has become a purely recreational matter, a light pleasure, absent from professional, academic, and public life, then it is hardly surprising that our society doesn’t take friendship very seriously. But this is a sort of chicken-and-egg argument. There is another, more important reason why friendship’s claim on our lives is under attack. It is because friendship is regarded as particularist; it singles out one person to be especially loved. We love our friends more than other people. Many modern ethicists tend to view ethics as universal, and some of them claim that ethics must be egalitarian as well. We should, according to this view, treat similar cases the same way regardless of so-called irrelevant personal qualities.

There are those today who would interpret Christian ethics as universalistic, that is, we should love all men. The most used – and abused – textual license for this is the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer who approaches Christ asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus then asks him what the Scriptures say. The lawyer replies that one must love God and then one’s neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. Jesus then tells the parable. A man on a journey is attacked, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. A number of his own people pass by and ignore him. Then someone from a people despised by his people stops and takes care of him. The moral that contemporary commentators like to draw is that love overrides barriers of class, religion, and race. We must love all men. What is often implied is that we must love all men equally. Hence, love which singles out one particular person for loving is not a good kind of love, especially if the choice is prompted by what a universalist might call “tribalism.” If Christian love can be interpreted in universalistic terms, then its authority can be used to support things like worldwide declarations of human rights, and all the other modern obsessions with equality.

Before we examine whether this is the correct interpretation of Christian love, it is useful to understand the perspective of a faith which is by its very nature particularist. Here is Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, writing in the journal L’Eylah: “The poor of your own town take precedence over the poor of the next town.... What does it profit a person if he saves the whole world and neglects those closest to him? The poor of your family take precedence over the poor of another family.” He goes on: “There were few more telling symptoms of the universalism implicit in Western culture than the failure of the world to be moved by Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. ‘Jews rescue their own’ was the cynical reaction. To which the Jewish response is instinctively: ‘If we are not the kind of people who will rescue our own, are we the kind of people who will ultimately rescue anyone?’”

One way to test whether Christian love can be considered particularist or universalist is to ask, “What is God’s love like?” And the immediate answer seems to be “universal” – he loves all men. A little reflection, however, shows that God-as-man, Jesus, showed a special love for his mother, and for Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, St. John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”), the Apostles, and his own people the Jews. And rather more reflection on the love of God for Jesus shows that God, while he certainly works on a large plan and loves all, sees and thinks of individuals. Cardinal Newman wrote: “Thou art careful and tender to each of the beings Thou hast created, as if it were the only one in the whole world ... as if Thou wast waiting and ministering to it for its own sake.”

This is surely a quality of love that any child, spouse, or Christian will know. From both considerations, the love of Jesus and the love of God, Newman derives the injunction that of course we should love some rather than others – God first, and then family, friends, co-religionists, and neighbors. This is because love is not a feeling or a declaration, still less a theory of rights, but a practice. In a passage which might have been written as a prescient rebuke to egalitarian theorists, Newman wrote:

There have been men before now, who have supposed Christian love was so diffuse as not to admit of concentration upon individuals; so that we ought to love all men equally. And many there are, who ... consider that the love of many is superior to the love of one or two; and neglect the charities of private life ... while busy in the schemes of expansive benevolence.... Now I shall maintain here, in opposition to such Notions of Christian love, and with our Saviour’s pattern before me, that the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate affection towards those who are immediately about us.... How absurd it is when writers ... talk magnificently about loving the whole human race with a comprehensive affection, of being friends of all mankind ... this is not to love men, it is but to talk of love. The real love of man must depend on practice.... It is obviously impossible to love all men in any strict and true sense. What is meant by loving all men, is to feel well-disposed to all men, to be ready to assist them, and to act towards those who come our way, as if we loved them. We cannot love those about whom we know nothing; except ... we view them rather in faith than love. And love, besides, is a habit, and cannot be attained without actual practice, which on so large a scale is impossible.

The love of the Good Samaritan is commended by Jesus, not because he professed a love of all men but because he practiced love toward the one person he found near him – the person “who comes our way.” Of course, God loves all and those who love and obey him must be ready to love any man. But practical Christian love, and there is no other kind, cannot be love of all.

The problem is that the particularism of friendship is at odds with modern conceptions of virtue as disinterestedness and detachment. Consider as an example the place of friendship in public life, especially in politics and business. The Roman view was that friends kept one another on the straight and narrow. A man without friends was suspect in public life. As late as the end of the eighteenth century we find Burke writing: “The only method which has ever been found effectual to preserve any man against the corruption of nature and example, is an habit of life and communication with the most virtuous and public-spirited men of the age you live in.” He adds, “A man wholly detached from others must be either an angel or a devil.... It is our business ... to cultivate friendships.” And before him, Shakespeare through Cassius in Julius Caesar noted the value of friendship in determining a person’s character. “Therefore it is meet/That noble minds keep ever with their likes/For who so firm that cannot be seduced?”

In researching friendship in business I came across the chairman of one company who sat as a non-executive director on the board of his friend’s company and his friend did the same for him. Today’s business ethicists would see this as dangerous, suspecting that such personal relationships might have a corrupting effect on business dealings, but the chairman’s view was straightforwardly Roman. All of the other board members might try to curry favor by saying what they thought the chairman wanted to hear. Only his friend could be relied on to tell him the truth – for friendship’s sake.

The trivialization of friendship means that something which made virtue easier, which reinforced it, has, for all practical purposes, disappeared. It is hard to lead a good life on your own, and your horse, no matter how loyal, probably can’t help much.