Friends with (true) benefits

It’s been said, “If I want to know who you are, show me your friends.” In order to steadfastly pursue the good—whether in sports, academics, or relationships—we’ll need the support of solid friends. So, how can we form friendships that last?

Aristotle outlines three types of friendship: (1) friendship of pleasure; (2) friendship of utility; and (3) virtuous friendship. The first (friendship of pleasure) is basically friends who “have a good time together.” Perhaps they enjoy the same hobbies or activities. There is nothing wrong with this type of friendship—it’s just that what brings the two together is a common pleasurable experience. And when that common experience is removed—unless there is something deeper—the friendship tends to dissolve. For example, let’s say a group of friends enjoys heavy drinking and partying together, and a member of this group decides to change his lifestyle (and move away from partying): often this person will experience the pain of these friendships slipping away. It’s not necessarily that there is ill will—it’s just that what brought them together (parties, drinking, etc.) has been removed, and there is nothing left to sustain the friendship.

The second kind of friendship is that of utility. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this form of friendship. What brings the two together is mutual usefulness—the classic business partner relationship (or perhaps a school project). Like the above, if the mutual usefulness is withdrawn, then the reason for coming together is removed, and the friendship eventually dissipates.

Finally, we have the virtuous friendship—something like a workout partner in the game of life. Here, I am seeking to help the other reach their true potential. A virtuous friend loves the other so much that they are willing to challenge the other when necessary—in order to bring out the very best in them. True love wills the good of the other and seeks to foster their true and ultimate happiness in this life and the next.

The virtuous friend becomes, in Aristotle’s words, “another self.” This means that I want the good for the other—just as I want my own good. In fact, my good is wrapped up with their good and vice versa. We become one mind and one heart, such that their sorrows become my sorrows; their needs, my needs; their joys, my joys—their victories, my victories.

Further, a virtuous friendship is “about something.” While the two are united in one mind and heart, what ultimately unites the two goes well beyond a shared emotional experience—it’s about the two running toward a shared goal; and the pursuit of this transcendent common good binds the two together—much as a team comes together in pursuit of victory. And since this common good is something secure and abiding (e.g., the pursuit of virtue and ultimately God himself), this friendship is the most abiding and long lasting.

This has tremendous implications for chastity and relationships: if we claim to care for the other, we have to ask ourselves—are my actions leading this person toward or away from God, toward or away from what is truly best for them? If we’re not helping the other reach their ultimate goal in this life and the next, then our love for them is likely more self-serving than self-giving. It may be the case that what we seek in the other is really just an emotional or physical experience—in which case the other person becomes merely the occasion for me to attain this gratification and not the object of my purported love.

On the other hand, if someone is willing to put your purity and pursuit of holiness above their own desires, then what sacrifice could they not make for you?

It’s no secret that relationships built on such virtuous foundations make for lasting and happy marriages. To give but one personal example, I wouldn’t trade for a second what I have now with my wife (11 years into marriage) to go back to when we were dating: a virtuous relationship truly gets richer and more wonderful with each passing day.


Dr Andrew Swafford Headshot 2016Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College, where he regularly teaches courses on Scripture and Christian moral life. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is author of Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life; and Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Ressourcement. He is contributing author to Letter & Spirit Vol. 11: Our Beloved Brother Paul—Reception History of Paul in Catholic Tradition; Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy; 30-Second Bible: The 50 Most Meaningful Moments in the Bible; and I Choose God: Stories from Young Catholics. Andrew is a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology; he is a regular contributor to Ascension Press’ Bible blog as well as Chastity Project. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

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