Friendship and Virtue

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Today, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. In today’s Office of Readings, we read from a sermon by St Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of himself and St. Basil :

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We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit…

Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

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According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship.

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The first is a friendship of utility, and it is is a friendship based on the benefit two people derive from each other. As long as we are semi-sociable creatures, we form these friendships with those around us in business, for example. My company buys paper and printers from your company, and, both being decent human beings that can carry a conversation, you and I can be called friends, and we may believe we are. But once my company no longer uses your company’s services, without any animosity, our friendship seems to disappear. It was based on mutual benefit, and once that mutual benefit is gone, so, in truth, is our friendship.

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The second kind of friendship is that of pleasant friendship. We may enjoy playing cards together, or going to the football game or the rock concert. We even develop a sincere care for each other’s well being, etc. But the friendship is based on pleasure and enjoyment.

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Now, both these friendships are truly to be called friendship, but they are analogous to the fullness of friendship, only found in the third type: a virtuous friendship. Virtuous friends are concerned with a common goal of living the good life, and that good life consists in a good moral life of virtue. Virtuous friendships are based on a common pursuit of the good.

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Human beings are persons, not things, and thus, they are ends in themselves and not means to some other end. Before he was Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla published a work called Love and Responsibility. In its opening chapter, he examined the meaning of “to use” in great depth. In fact, only in the third type of friendship, as understood above, is the friendship truly free of using the other as a means.

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In a virtuous friendship, it is not the benefit or pleasure that one derives from the relationship that establishes and maintains the friendship. It is the common goal pursued, and the common goal pursued is the very purpose of human life; to know and live the good.

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All ancient and medieval concepts of morality were the concepts of the happy life. To be happy meant to be virtuous. Ethics was not the science of making you gloomily fulfill your obligations and limit your freedom. Ethics, morality, was the practical science of achieving true and not false human happiness.

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(It is well known that Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It needs to be well known that we are rarely very good at examining our own lives objectively. Others often know us better than we know ourselves, and friends established in virtue will help one another to truly pursue the good.)

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There is no evil in having friendships of the first and second kind (beneficial and pleasurable), but ultimately, we must find true friendships based on a common pursuit of the good, the moral, the virtuous…the truly happy life.

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Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, pray for us.

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