C.S. Lewis wrote his famous book, The Four Loves. But now Kevin Vost has enhanced the discussion by writing about The Four Friendships. Like Lewis’ classic, it encourages you to reflect on your daily life in comparison with what is most important.
Because there are four different words for “love” in Greek, Lewis was inspired to explore their different meanings. Now Vost explores four dimensions of the idea of friendship – From Aristotle to Aquinas, as his book’s subtitle puts it.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave a stunning definition of “charity,” defining this highest form of love as “friendship with God.”
Vost hones in on Aquinas’ highly suggestive link between love and friendship. His book deliberately works its way to a fourth and final section devoted to the supreme Thomistic idea of friendship: “charitable friendship.”
To end up rightly in that place, he begins in Part 1 with Aristotle, who in his Nicomachean Ethics has a classic discussion in which he distinguishes three types of friendship.
Aristotle recognizes some friendships are solely pleasure-based
Aristotle recognizes some friendships are solely pleasure based. For example, children quickly become friends based on a shared pleasure, such as toys or a game.
Some other friendships are primarily utility based. Two people can get together and help one another, for example, during a study session. Each one is better at a certain task than the other, but by reciprocally exchanging their expertise, they become useful to each other. Their partnership is founded on shared benefits.
But both of these types of friendship quickly dissolve, observes Aristotle, whenever the pleasure or the utility no longer remains. Hence a real friendship must be based on something more than mere pleasure or mere utility.
This third type of friendship is virtue-based, and that’s what makes it a real friendship. Two real friends are mutually dedicated to the pursuit of virtue, which is what makes their friendship true and lasting.
The Greek word arete is often translated as “virtue,” but it can also be translated as “excellence.” Aristotle’s idea is that the mutual pursuit of excellence is the basis for a solid friendship, because one friend helps the other friend in their shared devotion.
In other words, a true friend helps you become the best version of yourself. True friendship promotes the virtue, excellence, and happiness of the other.
Aristotle observes that virtue-based friendship, by its very nature, cannot help but also bring both pleasure and utility along with the virtue. Thus, a real friend, who helps you to become a more virtuous you, will unavoidably bring you lasting pleasure and true utility.
Nothing is more pleasurable than fully actualizing your human potential to be your most excellent self
Nothing is more pleasurable than fully actualizing your human potential to be your most excellent self, and nothing is more beneficial than virtue (because no one can ever take your virtuous character away from you).
The second part of Vost’s book is devoted to discussing the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero’s idea of “harmonious friendship.” Here we witness an expansion of Aristotle’s conception of true friendship beyond simply two people.
Cicero contemplates the civic ideal of concordia (a Latin word that can be translated as “harmony”). No society can fully flourish without promoting such harmony. Thus, Cicero deepens the concept of true friendship by showing how it is necessarily bound up with consideration of the common good and of justice for all.
The third part of Vost’s book considers St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s notion of “spiritual friendship.” Here Aristotle’s contemplation of the nature of virtue-based friendship is extended into the supernatural dimension of spiritual realities.
Because grace can elevate nature, humans can go beyond human nature
Because grace can elevate nature, humans can go beyond human nature to achieve a happiness and fulfillment that transcends the nature-based fulfillments discussed by Aristotle.
Aquinas completes the picture in the book’s fourth part. Not only are the pleasures, benefits, and excellences of natural human friendship able to be enhanced by grace. No, the work of grace doesn’t end simply by elevating some human friendships into the divine dimension of spiritual friendships.
Rather, grace is actually capable of enabling humans to enjoy friendship with God. Such friends of God we call “saints.” The saints are supremely happy people, who have becoming everything a friend can be. Moreover, their whole reason for living is to share their love, friendship, and happiness with us, because God has shared those gifts with them.
I’m grateful that my friend Kevin Vost showed me a copy of his new book in manuscript form. It’s coming out this year from Angelico Press, apparently on the Feast Day of Thomas Aquinas (Jan. 28). I highly recommend you buy a copy and read about how to deepen the friendship and happiness in your own life.