I studied philosophy in college and loved it. I am told that this is not a universal experience … many people find the subject as dry as dust. But I found my philosophy classes to be incredibly relevant to my daily life. When I read Plato and Aristotle, I was amazed at how perceptive they were, as if they somehow knew me, or could read my mind, my soul. These 2,400-year-old Greeks were experts in human nature. They were keen observers who helped a young college kid to see the world with more clarity and insight.
One of the lessons learned from Aristotle that has stuck with me is his observations on friendship. He enumerates three different kinds of friendship. First, he discusses what he calls a friendship of utility, a relationship based on the usefulness of another person. Think of business partnerships, or a young politician befriending a seasoned senator who might be able to give him a leg-up in his career. The second kind of friendship is that which is based on shared pleasure or delight. Consider the relationship between two people who enjoy playing tennis, or running, or traveling together. Aristotle sees friendships based on utility (usefulness) and pleasure as lower-level friendships. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, but they do not fully embody the kind of friendship that will fulfill us.
For Aristotle, the pinnacle of friendship — the kind of friendship that leads to true happiness — is that which is based on virtue. Unfortunately, in popular culture we don’t often see this kind of friendship on display. One exception to this is the friendship between Frodo and Samwise in “The Lord of the Rings” books and movies. Both Frodo and Sam are self-giving, they bring out the best in each other, and they are not afraid to challenge each other when one of them falls short. A great biblical example of this is found in the friendship between David and Jonathan in 1 and 2 Samuel.
Of course, most friendships don’t fit easily into one category. You may have friends who are your golf buddies (friendship of pleasure/delight), who might also be business partners (friendship of utility). They might also be friends that challenge you by their example to be a better spouse, a better Christian, etc. (friendship of virtue). But don’t only look at your friends; look at yourself. What kind of friend are you? Do you try to bring the best out of others? Do you give more than you take?
Recently, another application for Aristotle’s teaching on friendship came to mind: our relationship with Jesus. When we are young, we are often taught to pray to Jesus, especially when we need something (friendship of utility). We see this also in the lives of the disciples. Remember when James and John, early on in their friendship with Jesus, asked him to do for them whatever they asked of him (Mark 10:35)? That is definitely a friendship of utility! But we see that the relationship between Jesus and the disciples matures into something much stronger. Eventually, in the Acts of the Apostles, we see that the disciples are willing to give their lives to spreading the Gospel! They are no longer motivated by what Jesus can give them, but rather are challenged by his example to live for others. Their friendship of utility had been transformed into a friendship of virtue.
How about your relationship with Jesus? There’s an easy way to test this. What kind of prayers do you offer to him? Do you only pray to him when you want something from him? Do your prayers resemble the request of James and John (“Do for us whatever we ask of you”)? Or more like the prayer of Jesus (“Thy will be done”)?
At the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). He calls all of us to friendship. But not just to any kind of friendship. He wants to be the friend that challenges us, that brings the best out of us. May Jesus be the model and measure of all our friendships!
Rev. Brett Garland is the parish priest of St. Mary Parish in Delaware. Before moving to Delaware in 2020, Father Garland served in English- and Spanish-speaking parishes on the west side of Columbus. Having grown up on a family farm in Fayette County, Ohio, he enjoys returning home to spend time with his extended family.