In Plato’s “Republic” (V), Socrates tells Glaucon that anyone “can feel both secure and confident when one has the truth about the dearest and most important things and speaks about them among those who are themselves wise and dear friends.” We want to know the truth and to freely speak it among friends. Socrates here did not think that he himself had such a clear knowledge of the truth. He feared he would drag his friends down if he pretended that he did.
The most agonizing experience for 20-some-year-olds in college is that of choosing their friends well. Aside from seeking truth, as both Plato and Aristotle noted, no practical issue brings us more joy or sorrow, more delight or more heartbreak.
Aristotle tells us that making, changing, breaking and keeping friendships are the most absorbing and natural activities of the young. Upon leaving home, the approach of maturity and full manhood and womanhood happens in these years. It is both an adventure and a trial. Nothing indicates one’s real character more than his friends, their characters and how honorably or dishonorably he deals with them.
A university does not exist so that its students establish viable friendships. But that experience is a major side-effect of university life. We need to learn what friendship is, what it is not, what looks like it and what follows from it, often “for better or for worse.” A college student who does not ponder the meaning and nature of friendship is hardly awake during his academic years.
Collegiate friendships happen during what Aristotle called “the bloom of youth.” Young women will never be more beautiful or young men more handsome than they are at 20 or so. It won’t be all downhill immediately, but if someone returns to college for his first five-year reunion, he will notice the difference. To the alumnus, any present student generation will seem fresher, younger than his.
At first, all human encounters seem accidental. We happened to meet someone in the second semester of our sophomore year from Peoria, Ill. He turned out to be our best friend. Chances are slim that our high school friends will still be our main friends in college. And if we are sober, probably most of our college friends will be at most acquaintances in fifteen years, though a few may be lasting.
Aristotle’s words are true. We will be fortunate to have one or two friends that last a lifetime. Marriage of man and woman should be the main friendship, but we can easily mess it up if we do not prepare our souls for its nature, demands and abidingness. It is the one friendship most clearly intended for a lifetime. It is the one most jeopardized by a bad choice of friends contrary to its exclusive nature. On the other hand, it is potentially the one that will give us the most happiness in this world, the one, if we do it wrongly, that will cause us the most misery.
Aristotle shrewdly observed that the legislator should be more concerned with friendship than justice. He said this knowing perfectly well that politics cannot “legislate” friendships. They happen beyond politics and their control. The tyrant is precisely the one who finds friendship most dangerous to his rule. Hence he tries to make everything open and public with no secrets from him and no transcendent bonds that would judge him.
Friendships based on utility or pleasure are perfectly good things. We might enjoy working with a particular carpenter or going fishing or playing cards with different people. We do not consider them our best friends, but we enjoy them. They are good folks. Friendship is reciprocity. We will what is good for our friends and hope they return the same to us. This is why the basis of friendship can cause so much anxiety.
The highest friendships are reciprocal relationships in which we converse and live together according to the highest things. That is why the pursuit of the truth of things is also essential to the best forms of friendship. If our understanding of the highest things is radically different from our friends, it will be very difficult if not impossible to have a stable friendship with those people.
At Madrid World Youth Day, Benedict XVI spoke of “a universal network of friendship that links the world and God.” That all men seek to be friends needs to be put together with the exclusiveness of friendships in this world. We do not have time to be friends with everyone. Yet, as Aristotle said, we want everyone to have his own friends. Both of these pulls, to the universal and to the particular, we feel poignantly in college. How we resolve them, well or ill, mostly defines what we freely choose to be.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a faculty member of the government department. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of As This Jesuit Sees It … , which appears every other Friday.