Below are three selected quotes from Augustine on friendship. Augustine wrote often on the subject throughout his life, and his writings are filled with reflections. Augustine’s insights are important; he was the first Christian theologian to ever develop a theory of Christian friendship. His contribution changed Western views on the subject, deepening the classical understanding of friendship from one of agreement in all things, to a thoroughly Christian one where Divine grace forms a bond between souls through the Holy Spirit. Friendship becomes a truly spiritual and attractive gift from God.
Augustine’s view affects Western notions of friendship even today: pre-Augustine, or classical friendship, believed that friendship was between equals and centered on the idea of a second-self; a friend was someone who had similar interests and shared a mutual sense of the Good. But also, there could be no friendship between men and women or people of different social class. Classical friendship valued the mutually beneficial nature of friendship. In the classical view, friendship was more about utility, getting ahead, forging alliances, and maximizing one’s enjoyment through fraternity. But after Augustine, friendship in the West was seen as a bond of love, a gift of the Spirit. Now, we talk about loving our friends and not about all the things they can do for us. We are less likely to see friendship as an alliance and more as a brotherhood or sisterhood.
For Augustine, friendship assumes agreement of will—genuine friendship must have the same view of the Good but also the same love of God. Strictly speaking, Augustine does not think Christians and non-Christians can truly be friends. He does not mean this practically but in the sense of meeting God’s standard for friendship. Also, because true friendship requires God to create the bond it is best practiced between believers. In fact, non-Christian friends can inspire you to follow the world's ways, as Augustine well knew from his retelling of a childhood incident of stealing some pears.
Friendship is spiritual, not predominantly practical.
Friendship is spiritual, not predominantly practical. In the end, Augustine will say that friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts. And while friendship for him is more complex than another byword for “love”, he consistently connects it to grace. Augustine believes that friendship helps us more deeply understand what grace and love are by giving us something truly good to desire and in that, desiring to commit ourselves to the task of fulfilling the two greatest commandments.
- The first thing that you should observe is how the love involved in friendship ought to be gratuitous. I mean, the reason you have a friend, or love one, ought not to be so that he can do something for you; if that’s why you love him, so that he can get you some money, or some temporal advantage, then you aren’t really loving him, but the thing he gets for you. A friend is to be loved freely, for his own sake, not for the sake of something else. If the rule of friendship urges you to love human beings freely for their own sake, how much more freely is God to be loved, who bids you love other people! There can be nothing more delightful than God. I mean, in people there are always things that cause offence; still, through friendship you force yourself to put up with things that offend you in a person, for the sake of friendship. So, if you ought not to break the ties of friendship with a human being just because of some things in him you have to put up with, what things should ever force you to break the ties of friendship with God? You can find nothing more delightful than God. God is not something that can ever offend you, if you don’t offend him; there is nothing more beautiful, and full of light than he is. [Sermon 385:4]
- Hold faith with a neighbor in his poverty. So that you may also enjoy his good times. You must stand by him, and not change friendship just because his circumstances have changed for the worse; you must keep faith with determined constancy. After all, if my friend was a friend when he was rich but is not a friend when he's poor, then it wasn't him that was my friend, but his money..... But the second part [of this maxim], I must confess to you, I find objectionable. If the reason you stick by your friend in his poverty is in order, when he's rich again, to enjoy his riches, then it's still the case that it's not the friend you love, but something else in the friend. [Sermon 41]
- You only love your friend truly, after all, when you love God in your friend, either because he is in him, or in order that he may be in him. That is true love and respect. There is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cling together by the charity poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit. [Confessions V.19]