“Only virtuous people can be true friends”

H/T: Koinonia (here). A wonderful exposition on what it means to be a true friend, in marriage and life and in context of our Christian faith. Thank you Fr. Gregory.

Friendship and Marriage

Classically in the Christian tradition, friendship is a virtue. As a virtue, friendship is distinct from a merely pleasurable relationship. Yes, pleasure can mature into friendship but it only does if we cultivate the habit of being a friend.

So what is friendship?

In brief it is a relationship of mutual trust and intimacy. With this as the definition, it is clear why we need to distinguish so carefully friendship from a relationship that is merely or primarily about pleasure. The fact is that mutual trust and intimacy requires effort and this effort is not always to my liking or even necessarily to my advantage.

Given all this it is no surprise that friendship is often hard work. Being a friend is demanding and even costly. This is why only virtuous people can truly be friends. This is why also however I might define it, if I am merely seeking my own pleasure or satisfaction, I can be your friend. Nor should you trust me or draw close to me if I value you my own transitory reward more than what is of lasting good for you.

Seen in this light it is easy for us to make sense of both the high esteem and deep suspicion with which the Fathers discuss marriage.

Ideally marriage (and so family life) is a mode of friendship. Whether Christian or not, marriage and family life can be a school of charity and of the constellation of virtues upon which the charitably life depends. In the family we see brought together the whole range of human virtues as they pertain not simply to personal happiness but the human vocation. For example, self-sacrifice, chastity, temperance, courage, hope, forgiveness, prudence and frugality are only some of the habits that we must cultivate not only for marriage and family life to fulfill its own nature but for husband, wife and children to be happy.

Where the Fathers expression suspicion, or maybe reservation, about the goodness of marriage and family life is not simply the sexual character of marriage that concerns them. There is also a concern about how the otherwise legitimate concerns of marriage can so easily become ends in themselves. Given its nature, there are ample opportunities for both the husband and the wife to betray the demands of conjugal friendship. Along with sexual infidelity we can add, for example, point to how we often justify avarice by arguing that we need to provide materially for our family.

Unfortunately even among Christians, marriage and family life are often not seen in terms of the virtue of friendship. More and more in our culture marriage is understood in terms of pleasure. Whether this pursuit of pleasure is emotional, social, or sexual in nature, what matters most is that pleasure has (wrongly) become the primary goal of marriage.

And however we define it, when marriage is about pleasure it becomes about “me.” But when it’s primarily about “me,” the other person becomes for me a facilitating condition for my satisfaction. Worse, whether the other person is my wife or husband or child or children, in each case the person’s personal shortcomings and idiosyncrasies (to say nothing of their personal uniqueness) must all be weighed in the balance against my own sense of satisfaction.

When this happens, when my pleasure becomes the standard for marriage and family life, sooner or later I will find my wife or husband or children not simply wanting but an obstacle to my own narrowly and ego-centrically defined understanding of happiness. Put another way, if marriage is not rooted in a life of virtue, and above all the virtue of friendship, it becomes merely one more expression of human conflict and striving after power and control.

The irony in the contemporary view of marriage is that the pleasure is the fruit of personal and share virtue. Having forsaken marriage as a school of virtue we have lost not only an appreciation for the secondary goods of marriage like pleasure but also—and more tragically—the possibility of the deep and abiding happiness that is the fruit of a virtuous marriage and family life. When marriage becomes about pleasure it become joyless.

The conjugal relationship between husband and wife is the lens through which we understand not only what it means to be male and female but also what it means to be a civil society and a Christian community. Even monastic life is understood in light of marriage’s natural fruit—the family.

We can argue cause and effect for a very long time. But such discussions about human society and culture rarely if ever reach a definitive conclusion. What we can say however, is that we are all of us—men and women, adults and children—are much the worse for our neglect of the foundational role of friendship not only as the foundation of marriage and family life but of civil and ecclesial society. While not sufficient to respond the myriad social and economic ills of our culture, the fostering of a just society must begin with a renewed commitment from us all to the friendship of husband and wife.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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