Aristotelian and Biblical Friendship

By Tabitha Jacobs

Are classical and Scriptural notions of friendship compatible?

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses ideal friendship. Comparing this ideal with godly human examples deepens the understanding both of this ideal and of Christian virtue, because it necessitates careful analysis that is difficult to achieve otherwise. An understanding of what Aristotle teaches about friendship is key; careful reading of the Bible shows that David and Jonathan meet his criteria for friendship excellently.

Aristotle begins by specifying that “not everything is loved, but only the lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful” (Nic. Ethics 1155b, 18-19). Keeping this in mind, he considers what friendship is, and concludes that it is “reciprocated good will” (or love) which both friends are aware of. Since there are three bases for love, “friendship has three species, corresponding to the three objects of love” (ibid., 8-9). One of these is based on utility, on what each friend can materially get out of the friendship; the second is based on pleasure. The third is “the friendship of good people similar in virtue … They wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake” (ibid. 1156b 7-10). Here he presents the idea that true friendship is the good will that exists between two good, similar people because they value each other’s character. Similarity is a prerequisite for friendship because, in order for two people to value one another, they must be able to understand one another. So the two criteria we must look for when analyzing Jonathan and David’s friendship are whether they show good will to each other because of their respective characters, and whether they are similar.

Greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

David's lament for Jonathan

David and Jonathan are similar enough to be friends in the Aristotelian sense. David’s goal in life is to glorify God, as is visible in his dialogue with Goliath: “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand … that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD‘s, and he will give you into our hand” (I Samuel 17.46-47). Jonathan is the same. When he is in danger of being put to death, the people say, “As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he has wrought with God this day” (I Sam. 14.45). They do not say “wrought for God,” but “with” him, implying a unity of purpose between them. So Jonathan and David share the same goal in life—to bring glory to God. Therefore, true friendship is possible between them.

And it does exist, because they love one another for this character, not for utility or pleasure. When Jonathan warns David that King Saul is trying to kill him (I Sam. 19), his good will is evident. Some might object that, since David does not help Jonathan the same way Jonathan helps him, he does not love him. David’s love, however, cannot be shown in actions because David is so far below Jonathan socially that there is nothing material David could do for him. Instead, David’s good will is seen in his words. Upon learning of Jonathan’s death, David sings, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (II Sam. 1.25-26). At one point, while David is in hiding from Saul, they make a covenant. David and Jonathan were separated for a long time, with no opportunity for either utility or pleasure from either one for the other, yet they are still such strong friends that they “make a covenant before the Lord.” Their friendship thrives whether they are together or not, so it must be based on the respect they have for each other’s character.

David and Jonathan fulfill the criteria for Aristotle’s ideal of friendship, and they do it well. Aristotle states that “loving is the virtue of friends” (Nic. Ethics 1159a 36)—i.e., true excellence in friendship is measured by how much the friends love each other. David and Jonathan do so greatly: at one point when they meet, Jonathan “made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul” (I Sam. 20.17). Significantly, this means they nearly embody Aristotle’s ideal, and thus that ideal is consistent with Biblical truth.

Tabitha Jacobs is a sixteen-year-old homeschool student from Denver, CO. She is considering several colleges, including Harvard, Christendom, Hillsdale, and Thomas Aquinas College. She enjoys Latin, Tolkien, and hiking in the Rockies.

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