Friday, April 21, 2017

FUNDARI AMICITIAM; Friendship, Fairness, and the Dangers of Favoritism in Education and Seminary Formation (PART TWO OF A SERIES)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends... I no longer call you servants, I call you friends." (John 15:13,15)

The kind of friendship Jesus offered his disciples and enjoined them to have for one another, is a friendship that loves another, that seeks the good of the other, for the other's sake, never for one's own.

Thomas Aquinas emphasizes this point in the Summa by distinguishing between what he called benevolentia (that is, a love that seeks the other's good) and concupiscentia (a love that seeks the other for one's own sake).[1]

And he adds that while not all love can in fact have the character of friendship, the kind of friendship Jesus speaks about in John 15:13-15 is one that has the character of "benevolence".

Now "benevolence" isn't only "willing the good of another", it is doing it, not for one's own sake, but for the sake, precisely of the other.

In fact, earlier on in the work, Thomas already made clear that the kind of love which is true friendship is far higher than love which is simply "desire," since desire relates to something we want while the love found in authentic friendship is a matter of willing the good of the other person.[2]

Seen from this light, it becomes understandable why St. Thomas identifies the link between love and friendship reflected in the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse.

The friendship Christ offered was inseparable from the meaning he attached to it, a meaning he was to incarnate by laying down his life for them. It was, simply put, a love that held and kept nothing back, not even itself.

It was a love that sought the good of the other, solely for the other's sake.

From a purely philosophical, rational and logical level, this kind of endeavor seems hard to understand. For how indeed can we love another without looking for something, anything, in return?

In fact, even as we Christians are sometimes wont to say, the love of self seems inextricably linked with the love of the other, often leading to that idea - drawn more from psychology than Scripture - that one cannot love another person without loving oneself first, and that loving the other is a means towards ultimately loving oneself.[3]

It was certainly a tough thing for Jesus to enjoin upon his followers, which is perhaps why he showed them the way.

And so before telling them that he no longer spoke of them as "servants", but "friends", he tells them that there could be no greater love than for one to lay down his life for those he considers friends. (John 15:13)

As a Catholic philosopher, I've always taught my students that our faith tradition, perhaps more than any other, has always maintained a great respect, even reverence, for the philosophical quest. Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae - the humble servant without which the discipline of theology suffers great impoverishment.

Still, when it comes to some very profoundly important human experiences - in this case, friendship, reason and philosophy can only take us so far.

Consider, for instance, Aristotle's view on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says that there are basically three kinds of friendship: (i) a first kind based on utility, (ii) a second based on pleasure, and (iii) a third based on the goodness of individuals.

Friendships founded on usefulness involve persons who somehow derive some benefit from the relationship.

Friendships based on pleasure exist among persons who are drawn to each other because of good looks, intelligence, popularity, or other pleasant intellectual or physical attributes.

Finally, friendships based on goodness - the highest and noblest form for Aristotle - are found among those who admire one another's goodness and support and sustain each other in the pursuit of virtue.[4] 

Up to this point, everything in Aristotle's view of friendship appears somewhat compatible with the uniquely Christian view in John 15:13-15. In fact, like a lot of philosophical ideas, it can serve as an excellent point of entry into the scriptural understanding.

However, Aristotle also argues that an important ingredient in friendship is "reciprocity", a quality that thereby renders the relationship between friends essentially symmetrical.

And while he recognizes that certain relationships are not in fact reciprocal, such as those of father and son, the overall notion he has of friendship remains one where both parties stand in a relationship of basic "equality". [5]

And it is precisely on this point that the friendship of which Jesus speaks in his Farewell Discourse - which he commanded his disciples to embody and which, I believe, is the kind of friendship vital to effective teaching - parts ways with the philosophical understanding.

Sublime as Aristotle's notion of the highest form of friendship might be, it still falls short of Jesus' understanding which, at its core, is profoundly and surprisingly asymmetrical.[6]

It is in fact, a relationship, not of equals, but of one party willingly offering himself up for the sake of the other - the friend, the beloved - and wanting nothing in return except the other's well-being.

There is good reason, as Pope Benedict XVI points out in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that the preferred term for "friendship" of the Christian scriptures is agape, and that while the term philia appears in the Gospel of John, it is used to express the depth of the agapeic relationship between Jesus and the disciples.[7]

The identification of friendship with self-sacrificing love in the "Farewell Discourse" sets the asymmetrical Christian notion of friendship apart, even from the highest Aristotelian type.

And it makes Thomas Aquinas' notion of the kind of love at the heart of true friendship, i.e. "benevolence" as a "willing of the good of the other", perfectly consistent with what Jesus taught his disciples.

The pattern of Christian friendship, therefore, isn't any of the Aristotelian types, not even the most noble one.

The ultimate model of Christian friendship, and the kind that must play a role in teaching and seminary formation, is the sacrificial and self-emptying friendship Jesus offered his disciples. It is a friendship that seeks the good of the other, and nothing else.

This, I believe, is an element that must never be left out in any consideration of the role friendship plays in the work of an educator.

Benevolence, if it is to be genuinely Christian, is genuinely kenotic ("self-emptying") and altruistic ("other-oriented"). It seeks the good of the other for the other's sake; and it must learn to recognize, critique and then gently set aside the desires of the self.

Friendship, if it is to play a positive role in education and formation, must also be cognizant of the essential asymmetry that exists between teacher and student, formator and formandi. Only then can it serve as a guide to a genuine, fruitful and truly formative relationship, and a safeguard against the inauthentic, unhealthy and even destructive kind.

And so we must distinguish between that kind of friendship that seeks the good of the other person, for the other person's sake, and that type which is ultimately self-interested.

The first is benevolent, altruistic and selfless, even self-sacrificing; the second egocentric and self-seeking. Let us simply call the first kind, "authentic" friendship and the second, an "inauthentic" one. Both can manifest themselves in education and formation ministry.

Authentic friendship is a vital tool in education and seminary formation because it can foster an environment of trust, not only in the capacity of the teacher and formator, but in his concern for those he teaches and forms.

- End of Part Two.

- Part Three. The concern for fairness and the danger of favoritism: Confronting two issues that usually arise in relation to friendships in educational settings.





[1] ST, II-II, q. 23, a. 1: "If, however, we do not wish good to what we love, but wish its good for ourselves ... it is love not of friendship, but of a kind of concupiscence."

2] ST, I-II, q. 26, a.4: "Love of concupiscence is distinct from love of friendship... that which is loved with the love of friendship is loved simply and for itself; whereas that which is loved with the love of concupiscence, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for something else."

[3] The Process philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, blasts this idea as a manifestation of egoism in his work "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest". Cf. Charles Hartshorne, "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: The Illusions of Egoism", Process Philosophy: Basic Writings, eds., J.R. Sibley and P.A.Y. Gunter (New York, University Press of America, 1978) 393-417.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7: "But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e.g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject." Still, generally speaking, friendship for Aristotle involves symmetry and reciprocity.

[6] Interestingly enough, this notion has a parallel in the Scriptural understanding of divine justice and righteousness which involves, not a relationship between strict equals, but between a powerful yet just and merciful God and a weak and sinful humanity - a relationship that Israel was enjoined to mirror in its own relationships.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI. Deus caritas est, 3.

[8] Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, "On the Practices of the Catholic Church", 56.

[9] Augustine, De Magistro, "The Teacher", 38.


"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)