In the Genesis passage at Mass today, God seeks to create a suitable “helper” for the man he placed in the garden. We know the rest of the story. God presents the newly formed woman to the man, who exclaims: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” The passage ends with the first married couple.
This marital friendship didn’t escape Aristotle, who observed: “Between man and wife friendship seems to exist by nature; for man is naturally inclined to form couples—even more than to form cities, inasmuch as the household is earlier and more necessary than the city” (Nicomachean Ethics 1162a16-17). Friendship exists between man and wife by nature, but what does it mean that a husband and wife, whose coming together is for procreation and the education of children, are friends?
Aristotle categorized friendship into three sorts based on the three ways a thing can be loved, namely, by being useful for something else, pleasant, or good in itself. Accordingly, there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and that between people who are good.
A friendship of utility, such as the relationship you have with a coworker or a realtor, exists when two people find each other mutually useful. The two are friends as long as they are useful to each other, and when they are no longer mutually useful, their friendship ends. As long as their cooperation is honest and for the good, this friendship is beneficial for them—although, someone having only useful friends would be quite lonely. Friendships of pleasure exist between those who enjoy each other’s company.
Both of these friendships can be good for the participants, but not necessarily. Vicious people can also have useful or pleasant friends. These two friendships can be harmful, however, since what is useful or pleasant to vicious people is corrupt. In some sense, two vicious friends love each other, but how they love each other is harmful and corruptive.
Aristotle characterizes a third friendship that exists between people who are good. Requisite for this kind of friendship is that both friends be virtuous. A virtuous person loves himself by delighting in good and noble things such as acting justly and temperately—actions that are truly good for him—unlike the egocentric person, who loves himself only by acting for his own perceived advantage or pleasure. The virtuous person is happy because, supported by virtues, he conducts himself in a way that is truly best for a human being to act.
Because of this, he can see in a virtuous friend another self: they both love fundamentally the same things, and friends make it easier to live and do things. In his friend, the virtuous person sees a likeness to who he is, and for that he loves his friend as he loves himself.
This is how Scripture characterizes Jonathan’s friendship with David: Jonathan “loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:3). Indeed, Jesus commands love of neighbor in this manner: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:38). Christ obviously does not command us to love our neighbor as an egocentric person loves himself, but as a good person does. It follows the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). If you love yourself such that you do not love yourself most of all, but you love yourself because you are created, redeemed, and loved by God whom you love unreservedly and with all you are, then you wish for what is truly best for a friend when you love him as you love yourself.
So it is with spouses. Spouses are united by the common pursuit of having and educating children. A natural friendship exists because it is impossible to do this alone. Yet to do this well, if the spouses are truly good, then, assisted by the grace of the sacrament, their mutual work consists in guiding each other and their children to the vision of God.
Image by Francesco Gonin