Why do Hobbits seem always to travel in pairs? “Because two Halflings make a whole,” responded a student. This answer perfectly encapsulates the closeness between Hobbit companions. Today, intimate friendships are increasingly rare, and our individualistic society reflects this through relativism, intersectionality, and partisanship. Although commonly blamed on Luther or Descartes, radical individualism is symptomatic of a disease Aristotle described two millennia earlier. The fracturing of culture results from a loss of good friendships.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three kinds of fellowship: utility, pleasure, and goodness. Friends of utility contract together because of a benefit provided by the other. When mathematically challenged Sally starts flattering human-calculator Sue, she may be seeking such a partnership. Relationships oriented around pleasure grow out of shared laughter and tastes like Taylor Swift, the Green Bay Packers, pick-up basketball, or even Rubik’s cubes. Yet useful and pleasant associations vanish like water in a desert if students cease helping one another with homework or listening to Radiohead together (1156a34-35). Pairings of utility and pleasure sprout quickly but wither often.
Perfect friendship occurs when companions so delight in goodness (moral and intellectual virtue) that they form a bond around the love of the other’s good (1156b7-12). Such relationships are hard as diamonds, yet equally as rare. Good friendships rest on consistent character revealed through eating the proverbial amount of salt together. Goodness ought to be the chief qualification of love between teachers and students. Are teachers beloved by students because they are useful for some end (grades, prestige, college), because they are pleasant and conversant in the latest music, movies, and memes, or because they are virtuous?
Parents naturally desire friendships for their children. In family interviews, they often remark that they wish their children to be well socialized. When they say this, I think about how much time I spend preventing students from socializing. Children are political animals (at times, emphasis on animal). Although teachers must constantly roam the ramparts to deter notes, sign language, mouthed Elvish, or general classroom chitchat, teachers do seek to encourage virtuous social activity by feeding the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. As students learn to love the kingly calm of Aragorn or careful wisdom of Gandalf, they will also search out friends who exhibit the same virtues. Thus, classical education is a habituation toward perfect friendship.
Perfect companionship, however, is restricted to the good, for bad men cannot be friends (1157a17-20). Sauron and Saruman are only allies of convenience. If two are friends, and one becomes vicious, the good man must terminate the relationship as soon as it appears irredeemable (1165b13-35). Abandoning wayward acquaintances strikes a discordant note to our Christian ears. Ending a friendship due to moral quality sounds like a secular version of the sanctimonious break up, “I can’t be friends because I need to become more virtuous.” The Bible’s description of human nature only exacerbates the problem. There is none good save God (Mark 10:18), and Christ’s standard is certainly higher than Aristotle’s (Matt. 5:48; cf. 5-7). Surely, then, friendships of goodness will be impossible. Augustine poses a similar problem in De Trinitate. One cannot love the just man unless he himself is already just, but how can he love what he is not (VIII.4)?
Augustine proposes that we innately see a form of the just and love it so we may become just. Because we love justice, we love our friend either because he is already just or so that he may become just (VIII.4). Augustine links the great commandments by noting that when we love God as we ought, we also obey His command of loving our neighbor. Here, Augustine transcends Aristotle’s truncated view of companionship. By rejecting friendship between unequals, Aristotle has created a chasm between man and God (1159a5-6), but he has also created a rift between men (1159a8-11). There is no possibility of harmony between Beatrice and Dante, the king and his subjects, or the teacher and his students. Augustine heals this wound by teaching us to love our neighbor only as he relates to God (VIII.5). Aristotle “enjoys” friends as a source of beatitude, discarding them when they do not serve the end of happiness; they are fuel to be consumed. Augustine “uses” them as rays radiating from God’s eternal happiness and light. “Using” the sun to enjoy God does not diminish its glory but honors it. Likewise using friends in this way does not consume them but crowns them.
Augustine orders our loves properly by loving neighbors, friends, and all earthly goods for God’s sake. In deriving the love of friends from the love of God, Augustine discloses a friendship extending to sinners and failures. When students read of the faithfulness of Sam or the courage of Eowyn, they are confronted with the reality that no student lives up to the ideal type, yet because the virtues they delight in are from God, students may spur one another on so that they might become virtuous in God. By teaching students to love others not only for what they are, but for what they might become in Christ, we create not only the potential for loving cruel, self-righteous, vicious, and petty students, but also for honoring their vindictive and/or pathetic teachers. Such constant love flows only from the fount of happiness.
The pursuit of goodness in the classical tradition is rarefied into the pursuit of God in Christianity. Classical education nourishes appetites for the true, good, and beautiful, and Christianity traces these lesser goods back to the summum bonum, God. In doing so, the right ordering of love is restored, creating the possibility of true and lasting friendship. The companionship developed from loving one’s neighbor in God, and then loving that love, reflects the harmony of the Godhead. Hobbits seldom travel alone, for Halflings were made to be whole. We too, image-bearers of the blessed Trinity, were made to be whole.