The former President of my alma mater, T.K. Hearn, used to ask students whether history was primarily tragic or comic. Well, which is it? Hearn used to argue that it is primarily tragic, not in its colloquial meaning of bad things happening to ‘good people’, but in its original sense of our most basic commitments being fundamentally incompatible with each other in our lived experience and this irresolvable tension producing ruin for the agent in the world. Hearn sympathized greatly with the Greek tragedians and with Aristotle, who saw the human predicament as basically absurd as result of the foundationally tragic character of the world. Eudaimonia – usually translated happiness but really meaning flourishing or well-being, which has public and political connotations as opposed to merely private ones – depended upon being shaped by participation in a virtuous community. Friendship played a key role in this for Aristotle, because by participating in the love of friendship or philia, one came to embody the likeness of the other. This friendship, in addition, in order to be virtue formative, had to be not merely ‘use’ friendship, but ‘perfect friendship’, which Aristotle defined as ‘the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1156b4-12). The virtues, informed by genuine friendship were necessary for flourishing, but the possession of virtue also depended on tuche, the Greek word for luck. If one was not born into the proper conditions, one could not expect to become virtuous. Even if one had the fortune to be born into conditions conducive to the formation of the habits of virtue, one also had to avoid the conditions destructive of these habits – catastrophic injury and poverty, among others. For Aristotle, perfect friendship could not exist if both parties were not peers. So if one party were devastated in one of these ways, all that could remain is ‘use’ friendship, which could no longer be virtue formative. But avoidance of the conditions destructive of virtue was itself a matter of moral luck. Thus, virtue, and therefore flourishing, were extremely fragile, because the loss of the external goods requisite to virtue were fragile.
The modern approach to friendship does not have political connotations and is basically a private and diversionary activity. It is supremely ‘use’ friendship according to Aristotle’s definitions, based as it is on common interests and sense of camaraderie. Christian friendship, as Stanley Hauerwas never tires of pointing out, has far more in common with the Aristotelian sense of perfect friendship than with the modern privatized understanding of friendship. Christian friendship occurs within the context of and is constitutive of the church, and in this sense the church for Hauerwas is its own polis or political community. We are not isolated individual Christians choosing to enter into friendships which constitute the church, but rather the other way round. We are positioned as individual Christians by the friendships that teach us the alternative mode of living that is to be Christian.
But Christians are, or should be, for and against Aristotle. Christian friendship should not be fragile, or rather it should be fragile in a sense very different from Aristotle’s. Our theological convictions insist that despite the persistence of tragedy in the world, history itself cannot be finally tragic. And this is not merely willful blindness to the tragedy of the world, nor is it merely whistling in the dark. It is an assertion that humanity’s good lies beyond the cultivation of virtuous communities, which is to say that virtuous communities are themselves ordered to another end, communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This conviction, when it becomes the shape of Christian life lived together, offers a transformative vision of friendship that is resistant to the vicissitudes of history because it is not dependent upon fortune for the conditions necessary to the formation of virtue. The church is therefore not tribal but genuinely cosmopolitan where its being in fact corresponds with what it is called to be. In fact, because the church is itself a new creation made possible by the cross, resurrection, ascension of Christ and the charity of the Holy Spirit, it elevates and transforms the meaning of the virtues themselves, as Hauerwas and Pinches note:
[Christians] need not view a friendship with another human being either as having no other end but itself or as being solely a means to friendship with God. God is known in communion, but of course communion, the eucharist, is not passed between God and the individual alone, but shared among the community of God’s friends. Friendship with God, our true end, necessarily includes friendship with others. Second, since Christians claim God is best known in communion, in charity, they must see that what they acquire in the relation is not so much accumulated knowledge about living, but rather transformed lives. Human beings can be remade to live in the world in fellowship, with both friends and enemy. To live in such a way is prudent, that is, according to a prudence transformed by charity (Christians among the Virtues, p. 106)