BMCR 2007.09.59

Aquinas on Friendship

, Aquinas on friendship. Oxford philosophical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007. xviii, 189 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199205396 $55.00.

About four decades ago, the topic of friendship emerged from its philosophical hibernation and found a home in commentaries on Aristotle and the Stoics, in feminist discussions of relationships and individualism, in examinations of Cicero as a resource for 12th-century Trinitarian doctrine, and in contemporary treatments of altruism. A quick glance at the secondary literature on Aquinas shows that scholars have been treating friendship in his writings for much longer. However, their concern has typically been limited to the way in which the theological virtue of charity constitutes a sort of friendship, and so despite the current interest in friendship, no extended general study of Aquinas on that subject has emerged. No one familiar with Aquinas’s writing should find that surprising, however. Although Aquinas writes a great deal about friendship, there is nothing we might call his “Treatise on Friendship,” no systematic and extended discourse akin to his treatments of the virtues or the existence and nature of God. Instead, he scatters his thoughts on friendship throughout his texts, raising them in various contexts to illuminate a variety of philosophical and theological issues, such as the virtue of charity, the vice of pride, heresy, penance, and the question of whether one should always conform one’s will to God’s. In that case, we might reasonably wonder whether Aquinas actually has a full and coherent account of friendship that could serve as a subject for a monograph. After all, he is most interested in the subject as a basis for developing key theological views, and it might be that his many remarks, written over nearly two decades and scattered across thousands of pages, add up to no more than disparate reflections, or at best a coherent account of charity as friendship, of interest to a few historians and theologians, but certainly not to philosophers in general, even medievalists.

In this sleek but fertile study, Daniel Schwartz reveals that Aquinas’s many remarks on friendship are not simply ad hoc and disparate reflections, but expressions of a coherent account with both philosophical and theological aspects. However, Schwartz does not attempt a full treatment of this account. His book touches on, but does not discuss at length, such subjects as making friends, friendship as a good, and friendship’s link to happiness. Nor does Schwartz attempt a full treatment of charity as friendship. His purposes are more limited yet still engrossing, particularly for those concerned with social and political philosophy. His chief aim is to address this question: Can friendship endure disagreements or clashes of wills, even those so strong that they drive friends to live separately or to seek redress from the courts? On Schwartz’s view, the answer is yes, and he contends that this makes Aquinas’s account of friendship importantly different from Aristotle’s, even though at first glance they appear quite similar. However, the chief value of Schwartz’s book is not in this central argument, interesting though that is. This book’s main contributions lie in each individual chapter, which can be read as rich meditations on important and often neglected moral issues in Aquinas’s thought.

Schwartz devotes half his book to an investigation of concord, which, alongside benevolence and beneficence, is one of friendship’s three central components. In his Nicomachean account of friendship, which inspired much of Aquinas’s thought on the subject, Aristotle had likewise explained the necessity of concord for friendship. Speaking of the city, but meaning his claims to apply across friendships, Aristotle writes that concord requires shared opinion, choice, and action on that choice—not on all matters, but on important matters concerning what’s advantageous to the city. So, disagreements on small issues or purely theoretical matters do not disturb concord. People need not agree about astronomy, but they have to agree on what sort of political system the city should have and on which particular politicians should run it.

According to Schwartz, Aquinas’s account of friendship differs from Aristotle’s in part because of differences in their understanding of concord (Chapter 2). According to Aquinas, shared opinion is not essential to concord, which is a union not of views but of wills. Moreover, drawing on Neoplatonic sources, Aquinas develops a dynamic account of this union. In his early Commentary on the Sentences, Aquinas explains that in a relationship of love, the lover wants to become like the beloved. Accordingly, the beloved’s will serves as a rule for the lover’s will, and in uniting their wills the lover is transformed. Nonetheless, disagreement does not by itself break a friendship, since what’s essential to friendship is a union of wills, not of opinions. Hence, if the disagreement is not itself voluntary, there is no discord. What’s more, Aquinas allows that friends’ wills may clash over what isn’t truly important, such as something unnecessary for salvation. Friends may, therefore, disagree over what is the best political system or which politicians should govern. While it would be anachronistic to contend that Aquinas is advocating a sort of Enlightenment liberal pluralism, his view is in this respect more congenial to liberal pluralism than Aristotle’s, on Schwartz’s reading.

Chapter 3 details two conditions under which a lack of agreement of wills may not amount to a failure of concord: (1) If I don’t know my friends’ reasons for willing as they do, and (2) if it’s morally impermissible for me to will as my friends do. Aquinas raises the first condition in asking whether the righteous, who are God’s friends, must conform their wills to God’s, even when God’s reasons for willing what he does are mysterious, as when God wills us to endure a drought. Schwartz argues that we are obligated to conform our will to God’s as regards God’s end, that is, his goodness, but not when we cannot grasp any way in which the means (such as the drought) contributes to that end. Not only need we not will the drought, but it’s permissible to be displeased by it insofar as it contributes to some ends that are contrary to the divine good. What’s obligatory in a case such as this is not conformity of will, but patience: We must never grow so disturbed that our rationality is jeopardized and we contradict God’s judgment. However, displeasure, pain, and grief at what God wills do not constitute discord and so do not damage friendship with God.

Why, then, does Aquinas sometimes indicate that one does have to abandon one’s own will in order to be a friend? Schwartz replies to this question in Chapter 4, and in the course of explaining why Aquinas is not inconsistent, he brings to light Aquinas’s brilliance as a moral psychologist. While Aquinas does sometimes criticize those who will not abandon their own judgment and bring their wills into line with others’, his criticism falls on those who fail to do so voluntarily, due to the vices of vainglory and pride. Vainglory induces us to oppose others’ wills resolutely in order to convince them that our resolve stems from a clear and correct view of the matter, though that is precisely what we lack. Our seeking glory for what we don’t have breeds discord. Likewise, pride induces us to deceive ourselves into thinking we rank higher on a scale of excellence than our peers. We take pleasure in this comparative ranking, and so we wish not only to be excellent—which is not a bad desire in itself—but that others lack the same degree of excellence, which is an offense against charity. Hence, the proud refuse to acknowledge that others’ plans and projects may be better than their own, and so maintain discord to bolster their self-deception. It’s these cases of vicious discord that stand as impediments to friendship, not any and all cases in which people’s wills clash.

At this point, however, Schwartz muddies his hitherto clear line of argument. Drawing on his discussion earlier in Chapter 4, Schwartz claims that we can “approach the requirement of conformity of wills from a new perspective” (88). However, when he elucidates this contention, he seems to imply that he is now presenting not just a new perspective on concord, but a different and better account of it. This conformity, he contends, is ” the readiness to join others in their wills (projects, paths of action, etc.) even when this undermines one’s self-perceived excellence” (p. 93, emphasis in the original; see also p.88). One advantage to taking conformity this way, Schwartz argues, is that doing so makes it less important to settle questions about the extent to which wills must agree if they are to count as conformed. After all, what matters is not so much that we actually conform to our friend’s will, but rather that we are ready to. However, this new account is both vague and problematic. First, does the new account really have the advantage Schwartz claims for it? We might think that the same problems arise, but at the level of disposition rather than of actuality, for now we have to settle the question of how much unity of will one is ready to realize if one’s readiness is to count as conformity. Moreover, if this readiness is a disposition such as a virtue, or a constellation of virtues (Schwartz calls it a “predisposition”), then this new account appears to contradict Schwartz’s earlier assertion that Aquinas speaks of concord as an act, deed, or effect (p.7), in other words, something more actual than a mere disposition. Moreover, on Aquinas’s view, a disposition to do x is compatible with doing not-x. In that case, if one is ready to unite wills with others but for some reason adopts a contrary will when the occasion arises, must we, on Schwartz’s interpretation, say that their wills are in concord when they actually clash? If, however, we take Schwartz to mean that this new account of conformity really is just a new perspective that adds to but does not replace the earlier discussion, then it is hard to see how the two perspectives are compatible. At the very least, Schwartz owes us a better explanation of how the new perspective is to be integrated—if it can be integrated—with his earlier discussion.

After an excellent discussion of hope’s role in friendship (Chapter 5), Schwartz presents two chapters on friendship and justice. Contemporary philosophers commonly argue that within the realm of friendship, appeals to justice are unwarranted. For example, friends should not take each other to court, a view some mediaeval Christians likewise espoused on the authority of 1 Corinthians 6. In contrast, Aquinas does not find it impermissible to seek legal recourse against one’s friend, as Schwartz argues in Chapters 6 and 7. The Bible does not say otherwise, Aquinas argues: Paul’s dismay is directed at the Corinthians’ practices in particular, not at litigation in general or even among friends. Of course, litigation should not disturb genuine peace, but sometimes what passes for peace is simply a coerced injustice. However, friendship does alter the way justice operates. Most importantly, in the context of friendship, justice functions as corrective rather than as retributive: It does not merely restore the prior balance between the victim and the offender, but serves to reconcile them and re-establish their friendship. This alteration in the way justice operates has important implications. For instance, the corrective justice that aims at reconciliation requires that the offender submit to punishment voluntarily. Retributive justice requires only that the offender be punished, voluntarily or not. Moreover, the goal of corrective justice is not simply restitution. The satisfaction corrective justice aims at requires offenders to humble themselves in order to restore, or at least bear witness to, the victim’s honor or dignity. Only then will conditions for reconciliation be well satisfied.

For the most part, I found Schwartz’s interpretations both sound and illuminating. He generally relies on established and reliable English translations of Aquinas’s texts. Where translations aren’t available, he provides his own and then sometimes stumbles, as when he discusses three paradigm cases that appear to show concord’s compatibility with conflict of will (pp. 31-34). The first case, treated in Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences 2 d.11 q.2 a.5, concerns the angels in the Book of Daniel who disagree with each other about Israel’s merits and demerits as they await God’s judgment. According to Schwartz, Aquinas’s use of the word pugna to describe the angelic dispute implies that it is more than a mere intellectual disagreement; this fight amounts to a conflict of wills. However, pugna is sometimes used for purely intellectual contradiction (as in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine 1.6.6). Moreover, Aquinas regularly uses the cognate repugnat to signify that one view is incompatible with another. In any event, it is not clear that the angels’ conflicting judgments were the sort that would result in conflicting volitions. As Aquinas interprets this Biblical text, each of the two angels was appointed princeps over a people, one over the Israelites, the other over the Persians. Each took into consideration the merits of his subjects, linked these (insofar as he could) with God’s thought, and reported his views. The “fight” amounts to no more than this report ( relatio); neither angel was in a position to implement his judgment, and neither was petitioning God to accept his judgment. However, Schwartz’s small misstep here makes no difference to his larger argument, since his accurate and illuminating treatment of the other two paradigm cases is enough to explain why certain cases of conflict of will do not count as genuine discord.

In Aquinas on Friendship, Schwartz has produced a limited but valuable study of Aquinas’s ethics. Although he draws widely from secondary literature, it’s secondary literature of an astonishingly wide variety, and he makes creative use of it. In fact, Schwartz’s eight concise chapters are among the most refreshing and original studies of Aquinas in recent years. Let me mention one further virtue of this monograph, one a casual reader is likely to miss, but one that makes this book a valuable resource for those who want to see Aquinas’s contribution to the conception of philosophy as a way of life. Recent studies of ancient thinkers such as Socrates, the Stoics, Origen, and Boethius, as well as modern thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza, have highlighted this conception of philosophy: philosophy teaches us how to know ourselves and purge ourselves of error and vice; it directs us in our quest to lead a flourishing human life. Aquinas, as Schwartz points out, illuminates the importance of self-knowledge as a shield against pride, the root of all the capital vices. Pride induces us to attribute to ourselves excellences we lack, with the result that we actually fail to strive for them. Philosophical psychotherapy requires that we keep key facts about ourselves in mind in order to adjust our self-conception to reality. The same self-knowledge also serves as a necessary condition for hope, for if we are deceived into thinking we have goods we really lack, we cannot have the hope that motivates us to attain them. Any book revealing the therapeutic aspects of Aquinas’s thought, which generally go unnoticed, has done us all a great service.