What exactly is friendship? It’s a crucial question, one of the most important any of us will ever face—personally, politically, or theologically. But when do we ever, as adults, get a chance to think such a question through, especially in a context that allows friendship to blossom?
In the ancient world, friendship was a high and noble thing. One of the great instances of it occurs in the Iliad between Achilles and Patroklos, a friendship that our students at Wyoming Catholic College encounter in the first semester of their freshman year. Yet it must be a little puzzling. Patroklos appears rarely in the first two-thirds of the poem. Homer never presents the two friends talking at length, say, about Agamemnon’s insult to Achilles, and whenever they do appear together, Achilles is such an overwhelming presence that theirs hardly seems an equal relationship. In one crucial scene, Patroklos comes back with news of a wounded healer in the Achaian army, and Achilles mocks him for his pity, comparing him to a little girl who begs to be picked up by her mother. Yet he lets Patroklos wear his own armor into battle, a favor it is impossible to imagine with any other Achaian, and he gives up his own life to avenge the death of Patroklos—surely one of the reasons this friendship is held up as most noteworthy, most paradigmatic, even though we see little of its inner character in the conversations of the poem.
What exactly is friendship? It’s a crucial question, one of the most important any of us will ever face—personally, politically, or theologically. But when do we ever, as adults, get a chance to think such a question through, especially in a context that allows friendship to blossom? We need time away, we need good guidance and room for meditation, and that’s exactly what we hope to provide this summer in the third Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, No Better Gift: Friendship from the Iliad to Facebook, which will be held at Wyoming Catholic College from June 9 to 13. Wyoming Catholic College faculty will give talks and lead seminars; we will have meals together, spend afternoons hiking or horseback riding or just relaxing, watch films in the evening, take advantage of stargazing opportunities, and get to know each other well. If the past two summers are any indication, we will enjoy serious and prolonged conversation with interested, intelligent adults who long for this kind of experience.
One of our texts will be a selection from the Iliad, but we will also be looking into the First Book of Samuel, the Odyssey, Aristotle, the Church Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Dostoevsky, and William Faulkner, as well as a selection of poems. We will have the opportunity to explore many kinds of friendship. For example, what about friendships between husbands and wives? Or between women (apparently unthinkable in the ancient world)? Or between parents and children. Or teachers and students? Can these be true friendships in the ancient sense?
Michel de Montaigne in his famous essay “Of Friendship” thought probably not. “In general, all associations that are forged and nourished by pleasure or profit, by public or private needs, are the less beautiful and noble, and the less friendships, in so far as they mix into friendship another cause and object and reward than friendship itself.” He goes on to deny that parents and children, brothers and sisters, or husbands and wives can qualify for friendship rightly understood—but is that true? Or can pleasures, needs, and profit sometimes disappear in a newly discovered equality? True friendship, Montaigne writes, “is spiritual, and the soul grows refined by practice.” In the kind of friendship he means, “our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them and cannot find it again.” Aristotle understood such seamless friendships, and he has much to say in the Nicomachean Ethics about friendship as the basis of political life rightly understood, calling it higher than justice. Certainly Christ Himself summoned us into a friendship beyond anxiety or calculation, beyond human understanding: “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
Space is limited for this summer’s WSCT, so please apply soon if you are interested in the discussion, yes, but also in the friendships that we hope to forge.[*]
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College.
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*More information about the program can be found on the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought page.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Achilles Playing the Lyre Before Patroclus” (c. 1680) by Gerard de Lairesse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.