The Phenomenon of Friendship
Revisionist historians of the present day seem to very earnestly pursue the uncovering of homosexual relationships in famous people of the past, as though high profile practitioners from long ago will justify sodomy. In other cases, this pursuit seems to be done out of spite, typically spite of Catholics and devout Christians: lewd suggestions abound regarding Blessed Newman and his close friend Ambrose St. John as well as of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Evelyn Waugh has been subject to an almost endless assumption of homosexuality on the paper-thin inference that because homosexuality often appeared in his writing, he must have been gay. The evident truth is that these accusations are the product not of inappropriate behavior on the part of those accused, but simply the cesspool of confusion on the part of those accusing. Contemporary society has an inverted conception of the relationship between friendship and sex. It perceives the desire for sex as a purely animal lust that manifests itself in attraction to a particular sort of person, or more materialistically, with increasing commonality today, a particular sort of body. Friendship is seen as merely a choice, an accoutrement to the interactions between persons.
This, of course, is so backwards that when reality stands out in stark contrast to it, those who most fervently adhere to such beliefs, those who have no justification for their behavior in reason or good sense, turn to seeking justification by a selective process of interpretation: so-and-so did or said such, which is something very closely associated with such and such illicit behavior, which somehow magically is supposed to make the illicit licit. Believing sex, as a desire for physical closeness and unity, to be only grounds for all kinds of intimacy between any two people is bound to confuse the believer; good intimacy, the intimacy of persons and not mere bodies, is grounded in the desire to know and concordantly to love. Two people can be intimate and hate one another, they can be intimate and be good friends, and two people can be intimate as more than friends, as lovers.
What does this mean? What does it mean to be “intimate”? As with many words, the etymology gives a good clue; intimate has its roots in the act of making something known, in the annunciation of something. Obviously, personal intimacy is not the annunciation of the existence of one person by another; but it is one person coming to know another. Thus, when it is said that one person has an intimate knowledge of another, it is meant that he has a rather thorough grasp of the other person’s being or the details of his life. An intimate friendship is one in which not only is there a consistency and a constancy of accompaniment, but an understanding of one another, a sharing of the self with the other. This sharing is even more sharply pronounced in marital intimacy, in which (ideally) the sharing, though having begun with the spiritual, intellectual, or emotional relationship, extends into a desire to share everything, including the body; the same criteria however, to some extent, upon which friendship is founded must be present in the more intimate relationship of lovers. This latter sort of relationship is not to be examined here; but what is the soil from which friendship grows?
As aforementioned, the good intimacy of persons is grounded in the desire to know and to love. Assuming an agreement on what it means to know, what does it mean to love another person? The question is not of the specific sort of love between spouses (or those who partake in that sort of relationship), but in general. Oftentimes in the recent Catholic tradition, “love” is broken up into the three concepts signified by either the ancient Greek or Aramaic words: agape, philia, and eros (Greek spellings; storge will not be considered). These words loosely correspond to love in the sense of choice and acknowledgement, fraternal love, and a physical love, respectively. But such usage, while helpful to make distinctions, should not be followed too rigidly, for true love involves all three. The erotic propulsion towards something good is part of man’s nature, but comes from his being deprived of that which is naturally fitting for him; he has an erotic need for sex, but also for food, water, and also friendship. Privations of these things are acknowledged universally, in hunger, thirst, and loneliness. In this loneliness can be seen how friendship comes out of love. Loneliness is not mere lack of the company of other people, but a lack of something more; a man in the company of strangers can be lonely; a man talking to someone for the first time may be, on the whole, lonely, but will at the very least be less conscious of his loneliness for the mere fact that something is occurring which is contrary to loneliness while he is talking to the person. What is happening that abates the man’s feeling? It is quite simple: there is a mutual sharing of the self that occurs between the two people. Through this communication of self, the person comes to be known, and thus intimacy is achieved; the knower can chose (with or against his erotic impulse) to love or hate that now known person. When love is chosen, when the agapetic fulfillment of the erotic desire is acted upon, when one wills to share the self, the life of the self, with the other, friendship is born.
In the words of Aristotle, “This is why some friends drink together, others play dice together, and still others engage in athletic exercise together and go hunting together, or engage in philosophy together, each sort spending their days together in whatever it is, out of all the things in life, that they are most contented by; for since they want to share their lives with their friends, they do those things and share those things that they believe living together consists in.”1 The only way, thus that a friendship between men could turn into a homoerotic relationship is if the men themselves are corrupted in the activities in which they see as constitutive for the right living of their own lives. Such could not, can not be the drive towards friendship; for in knowing the other, one knows what is fitting, right, and proper to the other.
To assume a sexual relationship between two men because they are intimate friends is insulting to the very notion of friendship, to the actuality of man, and to the nature of sex.
1 Aristotle, Joe Sachs [tr]. Nicomachean Ethics (United States: Focus Publishing, 2002) 180.