Birds of a Feather, or The True Meaning of Friendship

Terrence O. Moore reminds us how friends and friendship shape our affections.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” my mother told me over and over again while I was growing up. At first I had no idea what she meant. But gradually it dawned on me that the sorts of people I spent time with somehow had an influence on the sort of man I would become. If I wasted my time with ne’er-do-wells, I would become a ne’er-do- well. If I made friends with the studious and athletic types, I would most likely be both studious and athletic. Who knows? Maybe I could have a good influence on some poor, undirected child who didn’t know whether to listen to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other.

My sense is that sayings like these—and there used to be hundreds of them, for most every aspect of childrearing and life in general—have largely passed out of usage, though perhaps the parents who send their children to a classical school are more likely to cling to their grandparents’ old sayings, to say nothing of their guns and their Bibles. I suspect, though, that even in a classical school, teachers find that students are more influenced by the silly mantras of modern culture—at best empty clichés about “respecting others” now that the word respect has lost its original meaning and, above all, respecting others’ ideas, no matter how misguided or base. Modern culture, you see, urges less discrimination and judgment with regard to people’s character since being discriminatory and judgmental is about the only thing you are not allowed to be in the modern world. Yet if my mother’s maxim holds true, the lack of discrimination and judgment leaves children and young people morally vulnerable in a world where precious little moral instruction is offered. In fact, it abandons them to an adolescent ghetto, where the latest thing done or said by a rap star or Lady Gaga passes for the apogee of coolness. It would seem, then, that a classical school, as not only a place where children come to be instructed in the fundamentals of sound learning but also in the first principles of sound morality, should spend some time on the topic of friendship.

To help young people understand and indeed improve their friendships, teachers should, where appropriate in the curriculum, engage students in a Socratic dialogue suited to their capacities. For example, while reading Tom Sawyer (usually in upper elementary or middle school), the teacher might ask, “Are Tom and Huck friends?” “Of course,” will be the answer. Here the teacher might play “stupid” for a moment. “So you all have friends, then? And you recognize that Tom and Huck are friends because you know what friendship looks like?” “Sure.” “And is friendship important, that is, is it important to have friends?” In fact, very little is as important to young people as having friends, and they will say so. “Okay, then, define what a friend is.” Now the plot will thicken a little. Most likely the students will say that a friend is someone you like to be with or to hang out with, or it is someone who has the same interests as you do or who knows you better than others do or someone “you can be yourself around.” The more thoughtful students will say that a friend is someone you can count on.

Then the question becomes whether a friend is a good person and whether friendship is a good thing. The students will answer universally “yes.” “A friend, then, is someone you want to have around and someone who wants the best for you?” “Of course.” “So, then, can bank robbers be friends?” Here the question gets a little tricky. If they say yes, then we must ask whether bank robbers can be good people and remind the students that we said friends are good people. Further, how could wanting your friend to engage in a life of crime and possibly be shot or put in jail for life be wanting the best for you? If the students say no—or come to that conclusion after some further questioning—then we have to figure out the flaw in our logic from the beginning. (Realize that bank robbers hang out together, have the same interests, and rely on each other. Yet bank robbers are not good.)

To solve this conundrum, we should consult the classical authors on friendship. (For younger students, the classical authors are a little hard to read, but students can certainly be told these things.) Cicero in his dialogue De Amicitia (On Friendship), a work that used to be widely read in upper schools, agrees with our own students in saying that friendship is an important human experience.

In fact, he regards it as “the greatest thing in the world.” Nonetheless, he defines friendship more exclusively than our students might. According to Cicero, “friendship can only exist between good men.” He further defines “the good” as “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

Therefore, according to Cicero’s more exacting definition, bank robbers can never be friends. Cicero furthers says that a true friend will give good advice, even correct a person when he is doing something wrong. In other words, a friend is not just someone you “hang out with” but a person who urges you to do the good and prevents you from doing the bad. And if you were to persist in doing the bad, the friendship would have to cease. In modern parlance, the good person would “fire” you as a friend. The question now is whether the students really have friends or merely acquaintances: peers but by no means true friends.

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that groups of young people do not always pursue the good. As a youth he and some other boys stole pears from a nearby orchard. He did not need the pears because he had plenty of his own. He did not eat the pears but instead threw them to the pigs. When he reflected on this event years later, he concluded that he only stole the pears because he was in the company of other “ruffians.” Had he been alone, he would have never done so. A few years later, Augustine spent his time with youth his age talking about girls. The subject was whether the boys had done such and such with this or that girl. Even when they had not done things, they would make up stories, so ashamed they were of having not done shameful things. That’s right! Locker-room talk in the fifth century, in which a future saint took part. How times don’t change! Were these boys friends? Later reflection led Augustine to the conclusion that they were not, though those attachments and his reputation among the boys meant a great deal to him at the time.

Students might be invited to reflect upon their own conduct. Whenever students break the rules in school or disrupt classes by whispering or note-passing, do they do so as lone individuals or in groups? When they get into trouble or do mischievous things outside of school (toilet- papering a house, for instance), do they do so on their own or as a group of conspirators? In fact, is not planning the conspiracy half the fun? Students must realize these small partnerships in chaos are not groups of friends—at least not at that moment—but rather groups of wrongdoers. The essential question of friendship is whether your friends appeal to your baser or your higher passions, whether to the base or the noble.

Further insight into friendship can be found in Aristotle’s Ethics. In fact, it is worth noting that Aristotle devotes more time in the Ethics to friendship than any other subject, even justice. Aristotle, as we might expect, is a little more practical and offers less of an either/or than the combined force of Cicero and Augustine (though it is actually useful to begin with the clearer distinction). Aristotle classifies friendship into three types: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those formed by people “who are good and are alike in virtue.” An example of the first would be a business deal. The second type is very much like “hanging out,” as students put it. In fact, Aristotle states that friendship based on pleasure is most characteristic of young people. “But the friendship of the young seems to be based on pleasure, since they live in accord with feeling, and pursue especially what is pleasant to themselves and present at hand.” Here is the rub. Those kinds of friendships do not last very long. As soon as the friend is gone, that pleasure can be found with someone else. Or, to use the modern term, pleasure friendships are not very “deep.” Friendships between good people, whose purpose is often a mutual pursuit of the good (such as the good to be found in the life of the polis), have this characteristic: they last. Typically this is not the friendship of the young.

Armed with this understanding of friendship, we might return to our original question: Can Tom and Huck be friends? Presumably this question also has some bearing on the students’ own lives. Nevertheless it is a tough question to apply either to Tom Sawyer or to students. Tom and Huck, on our first meeting them, are having a conversation about curing warts with dead cats or with spunk water. Is that a case of utility or pleasure? Or might there be even some virtue in getting rid of “thousands” of warts? Further, young people (what we now call teenagers) are characters in the making. They are not as yet formed; they are serving an apprenticeship in humanity. So they can’t be said to be virtuous—not completely—before they have done anything, just as they cannot be considered citizens until they have voted and paid taxes. Further, most young people do not get together to discuss Plato; nor should they. Even Plato and Aristotle did not think young people should study philosophy.

This question is important since it causes us to reflect on the examples we can give students of the friendships they should long to have one day as well as the friendships they can attain right now. Once we know what friendship is, we cannot fail to realize the tradition of the West provides many examples of friendship in history and great literature: the Founding Fathers, the characters in Jane Austen novels, Henry V, to name a few. Our students should be required to see how important friendship was to these real statesmen or to these compelling characters and how, without friendship—without love—their ventures would have come to naught. At the same time, we must treasure those books (not really found among the ancient classics) that shed light on human beings in the making, the incipient efforts of young people to develop friendships based on virtue, that is, based on a good bigger than themselves. Recently, I wrote a book in which the protagonists (heroes, I would claim) are thirteen years old. I had to struggle with creating dialogue that was both plausible for adolescents and yet somehow aimed at times toward the good. This exercise made me realize how hard a task it is to offer good accounts of young heroes in the making and thus why we should treasure such classics as Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Churchill’s My Early Life. Nor are these books to be read and enjoyed only by children. A truly great children’s book should shed light on the whole scope of human life. Further, such books lead students to question whether they are on the right trajectory to do the good and to do the good—as they must—with other people whom they will call friends. The ancients and the Founding Fathers, you see, knew that friendship is about the most powerful force in the world. By the way, if you think Tom and Huck’s friendship ends with curing warts and trading ticks for lost teeth, read on.

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