Friendship is More Than a Feeling

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition. For affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of an active condition.          

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1157b

A dog is a man’s best friend.

– Nearly Everyone

I have a Yorkie. This dog sits at my feet, sleeps in my bed, and generally follows me around. He wags his tail when I come home. I understand why people think a dog is a man’s best friend. I feel it on those tough days when he just thinks I’m the greatest creature on earth, especially if I have treats. It reminds me of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s remark, “I’ve noticed that a duck’s opinion of me is very much influenced by whether or not I have bread.”

Feeling like the greatest creature on the earth is a nice feeling. And whoever gives us nice feelings must be our friend, right? Isn’t that what friends are for?

Does that make our ducks?

All of us desire not only to have good friends, but also, and perhaps even more, to be good friends. And most of us are convinced that we are good friends.

I had a four-hour phone conversation a few weeks ago with a good friend of mine of 25 years. The first three and a half hours were what I expected: laughter, jokes, news updates, and book talk. It was exceedingly pleasant. The last thirty minutes, however, were not.

I had devolved into my victim mode, complaining about a major setback in my life, dumbfounded that such a thing could happen to such a great guy like me. My friend listened patiently for as long as he could, then interjected, “I’m gonna stop you there and name the elephant in the room.” He let me know, in pretty harsh detail, that the elephant was me.

Now, this is a person I had lived with in the same apartment, sometimes the same bedroom, for nine years in three different countries. We had studied philosophy together throughout those years. Our friendship was a long history of reading, discussion, and overseas adventure. It would be hard to say that he didn’t know me. I had to listen, defensive as I was.

This same friend once said to me, “You have to love the truth more than the person in front of you.” For people-pleasers, that’s a hard saying.

But perhaps these two loves are not in competition, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Bishop Robert Barron continually defines love in his YouTube videos as “willing the good of the other.” Friends tell you the hard truths for the sake of your good.

We all go wrong at times. A dog won’t know the difference. As wonderful as dogs are, they cannot admonish you, will your good, love you in that way. Having a friend and being a friend requires humility, but also a deliberate way of being coming from “an active condition.” It requires a choice to will the good of the other.  The truth is, being a friend is not always being a cheerleader.

As Aristotle reminds us, the highest friendships are based not on affection but rather on love. Affection is there, certainly. But a friend does not merely feel affection, as I do for my dog. A friend actively wills the good of the other.

As it turns out, to love the truth is to love the person in front of you. There is no grace without truth.

Contrition and forgiveness. 

Gratia et Veritas.

Dan Freeborn is a teacher of philosophy and theology at Pacifica Christian High School.

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