Friendship and loneliness are much discussed these days, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s wellbeing continue to grow clearer. Pre-pandemic, 22 percent of millennials told pollsters they had no friends at all.
“I didn’t have a true friend until I was in my thirties,” is not an unusual statement.
What is friendship, what is a true friend, what is a bad friend, and why are true friends so important?
In his second edition of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness (Ignatius, 2021, 149 pp), John Cuddeback says most people are mistaken in thinking they have true friends.
Without virtue, there cannot be true friendship. “The kind of life required for friendship is a virtuous life,” writes Cuddeback, a professor of philosophy at Christendom College. Aristotle wrote that virtuous friendships are rare because virtuous persons are rare.
The goal of his book, Cuddeback writes, is to help readers “understand the full friendship of virtue…so that we can make an explicit effort to grow in it. It is for this friendship especially that we naturally long.”
Turning often to Aristotle and Socrates, and to Scripture and Sts. Augustine and Aelred, Cuddeback says true friendship and virtue are inseparable – and that taken together they are fundamental to human happiness.
Aristotle identified three types of friendship: pleasant, about having a good time together, like college friends; useful, as in business relationships; and virtuous, the true kind in which the pair unselfishly wants what is best for the other, wills the flourishing of the other, and where relations are based on goodwill and a desire to help each other grow in virtue. The first and second are common and typical and can be good. They usually are superficial and passing, but can build and deepen, developing into the third as the one “true” kind.
True friendships take time and require an ongoing, purposeful effort. While we should endeavor to be true to all our friends, Cuddeback acknowledges that full-fledged virtuous friendships are most likely few.
He addresses the deterioration of good conversation, blaming today’s cultural pastimes. Moreover, “the near omnipresence of handheld devices,” he writes, have had “a deadening effect on conversation that is hard to calculate.”
Two households of single young men who I know have made a house rule to raise the conversational bar. Certain current topics cannot be mentioned, as there’s nothing new to add, and the subject matter lowers the collective mood. It’s an admirable start. To transcend the insignificant subjects of weather, sports, and the latest tragedy, Cuddeback says the discoursers must have some knowledge of matters of import to be discussed. Good reading, study and reflection are required.
The connection between friendship and society is key, he says. A society that is good is vital to friendship, and vice versa, and a universal vision of human greatness facilitates people working together. He notes that contemporary society is most interested in protecting the freedom of the individual rather than protecting the truth about the good life.
Cuddeback distills distasteful human traits into four “disqualifiers” that would prevent a true friendship: Irascibility, fickleness, suspiciousness, and verbosity. The four attributes that should be tested in a potential friend are loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. Selfishness, he says elsewhere, is the bane of any friendship.
A section on ideal dating conditions – what, how, and when – makes wonderful sense. Though our society does not generally buy it, dating is basically preparing for marriage. He suggests one isn’t ready to date if one isn’t ready for marriage.
Each chapter ends with discussion questions as well as prompts for quiet pondering. The book would be a springboard for conversation, musing about practical examples in one’s circumstances of how to be a virtuous friend, for example.
There is a pie-in-the-sky aspect to this book. Cuddeback, like the men who inspire him, has high ideals. But of course, it is edifying, and his kind, professorial tone and his optimism present a treasure of another kind.
Mary Elizabeth Naegele writes from Virginia, where she and her husband have raised eight children, including Caroline, Oakcrest Class of 2022. A writer with a background in editing, Mary Elizabeth focuses on family life and parenting.