St. Augustine is one of the most influential philosophers and teachers from ancient times. Much of what is known about him comes from his writings. The world will never be the same because of him and his masterpiece known all over this planet as The Confessions of St. Augustine. He was an ordained priest and later on became a Bishop of North Africa.
He may appear at fist glance as a deeply religious person who shuns the secular world and who pursued the spirit life using methods preferred by monks, but surprisingly St. Augustine believes in friendship. In his Confessions one will see that he considers friendship as an important part of the Christian life.
St. Augustine did not only believes in the power, beauty, and significance of friendship in this earthly existence, he also sees friendship from a deeply spiritual and philosophical level. He believes that friendships formed in this world have an ultimate purpose and it is to prepare people for what is to come – a perfect relationship with God. First there is friendship with God and then there is friendship with man. According to one historian Augustine’s basic framework to understand friendship comes from a heavenly perspective.
Augustine believes that the only true source of friendship is God and he adds that it is only through this God-man relationship that people can understand the ideal meaning of friendship (Hyatte, 1994, p.46). In addition, Augustine confesses that humans are not only supposed to tap this higher source for guidance when it comes to earthly relationship, this friendship, if done correctly will lead them to God (Hyatte, 1994, p.46). This is evident in his writings most especially in the Confessions.
It has to be pointed out that Augustine is not merely giving lip service to religion and his spiritual beliefs in the same way that some people are prone to do. He is not only making a suggestion when he defined friendship from a spiritual standpoint.
The context of his writings must be understood as not coming from the pen of a sociologist or a politician who merely attempted to say or write nice things that in turn will be warmly accepted by the general public. Augustine wrote from a deep conviction. This is a man of God who desires not to be misinterpreted when it comes to his teachings. There is a high level of orthodoxy in his teachings that says God is the center and the most important part of life.
This understanding covers every aspect of his life including friendship. In Book IV of the Confessions Augustine makes an emphatic statement when it comes to judging who is a true friend or not.
Referring to a person whom he grew up with, and spent considerable time with as a school-fellow and as play-fellow, Augustine is blunt in his assessment of their relationship and he wrote: “But he was not yet my friend as afterwards, nor even then, as true friendship is; for true it cannot be, unless in such as Thou cementest together, cleaving unto thee, by that love which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us” (Augustine, Book IV). This mindset colors everything that he sees.
Augustine did not casually mention the role that God played in friendship he meant something deeper and through the help of a commentary one can see a partial revelation of his worldview, that for Augustine: “there can be no consensus between men on earthly matters unless first they agree perfectly on divine or spiritual ones … only those with orthodox religious beliefs can be true friends, and they agree on human matters because their taste and opinions are formed by those beliefs” (Hyatte, 1994 p.63).
This is crucial component to Augustine’s understanding of what true friendship is. Once this particular belief system has been identified then it is now possible to take a closer look at friendship viewed from this perspective.
Augustine vacillates between two extremes when it comes to describing friendship. On one hand he said that he as no friends except those who share in his beliefs. On the other hand he confesses that he used to have friends but they made him understand the weakness of the flesh. Augustine laments that in human friendship that is not anchored in God one can only expect frustrations and sorrows.
Sorrow is inevitable in a relationship composed of frail human beings. Sorrow is also expected in a relationship governed with lust. Sorrow is the result of creating a relationship for the purpose of filling up the emptiness inside the soul of man. But there is nothing on this earth that can fill up that void.
However, friends are unaware of this and so they keep on working on their relationship until it is no more or until one is hurt beyond repair. Sorrow comes when a friend is led by another friend into the path of destruction thinking wrongly that there lies the road to happiness. Augustine implies that it is normal for friends to make that mistake because in normal circumstances they are driven by their sinful nature.
Frustration comes from the realization that there are high expectations that could not be met. This is especially true when it comes to a special friendship between man and woman, a type of relationship that Augustine is not ignorant about. Before he was converted or before he gave his life wholly for the service of God, Augustine knows what it means to fall in love.
He has a son to one woman and then married another for the simple reason of satisfying the flesh and at the same time the purported benefits of a man-woman relationship. But at the end he said that there is nothing in this type of relationship that lasts and truly satisfies the soul.
Augustine said that the friend is not only a friend – ready to serve, love, and protect – he is also a friend in need. There is that expectation to receive the love given. It is expected that there is reciprocity in that love. Augustine said that there are times when it is impossible to pay back what was given and the hope of love paid back in full can be sometimes suffocating.
But there is more. Augustine said that this type of friendship that is not anchored in the Almighty is a friendship that will end in sadness especially when the other person dies and those who are left behind are left with a void that they cannot understand.
When he took on a new understanding of life, when he became a Christian, Augustine began to deplore the friendship that he had with the world and the people who are of the world. But this does not mean that he did not appreciate his friendship with them.
In Book IV the reader is introduced to a friend whom Augustine truly loves because when he was near death Augustine was affected greatly and there were no words that could describe his feeling. Augustine is deeply religious but he is not a hermit. He is comparable to a pastor who longs to be with people and not like a holy man who prefers isolation and prefers to stay away from the crowd.
When he became a Christian he all the more appreciated the power, beauty and significance of friendship especially the one he shared with like-minded people. But before going any further it is important to point out that Augustine owes his conversion to his friendship with others.
It is through this friendship that he was able to see the error of his ways. It was his friend Alypius who led him to the path of righteousness and for that Augustine was so thankful. He wrote extensively about his friendship with Alypius and his impact on his life. He would continue to seek for this type of friends those who would make him a better Christian.
Augustine’s method of acquiring friends and sustaining their relationship came first as the result of his ardent passion to know wisdom and truth. Thus, even at a young age he chose to associate with those who can lead him to a higher level of learning. When he became a Christian he still had the same passion but this time around his search for truth is made more complex by another desire, which is the knowledge of Christ.
It is no wonder then that Augustine’s friendship has a distinctive characteristic in it and it can be best described as having the quality of evident in a teacher-disciple relationship. Thus, Augustine will take a student under his wings and he would teach this younger fellow and in the process of teaching he becomes a friend to this person.
But Augustine is not always the teacher; there was a time when friendship was developed when he entered into a mentor-mentee relationship with Ambrose the Bishop of Milan. Obviously the relationship started from the standpoint of a teacher dispensing wisdom and truth to a hungry student but overtime they developed a special friendship that Augustine treasured for the rest of his life and he wrote:
That man of God received me as a father, and showed me an Episcopal kindness of my coming. Thenceforth I began to love him at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth (which I utterly despaired of thy Church), but as a person kind towards myself (Augustine, Book V).
It is important to note that Augustine was attracted to Ambrose not because of his eloquence and erudite thoughts but because of his kindness towards him. This is a revelation as to how Augustine perceived human behavior and how he is affected by it.
This is significant because the first impression that one will have on Augustine is a scholar who loves nothing more than to read and study. This initial assessment of his character creates a wrong assumption that this man is willing to sacrifice the nuances of human relationships in order to immediately dive into knowledge and wisdom – to feast on ideas and conjectures without regard to human relationships.
But this statement is proof that Augustine does not only have a powerful mind that has overpowered all his senses but it also shows that he is a sensitive man. He brought himself near to Ambrose not only because Ambrose can teach him great things but first of all because Ambrose demonstrated that he can be a friend to Augustine.
He is also fond of Nebridius the friend who allowed him to experience life in a deeper way. This is the friend who allowed him to imbibe wisdom, and understand the depths of God. He was forever thankful for meeting Nebridius, Alypius, and Ambrose. His friendship with them allows us to see the context of his declaration that true friendship is from and must be used to propel each one into the knowledge and intimate relationship with the Almighty.
At first Augustine felt despair because his friends are dear to him but they lead him to the paths of destruction. It is difficult for him to reconcile what he is feeling and what he knows. It has become clear after reading the Confessions that Augustine is a sensitive man who may have the mind of a philosopher but he also posses the heart of an ordinary fellow who is mindful of his need for companionship.
It tore his heart and his soul thinking about his desire to be with them especially to his lady friend. But he had to choose the path less traveled. It was clear that he suffered in his decision to pursue a life dedicated to spiritual pursuits but at the end he was rewarded because he believed that God gave him true friends.
It has to be reiterated that in the latter stages of his life especially after his conversion to Christianity and his clear understanding of the truth Augustine appreciated friendship in the context of a student and teacher relationship. For Augustine this type of relationship is not the same as the way modern people come to perceive a teacher-student dynamic.
In ancient times students and teachers can live in the same house and they are not limited by the four walls of the classrooms. In other words they can experience a deep level of connectedness that is not possible in today’s world.
It is through these relationships that Augustine was able to prove that he can become a better Christian if he has these types of friends as opposed to engaging in a spiritual journey without companions. It can even be said that without his friends, especially when it comes to Alpius, Nebridius, and Ambrose he could not have written his masterpiece. This is because he was able to distill the lessons of life through his interaction with his friends.
This is perhaps the reason why Augustine influenced the Christian church in such a profound way – he gave people access to lofty truths by way of earthly examples of human relationships. This may also explain why Augustine is popular to students especially the adolescents because of the way he can connect with them as he exposed his inner-struggles as a young man and therefore can easily establish a connection with today’s teenagers and college students (Henninger, 1989, p.32). This is the legacy of Augustine.
The secret of Augustine’s success and the reason why he is so popular even in the 21st century is that he did not discuss theology using words that are difficult to grasp. He did not use concepts that require a genius to appreciate. He used his experience and understanding of friendship as a vehicle for communicating deep spiritual truths and this is the reason why it resonates in the hearts of his readers.
His idea that God is the source of true friendship and that God allows friendship to occur in preparation for an eternal relationship with him is profound but easily accessible by young and old. Augustine’s assertion that true friendship must lead people to God has become a standard of living. He was able to articulate these things because he too suffered and rejoiced greatly in his quest to find truth via the interaction with his friends.
Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey.
Henninger, M. “The Adolescent’s Making of Meaing: The Pedagogy of Augustine’s Confessions.” Journal of Moral Education. 18(1989): 32-44.
Hyatte, Reginald. The Arts of Friendship: The Idealization of Friendship in Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature. MA: E.J. Brill, 1994.