caution in friendship

Returning to the discussion of human friendships, there seems to be an agreement that relationships must be entered with caution. Aristotle says that “one should examine at the beginning by whom the good deed is done and what his conditions are, so that one can accept it on these conditions or reject it,” and Cicero speaks of similar criteria: “We must test and observe first, and then bestow our affections…” These two writers promote caution because the motives of others are not always as noble as they are appear to be. Montaigne promotes a more moderate level of caution when he says that only the “common friendships” require careful examination: According to him, the true friendship can be trusted absolutely, while one “…must walk in those other friendships bridle in hand, with prudence and precaution; the knot is not so well tied that there is no cause to mistrust it.” Saint Augustine also realizes that friends are often not what they seem: “In our present wretched condition we frequently mistake a friend for an enemy, and an enemy for a friend.” He ascribes the deceptive quality of people to man’s fallen nature, as Herbert A. Deane points out:

We must always remember that when [Augustine] says that ‘the laws of men’s nature move him to hold fellowship and maintain peace with all men so far as in him lies,’ he is talking about the natural state of man before the Fall and the introduction into the world of sin…. Augustine’s comment on the hatred and conflict that rage among men is bitterly sorrowful: ‘For there is nothing so social by nature, so unsocial by its corruption, as this race….’
Only among the small number of men who have been redeemed by God’s grace do we find the true unity and concord that are natural to man.

From a Christian perspective, men are untrustworthy as a result of original sin. In short, the fall of mankind has hindered our ability to engage in pure friendship.

Saint Aelred, in his work on spiritual friendship, lays out several stages in establishing such a close bond. He emphasizes a process of probation and discernment:

Not all whom we love should be received into friendship, for not all are found worthy of it. For since your friend is the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you yourself entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing, you should, in the first place, surely choose one who is considered fitted for all this. Then he is to be tried, and so finally admitted. For friendship should be stable and manifest a certain likeness to eternity, persevering always in affection.

And so we ought not, like children, change friends by reason of some vagrant whim. For since there is no one more detestable that the man who injures friendship, and nothing torments the mind more than desertion or insult at the hands of a friend, a friend ought to be chosen with the utmost care and tested with extreme caution. But once admitted, he should be so borne with, so treated, so deferred to, that, as long as he does not withdraw irrevocably from the established foundation, he is yours, and you are his, in body as well as in spirit, so that there will be no division of minds, affections, wills, or judgments.

You see, therefore, the four stages by which one climbs to the perfection of friendship: the first is selection, the second probation, the third admission, and the fourth perfect harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence.

This is an exacting standard for friendship, but makes sense in view of the spiritual friendship he describes. In short, one should not choose a companion in the spiritual life without careful consideration.

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