Friends & Spouses: The Pursuit

The great moral force of true love lies precisely in this desire for the happiness, the true good, of another person.

John Paul II

Without too much fanfare, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics remains a classic that ought to be studied over and over, even as the literature on it continues to grow at an alarming rate. This author apologizes for adding to the ever-growing slag-heap. However, examining Aristotle’s understanding of friendship is useful not only for those who wish to live friendship better, but also for a proper understanding of marriage. For the latter, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body serves as the most recent examination, albeit with a slight twist. Coupling Aristotle’s examination of friendship with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body can serve as an exhortation for both men and women more broadly, but particularly young men who wish to be married.

Perfect Friendship

Aristotle’s examination of virtue and the moral life ends with an analysis of friendship, something that seems possible only after having considered the moral life. In other words, true friendship can only begin once one has a right relationship with oneself. Friends must not only be worthy of love, they must know it. Knowledge of oneself as good and worthy of love, which can be differentiated from prideful self-love, requires a certain detachment of self.

To put it in another light, I must not only act in a way worthy of being loved, but I must recognize my own self-worth to properly receive love. A certain magnanimity of soul is necessary to properly receive friendship; self-deprecating humor won’t do here. Aristotle understands that the friendship of the good man is the best not only because it benefits those around him, but because this kind of friendship best reflects his quality of soul.

Those familiar with Aristotle’s work will know that he has already spent the previous seven chapters discussing the virtues necessary for happiness. Aristotle’s perfect friendship requires above all else a capacity of soul and desire for the good that will link two souls forever, so long as both remain good. In this way, their love for the good is what binds both together and keeps the friendship together. Anyone who has shared deep friendship understands this well. In some sense, it is a shared love for something outside of oneself that can provide the deepest friendship. The greater the good, the better the friendship.

Man & Wife

It is no accident then that the best marriage is one where husband and wife share this perfect friendship. Our modern sensibilities of “best friends” mean that husband and wife must share every activity together, that every shared love must be the same. Au contraire! There must be some form of compatibility, but if both love the good, then their friendship will endure as long as this love lasts. The summum bonum or “greatest good” is God; thus the best marriage puts this love at the forefront of all they do.

Too often our conception of marriage involves two people who “love” each other emotionally, therefore concluding that they ought to be together forever. This kind of love rather mirrors Aristotle’s friendship of pleasure, which fades like the autumn leaves. In time, the marriage tragically fades, too. The two people have become infatuated with a finite human being, who cannot possibly hope to satisfy the heart’s desire for infinite happiness.

The marriage rooted in perfect friendship and love for the good, however, does not place its hope in frail man. Rather, it loves the good for its own sake, and gives of itself in pursuit of that love. The strongest marriages may arise from even the most unlikely matches, provided that the couple places love for God at the center. This requires a constant exercise of the will to choose this over and over again. John Paul II writes in Love & Responsibility,

Self-giving can have its full value only when it involves and is the work of the will. For it is free will that makes the person its own master (sui juris), an inalienable and untransferable ‘some-one’ (alteri incommunicabilis).

Just as the virtuous soul becomes true master of self through the virtuous life, so too the self-giving necessary for marriage can only occur when the soul is in control of itself.

Start Now

The Wall Street Journal published an article many years ago describing how American young men today are stuck in a period of “perpetual adolescence.” Video games, pornography, and lack of social pressure to “grow up” allow men to live in a world where they can satisfy their basest desires without ever having to work for it. Marriage as an institution suffers as men either put it off or fail to take it seriously.

A wife and children ground one very quickly; one must pay bills, raise children, and constantly face a being who is very different from the male “bros” of old. This is as it should be—man needs the other, woman, to properly enjoy creation.

John Paul II comments in Theology of the Body,

When God-Yahweh says ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ he affirms that, alone, the man does not completely realize this essence. He realizes it only by existing ‘with someone’—and, to put even more deeply and completely—by existing ‘for someone.’

This existing “for someone” isn’t a switch that just flips on one’s wedding day—this only comes from constant practice and trial, just as the knights of old honed their skills on the training ground.

The demands of friendship and love require much from both husband and wife. For this reason, it becomes paramount for the man to cultivate virtue in himself before marriage. A man cannot suppose that his wife will “fix” him; he must cultivate his own soul so that he chooses virtue for its own sake. The true act of co-creation in marriage cannot begin if husband and wife do not share an equal love for the good because they do not share true friendship. If men want happy and fruitful marriages, they first must look to their own souls.

This theme will be the topic of a subsequent essay.

Author: Nicholas Callaghan

A graduate of Benedictine College, Nicholas currently resides in Michigan while pursuing his PhD in Politics. He enjoys reading, cooking, brewing beer, and generally living life well. He writes so that he and others can learn how to fall more passionately in love with this world, to be contemplative souls in a world that has forgotten how to do so.

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