Friendship According to St. Thomas Aquinas

True friendship is based on unselfish love for another person. What is meant by unselfish love is the "constant, effective desire to do good to another."(1) But although unselfish love is a basis for friendship it is not enough. There must be some common ground or area between two persons who form such a relationship. Between people there is enough common ground to form friendships. Every person has experiences of sorrow, joys, hopes, etc. with which to share with another. In sharing one's inner life with another one comes to live not just one life but two. The inner life of another that is known to God alone becomes to a much less degree open to us through friendship. It partially fills the desire of our incomplete, lonely hearts for completeness in another. Friendship brings out the best in a person through forgetfulness of self. Yet it is limited as one cannot give totally of oneself to another because one is not in complete possession of oneself. Friendships are the result of virtue. They are based on a goodness in oneself that another can love. Friends come to discover the good in each other and the relationship grows.

When God becomes the object of one's friendship we call it charity. From God's point of view He does not need to discover the good in us to become friends with us. God creates the good that is in us. His friendship has a creative effect on us. It makes us good. From our point of view the friendship is one of affection. In God is contained all the good that we desire. He has in perfection all the good that we see dimly reflected in creation and other persons. But for a true friendship there must be some common ground. What is common between us and God? We certainly cannot place ourselves on any level of commonality with God. It is God Himself Who makes the ground of commonality. He lifts us up to His level of Divine life through grace.

The Divine life in us is not perfect now but it is real. Through faith we already know intimate truths about God. These truths bring us to a love of His Goodness. God shares His inner life with us. Our soul's response to God's loving initiative lie open to Him. God opens Himself to us and we are open to Him. But God's part of this friendship is unique in that His is a creative love. "The creation of His Love within us is called the habit of charity."(2)

In talking about the Divine friendship the habit of charity involves our part of the relationship. The creative love within us in no way takes away our freedom. We produce acts freely from our intellect and will. That which is natural to God becomes second-nature to us through habit. This habit enables us to make acts with ever growing perfection, ease and joy. "As a good habit, charity is a virtue."(3) It is a distinct virtue from the moral virtues in that God is its object. "Charity seeks only God and loves Him for Himself."(4)

The common ground of our friendship with God is the Divine life within us as has already been mentioned. To increase our friendship with God it is necessary to increase the common ground between us and Him. Therefore one must increase the Divine life in one's soul to grow in one's friendship with God. This increase comes about through a deepening in our souls. The increase of charity is not by extension to other objects nor quantitative but always a matter of intensity. Individual acts of charity dispose us for better acts of charity. Only more intense acts of charity will actually increase our charity or friendship with God.

There is no limit to our Divine friendship. God will always be infinitely desirable. Our hearts are the only limiting factor. But with the help of God's grace greater acts of charity are always possible to us. This growth in charity has been divided by St. Thomas into three states: that of the beginner, of one progressing and of the perfect. The first state primarily involves avoiding sin. In the second the primary interest lies in progressing in charity. The third state emphasizes the experience and enjoyment of God.

It is, unfortunately, possible for us to lose our friendship with God. This loss is possible no matter what state of charity a person has reached. This happens by committing a mortal sin - a complete rebellion against God. Yet, such an isolated act against God is very rare. It would be like jumping off a tall mountain. God does not become less lovable. His graces continue flow into us. Charity is not built on human acts alone but comes directly from God. It is like being enclosed in an embrace of God. We have to work at wiggling out of His embrace. Usually charity begins to be diminished by acts of venial sin. It is not opposed to the habit of charity but the act of charity. It disperses the concentration of our wills on God and increases our disordered natural inclinations. Venial sin disposes us to the opposite of charity - mortal sin.

When we love a friend this same love extends in some degree to the friends of our friend. We love them for the sake of our friend. God is our Friend. All people are either His friends or potentially His friends as long as they are living. So for the love of God we love our neighbor as possessing, or as possibly possessing, the common ground of Divine life on which our friendship with God is based. Therefore we must love everyone for love of our Friend - even sinners and our enemy. We benevolently love these latter people wishing them to share in the goodness of charity. We try to help them regain the great Good that they have lost.

Concerning irrational creatures it is impossible for them to meet all the criteria that would make them our friends as previously defined. They cannot give us a benevolent love. Yet, even though they cannot be our friends as friendship has been defined we can still love them. Why? Because our love for our Divine Friend extends to all that belongs to Him. So one can see that there is very little charity does not extend our love to because of the Divine friendship.

It is very important for us to love ourselves again with charity as the motive. Some say that charity like friendship demands union. Therefore it is impossible to be united with oneself. Yet we ourselves are a unit in the friendship with God. It is hardly possible for us to enter into union with others if we ourselves are divided. The love with which we love ourselves forms the basis for friendship with others. Still our love for ourselves cannot be greater than our love for God - otherwise we have destroyed the basis for the love of ourselves which is charity. "Because of this love of ourselves through God - as belonging to God and as His friend - it is possible to give all our neighbors the same supernatural love."(5) So in the ranking of our love first comes God, then ourselves and from these two springs our love and friendship with our neighbor.

One can see a similarity between love or hatred for ourselves and the signs of friendship as applied to the same. If we are truly our own friend than we wish good for ourselves. This is not a passive thing but an effective wish - we do something about it. Also we have the characteristic peace of friendship in being with ourselves because in ourselves there is a unified goal. The just man wishes himself good by preserving his rational nature in its wholeness. He wishes good to his soul that it may enjoy spiritual good. This is no idle wish as the just man performs acts of virtue to bring it about. He fights against sin. This fight is a valient one that is engaged in for a friend - ourselves. Even with this struggle there is a peace in one's soul as one moves towards the goal. The sinner, on the other hand, is not his own friend. He does not wish himself good as pertains to the higher part of his being neither in this life or the next. Inside the sinner finds he is at war with himself as the goal of his being has been divided. So the just man in charity is also his own friend while the sinner because of lack of charity is his own enemy.

Again this same line of reasoning applies to love of our bodies. For love of God, charity, we must love our bodies which were made by God. We cannot separate our souls from the body in this Divine friendship. Our bodies also take part in the Divine life - most clearly in their resurrection.
Spiritual beings are also within our sphere of friendship. They share an active friendship with God and also are His creatures. The fallen angels, on the other hand, are not friends of God. They have no potential friendship with our Divine friend. The only possible avenue for the extension of our love by charity to them would pertain to their nature as angels. Their nature belongs to God and is good - that is all. We love their angelic nature for what it is but not them as free beings who have chosen to be enemies of our Divine friend and our own souls.

Now although we are to love others for the sake of our friendship with God, in practice this can be very complex. As mentioned previously their is an order to our love - God ranks above the love of ourselves and the love between ourselves and God flows to our neighbor. So in order of love first comes God, then ourselves and finally our neighbor. This objective love is called appreciative love - it corresponds to objective lovableness and the existing order of being. There is a further ranking in objective love for our neighbor. "Their proximity to God determines their objective lovability."(6) So for example one's parents are to be loved more than one's children. This is because parents are closer to God in that they are the source of our being while children are not. The confusion of our choice in loving comes from intensive or subjective love. It refers to someone's closeness to us and not on their objective value. So it is very possible for someone to have a greater subjective love for their children then their parents. But in choices between loves we are obliged to follow the objective love. So for instance it has always been acceptable for a son or daughter to pursue a religious vocation against their parents wishes even though they may have a greater subjective love for them than God.

In conclusion, friendship involves a "mutual benevolent love on a common ground, and has as its normal rule, unselfishness."(7) Taken from Genesis we know that it is not good for man to be alone. We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart. Human friendship has its limits, in giving, sharing and time. It has been so ordered by God that the human heart only can find its fulfillment of friendship in the Divine. With God the human limitations of friendship all disappear. God has infinite generosity and a creative love. He enables us to share in His inner life, which is the basis of the common ground of our friendship with Him. This special friendship with God is called charity. We can lose this charity by committing a mortal sin. This Divine friendship, which is charity, enables us to extend our love to everything belonging to God. In charity we love all those who directly participate in the Divine friendship: ourselves, our neighbor (even if only a potential friend of God), the good Angels and finally our own bodies. Yet, our love in charity must be ordered according to appreciative love. Today many are looking only for human friendship and love, but apart from the Divine friendship. "The human heart today is seeking, as it never sought before. . . that fulness. . . which can come only with a friendship that is Divine. In other words, the world of today is hungry for charity."(8)


1 Farrell, Walter, O.P., A Companion to the Summa, Volume III (New York, 1940), p. 61.
2 Ibid., p. 66.
3 Ibid., p. 67.
4 Ibid., p. 69.
5 Ibid., p. 79.
6 Ibid., p. 83.
7 Ibid., p. 84.
8 Ibid., p. 87.


Farrell, Walter, O.P., The Fulness of Life. Vol. 3 of A Companion to the Summa. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1940.