Diogenes Laertius (3rd century Greek historian) tells us that Aristotle, in answer to the question What is a friend? answered, A single soul dwelling in two bodies. And such would be the conclusion that the great Greek philosopher would make according to his principle that friends share an identity, a being or essence if you will. They share a common vision, and through a common desire they long to apply it to their lives. The known truth is for Aristotle, of course, that wisdom that can be gleaned from contemplation of the divine and applied to human life. So friends who exchange good will of the highest form, embrace what they see in God with each other. Each wills the good of those they love objectively but also derives pleasure when friends experience the same goodness. What is desired is for goodness to abound. And in loving their friends, they love their own good, for the good man in becoming dear to another becomes that other’s good. (NE 1157 b 33,34) What then is exchanged in good will is a known, desired, and imparted goodness, which for Aristotle always means an imitation of divine life.
Of course, in all of his studies, Aristotle discovers much about the nature and essence of God- whom he calls the First Cause, the Unmoved-Mover, Self-Thinking Thought, and so on. And he is always at pains to translate what is known about God into practical wisdom for life in the earthly state. But what seems frustrating to him- and no doubt to any man seeking God through human reason alone, is the distance and difference that exists between God and man. For while human reason can come to know much about God, and can indeed be moved by what he knows, there is a limit to the relationship between God and man. And this is where friendship comes in.
Aristotle could not imagine that friendship with God was possible. Why would he? God is vastly superior to man in every way. And true friendship, following the lines and lineaments of human reason, exists between equals, who share, again, a common nature and vision. God is infinite, perfect, unchangeable, eternal, almighty, and impassible. As such, the best that Aristotle could say about God’s love, it that he loves by being loved. He is rather like a magnet. In so far as He loves, He does so simply by being Himself, and that means by being radically unlike the man who contemplates His being. God is superior, and man is inferior. Any rational relationship in friendship between God and man is, truly, unthinkable to Aristotle. The life of the gods is too high for man, he writes. The best that man could achieve is imitation of the divine through the appropriation of virtue in the city of man or the human community. The best that human reason can produce is friendship in community, where what is known of God is applied to others.
As such, of course, Aristotle provides us with a wonderfully inspiring model for godly life. Man who discovers divine virtue can then apply it to others through good will and benevolence. Virtues like temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice can mould and shape relationships and even imperfectly perfect a city or state. And yet, something is missing. The God whom Aristotle knows is not a friend. He is no doubt a kind of Father who gives his children the tools with which to infuse the world with happiness. But the Father does not become a friend. Friendship with God must come from God himself. The logic is there, but the potential has yet to be actualized in Aristotle’s time!
From the Quarterly
by William J. Martin