Newman on Friendship

The minds of young people are pliable and elastic, and easily accommodate themselves to any one they fall in with. They find grounds of attraction both where they agree with one another and where they differ; what is congenial to themselves creates sympathy; what is correlative, or supplemental, creates admiration and esteem. And what is thus begun is often continued in after-life by the force of habit and the claims of memory. Thus, in the choice of friends, chance often does for us as much as the most careful selection could have effected.—John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain

Newman’s novel Loss and Gain describes the role of human affection in terms of individual psychology. His sermon “Love of Relations and Friends” looks at the effect of relationships on society at large.

What we are towards our earthly friends in the instincts and wishes of our infancy, such we are to become at length towards God and man in the extended field of our duties as accountable beings. To honor our parents is the first step towards honoring God; to love our brethren according to the flesh, the first step towards considering all men our brethren (Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, 5).

Providence, Newman says, builds religious principles “on the basis of our good natural feelings.” Any system of sound morals begins with individual conduct and everyday associations. In that sense, a good test of a person’s philosophy is the kind of company he keeps. This is very different from the belief that virtue can be imposed through generalized and nonspecific humanitarian ideals.

Newman explains that we “begin with loving our friends about us, and gradually to enlarge the circle of our affections, till it reaches all Christians, and then all men.” This does not mean that we love all men equally in terms of affection. Charity is simply wishing the best for others, which is not necessarily the same as flattering and pampering them. When pursued with the right motives, friendship starts with kindness to acquaintances. Ultimately it improves our dealings even with strangers. As we learn the nuances of adult interaction, we also realize the limitations of our own personality. For example, we cannot impose our will upon others and still have them like us. The need to rely on friends encourages humility and maturity. But, as Newman would firmly maintain, this “socialization” is something that must develop naturally. It not something to be bureaucratically established like the fraternité of the revolutionaries—in which case it is always superficial, and often hypocritical.

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