Young People Need to Know the True Meaning of Friendship

Terrence Moore

August 1, 2003

Friendship is one of the most important parts of a young person’s life. Most every young person spends a great deal of time with companions: going to movies, roller-blading, playing sports, swimming, and listening to music. In school, students quickly group themselves into friends at the beginning of each year. Since young people invest themselves so much in their friendships, they should be required in school to reflect upon the nature of these important associations.

To help young people understand their friendships, teachers should engage them in the following Socratic dialogue. First, the teacher should ask young people to define a friend. Most likely the students will say that a friend is someone you like to be with, or to hang out with, or someone who has the same interests as you. The more thoughtful students will say that a friend is someone you can count on.

Then the question becomes whether a friend is a good person and whether friendship is a good thing. The students will answer universally “yes.” So, then, can bank robbers be friends? Here the question gets a little tricky. If they say yes, then we must ask whether bank robbers can be good people and remind the students that we said friends are good people. If the students say no, then we have to figure out the flaw in our logic from the beginning. (Realize that bank robbers hang out together, have the same interests, and rely on each other. Yet bank robbers are not good.)

To solve this conundrum, we should consult the classical authors on friendship. Cicero defines true friendship and Augustine shows us the danger in false friendships. Cicero in his dialogue De Amicitia (On Friendship), a work that used to be widely read in schools, agrees with our own students that friendship is an important human experience. In fact, he regards it as “the greatest thing in the world.” Nonetheless, he defines friendship more exclusively than our students might. According to Cicero, “friendship can only exist between good men.” He further defines “the good” as “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

Therefore, according to Cicero’s more exacting definition, bank robbers can never be friends. Cicero further says that a true friend will give good advice, even correct a person when he is doing something wrong. In other words, a friend is someone who causes you to do the good and keeps you from doing the bad. The question now is whether our own students really have friends or merely acquaintances.

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that groups of young people do not always pursue the good. As a youth he and some other boys stole pears from a nearby orchard. He did not need the pears because he had plenty of his own. He did not eat the pears but instead threw them to the pigs. When he reflected on this event years later he concluded that he only stole the pears because he was in the company of other “ruffians.” Had he been alone, he would have never done so. A few years later, Augustine made the acquaintance of even rougher youths known as “the Wreckers,” a gang that would enter into schools to disrupt classes. Augustine never took part in these antics but at the time was ashamed that he did not. Today’s students when asked to explain Augustine’s state of mind will readily recognize his desires to be the result of “peer pressure.” They, too, will have been enticed to do vicious things when in the company of their peers.

Indeed, whenever students break the rules in school or disrupt classes by whispering or note-passing, they rarely do so individually but usually in small groups of two or more. These small pockets of disruption are not groups of friends but groups of wrongdoers. Schools and teachers, then, should use the lessons from Cicero and Augustine to be clear on the issue of friendship. They should encourage students to have true friendships. True friends study together, play sports together, and talk together about seemly things. When necessary, they keep each other in line. On the other hand, schools should not permit the outbreaks of false friends, the Wreckers, to hinder the great task of education.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.