Augustine the Friend
Introduction: “Augustine will never be alone.”1
Augustine the Friend
According to Augustine, “In this world two things are essential: a healthy life and friendship. God created humans so that they might exist and live: this is life. But if they are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship.”2 By all accounts, he was intent on living by the ideology he preached: it was a “simple fact that Augustine hardly ever spent a moment of his life without some friend close by.”3
The product of a “close-knit” environment, Augustine learned to value community from his youth up.4 As Sellner has written, “This is surely one of the predominant patterns in Augustine’s life: the constant presence of his friends, and his obvious appreciation of them.”5 Even from his own description in the Confessions, it seems that regardless of his emotional, physical, or spiritual state, Augustine was surrounded by people at all times.
Even his dramatic conversion at the age of thirty-three in a Milanese garden took place in the presence of his friend, Alypius, who is practically holding the book that Augustine takes up to read. When Alypius himself, following the example of his former teacher, is immediately converted, the two of them rush to Augustine’s mother who is evidently not all that far away.6
That friendship and companionship played a significant role in Augustine’s life is somewhat obvious; what is significant is that this was true for his entire life, and was something about which he was passionate.
As Carolinne White has drawn out, friendship for Augustine was not any more of a reality either earlier or later in his life, but was a constant throughout. Though his view of friendship changed over time (primarily pre-conversion / post-conversion7), the presence of friendship in his day-to-day routine did not. In book IV of the Confessions he speaks of the intensity of love that he had for a friend who died in his youth; while he was a middle-aged man (in letter 130, written in his mid-fifties) he could write that there is nothing enjoyable without good friends, and right near the end of his life, toward the end of the City of God, he could still ask rhetorically, “What gives us consolation in this human society filled as it is with errors and troubles, if not the sincere loyalty and mutual love of true and good friends?”8
It is said that “no thinker in the Early Church was so preoccupied with the nature of human relationships.”9 It is also said that Augustine produced so many volumes that no scholar can confidently assert he has read them all. Thus, it goes without saying that there is an incredible amount of material on the topic of friendship for any student to sift through and it would require a much more significant undertaking if one hoped to fully plumb the depths of Augustine’s philosophy of friendship.
Given the scope of this paper, it seems most appropriate to focus on the human aspects of friendship in the City of God and the Confessions of Augustine. Since not many have undertaken to explain the negative aspects of friendship in Augustine, this paper will contrast friendship in “the City of Man” with the true friendship of those in “the City of God” (i.e. worldly friendship vs. Christian friendship). It will be shown that Augustine firmly believed that friendship can and must be based on unity in God, with a goal of having the friends pointing each other always more toward the ultimate good, which is none other than God himself. The body of the paper will examine friendship as it is lost to sin (as it exists in the City of Man) and as it is redeemed (as it should be in the City of God).
Augustine on Friendship
The Loss of Friendship: The brokenness of society in the City of Man in the City of God
Though Augustine was always looking to be a friend and to make friends, he was no idealist when it came to the nature of friendships in this world (the “City of Man”). In the City of God, Augustine acknowledges several very basic obstacles to friendship for the reader. The fallen nature of man and his own alienation from other men is almost nowhere more evident than in language differences. In XIX.7, Augustine argues that a man could probably get along better with an animal than with another man who cannot speak his language. This obstacle to friendship is a microcosm of the truth that men are alienated from each other and unable to relate as they ought.
Etienne Gilson ably brings out another basic obstacle to friendship. According to the philosophy of the City of God, there are two separate loves which form the basis for two separate societies: the City of Man and the City of God. The problem is brought to light when it is understood that Augustine’s doctrine always
considers the moral life as something interwoven with social life. In his eyes, the individual is never separated from the city. To find the basic reason for this, however, we must return once more to the root of all moral life, i.e. to love and therefore, to the will.10
When it is seen that the issues of affections and will are closely tied to the philosophy of friendship in Augustine’s thought, one can easily understand how this would result in fundamental barriers to true friendship for all those outside of Christ.11 Rather, as Augustine argues in the City of God, all of society (thus including all friendship) is corrupt because the nature of man is corrupt, and his will is to delight in evil.
A third obstacle to friendship in the City of God is the expectation that hurt will inevitably result from relationships. Augustine argues from the lesser to the greater in XIX.5, when he puts forth the example of broken relationships in the home. If a person can count on being hurt in the very place where he should be able to assume that he is surrounded by friends (even blood-relatives!) then how much more ought he to expect to be betrayed in the City of Man as a whole!
Not only are there obstacles to initiating friendships in the City of God, but there are also limitations on the few genuine friendships that are actually formed. One such limitation is that even when one has a friend, he can never exist in that relationship as one who is carefree. In fact, “the more friends we have and the more dispersed they are in different places, the further and more widely extend our fears that some evil may befall them from among all the mass of evils of this present world.”12 In the context, Augustine has just said that our only comfort in this world is our friends, only to turn around here and say that the more friends we have, the more worries accompany. Whether we worry about harm or evil befalling them, or else that their friendship would be turned to treachery, the more friends we have, the more worries we are guaranteed.
Another limitation imposed on friendship in the City of Man is the limitation of shame. No matter how intimate one may become with his friends, argues Augustine, when it comes time to carry out the act of marriage, he will not allow his friends—not even his blood-relatives—to be present. The only reason for this, clearly, is because we are ashamed, even when the act we are carrying out is not sinful, because of our exposure.13 This is just one example where it may be plainly seen that no matter how close one endeavours to become with his friend, there will always be limitations on intimacy.
Friendships in the City of Man are also limited by time, and are ultimately temporal. Inasmuch as a man is incapable of rendering himself immortal, so he is also unable to make his friend live forever. This is something Augustine clearly knew from experience,14 but here he teaches in theory. Thus, to have a friend is to ensure that one will be investing in a relationship that will only last for an indefinite period of time and will end in great sorrow. “For if their life brought us the consoling delights of friendship, how could it be that their death should bring us no sadness?”15 Pain and death are inevitable limitations on friendship.
Augustine does not stop there in limiting friendships, however. Rather, he warns that one might not even make it until his friend dies before he loses his friendship. In XIX.5, he points out that one can simply never know how long a friend will remain a friend. Even peace, he says, “is a doubtful good, since we do not know the hearts of those with whom we wish to maintain peace, and even if we could know them today, we should not know what they might be like tomorrow.” The plain truth is that humans are fickle and friendships may not last. To compound the problem, as he presents it, Augustine quotes Cicero: “No treachery is more insidious than that which is hidden under a pretence of loyalty, or under the name of kinship.” When people who were friends make war, it hurts more than if they had never been friends. All these limitations conspire to gloomily cover what was once the promising beam of friendship.
Even if one finds himself in a friendship, despite its obstacles and limitations, he must be careful to avoid the negative influence it can quite easily become. In I.9, Augustine notes that out of a fear of losing friends we oftentimes refrain from speaking to our friends as we ought, correcting them of their wrongs. Even though we may know that something is clearly wrong, we are persuaded because of our friendship to merely go along with them and become their accomplice.
Friendship may also be used inappropriately. For example, it may be used improperly as a servant of bodily pleasure, to attract the people necessary to fulfil fleshly desire.16 Friendship with demons mistaken for angels or gods may also lead one into grave peril, even for his eternal soul.17 Lastly, friendship can be a negative influence by holding one back from making a decision for the truth. Augustine here gives the example of Porphyry. Though he knows all that Augustine has adduced, he yet refuses to reject the polytheism held by his friends.18
Despite all the negatives that are present in friendships in the temporal world, friendship itself is redeemable. One wonderful potential example is given by Augustine in the City of God, I.35. In this case, he rejoices that even though many unbelievers are present in the churches, they may yet become “friends” (which is here used synonymously with “believer”) through their interaction with Christians now. In this case, not only can friendship be redeemed, but also the one engaged in the friendship finally has his soul redeemed.
In Augustine’s thought, genuine friendship is also assumed to be present in familial relationships. Thus, in the marrying of someone from another family (with Adam and Eve the example of how it is not to be done), one may multiply his friends. Affections are now spread further abroad amongst more people because of the increase of family, which is presumed to be affectionate and friendly.19
That friendship is redeemable should really go without saying, since the City of God itself is entirely social:
The philosophies hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social; and in this we support them much more heartily. For here we are, with the nineteenth book in hand on the subject of the City of God; and how could that city have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?20
In other words, it is fine to talk about the fallenness of the City of Man and its dysfunctional society, but one must remember that the City of God is even more social in nature. The challenge, then, is to define how friendship in the City of God is altogether different and better than its fallen counterpart.
The Redemption of Friendship: The Society of the City of God in the Confessions
To gain a fuller comprehension of what friendship looks like in Augustine’s life, his friendships will be evaluated in two categories: pre-conversion and post-conversion. Though Augustine was one who delighted in friendship throughout his entire life, there is a marked change in his friendships around the time of his conversion, and this will illumine for us, in practice rather than in theory, what friendship in the City of God looks like.
As Brown has noted, Augustine grew up in a “close-knit world” where relationships were always integral. This experience in his formative years would serve to shape his whole perspective on how life should be lived in community.21 It is significant to note that when Augustine wrote the Confessions he was already a mature Christian. Thus, when he looks back at his friendships before his conversion, he is evaluating them in his descriptions and his choices of wording become very important.
This is particularly intriguing for Carolinne White, who takes careful note of Augustine’s use of Classical images for friendship in his pre-conversion days.
The use of so many Classical allusions in talking about his early, sinful friendships is significant; it appears to reflect the author’s attempt to express the imbalance, the lack of perspective in his view of human friendship at that time, and to indicate how far he was still entangled in an anthropocentric view of the world, so characteristic of pagan thought.22
Augustine, then, in his descriptions of his friendships before his conversion is attempting to show that he too was hopelessly man-centred, and that his friendships (though of profound importance to him) were not perfect by any means.
It is also important to note that although his relationships were not perfect, since they did not point to God, they still would and could bring joy. Like all earthly gifts, friendship was given as a gift through which man could enjoy the Creator. When the enjoyment of the gift takes the place of the enjoyment of the Creator, it becomes sin, but it does not negate the fact that there is still joy to be had in friendship. Friendship is a beautiful thing, a “delightful bond, uniting many souls in one.” But it is vanity if the souls are not united thereby in God.23
Prior to conversion, friendship functions as a vehicle driving men further into their sin. This is especially true in Augustine’s recounting of the friendships of his youth. “For I heard them bragging of their depravity, and the greater the sin the more they gloried in it, so that I took pleasure in the same vices, not only for the enjoyment of what I did, but also for the applause I won.” His friendships led him further yet into sin as he bragged of sin to achieve high standing in his peer group:
If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness. These were the companions with whom I walked the streets of Babylon.24
The folly of these friendships continued to lead Augustine down the path to more sin, and he engaged in his infamous pear theft. Reflecting on the incident later, he recalls, “I am quite sure that I would not have done it on my own.” But as it was, he says: “I had need to kindle my glowing desire by rubbing shoulders with a gang of accomplices. But as it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin.”25
In his pre-conversion days, Augustine’s friendships were formed and held together by things that he and his companions held in common. As one author has summarized, “Two human beings cannot be brought together as friends without some agreement about the goods they want, the goals that they have in common.”26 For Augustine and his friends, it is plain to be seen that they had much in common. When Augustine describes his “very dear friend” in IV.4, he says “We were both the same age, both together in the heyday of youth, and both absorbed in the same interests.” They had grown up together, gone to school together, and played together. Whatever could be done together, they did, and these were the things they had in common.
When that friend died, Augustine would finally find solace from his sorrow in his other friends: “My greatest comfort and relief was in the solace of other friends who shared my love of the huge fable which I loved instead of you, my God, the long-drawn lie which our minds were always itching to hear.”27 Thus, they had a lie in common instead of Truth. He went on from there to give his classic description of friendship, with its charms that captivated his heart: They would laugh and talk, exchange small acts of kindness, read books, get in occasional tussles, and teach each other. While these are not wrong things, they are not the true foundation that Christian friendship is to have, as Augustine would discover.
As Augustine and his friends matured, they continued to share common interests, but those interests changed as they began to pursue truth in earnest. Now, whenever something crossed his mind that would disturb him, or cause him to think about what he was lacking in knowledge or happiness, he would turn immediately to his friends to discuss it with them, who were equally as disturbed that they could not find happiness.28 Together they would “constantly” discuss the pursuit of truth and happiness which consumed them all and Augustine describes their plight with this picture:
[Nebridius’] distress was not less than mine and, like me, he wavered between one course and another, desperately seeking the way of happiness and prying closely into the problems which troubled us most. We [with Alypius] were like three hungry mouths, able only to gasp out our needs to one another, while our eyes were on you, waiting for you to grant us, in due time, our nourishment (Ps 145.15)29
Fortunately, for Augustine and company, these days would soon come to an end as God would call each of them to himself in the coming years. At that point their friendship took a most remarkable turn. No longer was their friendship hopeless and ultimately temporal (like Augustine’s experience of losing his friend in book IV), but it provided a hope and future for them all.
Perhaps the most profoundly visible contrast in Augustine’s view of friendship pre and post-conversion is how he dealt with the death of his friends. Where he had mourned hopelessly for an extended period of time when his unnamed friend had died, he mourns the death of Nebridius with a calm realization that their friendship was to be eternal. He simply describes the death of one of his closest friends this way:
You [God] freed him from this life. By then he too had become a faithful catholic. … Now he lives in Abraham’s bosom, and whatever may be the meaning of that bosom, there, Nebridius lives, my very dear friend, taken by you to be your son…. He no longer lays his ear to my lips, but with the lips of his spirit he drinks in wisdom at your fountain. … And I cannot believe that the draught intoxicates him so that he forgets me, for it is you, O Lord, whom he drinks in and you are mindful of your servants.30
The transformation of friendship in Augustine’s mind here is remarkable. No longer is he without hope and full of despair over losing a friend, but rather, he almost seems to exude a serene joy that is happy for his friend and excited at the prospect of continuing their friendship again one day. Gone is the hopelessness of temporality, here is the hope and the confidence of eternal life and friendship in God himself, of whom he and all his friends will one day drink.31
Another change is the basis of commonality in friendship. While it remains true that they are friends because of what they have in common, they no longer build their friendship on books or jokes or token acts of kindness. Rather, now their commonality is God, and inasmuch as what they now have in common is greater, so their friendship now is qualitatively greater!32 Now,
for [Augustine], the only true friendship is sent by God to those who love each other in Him. This is the heart of Augustine’s conception of friendship and his great innovation. It is God alone who can join two persons to each other. In other words friendship is beyond the scope of human control.33
It is at this point in particular (the theocentricity of friendship) where Augustine departs from philosophers who had come before him and had attempted to define true friendship. “While friendship by classical writers is described as a search together for beauty, truth, and wisdom, in Christian friendship, the search ultimately leads friends to the source who is Beauty, Wisdom, Truth, and Love.”34 God being the ultimate object of all human desire is not a new theme to Augustine in the Confessions, but here it is introduced as the very basis of all Christian friendship: Helping one another pursue our Sovereign Joy.
On this point Augustine is still painfully aware that there are many ways for friendship to fall short of its intended goal, so he spells it out at length:
If your delight is in souls, love them in God, because they too are frail and stand firm only when they cling to him. If they do not, they go their own way and are lost. Love them, then, in him and draw as many with you to him as you can. Tell them, ‘He is the one we should love. He made the world and he stays close to it.’ For when he made the world he did not go away and leave it. By him it was created and in him it exists. Where we taste the truth, God is there. He is in our very inmost hearts, but our hearts have strayed from him.35
As with all of creation, which was given to man so that he would delight in it to the glory of the Creator, and not simply to delight in the created thing alone, so it is with friendship also. This is friendship based on God, pointing others to God, to the glory of God.
It is this type of friendship which can now yield the true fruit of commonality. The openness cultivated partly through years of friendship, and partly through brokenness before God enables friends to begin leading each other to God instead of into sin! When Augustine is confronted with his own sinfulness and desperate need of regeneration, he turns to his friend, Alypius, in a panic and pours out his heart: “What is the matter with us?” A free exchange follows and when Augustine flees to the garden, Alypius’ presence “was no intrusion on [his] solitude.”36 In fact, when Augustine reads the verse in Romans which leads to his conversion, it is the very next phrase which pushes Alypius to follow! As God had worked it, these friends who had pursued truth for so long together suddenly felt Truth find them… and he found them together. Nebridius was not long behind, nor was Adeodatus, Augustine’s son. This is the fruit of finding a common purpose in God.
Burt puts it this way,
Like a delicate rake caressing soft sand, the love of friendship has a leveling power, smoothing out the differences which come from our being unique individuals. We must love … our friends in the same way, not as ends in themselves but as means whereby we can together each achieve our one eternal good: God himself.37
Where these young men had previously pushed each other toward evil, now they find that it is their role to encourage each other on in their pursuit of God. For Augustine, the discussions that he and his friends would have would now begin to produce the material for his books.38 As they were journeying together, they met Evodius who remained with them in order that they might all together live more perfectly “the devout life.”39
This community of companions (“all my friends and relations”40) that travelled with Augustine was altogether with one heart pursuing God and challenging each other to pursue him as well. This is effective friendship, since “a man will not imitate any but his friends.”41 Augustine sees this in the very creation, where each was made according to its own kind; so it is in friendship, that each of us will become like our friends. In this way friends can spur each other on to a more godly life. This was the desperate hope and goal of friendship for Augustine: “My soul, tell this to the souls that you love. Let them weep in this valley of tears, and so take them with you to God. For if, as you speak, the flame of charity burns in you, it is by his Spirit that you tell them this.”42
Yet perhaps the most profound element of friendship in Augustine’s thought is the idea that in friendship, one will fulfil the twofold commandment. Augustine here adapts Cicero’s definition of friendship, which involved simply doing what is best for the other person, in a reciprocal relationship. “If God is seen as the highest good towards which everything must be directed and if all love must focus on God before all else for it to be truly Christian, friendship among Christians gains a new perspective.”43 For Augustine then, you are loving God and loving another as yourself by helping him to love God, which is his greatest good, which in turn he will do for you, as this is your greatest wish for yourself as well. Friendship for friendship’s sake—even friendship for the other person’s sake—is no longer in view at all in Augustine’s thought.
This friendship which is centred entirely on God and his goodness benefits all involved by helping them to gain a clearer vision of him. “Sage has observed that the anima una ‘est pour S.Augustin, à partir de 407, l’énigme et le miroir par excellence où il nous est donné dès ici-bas à comprendre, comme nous le pouvons, le mystère de Dieu’.”44 To Augustine, the most valuable friend in the world is the one who can best reveal God to him and push him to pursue God. In short, “Augustine thinks of friendship as beginning, continuing and ending in God—friendship is participation in the life of God.”45
Conclusion: “Ah, for the City of God”
Augustine never reached the goal of friendship he desired in this life, because what he desired was none other than God himself, and the pure unadulterated fellowship with fellow humans which flowed out of that. “His ideal was no earthly society but a heavenly community of mutually loving members of the City of God (described as ‘a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God and a mutual fellowship in God’) and only here would men be able to know one another completely and to form a perfect intimacy, as friends aimed to do.”46 But that day has now come for Augustine, and will soon come for us. The lesson for us in the meantime is to pursue God and to pursue friendships in which we can push others in their pursuit of God and find ourselves encouraged as well—and to do so with all the strength and vigour that Augustine did.
These types of friendships bear fruit. Hundreds of years later, Aelred of Rievaulx, the famous Mediæval Cistercian monk would quote Augustine on this very topic, saying “This personal God of the Christians is a God of love, ‘and he who abides in love abides in God.’”47 So if the fruit of friendship is a greater love for God in ourselves and in others, and a greater love for others, then there should be nothing to deter us from seeking this type of spiritual, God-centred, delight-filled friendship today.
Augustine, trans. Henry Bettenson. City of God. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin,
Augustine, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. Confessions. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin,
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
Burt, Donald X. Friendship and Society: an introduction to Augustine’s practical
philosophy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. Or available online at
Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. New York: Random House,
McNamara, Marie Aquinas. Friendship in Saint Augustine. Staten Island: Alba House,
Sellner, Edward C. “Like a Kindling Fire: Meanings of Friendship in the Life and
Writings of Augustine.” Spirituality Today. Fall 1991, Vol. 43 No. 3, pp. 240-257.
“Ten Augustinian Values: An Introduction.” Available online at
White, Carolinne. Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992.
1 Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 61.
2 Sermon 299D.1.
3 Edward C. Sellner, “Like a Kindling Fire: Meanings of Friendship in the Life and Writings of Augustine,” Spirituality Today (Fall 1991, v.43.3), pp 24-257. Also available online at http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/91433sellner.html. All citations will be taken from the article on the website, and therefore page numbers will not be given.
4 Brown, Augustine, 32.
5 “Like a Kindling Fire.”
7 Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 186ff. This topic will be developed in more depth later.
8 From book 19, as cited in White, Christian Friendship, 187.
9 Brown, Augustine, 32.
10 The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Random House, 1967), 171.
11 That is, of course, assuming one is familiar with Augustine’s theology of grace and how it interacts with the affections, and therefore, the will.
12 City of God, XIX.8.
13 See the City of God, XIV.18.
14 See the Confessions, book IV.
15 City of God, XIX.8.
16 Ibid., V.20.
17 Cf. Books II and III; V.23; IX; XIX.9; etc.
18 City of God, X.26.
19 Ibid., XV.16.
20 Ibid., XIX.5.
21 Brown, Augustine, 32.
22 Christian Friendship, 187-188.
23 The Confessions, II.5.
24 Ibid., II.3.
25 Ibid., II.8. See also VI.8, 12; IX.8.
26 Donald X. Burt, Friendship and Society: an introduction to Augustine’s practical philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Or available online at http://www41.homepage.villanova.edu/donald.burt/friendship/table.htm. Since the online edition will be cited, page numbers cannot be given.
27 The Confessions, IV.8.
28 See The Confessions, IV.13; V.6; VI.6, 7, 10, and 14.
29 Ibid., VI.10. Emphasis original.
30 Ibid., IX.3.
31 In IV.9 he puts it this way: “Blessed are those who love you, O God, and love their friends in you and their enemies for your sake. They alone will never lose who are dear to them, for they love them in one who is never lost, in God, our God who made heaven and earth and fills them with his presence, because by filling them he made them.”
32 See above quote from IV.9 on delighting in God through the souls of our friends, rather than simply in our friends.
33 Marie Aquinas McNamara, Friendship in Saint Augustine (Staten Island: Alba House, 1964), 220-221.
34 Sellner, “Like a Kindling Fire.”
35 The Confessions, IV.12.
36 Ibid., VIII.8.
37 “Friendship and Society.”
38 The Confessions, IX.4.
39 Ibid., IX.8.
40 Ibid., IX.4.
41 Ibid., XIII.21.
42 Ibid., IV.12.
43 White, Christian Friendship, 197.
44 As quoted in White, Christian Friendship, 210.
46 White, Christian Friendship, 205.
47 Sellner, “Like a Kindling Fire.”