Fr. Bob Gahl Lecture

Aristotle on Friendship Applied to Marital Love

By Fr. Robert Gahl

In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle wrote the first systematic treatise on moral philosophy, the Nicomachean Ethics. In this book, he talks about three different kinds of friendship that are based on three different kinds of goods. These are instrumental, pleasurable, and intrinsic, or noble goods. We can have friendships of utility, that are based on instrumental goods; we can have friendships of pleasure, that are based on our enjoyment of the company of someone else; and we can have friendships based on goods that are sought for its own sake. Of course, this third kind of friendship is more robust and authentic than the first two.

We can see how even a band of pirates or thieves could have a friendship of the first category, a friendship based on utility. They act together, in concert, for a particular good. For example, they might coordinate a robbery of the treasure on a ship or a vessel. Of course, this is a very weak and unstable form of friendship. The pirates would likely fight over the booty that they had won through their exploits.

Aristotle of course eventually moves on to consider the third kind of friendship which is based on the good that is sought for its own sake. This, Aristotle argues, is a much more fulfilling form of friendship, because it actually leads to happiness, human excellence, and what we could call the overall successful life.

This kind of friendship that Aristotle developed in the 4th Century BC was further developed by Karol Wojtyla in the 20th Century in his book Love and Responsibility. Wojtyla, who eventually became Blessed Pope John Paul II, applied Aristotle’s understanding of friendship to the married life. He says that the married couple is challenged by the very nature of their marital bond to seek that kind of pleasure which is for its own sake.

Then he considers what is unique to marriage that sets it apart from other kinds of friendship; certainly, it is very different from the bond between pirates or from people who simply enjoy spending time with one another. If marriage was simply spending time with one another it would be a very fragile kind of relationship. If there was any kind of dispute or change in preferences, the spouses would leave one another and separate immediately; there would be no marital fidelity.

So, when Wojtyla considers what is specific to the marital friendship, he talks about the sexual urge. This is because marriage obviously relates to love between a man and a woman that is open to giving life. When he speaks about the sexual urge, he speaks on the level of phenomenology; he provides an analysis of what occurs inside the subject who experiences the sexual urge. Wojtyla’s analysis is very interesting. It has a lot of implications in the moral life for everyone, not just people who are married but also those who are preparing for marriage. He says that the sexual urge is a tendency toward persons of the opposite sex that seeks something one lacks on account of sexual difference. Men have something that women don’t have, and women have something that men don’t have, and this complimentary differentiation is the basis of sexual attraction. Spouses seek to cooperate with God’s plan through nature, which God created, in order to give life to their children. So, the sexual urge points towards parenthood, procreation, children, and family.

At this point, we take a step back again to Aristotle. The friendship that is specific to the married life is based upon a common good which is at once procreative and unitive, meaning it aims towards not only begetting new life, but also to forming one’s children in virtue. Therefore, Christian believers seek to transmit their Christian faith to their children with the hope that their children will live forever with God in paradise. These procreative and unitive aspects of marital friendship are specific and constitutive of the marital bond.

Now, if we look a bit more closely at what procreation and union mean with respect to conjugal life, what we find is interesting. Procreation and union are, according to Wojtyla, intrinsically inseparable because the one forms part of the other; they are like two sides of the same coin. You can’t have marital friendship without openness to children. For husband and wife to have the union that is specific to marriage, they must be open to having children. People who are advanced in age and past the time of fertility can still be open to children, and through their openness they practice and continue this love of friendship that Aristotle described.

So, Karol Wojtyla, based on Aristotle’s understanding of friendship, gives us a very powerful and challenging analysis of what it means to be a man and a woman and the call that we have to live as husband and wife. To live as husband and wife is to live potentially as father and mother. Therefore, husband and wife are called to transmit the good that is held in common between them through cooperative action towards their children and towards their family. They are called to even more than that, however. Wojtyla says that the marital bond is the foundational cell of all of society. Society depends on the family, of course, since it depends on children for the future. Therefore, the challenge is for us to seek to live this love of friendship which is for a good for its own sake. Wojtyla refers to this good using the Latin word frui, where we get “fruition” from, rather than mere uti, or utility.

The husband and wife in the marital friendship should enjoy one another as persons, open to life, and never see one another simply as instruments to be used. That’s a challenge for all of us to always experience our sexual urges as open to life, open to parenthood, and open to spousal union. Sex is not meant to be merely a way of taking advantage of someone, using someone, or even using one’s own body. It is an enjoyment of persons that it meant to be understood in light of the transcendental capability to give life by cooperating with God’s plan.