Philia: The Luminous Line of Friendship

Philia: Friends Always Striving for the Best

Friendship is a voluntary association based on a set of shared goals, interests, feelings, and memories. It is preserved by a strong bond of mutual trust. The confidentiality of friendship is precisely what makes it so valuable and reliable. It keeps us responsible and dependable, encourages us in our struggles and relieves us of emotional burdens.

But while all the above is true, ancient writers have another way of writing about friendship:

“We were, as it were, one soul in two bodies.”

“Friends own everything in common.” 

“We were all in all to each other, housemates, messmates, flourishing together, looking to one object, with an affection for each other ever growing warmer and stronger.” (19)

This is philia, and anyone learning about philia stands on the threshold of a Greek ideal that far surpasses our shallow modern views of friendship. These quotes are all taken from St Gregory the Theologian. He, in turn, is drawing from the Scriptural understanding of mutual love (“Love one another” [Jn. 13:34-35]) as well as the many sources of classical friendship that we find, for example, in Plato and Aristotle.

Classical Philia

One reason philia was so intimate and idealized in ancient times is because it was a matter of survival. Greeks became friends on the training-field or in battle. In fact, school athletics and the gymnasium were preparation for war time. When war was upon them they wholly depended on their loyal companions for safety. Greek culture, even in the Roman and Christian periods, always retained its competitive edge, whether in athletics, civic rivalries, oratory, or debate. The Church Fathers refined this spirit and saw education and the ascetic life as the healthiest outlets for it, as they sought to prevent it from becoming a widespread vice. Thus the highest friendship aimed at the highest ideal, philosophia and virtue. After all, virtue used to mean strength and virtuosity in battle and the ascetic was a trained athlete (to this day in Modern Gk, the verb asko means “exercise, practice”).

The Greek Fathers were heirs to this classical culture. Their pursuit of the good, simply would allow for no less than the Best, that is a life of perfection in Christ. This is where friendship was of the greatest benefit, since friends trained each other for this perfection.

St Gregory the Theologian makes use of these themes in his Funeral Oration for St Basil. This speech is not only a testament to the greatness of Basil (to my knowledge, it is the first document that refers to Basil as “the Great”), but also a paradigm of Christian friendship and a masterful synthesis of classical culture and Christian faith. For a large portion of the oration he fondly recalls his friendship with St Basil and the years they spent studying together in Athens, “a city truly of gold, and the patroness of all that is good (14)”.

“We raised a fine-walled mansion with golden pillars,’ as Pindar says, and so did we make eager progress, with the joint assistance of God and our mutual affection (pothos)” (20). Gregory opens with a reference to Pindar, the great orator of the Olympic games, and so signals the athletic analogy. The form of the discourse is classical, but his emphasis is deeply Christian. While in Homer we hear “Always excel and strive to be superior to others,” (Iliad, VII.208), Gregory repeatedly stresses how he and Basil constantly worked for each other’s progress and encouraged each other in their joint pursuit of excellence. “Our sole work was virtue, [...] with a view to this, we directed all our life and actions under the guidance of the commandment, as we sharpened upon each other our weapons of virtue; [...] being a rule and standard to each other, for the discernment of what was right and what was wrong” (20). The image Gregory conjures up is one of Christian gladiators. It is in this light that we can better understand the icons of our warrior saints, who are so often depicted together, in unison.

St Nestor and St Demetrius, martyrs of Thessaloniki, c. 1062, St Michael Monastery in Kiev.

There is a mysterious combination of cooperation and friendly competition that keeps friendship lively. Gregory frequently gives voice to this thought: “Although our shared hopes led us to a goal especially prone to contentiousness, namely that of oratory (logoi), there was no envy (phthonos) between us, but only zeal for emulation. We strived, not that each might gain the first place for himself, but to yield it to the other; for we each made the other's good reputation to be our own.” (20)

Sharing a good nous

Gregory mentions that their study of letters, oratory, and the classical curriculum was prone to contention and envy. So what is it that safeguards a friendship from conflict when friends set out for a common goal? Aristotle defines friendship as eunoia (MG: év-nee-uh), that is goodwill, or sharing ‘a good nous’ and a common pursuit of the Good. Eunoia allows you to transfer your own desire for success to others so that you can rejoice in their achievements. It means having your friend’s best intentions at heart. Aristotle defines the truest form of friendship as one based on mutual eunoia

Sharing a ‘good nous’ helps us to understand a bold statement such as “we were like one soul in two bodies.” But Gregory meant what he said. Gregory uses a plethora of untranslatable Greek words to express “unity of thought,” “oneness of mind,” “mutual inspiration” and “joint aspiration.” This communion of minds also helps us distinguish philia from the other loves. Unlike unconditional agape, it is conditional because it must be mutual. Whereas eros is consummated in the union of bodies, philia sets the mind as its boundary. Whereas storge is a more natural, comfortable love, philia requires the training of the life of the mind and the strengthening of the bonds of trust.

Regarding the question of how eros and philia overlap, St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, “My one delight was to love and to be loved, but I should have kept the measure of mind to mind (animus), which is the luminous line of friendship” (II.2). This is a wonderful patristic alternative to the question that torments many young people. The question of the dreaded friend zone, of the ambiguity of any relationship between men and women. But might we not see the ambiguity of this zone as a “luminous line of friendship” instead? Within this line, much can happen. The limit and distance it sets gives you time to increase your respect for the other’s soul. Eventually, philia may prove to bear potential for a deeper union in the future. Then, if philia does develop into eros, it will be enriched by many aspects of philia. Wives and husbands, for instance, should certainly be friends in their mutual pursuit of divine eros, which so greatly transcends their own eros, even if reflected by it (cf. Eph. 5:25).

Thus, friendship is a conjoining of minds. The restless, searching motion of the mind could also account for the fact that so often friends are rather different (and oftentimes people who are very similar are not friends). The mind constantly needs refining, and keeping company with people of different outlooks or walks of life often stimulates the mind. Their excellence in one respect may inspire us to strive for excellence in some other respect. That is not to say that friendships are always intellectual in nature, since the common interests and pursuits of friends may revolve around quite practical and down-to-earth matters, or simple spiritual truths. But real friends are always striving for something beyond themselves; they are accompanying each other in the same direction, even if their paths occasionally diverge. If friendships are based merely on passing pastimes or material pleasures, they only last as long as the gratification of those desires do. They fade like flowers and bear little fruit. Genuine friendship, on the other hand, will not be without its utility and pleasure, but these will be directed to a greater purpose.

The highest friendship aims for the highest goal

The highest friendships then are those that aim for the highest and most shareable goals. This is what enabled Gregory and Basil’s friendship to flourish: “And when, as time went on, we acknowledged our mutual affection (pothos), and that philosophy was our aim, we were all in all to one another.”

In Gregory’s writings, ‘philosophy’ is shorthand for the life of asceticism, the renunciation of material and secular ambitions and attachments; it meant a life of prayer, study, and courageous service to the truth. Friends are motivated by the common aim of truth and beauty. Thus, philia is intrinsically linked to philosophia. The pursuit of nobler, shareable goals entails a friendship less prone to conflict. It is also related to philokalia, the love of beauty, and an eros aimed for the same transcendent beauty. “Loves (erotes) that are godly and chaste, since their object is constant, are much more permanent, and the more their vision of its beauty increases, the more it unites to itself and binds to each other the hearts of them that love one and the same object” (19). 

Ancient philosophers and theologians were quite outspoken in their praise of friendship. Only ‘philosophers’ could be true friends, since their sole object was the good life and the good of the other. And they had a point. This meant that their goals could align without conflict. Socrates could engage on an equal basis with everybody when he simply sought what was good and true. There was no ulterior motive, just good humor and earnest truth-seeking; the truth, if he ever found it, was not his property but the common property of all. Otherwise, how often are friendships torn apart by shared love interests, divergent views, jealousy, disappointment and resentment. The very things that unite friends in the first place can eventually turn them into enemies.

Friends own Everything in Common

This philosophical sense of sharing between friends is why friends are said to “own everything in common” (cf. Plato, Phaedrus 279c; Republic 449a). They bring us pride and joy. “Basil took as much pride (philotimein) in my own works as anyone else would take in their own,” says Gregory in his Funeral Oration for Basil. In this same work, he in turn takes on the historically momentous task of ensuring Basil’s sacred renown for all posterity by writing it with such consummate artistry and poignancy.

Of course, there does sometimes arise a tension between the philosophical ideals of friendship and the other demands life makes on us. Aristotle, when he disagrees with his friend and teacher Plato, says, “although friends and the truth are both dear to us, piety demands that we love the truth more.” St. Augustine, before his conversion, had a group of friends that was eager to start a community in which everything would be the common property of all. “But then we began to wonder what our wives might think,” he says. St. Gregory, upon failing to keep a promise he made to a friend, says that it is because “the law that bids us honor our parents (Ex. 20:12) overpowered the law of our friendship and cooperation.” He nevertheless tries to honor the spirit of friendship in the same letter: “I will join you half the time, and half the time you will join me, that we may have all things in common (ta panta koina) as well as equality (homotimon) in our friendship” (Ep. 1, to Basil). 

Their goals were not realized as they had imagined, since the Church had tremendous difficulties at the time. But the fire of temptation only proved them to be the gold that they were, and they honored the spirit of friendship to the degree that they could, through their visits, their correspondence, and not least their commendations and defenses on each other’s behalf. 

Within the comfort and mutual trust of their friendship, friends, like family members, could also take certain liberties with each other. True friends, since they are dedicated to something greater than themselves, can hold each other accountable to the ideals they hold. “When [Basil] was among us, he constantly corrected me in many points, according to the rights of a friend and the still higher law [of the Gospel]” (Fun. Or. 2). A friendship that is only based on feelings or shared memories has no such power. It becomes static and can even hinder people from progress. On the contrary, genuine friends challenge each other. Their communication is transparent and they correct and counsel one another within accepted boundaries. They pull each other up to higher ground.

The Three Hierarchs, from a Byzantine illuminated manuscript

Gregory tells us that he and Basil were “all in all to each other” as companions in the common pursuit of virtue and knowledge. Historically, the fruit of Basil’s progress is that he genuinely did “become everything to everyone so that he might gain all”  by his ministry. Incidentally, Basil’s friendship with Gregory leads to a whole array of other ‘loves’: he becomes “a friend of the poor” (philoptochos) to the paupers, a “friend of the foreigner” (philoxenos) to those in need of hospitality, a “lover of the brethren” (philadelphos) to his fellow Christians (81). Their golden friendship was a workshop for a life according to the golden rule and the golden mean.* Through their friendship they formed a balanced monastic model that included both communal and contemplative life, as well as a practical and theoretical standard for Christian charity, which was realized in Basil’s Basileiad and also through Gregory’s fundraising. They formulated the gold standard of Orthodox Trinitarian theology, and so are commemorated as the Three Hierarchs together with the Golden-mouth John Chrysostom, who was their intellectual heir.

*Throughout the Funeral Oration, Gregory talks about how Basil did everything in moderation, according to the golden mean, for “everything is best in moderation” (pan metron ariston). This is the same reasoning that underpins the “circle of love”, which is inspired by St Gregory’s circle of virtue: “[Christ] gives life to the whole circle of the virtues, which are gently commingled and intermixed with each other by the Law of Love (philia) and Order.” 


Next time we will explore the greatest possible form of friendship, the friendship that Christ Himself offers to us at the Mystical Supper: divine philia. As always, we thank you for taking this journey with us. 

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