Augustine and the Trials of Fallen Friendship

Praises of friendship abounded in the ancient world. Two of the most well-known were Cicero’s On Friendship and books 8 and 9 of Aristotle’s Ethics, works that praised friendship as necessary to the good life and to developing virtue. Both shared the conviction that virtue was the root and source of friendship and that without virtue there could be no true friendship.

Although they generally held that friendships among “bad” people were not “true” friendships, these classical authors failed to examine in any depth were the evils to which friendship could lead. And why would they? It was obvious to them that friendship was a good thing. And it is. But what St. Augustine discerned more perceptively than his classical predecessors (and from his own experiences) were the ways in which we fallen creatures can take the good things of creation (things like education and learning and great rhetorical skill and even friendship) and make of them something hellish, something contrary to human flourishing.    

One of the most famous of Augustine’s stories about the dangers of fallen friendship is his account in book 2 of the Confessions of the time he and some friends stole pears from his neighbor’s pear tree. What especially troubled him in retrospect about what might have seemed a relatively harmless bit of adolescent tomfoolery was that there was no reason for what they did. They did not really want the fruit. It was not especially beautiful or delicious. And they ended up throwing the pears to the hogs. It was simply an act of senseless cruelty.

What he also realizes, upon reflection, moreover, is that he would not have done it if he had not been with these “friends.” “By myself alone,” he writes, “I would not have done it . . . I loved it then because of the companionship of my accomplices with whom I did it. I did not, therefore, love the theft alone—yet, indeed, it was only the theft that I loved, for the companionship was nothing.” It was not enough merely to be with these friends; the companionship alone was not enough. The theft was an essential element, although the theft too was nothing. The pleasure he got, he says, “was not from the pears, it was in the crime . . . enhanced by the companionship of my fellow sinners” (Conf. 2.8.16).

“By what passion, then, was I animated?” he asks.

We laughed because our hearts were tickled at the thought of deceiving the owners, who had no idea of what we were doing and would have strenuously objected. Yet, again, why did I find such delight in doing this which I would not have done alone? … My pleasure in it was not what I stole but, rather, the act of stealing. Nor would I have enjoyed doing it alone—indeed I would not have done it! O friendship all unfriendly! You strange seducer of the soul, who hungers for mischief from impulses of mirth and wantonness, who craves another’s loss without any desire for one’s own profit or revenge—so that, when they say, “Let’s go, let’s do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless (Conf. 2.9.17).

Who among us has not felt that pull of “let’s go; let’s do it”? Is it not one of the paradoxes of our fallen nature that the same supportive force that can make us bold in defense of the good can also make us daring enough to commit such senseless acts of cruelty?

When Augustine stole the pears, he had been on leave from school because of a downturn in his father’s finances. Eventually, he returned to Carthage to finish his studies, and there he lived with “a sort of ashamed embarrassment,” he tells us, with a group of young men who called themselves “The Wreckers”—a “stupid and diabolical name,” says Augustine, “which they regarded as the very badge of gallantry.” Their “wrecking,” says Augustine, involved “insolently attacking the modesty of strangers, tormenting them by uncalled-for jeers, gratifying their mischievous mirth.” In short, they were the fourth century equivalent of college frat boys who amused themselves by sexually harassing (“attacking the modesty of”) young women and jeering at innocent passers-by (cf. Conf. 3.3.36).  

Although Augustine says he lived with these arrogant little monsters with a “sort of ashamed embarrassment,” he also admits that he was at times “delighted with their friendship,” even when he “abhorred their acts.” Augustine was the frat boy who, although he would not himself go out hazing people, still did not have the courage or character to challenge his frat brothers to stop. He was that kid who, when asked by his father, “Do you like those jerks? Do you know what they do?”—says: “Look, I don’t like what they do. I think it’s wrong. But, you know, they’re my friends” The whole thing was pathetic, and yet entirely familiar.

During these years in Carthage, Augustine did three other things not uncharacteristic of college students—things that affected the rest of his life. First, he read one of the “great books,”—Cicero’s Hortensius—and it filled him with an idealistic desire for the truth. Second, he decided to be “more spiritual” and joined a gnostic sect known as the Manichees. Third, he got his girlfriend pregnant. What he did then was not so characteristic: he continued to nurture that yearning for the truth; he stuck with the Manichees for over twelve years; and he refused to abandon his girlfriend and their child, even though, when he returned home from Carthage and his mother discovered that he was professing Manicheanism, she kicked him out of the house. It is not clear she liked the girl that much either.

During this time, Augustine “gained a very dear friend” about his own age who shared the same studies and interests. Their friendship was, Augustine tells us, “sweeter to me than all the sweetness of my life thus far.” Because they were friends, Augustine was able to “turn him away from the true faith” and “turn him toward those superstitious and harmful fables which my mother mourned in me” (namely, Manicheanism) so that, “With me, this man went wandering off in error and my soul could not exist without him” (Conf. 4.4.7).

After a year, this friend, whom Augustine never names, took ill and was near death, so his family had him baptized. Augustine scoffed at this religious claptrap and assumed his friend would do so as well. But when his friend recovered, and Augustine tried to joke with him about it, he was shocked to find that his friend had a different attitude. “Immediately, as soon as I could talk to him,” writes Augustine:

And I did this as soon as he was able, for I never left him and we hung on each other overmuch—I tried to jest with him, supposing that he also would jest in return about that baptism which he had received when his mind and senses were inactive, but which he had since learned that he had received. But he recoiled from me, as if I were his enemy, and, with a remarkable and unexpected freedom, he admonished me that, if I desired to continue as his friend, I must cease to say such things” (Conf. 4.4.7).

Note the “remarkable and unexpected freedom” (mirabili et repentina libertate)—from his “friend” Augustine! Augustine assumed that, in time, his friend would be back to normal, enough to “allow me to deal with him as I wished” (a revealing admission). But this never happened because, a few days later, the young man died.

Augustine was disconsolate. He had lost his first close friend, and he did not know what to do with his grief:

My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I saw death. My native place was a torture room to me . . . And all the things I had done with him—now that he was gone—became a frightful torment. My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not say to me, “Look, he is coming,” as they did when he was alive and absent (Conf. 4.4.9).

Christians advise people to “love one another,” to get involved with others and “make friends.” It sounds nice, but as the Stoics understood, this could be very bad advice. If you allow yourself to get close to people, when they die, this causes tremendous pain and suffering as terrible as anything we experience in life. To relish friendship as though it will last forever and satisfy us completely is to live in an illusion and court a painful correction. “I was wretched,” writes Augustine; “and every soul is wretched that is fettered in the friendship of mortal things—it is torn to pieces when it loses them, and then realizes the misery which it had even before it lost them” (Conf. 4.6.11). “O madness that knows not how to love men as they should be loved!” (Conf. 4.7.12).

How should friends be loved? Augustine came to realize that they should be loved as God’s, not “ours”—as fellow pilgrims on a journey, together for a time, but who cannot, precisely because of our love, hang onto our beloved companions and keep them from getting on and attaining their end. And when they do attain that end, we should be happy for them, understanding that they are still united to us in the shared love of God—a love so great that it can overcome even sin and death. But without God, without the God who died and rose from the dead and lives now at the right hand of the Father in the union of the Spirit, friends are simply dead and gone forever.

It is not unimportant, therefore, what view of God you hold. “When my soul left off weeping, a heavy burden of misery weighed me down,” writes Augustine,

It should have been raised up to thee, O Lord, for thee to lighten and to lift. This … I was neither willing nor able to do; especially since, in my thoughts of thee, thou wast not thyself but only an empty fantasm. Thus my error was my god. If I tried to cast off my burden on this fantasm, that it might find rest there, it sank through the vacuum and came rushing down again upon me (Conf. 4.7.12).

One’s view of God may be congenial when things are going well and yet largely inadequate when one is facing the fundamental challenges that suffering and death pose to our sense of meaning and well-being. The large, “cosmic” questions of meaning that can seem too “abstract” and “distant” in normal times will become very concrete and immediate when crisis threatens. Will the comfortable, distant, non-demanding God be adequate to shed light on the deep questions of meaning in such times of darkness? So unbearable was Augustine’s grief, so incapable was he of bearing this burden, that it caused him to flee his hometown and return to Carthage.

Like all created things, friends are good, but incomplete. They are finite, and we have been created for an infinite good, and only it can fulfill us. To expect that created things, even friends, can fulfill us in ways that only God can is to expect more than they can give and to miss the good they can be. Like all created things, friends are meant to point us toward the God who created, redeemed, and sustains us. Our perseverance in truth, goodness, and love depends upon this. Without these, we become useless, and perhaps worse than useless, to those we call “friends.”

Which brings us to another question. How good a friend was Augustine? He was using his friendship with others to seduce them away from the faith and into a life of illusion and arrogant worldliness. And not merely this one nameless young man. There are also his other, more famous friends whose names we know: Alypius, Nebridius, and Romanianus. Augustine was clearly the intellectual ring-leader of the group, and he led them all into the errors of Manicheanism, before later leading them back out.

Friendships can be complicated. Alypius, for example, had become addicted to the gladiatorial games the way some modern young people become addicted to porn. He did not want anything to do with it at first, but some of his other “friends” insisted he come with them, and once he had seen it, he could not stop. One day, when he stopped by Augustine’s class, Augustine, quite by accident, made a comment about the gladiatorial games, adding “a biting gibe at those whom that madness had enthralled.” Alypius assumed Augustine was referring to him, which he was not, but instead of being offended, he was corrected.

For after that speech Alypius rushed up out of that deep pit into which he had willfully plunged and in which he had been blinded by its miserable pleasures. And he roused his mind with a resolve to moderation. When he had done this, all the filth of the gladiatorial pleasures dropped away from him, and he went to them no more (Conf. 6.7.12).

Augustine clearly had no real understanding of, nor did he take seriously enough, the influence he yielded over his friends.

But this was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, so great was Alypius’s regard for his friend that a simple comment from Augustine was enough to cause him to stop attending the death-dealing games. And yet this same influence had another, less beneficial effect:

Alypius began again to hear my lectures and became involved with me in the same superstition, loving in the Manicheans that outward display of ascetic discipline which he believed was true and unfeigned. It was, however, a senseless and seducing continence, which ensnared precious souls who were not able as yet to reach the height of true virtue, and who were easily beguiled with the veneer of what was only a shadowy and feigned virtue” (Conf. 6.7.12).

“Beguiled,” that is, by men of “feigned virtue,” not true virtue, like that of his “friend” Augustine.

The happier ending of this story is that, later on, Alypius had an important influence on Augustine when both of them converted to Christianity. He was with Augustine, in fact, in the famous garden scene when Augustine heard the child’s voice singing “Take up and read.” Friends are being true friends and doing what they were made for when they lead each other to God.

In this vein, another of Augustine’s friends, not mentioned in the Confessions, was Marcianus, a friend from his youth who later in his life became a Christian. When Augustine, by then a bishop, found out about Marcianus’s conversion, he wrote him a letter in which he reflected on the nature of friendship. Since friendship is our theme, allow me to quote it at some length. I “write to you, my oldest friend,” he says,

Although I did not have you as a friend so long as I did not possess you in Christ. You know, of course, how friendship was defined by Tully [Cicero]... "Friendship is the agreement on things human and divine, joined with kindliness and love." You used to agree with me at one time, my dear friend, on things human, when I coveted the enjoyment of them as people commonly do, and you sailed with me on a favoring wind to the pursuit of things of which I am now ashamed, or, rather, along with the rest of my admirers of that time . . .

. . . I hope you will not be offended . . . that at a time when I was passionately attached to the vanities of this world, although you seemed deeply devoted to me, you were not yet my friend, for then I was not even a friend to myself, but an enemy . . .

. . . Thanks be to the Lord, therefore, that He has been so good as to make you at last a friend to me! For now there is between us an “agreement on things human and divine joined with kindliness and love” in Christ Jesus our Lord, who is our truest peace (Epistle 258).

This is a beautiful and profound vision of what friendship can be. As one commentator has suggested: “This was Augustine’s definition of true friendship: namely, that we are united to one another as friends through our union with Christ.” We could end here, having made this nice progression from false friendships and friendships that lead to evil up to the true friendships we have in Christ. But if we did, we would be missing something important. Because things are not always quite so simple and straightforward, as Augustine was to discover when he tried to strike up a “Christian friendship” with the great St. Jerome.

Augustine first wrote Jerome in 394, believing, it seems, that Jerome, as a fellow Christian and scholar would be eager to engage with him on questions of biblical interpretation. This was a bit naïve. Augustine’s first letter to Jerome, Letter 28, began with gracious words about Jerome and his renown as a biblical scholar. But then, in a remarkably undiplomatic turn, he told Jerome that he saw no value in Jerome’s project of translating the Scriptures from the Hebrew and that his time would be better spent elsewhere. He then spends three full paragraphs objecting to Jerome’s interpretation of Galatians 2.

What was he thinking? Augustine writing to Jerome in this way would be like me writing to Alasdair MacIntyre and after praising him for being a great philosopher, proposing that he should spend less on time on Aristotle and criticizing his interpretation of Jane Austen. Not smart. Did he imagine that, as fellow Christians, they had both “passed beyond” all onslaughts of pride and self-importance; that they would both be capable of a completely humble search for the truth; that the complexities of human communication between fallen creatures in a fallen world would no longer betray even their best intentions? Augustine was indulging another illusion about friendship, and he would be receiving another painful correction.

Now it turns out the man who was supposed to carry this letter to Jerome never delivered it. Not only did he stop in Rome and not continue on to Bethlehem as planned, worse yet, he let others see the letter so that sometime later Jerome heard rumors that Augustine had written a “book” against him and was circulating it in Rome.

Shortly thereafter, Jerome wrote Augustine a nice letter of greeting without answering any of Augustine’s questions, evidence that he never received Letter 28 or that, as Prof. MacIntyre would be likely to do with me if I had written him the stupid letter I described above, Jerome simply did not deign to reply to silly questions from people with more brio than brains.

Augustine wrote again several years later, Letter 40, repeating his questions. Jerome did not reply. In 402, Augustine wrote Letter 67, still wanting answers to his questions but also mentioning that he has heard a disturbing report, namely that people have been telling Jerome that he, Augustine, has written a “book” against him and sent it to Rome. This is not true, he assures him.

At this point, Jerome finally wrote back, and in Letter 68, he let Augustine have it. It is “puerile self-sufficiency to seek, as young men have of old been wont to do, to gain glory to one’s own name by assailing men who have become renowned,” he writes. Augustine’s clever allusions to classical literature in his letters meant to impress Jerome have merely convinced Jerome that Augustine was trying to put on airs. So Jerome barrages him with allusions of his own, climaxing with this: “With your leave, and without intending any disrespect, lest it should seem that to quote from the poets is a thing which you alone can do, let me remind you of the encounter between Dares and Entellus.” This was a reference to the funeral games for Priam in the fifth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, during which the older Entellus, long past his prime, challenges the younger Dares, at the peak of his powers, to a boxing match. Entellus falls but finally defeats his younger opponent, so that Dares must be carried from the ring by his friends, spitting forth torrents of teeth mixed with blood. 

Augustine likely did not receive this letter before sending off another of his own, (Letter 71), with copies of Letters 28 and 40, which he says he now fears never reached Jerome. Augustine, still not quite “getting it,” says that while he admires Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures into Latin, he still thinks Jerome would do far greater service to the Church if he dropped his project of translating from the Hebrew and worked instead from the Septuagint, which, after all, was the version used by the Apostles. (Did he imagine Jerome was unaware of this fact or this argument?)

Jerome replied later that year with Letter 72. Augustine’s original letter, he says (Letter 28), has been everywhere, it seems, except him, and people are talking. He suspects that Augustine has engineered the whole affair to vaunt his own learning at Jerome’s expense: “that everybody might know that you challenged me, and I feared to meet you; that you had written as a man of learning, and I had by silence confessed my ignorance; that I had at last found one who knew how to stop my garrulous tongue.” He is angry, and he lets Augustine know it in no uncertain terms with a whole litany of classical literary allusions, finishing with this: “Farewell, my very dear friend, my son in years but my father in ecclesiastical dignity. And to this I most particularly draw your attention: that henceforth you make sure that I be the first to receive whatever you may write to me.”

Augustine’s reply to this barrage (Letter 73), is as one commentator has written, “a revelation of the measure of the man, evidence, if more were needed, to support” why we call him “Saint” Augustine. Allow me to provide several illustrative passages:

I am only offended that you would think I am such a man as would be offended by your reply . . . I therefore entreat you by the mercy of Christ to forgive me wherein I have injured you, and not to render evil for evil by injuring me in return. For it will be an injury to me if you pass over in silence anything which you find wrong in either word or action of mine . . .

. . . I think, moreover, that your reason for being displeased with me can only be, that I have either said what I ought not, or have not expressed myself in the manner in which I ought: for I do not wonder that we are less thoroughly known to each other than we are to our most close and intimate friends. Upon the love of such friends I readily cast myself without reservation, especially when chafed and wearied by the scandals of this world; and in their love I rest without any disturbing care: for I perceive that God is there, on whom I confidingly cast myself, and in whom I confidingly rest.

Jerome likely did not read this letter before he penned Letter 75, a long, angry tome, which concludes:

Refrain from stirring up against me the unlearned crowd who esteem you as their bishop, and regard with the respect due the priestly office the orations which you deliver in the church, but who esteem lightly an old decrepit man like me, courting the retirement of a monastery far from the busy haunts of men; and seek others who may be more fitly instructed or corrected by you . . .

Poor Jerome just could not let this go. He would have known as well as anyone the vagaries of the ersatz postal service of the day. It was a wonder that letters ever arrived at their intended destination. Indeed, given such complex circumstances, the chances for miscommunication and misunderstanding were legion. And yet, even knowing the difficulties of living in a fallen world, in which misunderstandings abound and intentions are difficult to gauge, he continued to let his wounded pride speak rather than give way to a charitable interpretation of convoluted events.

Shortly thereafter, however, Jerome seems to have finally gotten Augustine’s conciliatory Letter 73, so he sent a short reply (Letter 81) which is as close to an apology as Jerome will get.

Having anxiously inquired of our holy brother Firmus regarding your state, I was glad to hear that you are well . . . I therefore send to you my respectful salutations through this brother, who clings to you with a singular warmth of affection; and at the same time, in regard to my last letter, I beg you to forgive the modesty which made it impossible for me to refuse you, when you had so long required me to write you in reply. That letter, moreover, was not an answer from me to you, but a confronting of my arguments with yours. And if it was a fault in me to send a reply (I beseech you hear me patiently), the fault of him who insisted upon it was still greater.

Augustine replied with Letter 82. It too is very beautiful, like his conciliatory Letter 73, and importantly edifying in its own right, so allow me to quote from it at some length. “You have indeed yourself done towards me this very thing—becoming to me as I am,” writes Augustine to Jerome,

Not with the subtlety of deception, but with the love of compassion, when you thought that it behooved you to take as much pains to prevent me from being left in a mistake, in which you believed me to be, as you would have wished another to take for your deliverance if the case had been your own. Wherefore, gratefully acknowledging this evidence of your goodwill towards me, I also claim that you also be not displeased with me, if, when anything in your treatises disquieted me, I acquainted you with my distress, desiring the same course to be followed by all towards me as I have followed towards you, that whatever they think worthy of censure in my writings, they would neither flatter me with deceitful commendation nor blame me before others for that of which they are silent towards myself . . .

. . . Wherefore let us rather do our utmost to set before our beloved friends, who most cordially wish us well in our labors, such an example that they may know that it is possible for the most intimate friends to differ so much in opinion, that the views of the one may be contradicted by the other without any diminution of their mutual affection and without hatred being kindled by that truth which is due to genuine friendship.

In an age such as ours in which partisan purity is taken as a badge of honor and compromise has become a dirty word, when the virtues necessary for dialogue have been replaced by the vices of angry accusation, Augustine’s words and letters should serve as a reminder of what true Christian friendship should be. They should also remind us how difficult it remains for us in our fallen state, Christian or not, to be the true friends we are meant to be.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was delivered as an address at the 2019 ND de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture annual Fall Conference

Featured Image: Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Randall B. Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Endowed Professor of Moral Theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He is the author of two books: Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide and a forthcoming volume tentatively entitled Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Pedagogy of Preaching and Prologues at the University of Paris.

Read more by Randall B. Smith