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Brodeur 2 and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases” (1158b 30 - 1159a 5). These are troubling words which Aristotle utters. He seems very insistent that God is so far removed from us in regards to his goodness that he is incapable of being our friend. How could mortal man ever hope to be quantitatively equal with God? Fortunately, Aristotle provides us with a way to postpone this question for a time; he himself acknowledges there is a valid form of friendship which can exist between unequal parties: “That of a father to son and in general of elder to younger … of ruler to subject” (1158b 12-5). In the same way each of these parties maintains friendship with its inferiors, so too it seems that God might be capable of being man’s friend. Aristotle continues: “The friendship of children to parents, and of men to gods, is a relation to them as to something good and superior … this kind of friendship possesses pleasantness and utility also, more than that of strangers, inasmuch as their life is lived more in common” (1162a 4-9). In this passage, Aristotle lays down a very simple yet specific criterion for such a friendship to exist between unequals: they must share their lives with one another more than they would with strangers. They must, at the very least, have that much in common. This begs the question as to whether or not God is capable of sharing his life at all. A brief review of Aristotle’s depiction of God in the Metaphysics helps us to answer the question: “The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God's self-dependant actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God” (1072b 25-9). According to Aristotle, God’s being constitutes life itself, and as a result, he would naturally share life in any relationship he is a part of. Yet could God’s share of life ever be common,
Brodeur 3 possessing more pleasantness and utility than that of strangers? To answer this question, one must further examine the analogous relationship between a monarch and his subjects which Aristotle depicts: “The friendship between a king and his subjects depends on an excess of benefits conferred; for he confers benefits on his subjects if being a good man he cares for them with a view to their well-being, as a shepherd does for his sheep… Such too is the friendship of a father, though this exceeds the other in the greatness of the benefits conferred; for he is responsible for the existence of his children, which is thought the greatest good, and for their nurture and upbringing… Further, by nature a father tends to rule over his sons… a king over his subjects” (1161a 10-17). In such a way as a king confers benefits of excess, so does God confer his superfluous activity to the potential of man. Just as a key is common to its keyhole, God’s activity is familiar to human potential. Just as the shepherd cares for his sheep’s well-being, God’s eternal goodness contains every good which man experiences in his life. Just as the father is responsible for the existence of his children, God’s life is the origin and cause of all other life. Man’s own life, by nature of its existence then, is familiar with God’s life. These same qualities of life, goodness, and activity are assuredly pleasant and useful for man, but what of God? Is God not bound to the necessity of utility and pleasure as well? Surely not, for as a self-dependent being, need would be impossible for him. In such a way, he is still similar to the king: “a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things; and such a man needs nothing further; therefore he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects” (1160b 3-5). Like the king, God is self-sufficient, lacking all need for utility or pleasure, yet still apparently capable of friendship. If God seemingly has
Brodeur 4 no need, how can he seek his own interests? The answer to that question is once again found in the nature of God himself. While he may have no need to be fulfilled in any way, God’s very being is active and creative. He continually moves that which cannot move itself. In this way, God does have an interest, albeit an interest devoid of substantial need. It is an interest in being and in acting, an interest that is necessary to his very nature. That interest is satiated by its impact on other objects, and in a particularly special way by its impact on man. When God’s nature affects a man, the impact is capable of relationship. God’s interest in goodness, activity, and life is reciprocated by man’s own interest in goodness, activity, and life. Out of this semblance of equality comes the framework for friendship with God. To better understand the dynamics of this friendship, it would be worth noting how important Aristotle finds it that friends live together (1166a 3-7). In the case of man’s friendship with God, this act of living together cannot be a physical phenomenon. It must be manifest by closeness in some other dimension of life. In particular, that closeness is achieved to the degree of which man is like God. Because God is perfect and eternal goodness, the greater virtue a man has, the stronger his friendship will be. As equality of virtue displaces and fills out the framework of mutual interest, the closer and more real the friendship can become. How does one begin to obtain such complete virtue? Aristotle asserts that “[Justice] is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbor also” (1129b 30-2). In other words, it is by pursuing justice that a man becomes virtuous. Justice, as an exercise of virtue within the confines of a relationship, is essential not only for maintaining friendship with God but for establishing it as well. If a man remains unjust, without the habit of virtue, he chooses to work against the mutual interest he has in his
Brodeur 5 relationship to God, for each of the mutual interests (life, goodness, and activity) are manifested in virtue. This is consistent with Aristotle’s own thoughts: “Friendship and justice seem, as we have said at the outset of our discussion, to be concerned with the same objects and exhibited between the same persons … The extent of [friends’] association is the extent of their friendship, as it is the extent to which justice exists between them” (1159b 25-6, 9-30). The way God and man associate with one another is founded on mutual interest, and maintained by means of justice, by God being true to his nature, and by man striving to live out perfect justice in his relationship to God. Like a faithful subject, the man is just when he both understands and operates well in obedience to his superior, and like the king, God is just when he is true to his nature, when he acts as king, shepherd, and father to the man. Can God be our friend? Yes, he can, but it will take effort on the part of the man. It requires him to bridge the distance between eternity and temporality with the virtue which is alike to God’s own nature. According to Aristotle, this can only be achieved by means of justice in the habit of complete virtue. He must stand firm; firm against the challenges and fleeting pleasures of this world, ever being refined and polished so as to become ever more and more like the one whom he dares to approach in friendship: God himself.
Brodeur 6 Works Cited McKeon, Richard, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1941.
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