In recent months, as I prepared to join the University of Dallas as its new president, my wife, Stacey, and I had the pleasure of meeting many students. During one reception, something struck me. Students almost never approached us individually; instead they came in groups, groups of friends spanning different majors and experiences: English majors with physics majors; art history majors with business majors; athletes with nonathletes, a Muslim student with her Catholic friends, and on and on.
I couldn't help but think, as I watched them come and go, about the conditions we create as people for rich and enduring friendships. This is not to dismiss the practical outcome of an undergraduate education. Getting accepted into graduate school, going on to start a successful career and participate deeply in society — these are appropriate goals for college students. But, as a recent Wall Street Journal article indicates, what matters for long-term success and happiness is not where students go to school or even particularly what their major is, but their level of engagement, inside and outside the classroom. If the conditions are right, such high-level engagement for groups of students will naturally generate friendships.
Friendship, Aristotle writes in the Ethics, is both noble and useful. "No one," he says decisively, "would choose to live without friends." In the ancient world and into the Catholic Middle Ages in Europe, friendship was central to reflections on the purpose of human life. It is telling that in Aristotle's Ethics, two of the 10 books focus on friendship, a topic that receives at best negligible attention in contemporary ethics texts. Modern ethics is largely about rule-following, about determining what we ought to do and how we should respond in specific cases of moral perplexity. Pre-modern ethics, by contrast, focuses on virtues of character, on the shape of one's whole life, and on what activities are intrinsically desirable.
Friendship is one of the chief examples of such intrinsically desirable activity. While friendships can be useful and conducive to many good things, it is a mark of true friendship that we enjoy spending time with our friends no matter what else we get out of it. Friendship continues to matter a great deal to us, even if we struggle to say why or fail ever to consider the fact of its mattering.
In this, we suffer from what the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor calls "inarticulacy" — from an impoverished vocabulary, from an atrophying of the moral imagination, and from habits of distraction that lead us not to notice our lack. Yet the impact is clear. Surveys show that while most people in the early 1960s claimed to have just above three good friends, that number has now slipped to beneath two. In fact, Britain recently declared loneliness a public health hazard. Even more alarming is the spike in civic hatred. In the 1980s, under 15% of citizens said that they hated members of the opposite political party; that number now stands at just under 50%. That's a shocking decline in civic friendship, the amity and trust across various types of divisions necessary for a society to flourish.
In a university like ours, where students study common texts and where those texts address the persistent and defining questions of life, there exists a powerful foundation for building the bonds that lead to lasting friendship. Moreover, students are introduced to practices of civil discourse, which, if implemented in public life, would increase the prospects of civic friendship.
Now, in both deep personal friendships and in civic friendship, there is present what Aristotle lists as defining features of full friendship: namely, reciprocity and equality. Aristotle poses the question: Is it more of the nature of friendship to be loved or to love? He responds that the activity of loving rather than receiving love goes more to the heart of friendship. One has the sense — and not just here — that Aristotle is on the cusp of insights that exceed the boundaries of his own philosophy.
Thomas Aquinas would detect in these remarks a truth deeper than what Aristotle could fathom. When he discusses the nature of charity, he states that it is analogous to friendship. This is a bold claim, backed up by the scriptural passage in which Jesus proclaims, "I no longer call you servants but friends." The assertion that friendship is possible between such vastly unequal beings as the Creator and a human creature is an astonishing one. In loving us, God enables us to love him.
Within this wondrous love, we find fulfillment that is the promise of the communion of friendship. It is a gift too precious to lose sight of and that I was pleased to be reminded of in the little groups that gathered toward me.
Thomas S. Hibbs is president of the University of Dallas.