John Lilburne's journal about Aquinas and Aelred on friendship.



About John Lilburne







1438 L Sat 22 Dec 2001

[Here is an essay that I received a mark of only 50% for by the first assessor. I failed the subject so it was reassessed, the second marker giving it 35%. On that basis its the worst essay I have written during the Theology degree. I have not yet seen the comments, but I expect too much quoting and too little on Aquinas. Probably it was an adventurous topic for me to choose for a philosophy essay. There were 24 footnotes which I will not include.]

AP 325 Essay of 2500 words, due 2 October 2001, by John Lilburne.
Compare the views of TWO medieval philosophers on ONE of the following topics: ...
Philosophers chosen: Aelred of Rievaulx and Thomas Aquinas.
Topic chosen: friendship.

Friendship is an important issue in both philosophy and the Bible. It is a natural part of life, receiving widespread approval. However it also raises important ethical issues. In about the year 1143, Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 - 1167) wrote Speculum Caritatis - The Mirror of Charity.1 His writings on friendship are compared with those of Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274).

Most of the manuscripts of Speculum Caritatis are prefaced by a letter of Saint Bernard, which includes: "... I command you to write down without delay what your own meditations have taught you about the excellence of charity, the fruits of charity and everything that charity involves. ... what charity is, how its possession brings delight, and how its contrary vice, cupidity, imposes nothing but tyranny. Your book will show how false it is to think that charity is lessened by a life of austerity, and that in fact austerity increases charity...".2

Aelred accepted the task and explained how he intended the work to have three parts: "The first part aims to prove the excellence of charity from the fact of its own innate dignity, and from the baseness of cupidity which is its contrary vice. The second part provides answers to some stupid objections (against the monastic life) and the third explains how charity is to be manifested and exercised."3

What may these "stupid objections (against the monastic life)" have been? Some of the monastic practices may seem to oppose love, charity and friendship. For example in the Rule of Saint Benedict, in Chapter 2 "The Qualities of the Abbot" has: "The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery. He is not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience. ... Only in this are we distinguished in his sight: if we are found better in good works and in humility. Therefore, the abbot is to show equal love to everyone and apply the same discipline to all according to their merits."4

On the one hand the Abbot is to show "equal love to everyone". But on the other hand the merits of individuals are to be taken into account. These can only become known by a process of getting to know people, which would seem to involve friendship.

Aelred reflects these concerns about friendship in the first part, for example Chapter 19 is entitled "The instability of worldly friendships". It begins: "To some people it seems that perfect peace and stability are to be found in loving and being loved, and there is no denying this on condition that the love is rooted in God and is for God's sake. For such a love is important and is to be encouraged. But friendships based only worldly values or rooted in lust give rise to nothing but envy, suspicion and jealousy ....".5

In the next chapter, "The perfection and pre-eminence of charity" he describes the perfection of "freedom from the violent surgings of passion, from the smouldering flames of lust, and from the allurements that beset us on every side." He sees a way to "come close to sharing the tranquil rest of God .... when friend and enemy share the same measure of our consideration."6

At the beginning of Part 2, Aelred describes a change in his planned approach: "However, the death of my friend Simon came as an interruption to the work that I had in hand, and since it has taken me a little time to recover from the loss of so great a friend, it seems best for me to begin this again with a slightly different consideration ...".7

Chapter 15, has the title "Conversation with a novice". Here Aelred recounts a discussion with a novice he used to have "who came to me one day and asked me why it was that he had received in his previous worldly condition much more spiritual consolation - both of compution and of the extreme feeling of God's love - than he had in the monastery".8
Differences between his monastic life and before are explained: "I would never, for instance, have spent a whole day in absolute silence ... I used to spend my whole life just chattering about this and that. ... my usual amusements, the company of friends and relatives, eating too much, drinking to much ...". He describes the contrast of his hard working life as a novice: "... I am allowed to speak with three people only - and even that is very seldom."9 Hence it is not surprising that: "We never quarrel, for instance. We are never angry with one another, never have the poor coming to complain that we are defrauding them of their rights. We never get involved in litigation of any sort, and there is peace everywhere here, silence and calm. We are completely free from the tumult of the world."10

This approach of limited human contact, while reducing arguments hardly seems to promote friendship. The tensions in community life are also evident from some of Aelred's discussions of choirs in Chapter 21: "We hear monks doing all sorts of ridiculous things with their voices, plaguing us with womanism falsettos, spavined bleating and tremolos. ... And they honestly do this in the name of religion, for they think that they are giving God a greater honour than if they sang without all this fuss. The simple folk who hear them may well be impressed by the organ music, but they cannot help laughing as they see such a ridiculous show going on in the choir. They are in fact more likely to think that they are watching a stage play than praying in church."11

Other concerns, regarding friendship, are expressed in Chapter 24 "The desire for power". He describes problems this causes: "Its first effect is to make us servile towards those who we think will help us to realize our own schemes. With no heed for the truth we will praise the things they praise, and blame the things they blame. We will be jealous of others who come nearer than us to the familiar friendship of those in power ..."12
He describes the turn around that occurs: "when we know that our hope is lost, we change altogether in our manner towards those whose favour we once went to such pains to acquire. We have nothing good to say about them now, nothing but contradictions, insults and malicious suggestions to offer." He hopes for better in religious communitiies: "All societies should, ideally, be ruled by those who can obey rules, and who are themselves humble, quiet and reasonable. But in fact it only too often happens that those most ill-suited to govern are put in positions of power simply to keep them quiet, and to stop them getting completely out of hand - a lamentable state of affairs!"13

In Part 3 Aelred considers three loves - of God, of self and of fellow man. "We cannot have one unless we have all three, and if we lose one we lose them all."14 However "The two lesser loves precede the one of which it is written: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with they whole heart and with thy whole mind and with thy whole soul."15

Aelred describes "six different sorts and conditions of men towards which we must exercise the condition of love":
(1) Family, particularly parents.
(2) "our friends and those to whom we are connected through ties of duty"
(3) Christians
(4 & 5) "they who stand outside Holy Church, Jews and Gentiles, the heretics and schismatics ... for whose comfort and conversion we must pray"
(6) "Love your enemies", Our Lord said.16

In Chapter 17 Aelred writes: "reason commands that we do good to our friends, not only because we are commanded to do so, nor because it comes naturally to us to do so, but because they have a right to expect it of us if we are real friends. We love our enemy for the simple reason that God commands us to."17

This hierarchy of love is developed in the next chapter: "If one thing is to be love more than another, we should not love it less than the other. Let us imagine two different men. One has great virtues and does good to all men, but his look is severe and forbidding, and people do not find him attractive. The other man by contrast is very attractive, full of gentlness and charm. He may not be as virtuous as the other man, but he is a good man for all that. We find no difficulty in loving him because our natural inclination is attracted to him. ... as long as we find ourselves less attracted to the better man, we cannot help feeling that something is wrong. We realize that we are loving one less and the other more than he deserves."18

In Chapter 23, friendship is discussed directly: "Friendship is the most potentially dangerous of all our affections. ... What is more consonant with reason, what more worthy, than to repay the kindness done to us by our friends who love us; to be grateful to those who make us presents and to do services and favours to those who ask them of us?"19

He illustrates the problems this can cause: "Do we not find bishops and even abbots whose houses give us an impression of Sodom and Gomorrha when we go in? There they have about them a host of young relatives, whose vices they make no attempt to correct, in no wise drawing them away from worldly vanity and pleasure, but even indulging their depraved tastes and paying for them with the price of Christ's blood."20

He also gives an instance of "someone who hears of some holy nun who has gained great repute."21 Through a process of conversation, company, praise and presents: "Reasonable love can thus develop little by little into friendship, with all the usual obligations and acknowledgements. And this friendship can in time change into something really dangerous, if it becomes familiar and tender and sought after for its own sake. ... Friendship can easily degenerate, unfortunately into carnal lust."22

In Chapter 24 Aelred begins with the challenging biblical text of Luke 14:26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (NRSV). He refers to other texts highlighting the importance of loving one another, particularly parents and those of our own house. "What are we to make of this?" Aelred asks. His answer is that there are two loves, that of inclination and that of reason. "It is natural for us to be kindly inclined to ourselves and our families, but we must not let this feeling rule our love, either towards ourselves or our kindred. It is reason which must rule our love."23

In Chapter 34 Aelred uses Noah's ark to illustrate priorities in love and friendship: "We have see what charity lays down for us to do in regard to ourselves and our brethren, and since it is obvious that we cannot go to the help of all our fellow men, we must now consider the order that obtains in this regard. ... Just as Noah had to look after wild beasts, we have to find room in our hearts for those who are out for our blood -- our enemies, that is, who hate us. We can give them our prayers, and any temporal help we can, but only after we have seen to the needs of those more closely connected with us."24

This may seem contary to the life of a monk. But by including it Aelred is highlighting the responsibilities that people have to their families. This would seem to promote an approach of only accepting those who did not need to support families.

Aquinas reaches similar conclusions on friendship to those of Aelred. His approach, however, is to make considerable use of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, particularly Book 8, "Kinds of Friendship". In his commentary on this, Aquinas tends to restate what Aristotle has written. However in the Summa Theologia, this is integrated with biblical texts.

Aquinas considers "Whether Charity is Friendship" (ST 2, 2, 23, 1). There is an objection: "Further, there is no friendship without return of love (Ethic. viii, 2). But charity extends even to one's enemies, according to Mt. 5:44: "Love your enemies." Therefore charity is not friendship." He responds: "Friendship extends to a person in two ways: first in respect of himself, and in this way friendship never extends but to one's friends: secondly, it extends to someone in respect of another, as, when a man has friendship for a certain person, for his sake he loves all belonging to him, be they children, servants, or connected with him in any way. Indeed so much do we love our friends, that for their sake we love all who belong to them, even if they hurt or hate us; so that, in this way, the friendship of charity extends even to our enemies, whom we love out of charity in relation to God, to Whom the friendship of charity is chiefly directed."

Aquinas is similar to Aelred in the combination of love of God and neighbour. In ST 1, 2, 4, 8 he considers whether the fellowship of friends is necessary for happiness. Objection 3 is: "charity is perfected in Happiness. But charity includes the love of God and of our neighbor. Therefore it seems that fellowship of friends is necessary for Happiness." To this he responds: "Perfection of charity is essential to Happiness, as to the love of God, but not as to the love of our neighbor. Wherefore if there were but one soul enjoying God, it would be happy, though having no neighbor to love. But supposing one neighbor to be there, love of him results from perfect love of God. Consequently, friendship is, as it were, concomitant with perfect Happiness."

He also address the question "Whether we ought to love one neighbour more than another?" in ST 2, 2, 26, 6. Here he is similar to Aelred in giving priorities, has he writes in one of his responses: "Our neighbors are not all equally related to God; some are nearer to Him, by reason of their greater goodness, and those we ought, out of charity, to love more than those who are not so near to Him."

Today the Catechism of the Catholic Church has "friendship represents a great good for all" (CCC 2347) while warning "neither desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech" (CCC 2480). This builds on the work of Aelred and Aquinas to promote a rational approach to friendship.


Fry, Timothy . RB1980 The Rule of St. Benedict in English . Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1982.

Powicke, Maurice.The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx . Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.

Webb, Geoffrey and Adrian Walker, The Mirror of Charity, . The Catholic Book Club, London, 1962.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 22 December 2001.