The Virtue of Friendship as the Basis of Society

David and JonathanAccording to Melanchthon, man does not really need to create a reason for friendship. It is the fulfillment of a natural inclination to be social. The Epicurean idea of friendship, that two people merely come together out of necessity or utility, is seen as a minimalist perspective. The fulfillment of utility arises from virtue and not vice versa, just as good actions proceed from good character. “Friendship” for Melanchthon is a “form of justice in which benevolence is given for benevolence.” In his Epitome ethices Melanchthon speaks of the final cause, the raison d’etre, of this friendship:

The Final Cause [of friendship] is first of all the very dignity of virtue. For friendship is to be sought and cultivated for the sake of virtue even if no usefulness follows from it. For the mind judges that man was made for this society and it is a worthy virtue for man to cultivate these bonds of mutual goodwill. And many sufficiently clear judgments have been impressed upon human nature to show that friendships are to be cultivated not for their utility but on account of virtue, which is why nature teaches us these duties. For parents are moved to love their children not by utility but by the decision and inclination of nature. And the force of love shows itself the most when calamities happen to children, when parents can get neither utility nor pleasure from them. This emotion is called parental love. And it is praised not only in the books of the philosophers but even in sacred literature, Rom. 12. Thus just as we may be led in this form by a judgment o nature to friendship, so in other matters nature ought to be stronger than the thought of utility. For it is stronger than the judgment of nature and preservation stronger than utility, when we are led by nature to society even though no usefulness comes from it. And the end of friendship is domestic union and mutual need. (Epitome ethices, LII.)

Medieval ParisJust as friendship is a virtue and is sought for virtue, so society is based upon virtue. The state did not arise merely due to the human survival instinct, nor some abstract social contract, but primarily due to man’s natural inclination toward the preservation and perfection of self, family, and society on his journey toward the Good. Melanchthon confirms:

And there is in a man a certain friendship toward the state, not for personal utility but on account of virtue, to the extend that he would not hesitate to go to his death for the state if it were necessary. And as they sense, not just Christian literature teaches, but even the law of nature itself so states, that God is angered by those who do not love the state and do not defend it. And the human mind understands by this that God is to be obeyed even if not benefits follow. And so Plato said that there is a certain quality which must be cultivated since God sets these beneficences down to be defended, which are all contained in the word “fatherland”, and they are truly divine things, namely religions, laws, the propagation of citizens [Laws 5, 740a]. Since friendship is a virtue, it should be sought along with the other virtues rather than because of its utility. And this is easy for Christians to judge, who know that these duties are to be distributed by the will of God rather than according to their benefit. (ibid.).

What the pagans found difficult to find, yet eventually did find, the Christian has been given – the knowledge of the virtue of friendship and the will of God that mankind come together for the sake of one another, rather than pursue acquaintance for mere utility. Thus the City of Man is just as natural as it is inspired by the supernatural. The Polis contains “divine things” in its religion and laws, and it protects its citizens with the parental care for which nature is in longing. For that reason the state demands and deserves that age-old title of “fatherland.”