Many ‘Mates’ but Few Friends? Guidance from Early Church Father, Augustine of Hippo



In his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (†430) has much to say about human relationships. I have been gleaning some of his insights on heart-friendship.

Broken-hearted at the death of a childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief.

[It was a joy to him] to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [which are expressed] in the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.

Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today’s “soap opera” model of friendship. To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine’s circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Fun, arguments, horseplay, kindness – surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don’t even realise when they’re being sold short!

Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.

It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.

“Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young.” The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius “the brother of my heart” and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.

Nebridius, “a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom.” Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: “Together we sighed and together we wavered.” Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. “He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face.”

Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship – the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns ‘chums’ into true heart-friends.


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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

11 responses to “Many ‘Mates’ but Few Friends? Guidance from Early Church Father, Augustine of Hippo”

  1. Trevor Saxby says :

    Yes – so long as you don't click on it and enlarge it! 😉

  2. n0rma1 says :

    Ha! What a photo!

  3. Timothy Chappell says :

    and i did.. richard is scary!

  4. Trevor Saxby says :

    Hey guys, what about the article itself??

  5. Jules says :

    I never found this deeper level of friendship at school or university. I have only ever found it in the church brotherhod and what a relief and release it was/is… to be known, really known, my weaknesses, my fears, my secrets … I find the people who know these things about me also love and esteem me the most of all my friends. I like to ask their opinion about me, my life … i can count on an honest answer – and one I can really trust…

    Perhaps it was the reality of Augustine's relationships with his friends that made him the great man he was … shaping him, supporitng him, keeping him on track and enabling him to be a visionary and mover

  6. Trevor Saxby says :

    Ah, the sensible, hearty stuff that I have come to expect from you, Jules. I find it interesting how plenty of people today will look back with wistful fondness at their student days in shared digs, or their army days in the barracks, as one of the happiest times in their life. It was their taste of a kind of community brotherhood. Augustine (and you, Jules) would see the this as still lacking, but I believe we need to connect with those memories / longings in people and point them to the deeper possibilities of heart-brotherhood, of knowing and being known.

    • jafatherheart says :

      Hi Trevor,
      I meet regularly, most outreach days in London & even in Community people who are longing for deeper heartfelt relationship.
      That has connected with something in me especially currently being involved in light/Life groups.
      I would be interested in you pointing me to other related posts that you have found rich & helpful so i can learn more of this interesting topic for myself & people I meet.

      • sch0larly says :

        I’m sorry for being slow to reply to this. I must, I fear, also disappoint you. My path to this subject was only through the historical texts I cite in my posts. I didn’t set out to look at outworkings today, so I didn’t research any contemporary material, groups, etc.

  7. John Vagabond says :

    I have nothing sensible, or even hearty to contribute, except to suggest as many have that A might have been going through a bisexual phase, if the literature is reliable and the slope may be rather a slippery one. My experience of a deep heart brotherhood is that it can all too frequently become tainted; some I know were ruined emotionally by their community experience (not, I have to say, with you guys). This says more about me, I suppose, than it does about Augustine.

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      Thank you, as ever, for your frank and helpful comments, John. It’s hard to know, of course. What do we make of the language of Aelred’s “On Friendship”? One danger is the retro-projection of 19th century sexual psychology. The other is the squeaky cleanness of much hagiography.

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