In Search of Deep Relationships: St Augustine on Friendship, Sex and Codependency
In his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has much to say about human relationships. I have been gleaning some of his insights on true 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, [expressed] in the countenance, speech, 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. Affection, 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.
What makes Augustine so readable on this subject is the sheer humanity and honesty of his approach. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life, where “the madness of lust” made him live “a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving”.
His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various forms of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be ‘the real thing’, but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong ‘cousins’. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).
In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. “I loved the idea of love”, he writes, “but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire.” The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his commitment to his faith led to them parting, “my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood.” He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term “friend” was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his “friend”.
So, sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart’s desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, such a voice needs to be heard. But what does it offer instead?
In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was “sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him.” Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. “Tears took the place of my friend in my heart’s love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies.”
At this point, many a 21st century reader will be thinking “he must of been gay”, even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as “gay” in some circles today (1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26). But we should always remember that such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous times and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.
More useful to us is Augustine’s own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: “We depended too much on each other… He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship.” Here, then, is the second ‘near miss’ on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the “bosom buddy” who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems to require little real work.