Dynamism of Ideal Augustinian Common Living

Dynamism of Ideal Augustinian Common Living: Friendship to Community, Community to Friendship

Fray Reo G. Cabahug, OSA

Friendship as a Necessity

Every human person, no matter how aloof or indifferent he is, will always have an innate desire to love and be loved, to belong and be accepted in a group or among a circle of friends, to go home to a family which would really feel like “home,” and to enter or be involved in certain relationships with people that he wants to be with. Every person wants to have a good life. Yet every significant memory (may they be good or bad) and every aspired or feared dream are themselves void of meaning if they are not confided to significant individuals whom one hopes to find them meaningful and noteworthy too. Significant experiences or insights, whether they are good or bad, are empty if they are just kept to one’s self and not shared to someone else. Paradoxically, every human person wants to isolate himself from others to maintain a level of peace and security, yet it cannot be denied that a part of him would also try to reach out to others whom he trusts or wants to trust. Indeed, it is already embedded in the nature of every member of humanity to enter into a social life if they want to survive and to find happiness and contentment. As St. Augustine would say, that “necessities in this world amount to these two things: well-being and a friend . . . God made man to be and to live; that’s well-being; but so that he shouldn’t be alone, a system of friendship was worked out.”[1]

Following the mind of St. Augustine, Donald Burt, OSA points out that the human race possesses and requires a higher degree of sociability compared to other species in the animal kingdom. He observes that turtles, for example, could just live without any interaction and show no concern for others when they rash to the ocean after hatching and emerging from their incubating holes near the seashores. Human beings, however, cannot survive especially in its earliest years without the care and guidance of another human being. Human beings are the most delicate species because they do not have the capacity and still need to be taught on how to look after themselves for a long period of time.[2] For that reason, some thinkers posit that the need to enter a society manifests the incapacities of the weak while the strong elates isolation but enters into a social life when they want to increase their power through combined efforts. Among these notable thinkers is Friedrich Nietzsche who maintained that an anti-social attitude exhibit the best characteristic of a human being and the ideal “Superman.”[3]

However, such view goes in contrast with the view of St. Augustine who finds social life as a part and a prerequisite for the perfection of human nature. St. Augustine points out that humanity’s common origin, by itself, teaches that it is designed to be united and to have an intimate family relationship among each other. He says, “from that one individual [Adam] a multitude might be propagated that, and that this fact should teach mankind to preserve a harmonious unity in plurality.”[4] This idea gives the theologian the conviction that the life of a wise man should be a social one.[5] Nevertheless, Augustine recognizes that human freedom allows any individual not to choose what they should be over what they should be not. Such ability grants him the capacity to live in an inappropriate way for a just society. Human beings may be designed to be sociable in nature but they can still opt to exhibit an indifferent and anti-social attitude.[6]

Social life and one’s relationship with another individual vary from person to person. Kinds of relationships differ depending on the kinds of people involved in it and according to the purpose of its formation. Generally, all types of relationships are established and developed due to either a degree of affection or practicality (or both) that the involved persons possess or want to achieve and maintain, respectively. But whatever the rationale may be for the foundation of a relationship, St. Augustine asserts that the kind of relationship that can lead to a happy life is that of friendship, the most intimate form of relationship. In fact, he insists that any form of happiness is incomplete if one has no friend. No human achievement or activity can ever be significant if one does not have a friend.[7] St. Augustine also believes that friendship is broader and therefore surpasses the intimacy present in the family because the affection being shared among every ideal family member is brought about by the kind of friendship that each of them has for one another. In fact, the first thing that a baby is conscious about is his or her parents, and his or her life or journey begins from their friendship.[8]

These being said, one can then also conclude and assert what God has once stated before: “It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18, NAB).” Man must certainly live with other human beings. In this sense, living together must not only be understood as a mere conglomeration of individuals in the same building, bus or train without knowing or caring what is happening to the one next to them. The idea of not leaving man to be alone is not to arrange diverse human beings to travel through life merely as fellow travelers but as traveling fellows. For them to be in this state, they must establish a satisfactory level of friendship with one another that requires an amount of respect, benevolence and care. In this sense, Augustine defines friendship as “the disinterested desire for good for that person whom one loves, together with a reciprocal desire on his part.”[9] The definition implies that in order for individuals to become friends, they must first love each other and reciprocally wish and to do good to each other.



Bad Friendships, Good Friendships

Aside from not traveling alone, St. Augustine also insists that the association and relationship of human beings must be brought in such a way that all its members are traveling in the right direction. Augustine is well aware how friendship can be helpful in one’s search for authentic happiness, yet he also knows very well how some kinds of friendships can lead one to detriment. He recalls and shares in his Confessions how thrilled he was when he stole some pears not for consumption but for the fun of stealing and having some adventures with his friends[10] and to share with one another the enjoyment of talking about sinful things.[11] In fact, even thieves, pirates and other types of criminals form an alliance and a certain level of friendship among themselves to better achieve their evil goals.[12] Such examples of friendship do not truly contribute to the development of a person but brings rather with it a finite and inauthentic kind of happiness.

St. Augustine describes the friendship mentioned above as an inauthentic one because it does not lead a person towards the true purpose of friendship: uniting and bringing people to God. It must be pointed out that St. Augustine does not conceive of friendship as an end for itself nor as a venue for the development of the social nature of men and merely as a means to attain a happy life on earth. Every kind of relationship, institution or association is dynamic and moves to a particular destination according to the disposition, interactions and activities of its members. For him, all our actions and dealings with one another may bring us back to God or away from Him. With that in mind, St. Augustine formulates another definition for friendship as the “agreement [of persons] on human and divine things.”[13] Agreement on human things refers to the bond that linked different individuals due to their similar or common interests, views and goals. On the other hand, agreement on divine things denotes that genuine friendship is realized if friends do the will of God together and recognize that it is by his grace that their bond exists for the purpose of being united ultimately with Him in the future. For St. Augustine, “friendship is genuine only when God binds fast together people who cleave to Him through the charity poured abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.”[14] One must love his friend, not for himself but for God.[15]

The distinction that St. Augustine makes on friendship drives home a point that some types of relationships are to be encouraged while others must be avoided. Such notion, however, should not be misinterpreted as implying that one should avoid establishing any form of connection or association with ill-reputed people. In fact, St. Augustine contends, “One must not reject the friendship of anyone who offers himself for the association of friendship . . . not that he should be received immediately but he should be desired as one worthy of being received and he should be treated so that he can be received.”[16] He even went further by exhorting that “whoever loves men should love them either because they are just or in order that they might be just.”[17] He also says,

Love all men, even your enemies, not because they are your brethren, but that they may be your brethren . . . Wheresoever ye love a brother, ye love a friend . . . If a man is not yet your brother, love him to this end, that he may be a brother. Well then, all our love is a brotherly love, towards Christians, towards all his members.[18]

Truly, his idea on friendship is very inclusive and ideal that he encourages that, as much as possible, one should love and try to embrace everyone as friends here on earth as everyone will be in heaven. One, however, should be careful that one may not fall into becoming worse by associating with other people but must observe that one helps or is helped when dealing with them.


From Friendship to Community

Aspiring for an ideal notion of friendship does not serve as a hindrance for St. Augustine to ground his teaching on the reality. He admits, “Everyone must be loved equally; but when you cannot give assistance to all, you must above all have regard for those who are bound to you more closely by some accident . . . of location, circumstances, or occasions of any kind.”[19] We must all be united and help one another so that we can altogether achieve our salvation yet as much as one may want to be totally inclusive in his own friendliness, it is just impossible to accomplish such a task in our present state-of-being and present world. Dedicated human beings can do so much but the only thing that they can only do is to form one’s own circle of friends who love and re-learn to love one another daily to be able to grow in their love for God. “This ideal of friendship gave Augustine a special interest in the development of religious community; here more than anywhere he hoped that true Christian fellowship could be realized on earth.”[20] It is then not surprising why St. Augustine has his closest family members, students and friends as the first members of his community in Cassiciacum where they intended to devote themselves to be with one another and together search for God, the Truth.

By forming one’s own circle of friends and establishing it to be a community, one may be more successful in addressing the barriers and issues that hinder people to be truly united and be intimate with one another. It is a reality that the universal ecclesial community, or the Church at large, finds it difficult to solve its problem on division yet the problem in its larger picture may be mitigated when smaller communities within the Church are formed to tackle the concerns under their jurisdiction. In doing so, unity is better promoted and the clashing of interests between individuals may be lessened in a smaller but more reachable scale. To sum it up, friendship or a just society that is difficult to establish in a bigger community may be created more easily in smaller communities. In this context, Augustine’s ideal of friendship is applied to the new context of Christian fellowship where all members of the Church are united by a common goal [to find and reach God] and need the assistance of one another to attain it.[21]


Starting as a Community of Strangers

It will be expected that a number of people will be enticed to form or join their own circle of communities when the ideals of community living is emphasized and promoted. A new situation will then arise from such phenomenon. New members will decide to join certain communities envisioned by St. Augustine. A community that initially began as a community of friends will be opened to other people who never knew each other as friends but as strangers. If it is inevitable for problems and conflicts to arise among friends who decided to live together in a community, the more shall it be when the community is composed of people who started as strangers and who never had an idea on who will they be mingling with in the brotherhood. This unfamiliarity may serve as a hindrance in achieving unity with each other. Even those who are attracted to live a holy life in the community also bring in with them their personal talents, issues, interests, struggles, weaknesses and concerns that may clash with each other. Moreover, it is possible that some of them may become friends in the future but to expect all of them to become friends later on is too ideal.


Nonetheless, though it is impossible for such reality to take place in our present world, it is still not unfeasible to aspire and work for it. To develop a disposition where they can possibly embrace everyone as friends must be the common aim of every Augustinian. It must be borne in mind that the rationale of every Christian community on earth is to serve as a preparation for the communion of saints in heaven where everyone is entirely true to each other and share the vision of God with one another. It may be impossible to bring down on earth that kind of communion that may only exist in heaven, yet it is still feasible to imitate such bliss here on earth even if it cannot be exactly duplicated.