“But the category of friends, which is truly the most holy of desirable things—this is not assigned to Fortune’s list but to Virtue’s.”
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
One of our greatest fears is of bad things that happen to our friends and loved ones. In a great classic of Western Civilization, Boethius learns (and teaches) that in true friendship there is ultimately nothing to fear.
This piece of wisdom is at once bracing and deeply consoling. There are many things—some of them genuinely important in life—that are subject to fortune or fate; in short, they can be taken away from us. The loss for instance of our job, our home, our bodily health, or peace in society (all subject to fortune or fate) causes real suffering.
Friendship (and all relationships of true love), as experience makes clear, makes us even more vulnerable, opening us to a unique suffering in the suffering of our friends. How often might we find ourselves wishing that some misfortune had befallen us, rather than them! Why then does Boethius suggest that the category of friends is not assigned to Fortune’s list but rather to Virtue’s?
Herein is a bedrock insight about human life and happiness. The most important thing in life is good character (which can be called virtue) and all that goes along with it. And this is fundamentally a matter of our own will, our own choices, and so it is not in itself subject to the whims of fate.
The implications are profound. One of these is that true friendship, itself necessarily a fruit of the good character of two people, is likewise not subject to the whims of fate. Good fortune is received by friends as a gift. And ‘bad fortune’ too, while a real source of suffering, is occasion to strengthen friendship. The more virtuous we are, the more we see and the more we experience that even bad fortune is a gift.
Or is this just a pious platitude of philosophers? The answer to this question makes all the difference. Indeed, in the end our ability to live in true friendship hinges on it.
Yet perhaps fate can have the ultimate say if our loved one is taken from us in death. Perhaps this extreme case gives the lie to putting friendship on the list of virtue and not fortune.
Rather, this extreme case is the ultimate proof. Yes, my friend can be taken from me in a very real sense. But our friendship, as the things from which it springs and toward which it tends, can never be taken from us. Always, what is most important is most enduring.
So, we find again that our deepest longings are not in vain or destined for disappointment. Nay, that which we so crave is in reality being offered to us, if we but choose to receive it and enact it. Especially in true friendship.
- Out Standing on the Earth
- Having No Real Friends
- Discussing Virtue Daily
- Perfect Friendship
- Our Pressing Need for Friendship
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