What Is Friendship?

In Aesop’s fable, “The Lion and the Mouse,”  the king of the jungle catches a humble mouse. Just as he is about to be eaten, the mouse promises the lion that if he allows him to live, someday he will repay the lion’s kindness. The lion laughs, “How could a tiny creature like you ever help a mighty beast like me?” but nevertheless consents to have mercy on the mouse. Days later, the lion is ensnared in a hunter’s trap. The mouse, happening by, remembers the friendship the lion showed him, and uses his tiny teeth to gnaw through the ropes, setting the lion free. The moral? An act of kindness is never wasted.

As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, across all of history and throughout all of time, a basic law has been recognized by all people. It has gone by many names, though the most familiar to most of us is probably the “Golden Rule.” Here are just some of the texts in which this most fundamental expectation of virtuous human behavior has been articulated:

  • “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?” (Confucius, Analects XV.24, trans. David Hinton).
  • “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires” (Mahābhārata 13.113.8)
  • “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful” (Tao Te Ching 49).
  • “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18 [KJV]).
  • “Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good” (Cicero, De Officiis).
  • “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 [KJV]).
  • “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1:12  #13).

Friendship is the virtue of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Great Hearts scholars show the virtue of friendship by helping a classmate pick up a dropped pencil, by holding the door for the person behind them, or by being happy to play with anyone at recess. All scholars are expected to show friendship to others at all times. Kindness, generosity, seeking after what is good for those around us, and treating one another with respect permeate the culture of our classrooms and our school.

Examples of Friendship from the Great Hearts Curriculum

In Charlotte’s Web, one of our Second Grade Classics to Keep, when Wilbur is at his saddest and loneliest, he meets Charlotte the spider, who offers to be his friend. At first, he is taken aback by her habit of trapping and killing insects: “But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty-everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?” Wilbur thinks. But, “Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend. In good time he was to discover that he was mistaken about Charlotte. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end” (41).

In the story of the famous friendship of Damon and Pythias, scholars hear about how Pythias was unjustly sentenced to be executed by the tyrant Dionysius. When he asked for a few days to tie up his affairs, Dionysius demanded a hostage to ensure Pythias would return. Pythias’ friend Damon happily agreed. Even when Pythias was accidentally and unavoidably delayed, and Damon had been brought out to be executed in his friend’s stead, he never gave up hope. At the last moment, Pythias was seen running to the place and arrived just in time to save his friend. Seeing the friends embrace one another with relief, at last the tyrant Dionysius gave up his hard heart and consented to pardon Pythias.

At the end of A Wrinkle in Time, a Fifth Grade Classic to Keep, when everything else has been taken away and all hope seems lost, Meg realizes she has one thing left and it is the only thing that matters—the very love from which the virtue of friendship draws its life. “[Meg] had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s. And she had her love for them” (228). Only love and friendship can stand in the way of evil and despair

Image: Le Sueur, E. (n.d.). A Gathering of Friends. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eustache_Le_Sueur_-_A_Gathering_of_Friends_-_WGA12608.jpg

Core Virtues