In light of the Surgeon General’s recent statement regarding an epidemic of loneliness it is critical to think deeply about the meaning of friendship–the true antidote to loneliness.
In my previous post I presented Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s understanding of friendship. In this post I’d like to share Rambam’s understanding of friendship. (Translations of Rambam’s commentary on Avot are from Sefaria with some minor changes).
Rambam’s most extensive discussion of friendship can be found in his commentary on Pirkei Avot on the following Mishna:
Joshua ben Perahiah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the oral tradition] from them. Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher, and acquire for thyself a companion and judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor.
Rambam distinguishes between three types of friendship:
- for benefit
- for satisfaction
- for virtue
One difficulty in understanding Rambam’s commentary should be pointed out before going further. The Hebrew word chaveir, that we are translating as friend, can refer to any kind of association between two people. This is important to keep in mind, especially when one takes a look at the first type of friend:
A friend for benefit is like the friendship of two [business] partners and the friendship of a king and his retinue.
This kind of friendship is more what we would call a partnership or business association.
The next kind of friendship–for satisfaction–has two types. The first type is a friend for pleasure. This, Rambam says is “like the friendship of males and females and similar to it.” I do not think he is trying to say that all relationships between men and women are for pleasure. Rather, it is one, very resonant example of a relationship of pleasure. We probably also wouldn’t call this friendship in English.
The next type of friendship for satisfaction is a “friend for confidence.”
The “friend for confidence” is when a man has a friend to whom he can confide his soul. He will not keep [anything] from him – not in action and not in speech. And he will make him know all of his affairs – the good ones and the disgraceful – without fearing from him that any loss will come to him with all of this, not from him and not from another. As when a person has such a level of confidence in a man, he finds great satisfaction in his words and in his great friendship.
This type of friendship seems like a true friend–someone you can confide in and rely on. It’s hard to imagine a friendship greater than this. If Rambam hadn’t said there was a third type of friendship, I would have assumed that this is the highest form of friendship and what the mishna enjoins one to acquire. However, this is not the case.
A friend for virtue is when the desire of both of them and their intention is for one thing, and that is the good. And each one wants to be helped by his friend in reaching this good for both of them together. And this is the friend which he commanded to acquire; and it is like the love of the master for his student and of the student for his master.
It is honestly hard to understand why this is the highest form of friendship. In fact, most people would feel uncomfortable calling the relationship between a master and student friendship. It’s noteworthy that Rambam uses this example. It would seem, at first glance, that there’s an imbalance in the relationship. The master bestows good on his student, not the other way around. Why is their friendship mutual?
I believe the answer is related to how our rabbis viewed the student–not as a passive recipient of knowledge, but an active partner in the pursuit of knowledge. The teacher is also not, as Plato describes, like a midwife, simply aiding the student through a natural process. The teacher is a partner with his student–perhaps more experienced–but also, in fact, a student of wisdom pursuing the highest good. This, I believe, is the meaning of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s famous saying:
Much Torah have I studied from my teachers, and I have learned more from my colleagues than from them, and I have learned more from my students than from all of them. (Makkot, 10a; Koren – Steinsaltz translation)
The teacher and student bond over a mutual pursuit of virtue. They come together, not for any ulterior motive, but to attain the highest good possible. They realize that this pursuit will be more fruitful when they join together.1
Though the student-teacher relationship is clearly, in the eyes of Rambam, one of the highest examples of a friend for virtue, it should be remembered that it is an example. It is not only the student and teacher who collaboratively pursue the good. Likewise, two individuals engaged in any form of virtue–be it serving the needy, healing the sick, defending the innocent, etc.–are helping each other achieve the good. When two individuals pursue a life of virtue together in fulfillment of a desire to do good an intense bond is formed between them. Their confidence in each other stems from the fact that they’ve had a glimpse of the truest expression of the other’s soul.
Rambam (also a Surgeon General of sorts) would probably advise the Surgeon General to encourage others to pursue a life of higher meaning–to pursue truth in study with others and to work with others to engage in acts of altruism.2
1 Rabbi Yitzchak Sheilat, in his notes on Rambam’s commentary, suggests that Rambam’s three types of friends are typologies that for the purpose of definition present each type as being mutually exclusive of the others. But, in truth the ideal friend for virtue is also a friend of confidence, and may also, at times, be a friend for benefit.
2 Many studies have shown the mental health benefits of altruism. Here’s a nice summary.