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Epic Meditations in Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Augustine’s Confessions, part 3: Friendship

“Make friends with people who want the best for you.”

Jordan Peterson

“You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours.”


I had trouble making friends when I was young. Like many kids, I had learned through some tough (for a second grader) experiences a simple truth: so-called friends cannot be trusted, and I cannot be trusted to be a friend. I was ready to stab my friend in the back when he wasn’t even there, to my own mother’s face. My friend was willing to let me be struck by social humiliation like I was little more than a convenient lightning rod for his embarrassment – and I didn’t even have the courage to speak for myself. Only when I had really come to appreciate the Aristotelian conception of friendship – of a mutual love for the beauty of virtue – did I begin to really believe in friendship, let alone try it out earnestly.

Augustine meditates in his third chapter of Confessions on his time as a student at Carthage, which he described as “a cauldron of illicit loves.”  He explains that because his “soul was in rotten health,” he “polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence” (Conf., III.i). He wanted friendship and he wanted love, but the only friendship he was capable of offering was one ensnared in self-harming “subconscious poverty of mind” that really wasn’t able to sincerely want the good for himself. This, of course, takes us to a problem discussed with implementing Peterson’s previous rule: Take care of yourself like someone you were responsible for helping. To make friends who want the best for you, you also need to offer true friendship. But as Augustine argues, the second commandment includes a tacit command to love ourselves—not in some sentimental, self-affirmational sense but actually quite along the lines of Peterson’s rule. Augustine writes in On Christian Teaching, “Human beings must also be told how to love, that is, how to love themselves so as to do themselves good” (OCD, bk. 1, ch. 26). If that weren’t true, there would be no need for books like those written by Augustine and Peterson.

Our struggle with friendship is that we don’t necessarily want the best for ourselves, and so, as Peterson contends, we let ourselves fall into friendships that hurt us and perhaps that allow us to excuse ourselves for failing to seek improvement:

Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth—or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives—they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better—so they don’t go looking for it.

Peterson, 75

The case may be worse: as Augustine put it, he “hated the thought of being less inwardly destitute” (Conf., III.i). We need to believe, more or less, that everyone else is doing it and it’s normal – and so we may surround ourselves with people who confirm the rationale for surrender in the face of our shortcomings. On top of that, we may even be tempted with the vague notion to cover up this motivation with the idea that we could help that person to improve:

Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing…. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.

Peterson, 79

Augustine reports being friends with the so-called Wreckers, young men who liked to raise ruckus in the school and neighborhood, for precisely this reason: “I kept company with them and sometimes delighted in their friendship, though I always held their actions in abhorrence” (Conf., III.vi).

Sure, maybe we are trying to show a genuine Christian lack of judgmentalism by being friends with someone our church community might shun, and very probably we ought to be friends with that person. But we had better check the motivation. Are we doing it to perform our disdain of less accepting Christians, while being able ourselves to feel tacitly smug about our superiority towards the supposed beneficiary of our magnanimity? What’s more, we should make sure that we are not cultivating that friendship to soothe our conscience about something we know we ought not be doing—to the praise of non-Christian friends impressed with our worldliness and disdain for puritanical excess. And I’m neither saying that there is no such thing as puritanical excess nor that we shouldn’t pursue holiness zealously, but that the guise of friendship may offer an excuse for things which are inexcusable.

I have often pondered the paradoxical dilemma of Psalm 1:1’s injunction not to “walk in the way of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful” with Christ’s example of befriending and counseling people struggling deeply with ungodliness, sin, and scorn. It isn’t difficult to puzzle out the logic: it isn’t contradictory, for example, to say “don’t be friends with people who tempt you to fornication” and “be willing to be friends with someone struggling with temptation to sexual promiscuity so that you can help him overcome it.” The difficulty is how to live it out. Hence, it is a paradox rather than a contradiction. Because the opposite of the problem presented by Augustine and Peterson is also true: we may opt ourselves out of a moral obligation to help others with nervously pious excuses about protecting our own purity, status, and even safety in ways that might be cowardly. “Make friends with people whom you can actually help” seems like an adjoining rule to Peterson’s, but how to make them practically function together? It isn’t obvious.

It’s interesting that in Book 3 of the Aeneid, while questing to find the new land the gods have destined for him, Aeneas keeps running into voices from the past. First, he encounters Polydorus, who was slain by the Thracian king at the outset of the Trojan war. With no one to bury him, Polydorus has haunted the tree that grows from the soil nourished by his impromptu burial. When Aeneas tears at one of the bleeding branches, unaware of the circumstances, Polydorus cries out, “Woe is me! why, Aeneas, do you tear me? Spare me in the tomb at last; spare the pollution of your pure hands! I, born of Troy, am no stranger to you; not from a lifeless stock oozes this blood” (Aeneid, bk 3). Although legitimate, the lament of Polydorus resembles the self-pitying cries of Aeneas in Book 1 out at sea, suggesting that Polydorus represents a temptation to wallow in self-pity instead of seek a way forward, a temptation Aeneas already has enough trouble combating. Holding a funeral for Polydorus (while psychologically, one might say, saying goodbye to an old personality structure that no longer accounts for the needs of responsible life), Aeneas seeks out the advice of Apollo for where he should go.

The counsel of the sun god (which is to seek out the ancient homeland of the Trojan people) causes Anchises to misinterpret this advice, taking them to Crete where they find themselves driven out by a plague. The gods explain to Aeneas in a dream that his father misinterpreted Apollo’s directions, and that Italy is their true destination. His father, it should be noted, does not become a reliable guide until after he dies and Aeneas can speak with him in the underworld. And the next voice from his Trojan past, the grief-stricken Andromeda, provides Aeneas with useful advice because she tells him where to go next—not simply to lament the past like Polydorus or idealize the wrong part of it as Anchises had.

In a mythic and epic register, this sequence parallels a story Peterson tells in his chapter on Rule Three where an old acquaintance had clung to the habits of their teenage youth. The problem wasn’t so much his old buddy’s behavior but that he had brought an even more hyperbolic example of old infancy: “It was his friend I really remember. He was spaced. He was baked. He was stoned out of his gourd… I wasn’t happy that Ed had brought this character into our place” (74). Later he relates, “I took Ed aside and told him politely that he had to leave. I said that he shouldn’t have brought his useless bastard of a companion” (74). Harsh as this might seem, Peterson was refusing to walk in the way of sinners: not merely people who struggle but who seem to stubbornly, intentionally, cling to a path that not only harms themselves but pulls others into the orbit of that harm. Because Aeneas had listened to his father’s incorrect interpretation, he ended up bringing his crew across the path of the harpies, vicious monsters of vengeance related to the Furies who destroy people for injustice to their family. As Peterson might see it, those harpies could very well be real, in the form of the more chaotic and dangerous manifestations of willfully unimproved individuals attracted to those who want to improve but find it a struggle. Discerning between the two is no easy task, but there might come a time when it’s needed.

Fascinatingly, in Mark 6 Jesus encountered the same phenomenon reported by Peterson and gestured at through narrative by Virgil. People who had known him as a child scoffed at the possibility of Christ being who he claimed to be:

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

Mark 6:4-5

The old habits were just too alive and well, and like the memories of fallen Troy and the stagnate ways of Peterson’s childhood friend, the people of Christ’s own village lost out on miracles not because they were sinners but they sat upon the seat of the scornful.

Augustine, too, sat upon that seat, yet throughout his truant years his mother prayed for him. When she begged a bishop to help set him straight because of a bad dream she had had about her son’s fate, the man refused, “For he answered that I was still unready to learn, because I was conceited about the novel excitements of that heresy” (51). He could see that Augustine had to bump his own head enough times to learn that the bumps weren’t worth it, before he could really be taught wisdom. But Monica continued to weep on Augustine’s behalf, so that the bishop told her, “Go away from me: as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish” (Conf., III.xxi). What moved Augustine to improve was not busybody interference but the sincerity of Monica’s longing to see her son improved: “I was more moved by your [God’s] answer through my vigilant mother than by the dream itself” (Conf., III.xx). Augustine had to see past the image of what seemed to be merely a nagging mother to someone who truly wanted the best for him – a true friend, not simply a parental authority.

 Monica’s friendship clearly contrasts with that of the miscreants Augustine had fallen in with, the stubbornly doltish friend from Peterson’s youth, and the false counsel Aeneas met in his search for a true home. Perhaps between Monica and Ed we can see the two questions we have to ask ourselves to discern whether we are making ourselves self-righteous martyrs of bad friendship: Do we truly want the best for that other person, or are we using them to indulge an out-of-date identity? Contrasting Aeneas’s encounters with Polydorus and Andromeda to see if we can productively help a struggling friend, we might ask, Will they only mourn the past or will they entertain a positive way forward? It’s hard to know when it’s time to move from one to the next, but we only stand a chance at doing so if we know our intentions are earnest.

But in all of this talk of friendship, I can’t help but notice that even Christ respected the agency of people who chose to reject his offered help. That is because, in his providential sovereignty, God does not beckon us to be mere slaves but, if we have the humility to be servants, to become his friends. Augustine wrote, “Can it be wrong at any time or place to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself?” (Conf., III.viii). The best and most true language may sound trite here, but the upshot of it all is: the first and great commandment summons us to pursue making the actual resurrected and divine Jesus Christ our best friend, more than any human, certainly more than we count ourselves as friends.

Peterson tells us to make friends with those who want the best for us. Very well: Christ wants everlasting, eternal, perfect blissful harmony with Him for us, to lift us so high into his friendship that His Father truly becomes our Father: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). This I think is what impresses me so about Augustine’s earnest address to God throughout the Confessions: that when he tells God “you are the life of souls, the life of lives” and calls Him the “life of my soul” (Conf., III.x), he really means it. Similar to how Christ prayed out loud for our benefit, Augustine prays in writing in the real prayers of a friend of God who actually believes that his Lord wants the best for him. If we pray that God raise up our servant prayers into friendship prayers, then we might no longer be so worried when a friend in this life betrays us or be so prone to lapse in our duties as friends.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

Read next: [Part 1 [1]] [Part 2 [2]] [Part 4 [3]] [Part 5 [4]]