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WEEK 12: Character friendship

How character friends can help you grow in virtue


Home > #3- Practice> Week 12 – Character friendship

This is the first week of practicing your habituation plan.  For the next 13 weeks, you will find the little response box below at the top of each page to help you monitor your plan.  Take a few moments to complete it now.

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Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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The best kind of friendship

And now, let’s build another tool into your plan.

As you put your habituation plan into practice, this week you will add  the cultivation of an intentional character friendship as another tool of character education.

This section will help you understand what a character friendship is, how it is an important element in the practice of developing virtue and what you and your character friend might do in this intensive practice phase.

Let’s start with a great quote about friendship:

‘Friendship is a virtue, or involves virtue. Friendship is one of the most indispensable requirements of life… Friends are of help… in doing good things‘ [A].

Notice the last sentence: friendship is a help in doing good things. Clearly, our friends are valuable in themselves and we love them for their own sake,  but there is also an instrumental value in friendship. They can be ‘a help…’  That is what we will explore here.

Aristotle has helpfully distinguished three types of friendships: utility friendships, pleasure friendships and virtue friendships.  All are good, and all are helpful. But of the three, virtue friendship is the highest,  because it serves the highest end in helping us do good things and become the kind of virtuous person we are meant to be.  These are what we are calling ‘character friendships’.

So what exactly is this kind of friendship?


What is a character friendship?

Character friendship is a friendship between humans that is based on the reciprocal love of each other’s character which is expressed in the service of mutual character development.

So, for example, a character friend loves the virtue of diligence in my character, and wishes to serve and reinforce that aspect of my character so that I may be a better person. She is not trying to change me because my character is bothering her. She wants to see more of the virtue of diligence in my life for my sake, tin order to see me flourish as a human being.

So a character friend is someone who wishes your good for your own sake. This is different from friendships that are based mostly on mutual usefulness, such as those that you might have with a colleague at work. It is also different from friendships that are mostly based on the pleasure of being together, such as those that you might have with teammates in a sport. There is nothing wrong with these other kind of friendship, but in character friendship you are looking for is someone who really cares about you becoming a better person [KK].

This leads to two cautions.

  1. First, be careful of ‘friends’ who have a wonderful plan to shape your life and who consider you their personal building site! Manipulation that can easily lurk around the corner, and this kinds of ‘friendship’ can easily become toxic. A good character friend will have input into who you are, but they will do so from the sidelines and not as the directors of your life.
  2. Secondly, character friendship is precious but also very risky, because it entails critical input into our lives. And we like to be flattered and not confronted.  Praised and not critiqued.  Friendships that are static, complacent and based on mutual admiration are more comfortable than those that produce sparks as ‘iron sharpens iron’.  This is why character friendships can be at high risk of rupture.

Having seen what character friendship is, how then can you expect to grow in your character through intentionally cultivating such a friendship?


How a character friend will help you grow

Here are three things that can happen as you intentionally develop character friendships [KK]:

  1. You can flourish in an emotional context of mutual trust.  There is a unique connection of trust that happens with character friends and this ‘cushion’ of protection gives you a sense of existential security in which vulnerability, disclosure and reception can happen.  All of these are essential to grow in character.
  2. You can grow as you critically dialogue over virtue.  This can be an abstract dialogue in which you reciprocally shape virtue in each other by struggling together to understand what the virtues are and how they relate to real life.  But more importantly, there should be a personal, specific dialogue about virtue in each other’s character which may lead to critique.   This is why a character friend is sometimes called a critical friend.
  3. You can see yourself as never before.  Character friendship provides a faithful mirror of who you are.  Once again, Aristotle has put it well: ‘Now we are not able to see what we are from ourselves […]; as when we wish to see our own face, we do so by looking into the mirror, in the same way when we wish to know ourselves we can obtain that knowledge by looking at our friend'[A]. Self-evaluation and self-perception are good (and you have done this in the Virtue Test), but they can be delusional and short-sighted. Friendship is a necessary condition to know yourself, because character friends can often see you better than yourself.

This may seem a lot, and we need to be cautious to overstate the power of character friendship in character formation. In the coming weeks you will be led to discover to what measure it can be true in your own experience.


What you will do?

This intensive practice plan envisions four meetings over 15 weeks with your character friend.  Precise guidelines will be given in the coming weeks, but generally you will:

  1. Build trust by reciprocally sharing victories and failures in your character.
  2. Give account of your habituation plan.  Ideally, your character friend is also involved in this practice plan, and so this accountability is reciprocal.  But it can also work if you are the only one enacting this particular plan.
  3. Practice virtue reasoning  together, by discussing specific virtues and what these look like in real life.
  4. Receive critical input on your character. This is a constructive dialogue where correction is welcomed.  As the Roman philosopher Cicero suggests ‘to graciously give and receive criticism is the mark of true friendship’  (Cicero, How to be a Friend).

In the next section you will be led to identify a character friend and reach out to intentionally contract these activities over the coming weeks.


Additional resources


Your are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 13 – Engage a friend
  

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