On Spiritual Friendship is in some ways in the same genre as St. Ambrose's De officiis; whereas Ambrose was adapting Cicero's De officiis to the life of a Christian priest, Aelred is adapting Cicero's De amicitia to the life of a Christian monk. The course of the discussion follows that of Cicero, sometimes fairly closely, but the explicit point of the dialogue is to argue for an approach to friendship that is superior to Cicero's. The work also shows a heavily Augustinian influence, with the Confessions (definitely) and Augustine's dialogues (I suspect) helping to shape the work in the direction Aelred wishes it to go.
I have previously talked about Cicero's De amicitia: Part I, Part II.
Besides Aelred, there are Ivo, Walter, and Gratian. Aelred is the abbot of Rievaulx. Ivo is generally thought to be monk from Wardon Abbey, which was a daughter monastery to Rievaulx; Aelred seems to have dedicated another of his works, Jesus at the Age of Twelve, to him. Walter seems to be a monk from the same abbey. Of Gratian we know nothing outside this dialogue.
Aelred opens by giving the background to the book. As an adolescent he had greatly enjoyed Cicero's dialogue on friendship, which he began to take as a standard with which his own friendships could be compared and measured. Later, however, when he joined the monastery, he found that this standard was less and less adequate, and wanted to have a standard of friendship that would be supportable by Scripture and take into account the lives of Christ and the saints. He then outlines what the topics of discussion will be:
(1) the nature of friendship;
(2) the fruition and excellence of friendship;
(3) how and among whom friendship can be preserved unbroken.
Book One discusses Cicero's definition of friendship in light of Aelred's desire, which is expressed in the dialogue by the character Ivo, to give a more Christian account of friendship. The definition, "Friendship is mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity" (p. 53), presents some puzzles -- in Aelred's Latin, benevolentia and caritas both have very specific and Christian meanings, so it's not immediately clear how the pagan Cicero would have understood them. Aelred suggests that by 'caritas' Cicero meant internal affection and by 'benevolentia' he meant external expression of this affection. Both Aelred and Ivo think the definition inadequate, but they do think it is a good starting point; it captures something of friendship, but does not adequately capture friendship in the truest sense. Drawing on Isidore of Seville, Aelred notes that the Latin word for 'friend', amicus, is related to the word for amor, so that the friend is a sort of guardian of mutual love or, by love, of one's own spirit and its secrets. "Friendship, therefore, is that virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love and sweetness, and out of many are made one" (p. 55). Aelred then introduces one of the key ideas of the dialogue, from Proverbs 17:17: "He that is a friend loves at all times." This will mark the distinction between Aelred and Cicero: Aelred thinks, properly speaking, true friendship is eternal. This means it is very difficult to have true friendship, but Aelred insists that it is possible and that even striving for it is a noble thing.
Friendship is clearly related to charity, in the Christian sense, but the two are not the same; charity is more universal in its embrace than friendship, because Christians are specifically commanded to love even their enemies. And while friendship is a kind of harmony or cooperation, it needs to be distinguished from those kinds of agreements that are based on vice. Those kinds of carnal or worldly friendships are based on a desire for gain, but true friendship is its own reward. When we understand this correctly, this is what Cicero's definition gets right, but it is very important to understand it as excluding vice: "such friendship prudence directs, justice rules, fortitude guards, and temperance moderates" (p. 61). Friendship arises from a natural desire impressed on us by God, which is part of the general providential activity of harmonizing and unifying the world. As such it is, like virtue and wisdom, true friendship a natural good, good in itself, and cannot be directed to a bad end. What is more, while wisdom is a higher thing, friendship has so intimate a connection with wisdom that in an extended sense one can say that it just is a kind of wisdom. This is another reason why friendship has to have something eternal in it.
Ivo finds Aelred's account both attractive and difficult to believe, asking if we should conclude that just as God is love, God is friendship as well. Contrary to the way it is sometimes presented, Aelred does not outright commit to saying this -- he notes that it is not in Scripture and is an unusual thing to say -- but given that friendship has some key similarities to charity, he would not deny that you can attribute to friendship what you can to charity. But this raises the question of the fruition of friendship.
Some years later, Ivo having since died, Aelred starts up a discussion with the monk Walter, who refers back to the discussion between Aelred and Ivo on spiritual friendship. Aelred tries to get out of going over it again by pointing out that the discussion was a long time ago, and that he had lost the paper on which he had written his notes on the dialogue. But Walter outmaneuvers him, saying that he knows that Aelred recently rediscovered it, and so he wants to read it. Aelred reluctantly lets him do so, and Walter says that, having covered the nature of friendship, the obvious next question is to look at its practical advantages. Unsurprisingly, Aelred has a very high estimate of its value:
It manifests all the virtues by its own charms; it assails vices by its own virtue; it tempers adversity and moderates prosperity. As a result, scarcely any happiness whatever can exist among mankind without friendship, and a man is to be compared to a beast if he has no one to rejoice with him in adversity, no one to whom to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration. (pp. 71-72)
Highest of all, true friendship is on the threshold of love and knowledge of God, "so that man from being a friend of his fellowman becomes the friend of God" (p. 73).
At this point they are joined by their friend Gratian, whom Walter comments devotes all his energy to loving and being loved, so especially needs to be able to distinguish counterfeit friendship from true. Aelred elaborates the sense in which true friendship is a step tword love and knowledge of God by characterizing its structure as beginning from Christ, advancing through Christ, and being completed in Christ. And it is Christ who gives the guide to understanding what a friend may do: "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). But this, too, must be understood correctly, since if wicked men die for each other, that does not change the previous conclusion that there is no friendship among the wicked. People are in fact inclined to use friendship as an excuse for evil, but this is an abuse of the term. While friendship doesn't require perfection, it does require goodness. We should therefore avoid puerile associations, based only on playful affection, as well as vicious associations, or associations based on advantages. (There is no problem with receiving advantages from friendship, but they should not be the reason for the relationship.) We should also avoid flatterers. These are all cases in which the friendship is such that, even if one dies because of the relationship, one does not die for the friend the way Christ has indicated a true friend would.
By this point, they have been talking an hour, and they adjourn the question of how one should act in the friendship to the next day.
Friendship springs from love, but not all loves are equally conducive to true friendship. The love that is most suitable to that is the kind that springs simultaneously from reason and affection, which is connected with contemplation of virtue. But the only foundation that can actually give the eternal character that belongs to true friendship is the love of God, and everything in friendship needs to conform to this. One needs other things, however, since love is more universal than friendship; friendship requires companionship, and goes through four stages: selection of possible friend, probation or trial by which one discovers that they are indeed such as can be your friend, admission into friendship, and finally the complete conformity to the definition of friendship as "perfect harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence" (p. 93).
There are vices that are simply inconsistent with friendship, and among the ones that most need to be avoided is wrath or anger, because attaching oneself to someone who cannot control themselves in matters of anger is a recipe for disaster. Likewise one should avoid people who are easily changeable or inclined to suspicion. If you become associated with such people, the command to love them remains, but you should not try to be their friend, because they are only capable of false friendship; instead you should slowly detach from them, and seek instead the kind of friendship that can be eternal.
To test someone for friendship, you need to investigate whether they have four essential qualities: loyalty or fidelity (fides), right intention (intentio), discretion (discretio), and patience (patientia). Loyalty gives the friendship security; right intention establishes that the friendship is not for gain but for God and the natural good of friendship itself (this is how Aelred understands the command to love one's neighbor as one's self, because we don't love ourselves in the expectation of being rewarded for it); discretion makes it possible for him to make decisions as a friend should make them, maintaining the kinds of priorities that are consistent with friendship; and patience gives the friendship resistance from fault and durability in the face of correction.
One of the errors that Aelred seeks to correct is the notion that spontaneous impulse is at all adequate for friendship; prudence and caution are in fact necessary. In heaven this is not so, because in heaven all are virtuous and united in love by God, in the truest and most perfect friendship, but on earth we are dealing with a mix of wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, and the most important thing is to do the hard work of making sure that what we call friendship actually unfolds as a friendship should. Because of this we should also, of course, act in such a way as to make sure that we exhibit those qualities that are needed for friendship.
If we have done this, however, friendship raises us up: by it we bear each other's burdens, by prayer in friendship we are united more deeply to Christ; and through it we prepare ourselves for the Beatific Vision, in which God will be all in all.
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, Laker, tr. Cistercian Publications (Kalamzoo, MI: 1977).