Friendship between siblings is not a given. It is always a challenge—consider Cain and Abel. Yet perhaps it is also a sign of our times, of something that is amiss in our homes, that we find it so difficult. I am often surprised when long after I get to know someone I learn that he has a brother, somewhere. He and his brother are not close; the brother never comes up in conversation. It’s as though their lives are utterly disconnected.
A common question I receive after explaining Aristotle’s distinction between true friendship and other forms of friendship is: “What about my siblings? Can I have a true friendship with them?” Today when many have difficulty developing true friendships, the issue of friendship between siblings is especially important.
Obviously, some siblings develop a very deep friendship with one another, while at the same time, many siblings do not. Indeed, a good number of siblings even have strained relationships. If sibling relationships run the gamut, we might wonder why this is so, and what we can do to improve these relationships, both as parents of children, and as siblings ourselves. Using the thought of Aristotle, my purpose here is to consider a few aspects of these relationships that play such an important part in our lives.
Aristotle gives a fascinating account of the relationship of siblings. He first notes that all siblings—even those that have been separated from their parents and one another—have a unique bond, because they are of the same ‘blood.’ There is something primordial here: no matter what happens, we have ties to one another in our own flesh. In many cultures it is fittingly the custom to put great emphasis on this bond of blood. Family is family, no matter what.
While this bond is universal and permanent, never to be forgotten, it is also rather limited when compared to deep friendships. Yet in the natural course of things siblings usually also share a common upbringing, wherein the ties of blood are strengthened by the ties of common experience. Aquinas summarizes Aristotle’s position in this way: “And if brothers are just and virtuous…then friendship is greater from this common upbringing inasmuch as they are closer to one another.” In other words, common upbringing uniquely enables friendship.
The background of this statement is that for Aristotle friendship in the fullest sense—we can call it ‘true friendship’—is a way that virtuous people, or those striving for virtue, share a life together, bound by love-for and knowledge-of one another. Such friendships are rare, Aristotle asserts, for two reasons: people of virtuous character are rare, and it takes a long time really to get to know one another well enough.
So Aristotle’s assertion about siblings makes much sense: if, and this is a big ‘if,’ siblings are “just and virtuous,” then siblings can be very well positioned for a uniquely deep friendship. He proceeds to give three reasons:
I think this list is brilliant. There is nothing like having a relationship of love that goes all the way back to the beginning, literally. Siblings certainly have a good, long opportunity to get to know one another. The second point turns on Aristotle’s conviction that the more you share, the deeper the relationship. By referring to “the same parents” he seems to be noting shared natural, or we can say ‘genetic’ dispositions, in addition to the rearing and education. Nature and nurture bring siblings together.
The third point is rather dramatic: the friendship has been “fully and convincingly tested by time.” Perhaps this means: if growing up together has not so deeply scarred siblings that they cannot really be friends, then surely they can endure most anything together.
I say this only partially tongue in cheek. Aristotle’s position on sibling relationships cannot be taken to imply that siblings will always or even usually end up being deep friends. As we’ve noted, experience weighs in too strongly to the contrary.
Aristotle has indicated that siblings have a context that is uniquely conducive to deep friendship. Indeed his case is so convincing one might reasonably wonder why “my brother is my best friend” is not a more common scenario. These are deep waters. Here I would simply suggest that, while Aristotle does not address this, there seem to be significant factors that can work against siblings developing deep friendships, and these factors spring from the very closeness that can make for friendship.
Surely one such factor is the propensity toward sibling rivalry, which comes in a number of forms: the younger child that always gets compared to the older (or even vice versa); or the child that feels that a sibling gets more attention from one or both parents. Another aspect of sibling proximity is that they have to deal with one another before and during the throws of maturation.
How many of us look back at our youth and think: dear God, I can’t believe I acted like that toward my brother, or sister. And my actions had lasting consequences, even though I didn’t mean to cause harm.
Sometimes too much misunderstanding, too many mistakes, and too many ill-considered words stand between us. How now can a deeper, fuller friendship ever come to be? Reconciliation will require much—humility, contrition, forgiveness. And perhaps some length of time.
But in any case—and this is crucial—as Aristotle notes, we are still of one blood. And as such, simply as siblings, we should have a strong relationship. You are my brother, you are my sister; and I am yours. Perhaps we cannot “live together” in the full sense of friendship, but we can always love and respect each other, and observe the appropriate rites of family, as we wait and work toward reconciliation.
And then there will be the sibling relationships that grow into something ‘more.’ Some factors are unintentional: we were very close in age; we had very similar dispositions; circumstances threw us together. But at root, if siblings grow into a mature friendship, it will be the fruit of long cultivation and much suffering, probably on the part of parents, and necessarily on the part of the siblings themselves.
Parents raising children can and should ask ourselves: what can we do to foster the relationships between our children? How can our home be conducive to friendships, both within the family and then outside of the family?
Everything that parents do to cultivate virtue is itself a formation for friendship, since true friends must share good character. One often overlooked area is that of manners. Manners encourage a proper other-centered disposition and simultaneously give an indispensable framework for the art of conversation: an art that must be learned, cultivated like a flower.
Especially today, parents will want to be intentional: deliberating about what to do in the home to form our children to be present to one another, to listen to each other, to praise each other, to forgive each other, to work together, to rejoice in good things together.
Nothing that parents do will in itself assure the friendship of siblings, but it can do much by disposing them toward it. And then for a deep friendship to blossom as siblings grow into adults they themselves will need to be intentional about the relationship, as is necessary for any true friendship.
Yet this friendship between siblings will always have something unique. There is a closeness, a shared history, a kind of ‘connatural’ response to the world that can never really be repeated with anyone else. And this relationship has been fully and convincingly tested, for the length of a lifetime, so that now it’s just going to keep on ripening.
John A. Cuddeback is Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. His book Friendship: The Art of Happiness was republished in 2010 as True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. His writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, and The Thomist, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. He lives with his wife Sofia and their six children in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah. He blogs at BaconFromAcorns.com.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.