I don't put much stock in attempts to date Paul's epistles, but he must have been writing under one of two less than splendid rulers, the chuckle-headed Claudius and the egomaniacal Nero, who would burn the Christians. People of Paul's social station were not going to meet the Emperor, and it would have been an unusual occasion when they ran into someone who had actually spoken with him—as in his interrogation by the sympathetic Gallio.
Caligula or Nero, what did it matter so long as the Roman system did its job, protecting the peoples of the Empire from the savages, punishing criminals, enforcing contracts? Of course there was corruption up and down the line as there is in every government, but if Pilate can be taken to represent a below-average administrator (Why else did he get stuck in Judaea?), his desire for fair play and honesty surely stands in stark contrast with the Jewish hierarchy.
All this is preface to Paul's amazing conclusion to the chapter, a moral and political creed for Christianity expressed in a few words. "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another. For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law." In loving one another (the verb is agapan, derived from agape, usually (though not uniformly) translated as "charity" in the AV. In loving our neighbor, Paul explains, we shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, or covet, and "if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, 'thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.'"
Love or charity, which works no ill to the neighbor, is thus "the fulfilling of the law." I am sure you or we know all this, but think of the implications. We have already seen that in the political realm our chief interest is to do the duties expected of us—to pay our taxes and obey the law. If we are citizens of a republic there are additional duties we are expected to fulfill, such as sitting on juries, serving in the military, taking part in public deliberations if we have the brains, education, experience, leisure time, and the stomach for such activities. We may even run for office or exercise administrative authority. All these activities might be comprehended under obedience to the law and to the rulers in our society.
As important as our civic duties are or can or should be, our moral life we have a higher duty, comprehended in that one word charity (agape). The Greeks had another word, philia, which means, very roughly, friendship, though the first friends a Greek probably thought of when he heard this word were family members.
In the Politics [III.3-4] Aristotle virtually defines the commonwealth as a partnership of friends and family and not in terms of territoriality or mutual defense pacts or even laws guaranteeing free trade and intermarriage (though such rights are included in a commonwealth).
It is clear that a polis (commonwealth) is not [merely] a territorial partnership for the purpose of not wronging the partners and for economic exchange. For there to be a polis, these things are necessarily present, but where they are present they do not necessarily make a polis, which is, actually, a partnership of households and kindreds in living well, for the purpose of a life that is complete and independent.
The citizens of a commonwealth are interrelated, as Aristotle notes, by blood and marriage, which is why clubs and clan associations with common cults are so important. These associations arise from the feeling of friendship (philia), which is the motive for living together. Thus the good life is the end or purpose of society, to which family and associations of friends serve as the means.
A great many sermons have been preached on the imagined distinction between agape and philia and on one level there is truth, but it is the sort of trivializing truth that obscures a deeper meaning. When Our Lord was about to leave this world, he began to give his disciples some last-minute instructions, rather the way a parent instructs the babysitter on how much aspirin to give or what television the kids can watch or, rather, the way parents give Polonian advice to children going off to college. Don't worry, Jesus tells them, the Holy Ghost will come and straighten you out. He makes it clear that the disciples relationship to himself has changed: "No longer do I call you slaves because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have said you are my friends, because all things I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. [John 15.15].
Charity and friendship are thus co-terminous. At its highest level, friendship is (as Aristotle observes) a non-erotic form of love that seeks the good of the friend even more than the good of the self. In this aspect, friendship resembles that form of love that St. Paul termed agape, translated into Latin as caritas. St. Thomas asked if friendship were charity, and answered the obvious objections by pointing out that friendship is a mutual feeling that requires communication.
"Accordingly, since there is communication between man and God, inasmuch as He His communicates happiness to us, some kind of friendship must needs be based on this same communication of which it is written, 'God is faithful: By whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son.' The love which is based on this communication is charity: wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God."
Friendship, which may exist at the lowly level of fishing buddies and brothers who have grown apart but continue to do favors for each other, may rise, as we mature, to a self-sacrificing love that brings us closer and closer to God. Greater even than faith and hope, this concrete and pragmatic love of the other--and not any abstract conception of duty, rights, or equality--lies at the heart of the two Great Commandments enjoined by Jesus Christ.
In becoming friends of each other we are friends of Christ. If we recall our Aristotle, he also said that friendship and justice were, as we should say now, overlapping concepts: the sphere of friendship and justice are the same. In acting as friends and practicing charity, we thus become capable of behaving justly. Put simply, it is friendship and charity that make us morally responsible and not reason, much less schooling or government programs. If relieving the poor is really a requirement of justice and not of charity, as Leftists like to claim, then it follows that the nation-socialization of our moral responsibility is deeply evil, not just in consequences but inherently.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.