“Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me.” In this comedic line, Falstaff blames the people around him for his vices. While he may be stating this simply to deflect his own personal guilt, there is great truth in what he says. The company you keep shapes your character.
St. Edith Stein was a brilliant philosopher. She wrote extensively on the human person. She was particularly interested in how the people around us shape who we are. She claims that a person’s community greatly influences our own identity. As we grow and change, the people around us are like the shaping hands of a potter. To be sure, we have great freedom in how much we allow this influence on us. We are not simply passively made by others. But we would be foolish to think we are completely self-made men and women. Many people, particularly the people in our company, help shape us.
You can see this in our popular fiction. Han Solo begins Star Wars as a greedy smuggler. He’s only involved because of selfish profit. But in the end, he becomes a selfless hero. That is because Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia awakened something noble in his character. They opened his eyes to the reality that there is more to life than money. Without them, he would be another smuggler outlaw.
In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort is held up as a constant foil to the main hero. They both have a great deal in common, they both feel like life has been unfair, and they are often taken by a strong sense of rage. In one of the best scenes in the entire film series, Harry is being tortured by Voldemort and the young wizard is especially tormented by how much he has in common with the Dark Lord. But then Harry sees his friends and he says to Voldemort “You’re the weak one. Because you will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”
With that, he is able to exorcize Voldemort’s influence. The main difference between the two is that Harry knows love. He has Ron and Hermione as well as his other friends. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says that “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” These choices are influenced by the company we keep.
That isn’t to say that we are PURELY social animals with no interior and individual identity. But the the company we keep helps to shape even those internal experiences. In The Confessions, St. Augustine writes about his moment of conversion. He was by himself when he heard a voice says “Tolle Lege,” which means “Take up, read.” He followed the voice to a Bible that as open to Romans 13. There he read, ” Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Romans 13:13-14).
Augustine had been on the road to conversion before this point. But he was struggling because he loved have sexual encounters with as many women as he could. But the he could feel in his heart something changing. It finally hit a turning point when he read the passage. He has this solitary experience of reading from the Scriptures and having an internal conversion of heart. Even though he is by himself, I would argue that he would not have had the openness to those words if it had not been for the influence of those in his life. Before his conversion, Augustine had run away from home and was taken in by the Manichean cult, which told him that he could give into all of his sexual desires and still be a moral person. He remained with them for ten years, but he found he was not happy. This villainous company almost completely ruined him. But he had the influence of others who came into his life. His mother, St. Monica, was a constant source of prayers and spiritual strength. St. Ambrose had taken Augustine under his wing. Ambrose not only demonstrated great holiness, but Augustine could see in him the faith and reason bound in a harmonious bond. Without them, I do not know that Augustine would have had the openness to God in his private encounter with Scripture.
Even in our private moments, our tastes, our dispositions, and our perspectives are shaped by our company.
On a personal note, I am still best friends with people from grade school, high school, and college days. I remember on the last day of high school, one of my friends said on the car ride there, “You are my best friends. I grew up with you and because of you.” It was a beautiful statement about how friendship shapes our lives. My friends help support each other in virtue, but we also share many of the same vices. We must always be on guard that we are not being led down path of vice or (possibly worse) we are not leading others into our own vices. Friendships carry with it this danger and we would be foolish not to acknowledge this.
But my friends are such a defining part of me that I do not know who I would be without them.
The same would be true of my best friend: my wife. When God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genes 2:18) I believe it is a reflection of Stein’s point. We need another person to help shape the borders of our being.