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Mere Friendship: Lewis on a Great Joy
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Love has been the favorite topic of philosophers, artists, poets, musicians, and religious leaders since humankind began. The Apostle John stated that “God is love,” and Jesus affirmed God’s law as the two commandments of unconditional love for God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
In The Four Loves, Lewis explores the nature, glories, and misuses of love in its four distinct forms: family affection (storge), friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), and charity or divine love (agape). He notes that “[a]s soon as we are fully conscience we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” Yet, of the four loves, Lewis says that friendship is the least instinctive, or biological, and unnecessary from simply a survival basis. In contrast, the affection of parents for a child and the earthiness of erotic love are both directly connected organically to the natural world.
However, for the ancients, friendship was generally viewed as the highest state of happiness and human fulfillment. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers friendship among people as well as between people and animals to be virtuous and necessary as a means to happiness: “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Similarly, in On Friendship Cicero writes about how honesty, unconditional giving, and truthfulness are essential among friends.
The modern world has often viewed friendship with suspicion and even derision. For many modern thinkers, friendship has appeared as superficial and insubstantial compared with the “organic loves” mentioned above. Freud discounts friendship as a separate love altogether, claiming it merely to be disguised heterosexual or homosexual eros. For such moderns, only metaphysical materialism can be true and evident, and thus friendship as mere carnal instinct must be true. However, Lewis refutes this claim by pointing out that “nothing is less like a friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”
Lewis points out that friendship embodies a spiritual relationship that begins from the companionship among peers, when two or more individuals choose to break away as they discover and wish to share some common interest. As he notes, the development of friendship involves the question, “Do you see the same truth?—Or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’” Contrasted with mere companions or colleagues who pursue a common physical goal, friends share a common interest that is more introspective and nonmaterial. And seeking friends as a material goal is pointless: “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. . . . There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice.”
Friends were among the greatest joys and blessings of Lewis’s life. He and his brother Warren were not just brothers bonded by family affection, but lifelong friends. Until his death in 1963, Lewis maintained many close friends, including a regular correspondence with Arthur Greaves, who had been his friend since childhood. His friendship with other members of the Inklings literary society in Oxford is legendary, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Christopher Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox, Robert Havard, J. A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, and Nevil Coghill, among others.
These friends shared common interests in literature, philosophy, theology, history, and Christian narrative fiction, as well as an enthusiasm for a wide assortment of other cultural and intellectual pursuits. For Lewis, though, friendship in its essence was much more than the pursuit of common interests—it was a selfless and joyous harmony among equals: “Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life—natural life—has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”
Through his close friendship with Tolkien, Lewis found God and became a Christian. Tolkien and Lewis also influenced each other intellectually on the nature of language, imagination, myth, and religion. Lewis in turn provided a matchless gift that Tolkien later described: “The unpayable debt that I owe him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.” The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, despite any ups and downs, exhibited friendship at its finest as a spiritual reality. As Colin Duriez notes in his book about Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship, “Tolkien and Lewis were alike in welcoming a sense of Other-ness—or ‘other-worldliness.’”
When Lewis met the American writer Joy Davidman in the early 1950s, they initially became close friends and only later felt eros and crossed into marriage. When friendship develops between a man and a woman, it may transition to include eros, unless conflicting relationships or other factors interfere. The fact that eros is not determined by friendship and that friendship between two people can be shared with others, whereas eros cannot, should further dispel the notion that friendship is not a distinct love in itself. Lewis carefully explains that “where the sexes, having no real shared activities, can meet only in Affection and Eros—cannot be Friends—it is healthy that each should have a lively sense of the other’s absurdity.”
Yet friendship is fiercely individualistic: friends secede or even rebel from the group, exclude others, and enjoy common interests apart from the group. Friendship is as a result commonly viewed as subversive to authorities, and majorities often portray circles of friends as “gangs,” “elites,” “cliques,” and worse. However, even in turning away from the rest of the world, “small groups” of friends can transform the world—whether for good or for bad—as each friend is transformed by friendship: “The little pockets of early Christians survived because they cared exclusively for the love of ‘the brethren’ and stopped their ears to the opinion of the Pagan society all around them. But a circle of criminals, cranks, or perverts survives in just the same way; by becoming deaf to the opinion of the outer world, by discounting it as the chatter of outsiders who ‘don’t understand,’ of the ‘conventional,’ ‘the bourgeois,’ the ‘Establishment,’ of prigs, prudes and humbugs.” In Plato’s book, The Symposium, Pausanius similarly asserts that in Greece tyranny involved the suppression of friendship.
In addition, friendship is not based on one’s social status, profession, race, or class. The easy-going Lewis and the high-strung Tolkien were an unlikely pair except for the common interests that formed the glue of their friendship. Unlike eros, friendship is not based on matters of fact, but rather on ideas and minds—on seeing the same truth. Friends come to know each other honestly based on their sharing of ideas that is based on trust and truth, but doing so is not the reason for the friendship. Lewis describes this distinction bluntly: “Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.” In his view, “This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. ...Have we here found a natural love, which is Love itself?”
But can friendship and the other forms of love become harmful or even dangerous? The ancients viewed friendship solely as virtuous. Erotic love or love of country or family affection or friendship may “become gods.” However, God’s being love does not mean that love is God. Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont phrases this idea succinctly: “In ceasing to be a god, he [love] ceases to be a demon.” Lewis notes that although a group of friends alone cannot oppress a society, it can develop into a real danger if it insulates itself from others and “disdain[s]as well as ignore[s]those outside it. It will, in effect, have turned itself into something very like a class. A coterie is a self-appointed aristocracy.” The result can be a hardened pride and contempt for others: “The snob wishes to attach himself to some group because it is already regarded as an elite; friends are in danger of coming to regard themselves as an elite because they are already attached.”
The suspicions of the majority may not be entirely wrong; as a spiritual love, friendship is exposed to a spiritual danger—pride. Friendship then exhibits a unique character among the other loves in that it alone cannot save itself. Friendship involves having “chosen one another, the insight of each finding the intrinsic beauty of the rest, like to like, a voluntary nobility; that we have ascended above the rest of mankind by our native powers. The other loves do not invite the same illusion.”
This hubristic distortion of the longing for friendship manifests itself in what Lewis describes as the powerful lure for acceptance, the desire to belong to an “Inner Ring” of the “Important People” or the “People in the Know”—“one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.” In contrast with the love of friendship, the longing for the Inner Ring is not a love at all, but a disconnected and prideful self-absorption that on its own tends to make “a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” (Lewis addresses this misdirected passion in a number of his books, especially the novel That Hideous Strength.)
Acceptance in any inner circle is based solely on excluding others, not on merit or shared interests. No Inner Ring is based on friendship, nor can it produce happiness because it is empty of the spiritual connection and luminosity that makes friendship possible. However, if in one’s work and associations with others, the soundness of the work itself becomes the end, then genuine friendship can naturally but indirectly arise among equals as common interests come to light to be shared, creating what appears to be something like an Inner Ring. In this case, however, exclusion exists as a by-product based on merit, and it is established for practical reasons and not for its own sake.
Hence, friendship exists in a nonmaterial reality or nearness to God. We do not choose friends; rather, friendship itself is chosen, and we are afforded it by a love that comes from God: “The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.” As Lewis saw it, friendship was as close to heaven as we can get in this world.
David J. Theroux is the founder and president of The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.; founder and president of the C. S. Lewis Society of California; and publisher of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Works Referenced Above (in order as they appear)
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography
Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship
Plato, The Symposium
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World
C. S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses