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What C. S. Lewis Says About Friendship


A ‘friend’, according to the dictionary, is ‘a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations’. It comes from the Old English frēond, of Germanic origin, and is related to Dutch vriend and German Freund, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to love’, shared by ‘free’.

Friendship, Lewis says in The Four Loves, as such, is less valued in modern times compared to the way it was viewed in earlier periods. What makes it distinctive to the degree that it has suffered this devaluation?

The first and most obvious answer is that few value it because few experience it. And the possibility of going through life without the experience is rooted in that fact which separates Friendship so sharply from both the other loves. Friendship is - in a sense not at all derogatory to it - the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary. It has least commerce with our nerves; there is nothing throaty about it nothing that quickens the pulse or turns you red and pale. It is essentially between individuals; the moment two men are friends they have in some degree drawn apart together from the herd.

The modern era has grown to distrust Friendship for precisely the reasons that people in ancient and mediaeval times favoured it: it has no biological basis. This was an advantage to people of earlier periods, who were suspicious of the material and biological; it’s a disadvantage to modern people, who are suspicious of the spiritual.

This (so to call it) ‘non-natural’ quality in Friendship goes far to explain why it was exalted in ancient and mediaeval times and has come to be made light of in our own. The deepest and most permanent thought of those ages was ascetic and world-renouncing. Nature and emotion and the body were feared as dangers to our souls, or despised as degradations of our human status. Inevitably that sort of love was most prized which seemed most independent, or even defiant, of mere nature.

Friendship - so rational, so freely chosen, so divided from the world of emotion - seemed to be close to a divine condition.

But then came Romanticism and ‘tearful comedy’ and the ‘return to nature’ and the exaltation of Sentiment; and in their train all that great wallow of emotion which, though often criticised, has lasted ever since. Finally, the exaltation of instinct, the dark gods in the blood; whose hierophants may be incapable of male friendship. Under this new dispensation all that had once commended this love now began to work against it. It had not tearful smiles and keepsakes and baby-talk enough to please the sentimentalists. There was not blood and guts enough about it to attract the primitivists. It looked thin and etiolated; a sort of vegetarian substitute for the more organic loves.

The growth of the influence of evolution as an accepted theory of existence also assisted in the decline of Friendship. Friendship had no apparent link with our DNA. Friendship also separates out individual from the collective ‘herd mentality’; it is in a way more dangerous than solitude because it forms sub-groups, and sub-groups can turn into rebellions against the status quo. It selects people as friends - and therefore people who are not friends. Political leaders can feel uncomfortable when individual friendships take shape amongst those whom they lead.

Lewis then dismisses the argument that all Friendship is disguised homosexuality:

Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend. The rest of us know that though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways 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. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best.

Lewis argues that, in Friendship, we see more of a person when more of us see him or her:

Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest.

Though Friendship is non-organic, it is necessary to the group because it gives rise to Companionship. Companionship, in the form of the club or the sub-group, can be valuable to the community as whole. But true Friendship is something which also grows out of Companionship:

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’… It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.

This solitude is something which Eros seeks in the form of privacy, but Friendship might even find irksome: ‘The first two would be glad to find a third.’

Friends need not agree about everything, they just have to perceive that something is important in common to both. Politically, friends may be on opposite sides, but they can be friends if both consider politics as a subject important. Whereas we picture lovers face to face, friends are best imagined side by side, looking at the same thing. And that’s why people find friendships hard to make if they have few or none:

The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be ‘I see nothing and I don't care about the truth; I only want a Friend’, no Friendship can arise - though Affection of course may. 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. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.

That is of course important when examining how relationships really work: those who are seeking friends for the sake of having friends are focusing very much on the inward arrow and are therefore likely to fail. Friendships have opportunities to flourish when the individual focuses outward onto the world and its many aspects.

Friendship can transmute into Eros easily when friends are of opposite sexes, just as Eros can lead to Friendship. But Eros doesn’t want to be shared with more than the lover, whereas Friendship wants more people involved. In Lewis’s view:

Nothing so enriches an erotic love as the discovery that the Beloved can deeply, truly and spontaneously enter into Friendship with the Friends you already had: to feel that not only are we two united by erotic love but we three or four or five are all traveller's on the same quest, have all a common vision.

Any great movement became a movement because one, then two, then three, then more people got together and discussed and expanded upon a ‘common vision’:

The whole list, if accepted, would tend to show, at best, that Friendship is both a possible benefactor and a possible danger to the community. And even as a benefactor it would have, not so much survival value, as what we may call ‘civilisation value’; would be something (in Aristotelian phrase) which helps the community not to live but to live well.

Such ‘projects’ are taken up into the community as it needs them, not as part of a plan:

Religions devised for a social purpose, like Roman emperor-worship or modern attempts to ‘sell Christianity as a means of saving civilisation’, do not come to much. The little knots of Friends who turn their backs on the ‘World’ are those who really transform it.

Friendship hovers on the edges of Affection, and can become it, but is a distinct affair of its own:

A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien, to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing.

The distinction is that between a Need-love (like Affection, mainly) and a Gift-love:

Friendship is utterly free from Affection's need to be needed. We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary - and now, for heaven's sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped ‘Don't mention it’ here expresses what we really feel. The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all. It was a distraction, an anomaly. It was a horrible waste of the time, always too short, that we had together. Perhaps we had only a couple of hours in which to talk and, God bless us, twenty minutes of it has had to be devoted to affairs.

If Friendship is to have duration it is involved in the exploration of the unknown together; if it is to have depth, it is preoccupied with solving mysteries together; the right thing to do in Friendship is important, but what matters is that it is done together.

For of course we do not want to know our Friend's affairs at all. Friendship, unlike Eros, is uninquisitive. You become a man's Friend without knowing or caring whether he is married or single or how he earns his living. What have all these ‘unconcerning things, matters of fact’ to do with the real question, Do you see the same truth?

We don’t want to know anything about our friend as such: we want to know about whatever it is that has drawn us together. In that sense, the outward-looking nature of Friendship is more like a Gift-love. It contributes to the filling of external vacuums rather than needing input. In Friendship, to put it another way, context is all: the Bigger Picture (whether that be about politics or religion or art or literature or science or whatever) dominates. The context of our individual lives is reduced to almost nothing:

We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

In that sense, Friendship is all entirely unnecessary to everything but itself: it doesn’t contribute anything to the rest of our lives, only to its own interest. But while it doesn’t help with anything else directly, it can make everything else more worthwhile. In Friendship our attention is on the thing that the Friendship is about, rather than the friend:

If, at the outset, we had attended more to him and less to the thing our Friendship is ‘about’, we should not have come to know or love him so well. You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him.

And so Lewis wonders if, in Friendship, we have found a ‘perfect’ love:

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. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels. Have we here found a natural love, which is Love itself ?

Lewis warns us that ‘spiritual’ doesn’t necessarily mean exclusively ‘holy’. A group friends can be a joy but can also become an exclusive group, and the topic which draws people together as friends may not be a healthy or worthy one:

It was wonderful when we first met someone who cared for our favourite poet. What we had hardly understood before now took clear shape. What we had been half ashamed of we now freely acknowledged. But it was no less delightful when we first met someone who shared with us a secret evil. This too became far more palpable and explicit; of this too, we ceased to be ashamed. Even now, at whatever age, we all know the perilous charm of a shared hatred or grievance.

Friendships can strengthen values and virtues, but they can also reinforce prejudices and perversions. And each group of friends has to some degree, either very slight or very great, divorced itself from the collective mentality around it.

In each knot of Friends there is a sectional ‘public opinion’ which fortifies its members against the public opinion of the community in general. Each therefore is a pocket of potential resistance. Men who have real Friends are less easy to manage or ‘get at’; harder for good Authorities to correct or for bad Authorities to corrupt.

And so the hazards of this kind of love start to become apparent - Friendship is ambivalent. Of course, people who share a common interest, good or bad, are going to want to meet and are automatically going to exclude those who don’t share that interest. The real danger, according to Lewis, is that the attention of that group upon its interest may spread or become more general:

The danger is that this partial indifference or deafness to outside opinion, justified and necessary though it is, may lead to a wholesale indifference or deafness. The most spectacular instances of this can be seen not in a circle of friends but in a Theocratic or aristocratic class …To discount the voice of the peasant where it really ought to be discounted makes it easier to discount his voice when he cries for justice or mercy. The partial deafness which is noble and necessary encourages the wholesale deafness which is arrogant and inhuman.

This is the beginning of a class - a group which excludes others and considers itself superior in some way to those others.

We seek men after our own heart for their own sake and are then alarmingly or delightfully surprised by the feeling that we have become an aristocracy. Not that we'd call it that. Every reader who has known Friendship will probably feel inclined to deny with some heat that his own circle was ever guilty of such an absurdity. I feel the same. But in such matters it is best not to begin with ourselves. However it may be with us, I think we have all recognised some such tendency in those other circles to which we are Outsiders.

This can become so deadly that ‘the Friendship may be "about" almost nothing except the fact that it excludes’. And that exclusion, which is inevitable by definition, is also the prime danger.

From the innocent and necessary act of excluding to the spirit of exclusiveness is an easy step; and thence to the degrading pleasure of exclusiveness. If that is once admitted the downward slope will grow rapidly steeper…The common vision which first brought us together may fade quite away. We shall be a coterie that exists for the sake of being a coterie; a little self-elected (and therefore absurd) aristocracy, basking in the moonshine of our collective self-approval.

Pride, then, is the sin to which Friendship seems most liable. As an intellectual relationship, it is vulnerable to an intellectual offence.

Affection obviously requires kinship or at least proximities which never depended on our own choice. And as for Eros, half the love songs and half the love poems in the world will tell you that the Beloved is your fate or destiny, no more your choice than a thunderbolt, for ‘it is not in our power to love or hate’. Cupid's archery, genes - anything but ourselves. But in Friendship, being free of all that, we think we have chosen our peers.

Friendship, then, teaches us several things.

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