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The Norton Book of Friendship
edited by Eudora Welty and Ronald A. Sharr
Norton, 622 pages, $25

Samuel Johnson believed that Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy made the finest bedside reading, in the morning as well as the evening, of any book he knew (and he knew a lot of them). C. S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, reflecting upon books that are good to read while eating—which must meet the same standard as bedtime books: the ideal is, in Lewis’ words, “a gossipy, formless book that can be opened anywhere”—also chooses Burton, and further recommends Herodotus, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, where, as it happens, you may find the great Doctor’s endorsement of Burton. I myself have relied over the years on Montaigne’s Essays, though I am intrigued by Oliver Sacks’ choice: some years ago he bought a photocopier so he could have a few pages of the Oxford English Dictionary handy for nocturnal perusal. Presumably he feared that lugging even one hefty volume of the OED to bed would put him in danger of being crushed to death if he happened to doze off in mid-definition.

The Norton Book of Friendship presents a new, stimulating, and relatively safe set of opportunities for the bedtime, or mealtime, reader. Eudora Welty (the celebrated Mississippi novelist) and Ronald A. Sharp have collected a galaxy of testimonies to friendship: letters to friends, poems about friends, and stories that explore the tensions and rewards of friendship, along with the classic explorations of the topic by Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, and others. The authors represent a range that extends from ancient Chinese poets to modern American diplomats. The result is a lovely book, large in its scope, catholic in its tastes, beautifully bound and printed. The book also raises, though perhaps not intentionally, some fascinating and important questions.

To be sure, one of the great pleasures of reading a book of this kind derives from compiling a list of what has been left out. How, I asked, could Welty and Sharp possibly have neglected James Wright’s lovely poem “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” or certain passages from the fiction of Austen and Dickens and Tolstoy, or Primo Levi’s moving portrait of Alberto, the friend with whom he shared the agonies of Auschwitz? Couldn’t they have made room (considering their ample attention to epistolary friendships) for some of the letters between those dear friends and great scholars Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem? Yet even as one tabulates one’s own missing favorites, there is no escaping the fact that lists of this kind always are, and must necessarily be, idiosyncratic. No doubt anthologists everywhere are cursed with having to listen to cries of protest like mine from readers convinced that their particular tastes have universal appeal.

This being said, however, I must in all seriousness bemoan one very important omission, which seems to me to open the doors to those perplexing questions I referred to earlier: there is no greater and more moving passage about friendship than Augustine’s description, in Book IV of the Confessions, of his “very dear” (but unnamed) friend, an acquaintance from childhood, a fellow student and then fellow teacher of rhetoric. “My soul could not be without him,” writes Augustine; and then, recalling his friend’s sudden illness and death, “My heart was darkened over with sorrow, and whatever I looked at was death. My own country was a torment to me, my own home was a strange unhappiness.”

It is hard to believe that so famous and so powerful a testimony to the emotional intensity of which friendships are capable could have been excluded from this anthology by accident or ignorance. Indeed, one is tempted to suspect that the editors left out this passage because it calls into question the very idea of friendship around which the anthology has been put together. As soon as Augustine calls this young man his “dear friend,” he takes it back: “But he was not in those early days [of childhood], nor even in this later time, a friend in the true meaning of friendship, because there can be no true friendship unless those who cling to each other are welded together by you [God] in that love which is spread throughout our hearts by the holy spirit which is given to us.”

It is, of course, difficult to agree with this. I, a Christian, have what I believe to be real friendships with those who are not, in Augustine’s words, welded to me in a love given to us both by the same holy spirit. True, these friendships have certain limitations that are sometimes painful to me, but then the same can be said for my friendships with my fellow Christians. Moreover, I have seen (among other places in this anthology) compelling testimony to friendships between people who are not only not Christians, but not believers of any kind. Nevertheless, Augustine’s definition raises an important question: at what point does a cordial, or mutually enjoyable or beneficial relationship become a friendship? Joseph Epstein once published a wonderful essay entitled “A Former Good Guy and His Friends.” In it Epstein, referring to Plutarch’s claim that a person needs no more than seven friends in his or her life, writes:

I can think of exactly seven friends, very good friends, whose death or disappearance from my life would devastate me. I can think of a second tier of ten or so friends who enrich my life but with whom the same degree of easy intimacy and depth of feeling does not quite exist. I can think of a third tier of twenty or so people whom I am always pleased to see or hear from, in whose company I feel perfectly comfortable, and with whom I believe I share a reciprocal regard.

At this point Epstein asks whether the people in this third tier, who certainly are “more than acquaintances,” really should be called “friends.” “There ought to be a word,” he suggests, “to denote relationships that fall between that of acquaintance and friend.” In fact, there may be such a word: C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves argues that on a level below genuine friendship—philia, which in Greek tradition is truly a form of love, just as much as eros (sexual love) or storge (familial affection)—lies companionship. Perhaps Epstein’s third tier is made up of his companions. Indeed, I wonder if his second tier isn’t also made up of companions, if we were to be properly strict in limiting the title of friendship to those whom we love.

In any case, Welty and Sharp aren’t in the least interested in such restrictions: if Augustine’s rigid definition of friendship is at one end of the scale, and Lewis’ not much closer to the center, Welty and Sharp stand at the opposite extreme. If Augustine, or Lewis, had been assigned to give this book a title, the cover would likely read The Norton Book of Companionship, Conviviality, Acquaintanceship, Shared Interests, Mutual Admiration, Cordial Rivalry, and (Every Once in a While) Genuine Friendship. And indeed, such a title would be more accurate than the one the book now bears. T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx admired each other’s work, and got to meet once or twice—Groucho’s letter to his brother Gummo, describing the inadvertently comic dinner at Eliot’s house during which Groucho wanted to talk about poetry and TSE about Duck Soup, is justly famous—but mutual admiration is not the same as friendship. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to and about Hemingway, which contain, in equal parts, flattery and recrimination, suggest that two men who are talented in the same field are more likely to become rivals than friends. Perhaps the oddest entry of all is the excerpt from George F. Kennan’s memoirs in which that long-time student of the Soviet Union got to meet Mikhail Gorbachev. True, Gorbachev greeted Kennan with surprising grace and warmth and the whole episode makes a fine story, but what is it doing in an anthology about friendship? If Catholicity-of-Taste were a character in Pilgrim’s Progress, like Valiant for Truth, he would occasionally tumble into the Ditch of Incoherence.

It is very likely no accident that the examples most illustrative of this incoherence are modern ones. The selections from ancient Greece, Rome, and China, along with those from the Renaissance and Enlightenment, clearly conform more closely to Lewis’ understanding of friendship as a form of love, and to the Aristotelian emphasis on friendship as a virtue, than do most of the modern selections. Now, in the eternal warfare between what the poet W. H. Auden called the Arcadians and the Utopians—those whose memory constructs an ideal past and those whose imagination constructs an ideal future—I myself am prone to take the Arcadian side. But even so, I cannot dismiss the conviction that the more recent selections in this anthology rarely represent anything that deserves to be called friendship, while the older selections mostly do.

“Older,” “more recent”—where is the dividing line? Possibly it is to be found in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the neoclassicism of the Enlightenment was beginning to give way to the Romantic, which is to say the modern, sensibility. Two contrasting letters, taken from the anthology, will suffice to illustrate the point. Samuel Johnson had a friend named George Strahan, who feared that he had behaved in such a way as to end his relationship with the great Doctor. Johnson’s reply demonstrates in equal measure the great classical virtue of magnanimity and the great Christian virtue of forgiveness.

You are not to imagine that my friendship is light enough to be blown away by the first cross blast, or that my regard or kindness hangs by so slender a hair, as to be broken off by the unfelt weight of a petty offence. I love you, and hope to love you long. You have hitherto done nothing to diminish my goodwill, and though you had done much more than you have supposed imputed to you my goodwill would not have been diminished.

I write thus largely on this suspicion which you have suffered to enter your mind, because in youth we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity, but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them.

These concessions every wise man is more ready to make to others as he knows that he shall often want them for himself; and when he remembers how often he fails in the observance or cultivation of his best friends, is willing to suppose that his friends may in their turn neglect him without any intention to offend him.

When therefore it shall happen, as happen it will, that you or I have disappointed the expectation of the other, you are not to suppose that you have lost me or that I intended to lose you; nothing will remain but to repair the fault, and to go on as if it never had been committed.

Johnson wrote this letter on July 14, 1763. Six years earlier, on December 17, 1756, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had written to a certain Madam d’Épinay, who had attempted to reconcile Rousseau with his former friend Denis Diderot.

Since we are discussing this subject, I should like to make a declaration to you as to what I require from friendship, and as to what I desire to exhibit in it in my turn.

Blame freely what you find blamable in my rules, but do not expect to find me easily departing from them; for they are drawn from my disposition, which I cannot alter.

In the first place, I wish my friends to be my friends, and not my masters; to advise me without claiming to control me; to enjoy all kinds of rights over my heart, none over my freedom. I consider those persons very singular who, under the name of friends, always claim to interfere in my affairs without telling me anything about theirs.… When [my friend] remonstrates with me, whatever tone he adopts, he is within his rights; when, after having listened to him, I follow my own inclination, I am within mine; and I greatly dislike anyone to keep eternally chattering to me about what is over and done with.

Rousseau goes on in this vein for several hundred more words and concludes: “I require from a friend even a great deal more than all I have just told you; even more than he must require from me, and than I should require from him, if he were in my place, and I were in his.” This is as close as Jean-Jacques comes to what he promised at the beginning of this brief lecture, namely, his view of his responsibilities in friendship.

Though Johnson wrote his letter six years after Rousseau wrote his, it is clear that Johnson’s understanding of friendship belongs (in a truly Arcadian formulation) to the world we have lost, Rousseau’s to the world we have inherited. For Johnson, friendship must be cultivated with delicate care and rigorous self-discipline before it can bear fruit: youthful pride shuns such discipline, but experienced humility knows that without it there will be no fruit, no sustenance for the spirit. In friendship, as in all else, the incessant demands of the Self must be repudiated so that the emotional and spiritual health of the Person may be achieved. As Johnson wrote in one of his Idler essays, “Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense; but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.”

But Rousseau, to continue Johnson’s medical metaphor, is a kind of anorexic: having consistently refused the nourishment of genuine friendship, fearing some violation of the sleek purity of the imperial self, he lies upon his deathbed congratulating himself for having avoided unhealthy eating. Rousseau’s self-deception is immense: he believes that someone can have a claim upon his “heart” without infringing upon his “freedom.” What can this mean? Any form of human attachment compromises one’s freedom by bringing another’s needs, and often another’s suffering, into one’s own life; that is the price to be paid for such attachment. Of course, not everyone is willing to pay that price—witness the Buddhist doctrine of nonattachment. But Rousseau will not even admit that a price is to be paid; he insists that he can have the benefits of friendship without having to give anything in return. Such a view of friendship turns friends into nothing more than potentially entertaining shadows passing along the wall of one’s personal Platonic cave. A more honest and self-aware man than Rousseau at least would have acknowledged the isolation that the imperial notion of selfhood always brings: heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. Or, as Milton’s Satan put it, in a moment of bravado, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, would reject all such formulations: he had lived often enough in the hell of friendlessness to be willing to be George Strahan’s servant—which is to say, his friend.

The Romantic cult of selfhood, then, is in large part responsible not only for the scarcity in our culture of real friendship, considered as a love and as a virtue, but also for our general inability to realize that anything is missing. Companionship, and relations more tentative still, may be confused with friendship only when a truly vibrant model of nonerotic, nonfamilial relations cannot be found. Aristotle wrote that no one would wish to live without friends, even if he or she had every other worldly good, but then Aristotle had not met Rousseau or his innumerable progeny.

Nevertheless, there are times when harsh circumstances force the imperial self off its throne, and demand a reconnection with humanity that makes friendship not only possible but necessary. In The Norton Book of Friendship the clearest examples of this derive from war, especially the Second World War: a moving exchange between two German intellectuals living in America, the novelist Thomas Mann and the scholar Erich Kahler, Elie Wiesel’s account (from Night) of the power of friendship, and the power of music, on a forced march to Buchenwald. The ideological conflicts of the Cold War make an appearance too, for instance in the letters between Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak. For these people, enormous socio-political conflicts make demands upon us that friendships help us to tolerate, balance, and assess. The great Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote that in times of terror (he was thinking particularly of the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War) poetry can become “as necessary as bread” because of its power to remind us, in bestial circumstances, of what it means to be human. Friendship clearly can have the same civilizing and reassuring effect.

It should be noted, however, that a particularly dangerous counterfeit of friendship may afflict people living in such times. E. M. Forster writes that, when one lives in an “Age of Belief”—by which he meant passionate and often closed-minded ideological commitment—one may sustain oneself with “personal relationships.” Which sounds innocent enough, but in that same essay Forster puts forth the most notorious claim of his long career: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country”—a statement which, forty years later, Sir Anthony Blunt would cite to explain why he had chosen to betray his country instead of his “friends,” the Soviet spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. Here friendship, or more accurately the hatred of bourgeois beliefs and attitudes which bound together these gifted Cambridge men, and which was as close as they could come to friendship (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), serves to justify the profoundest evil.

In light of all this, Augustine’s suggestions about the relations between friendship and Christian belief seem to merit some reconsideration. Unfortunately, The Norton Book of Friendship doesn’t offer much help in this regard. Except for the usual biblical pairings (Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan), a Hasidic tale retold by Eli Wiesel, and a few letters from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge—from which, by the way, one would be virtually unable to tell that either man was a believer—the anthology offers almost no specifically Jewish or Christian pictures of friendship. Could it really be, then, that the West only shows a serious interest in friendship when it emphasizes its classical more than its biblical inheritance?

Gilbert Meilaender, in his 1981 book Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics, does point to a tendency among Christian thinkers to see ethical dangers in the “preferential” nature of friendship. Meilaender quotes Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth-century Anglican divine: “When friendships were the noblest things in the world, charity was little.” In other words, when the ancient Greeks and Romans emphasized the great virtue of friendship, they neglected to care for those who stood outside philia’s charmed circle. Samuel Johnson, as was his wont, formulated the potential problem with exemplary clarity (though in a way perhaps inconsistent with his own great capacity for friendship): “All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others.… Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren; which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers.”

Meilaender rightly questions whether Johnson’s statement of the problem is wholly accurate (though not, in my view, as aggressively as he might have). He tends to emphasize the potential areas of conflict between philia and agape, and thus if he does not share Johnson’s conclusion, is nevertheless sympathetic to his concern. But there is another way to consider the issue. A friend who, for instance, requires me to ignore the needs of the poor and the suffering, to repudiate the commandment of my Savior to aid and comfort them, so that I might do his bidding instead, is likely to be no more capable of genuine friendship than Rousseau. Here the Greek understanding of friendship as dependent upon a shared cultivation of the virtuous life seems not to contradict the Christian message but to suggest the proper parameters and the proper role of friendship in the pursuit of holiness. I am reminded in this context of a vivid image from C. S. Lewis: “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”

Nevertheless, when one tries to think of great Christian friendships, few come to mind, and oddly enough, the first two that pop up involve a man and a woman (The Norton Book’s friendships are almost all same-sex). We have Heloise and Abelard, late in life, when she was an abbess and he an abbot—though to be sure, a great deal of suspicious scrutiny has been given to that friendship, naturally enough in light of their earlier erotic relationship. The same kind of scrutiny has been given to St. Francis and St. Clare, though for much less reason. Bonhoeffer and Bethge were indeed great Christian friends. Augustine and Alypius were close even before they became Christians almost simultaneously. As a teacher of English literature, I also tend to think of George Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar, William Cowper and John Newton (an asymmetrical friendship, thanks to Cowper’s profound mental and spiritual afflictions and Newton’s attentiveness to them), Flannery O’Connor and several of her correspondents. C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams are candidates, and there is Lewis’ troubled and inconsistent friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien. Tractarianism was, as Lewis says in The Four Loves, a movement that began in a series of friendships.

Even as I list these, however, I am aware that when Christians become especially close to one another we tend not to refer to them as friends: rather, we follow the biblical pattern and call them “brothers and sisters in Christ.” A true enough naming, but a distinction needs to be made. After all, when Lewis and Tolkien fell out with each other and for all practical purposes ceased to be friends, they did not cease to be brothers in Christ, a point with which both would have been quick to agree. Friendship, as most commentators on the subject have pointed out, is a willed, a chosen thing (otherwise it could not be a virtue). But we do not choose our brothers and sisters in Christ, nor that larger family of all humanity to which we have unalterable obligations. Bonhoeffer and Bethge were brothers in Christ, but they were also friends; each of them had other brothers in Christ who were not friends, and perhaps friends who were not brothers in Christ.

Such distinctions pose questions that cannot be answered, but only listed. How (if at all) do our responsibilities to our Christian friends differ from those we bear towards other brothers and sisters in Christ? If we have unbelieving friends, what happens when our obligations to them conflict with our obligations to our fellow Christians? (As St. Paul says in Galatians 6:10, “Let us work for the good of all, especially members of the household of faith” [emphasis added].) How does our understanding such friendships change when we see them in the light of biblical commands to proclaim the Gospel, to defend our faith, to bear witness to the saving power of Christ?

These questions lead to another, in some ways just as important: why is Meilaender’s book such a curiosity? Which is to say, why are there so few attempts, by Christians anyway, and for all I know by Jews, to formulate a theology of friendship?

The Norton Book of Friendship came to me first as an entertaining bedtime book, “gossipy and formless” indeed, agreeable and entertaining. But with subsequent readings I have come to think of this book as compelling testimony to a profound cultural poverty. Real friendship, all the authorities agree, has always been rare, but it has often been sought after, and celebrated when found. Among the most celebrated of all friendships is that between Michel de Montaigne and Étienne de la Boétie, which lasted only four years before Boetie’s untimely death. So deep was Montaigne’s grief that, over a period of decades, he wrote his magnificent Essays largely as compensation for the wonderful conversations he had once enjoyed but would never have again. In this friendship (and note the present tense in the first sentence), “our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” Few people, in any age and in any culture, have had a friendship like this one; but how many people in our world can comprehend, or even imagine, the experience Montaigne describes?

Alan Jacobs is a contributing writer for First Things and a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University.