The sight of old men huddled around outdoor tables, drinking coffee with one another, is familiar. In Italy, Turkey, Tunis, Buenos Aires, even fading parts of New York City—what are they talking about, in crumpled jackets and faded caps? Mostly, according to my limited eavesdropping (and before the virus shut down the conversations), they were discussing friends. There are stories of remarkable events, odd experiences, gentle quirks and sorrows, all connected to friends or quasi-friends present or absent, living or, more often, dead.
From time to time, I revisit John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Aubrey (1626–97) was one of the seventeenth century’s “genial eccentrics.” He never published his vast collection of notes on mostly contemporary Englishmen (and a few women). Instead, he left his piled pages to the Ashmolean Museum shortly before his death. Still consulted as a source for understanding early modern British life, Aubrey’s notes are hard to obtain today except in drastically abridged and modernized versions. This is a shame, for they provide a window, not onto the past, but onto the very nature of what makes us people at any time or place.
Aubrey was an early devotee of the new “coffeehouse” culture of London. He seems to have spent as much time in conversation with his cronies as traveling about and amassing the facts, figures, and anecdotes that make up more than four hundred mini-biographies he left in manuscript. Aubrey, who lost his small country estate and wandered about in debt, relying on material subterfuge to survive, saw himself as a new kind of historian. He was among the first to pursue biography through first-person interviews with his subjects or those who knew them, checking out documents and artifacts to match accounts. His initial purpose was, in part, to feed information to his friend, Anthony Wood, who was preparing a history of Oxford. But Aubrey’s deeper goals remain obscure, and perhaps changed as time went on.
For one thing, he expands his subjects to more and more networks of acquaintance, abandoning his original focus on Oxford graduates or great mathematicians for a host of worthies, wastrels, servants, oddballs, and their families. In the process, he shapes a new genre defined by its miniaturism. He accepts the fact that, as he tells Wood, his writing is but a “tumultuous” outpouring of scraps of conversation and remembrance. Many of his “lives” amount to a paragraph or two, a few short comments. In many cases he planned to go back and fill in his outlines. But in just as many he seems satisfied with small brushstrokes.
As Aubrey tells Wood, his far-flung researches have led him somewhere special: “to renew my acquaintance with my old and deceased friends, and to rejuvenesce (as it were), which is the pleasure of old men.” The word “friend” occurs hundreds of times in the manuscript, and the Brief Lives, whatever else they may be, constitute an act of friendship in which the spirits of those whose affections Aubrey has enjoyed flit across the table, their words and visages still hanging in the air.
There is much poignancy in these brief accounts. The details have to do mostly with loves and losses, virtues and their assault. Henry Coley was a brilliant tailor of women’s clothing, an autodidact who learned (and taught others) Latin, French, mathematics, and astrology “merely [by] the strong impulse of his genius.” Aubrey notes with excitement, “More is to be expected of him every day.”
John Rushworth was a clerk of the House of Commons and had four “virtuous” daughters. A man of learning who had lived through the crises of the civil wars, he descended into dementia and needed to have his nose “wiped like a child.” “He had forgotten his children before he died.”
James Harrington, the great political philosopher, likewise suffered from dementia. Aubrey remembers Harrington’s close companion Henry Neville, “whom I must never forget for his constant friendship, [and who] paid his visits as duly and respectfully as when his friend was in the prime of his understanding—a true friend.”
For Jane Smyth, Aubrey lists all her ailments and sufferings. Smyth had done him a favor through her husband. In an appended note to Wood, Aubrey seeks a favor for her in return: “I am more obliged to her than to anybody; I beseech you for God’s sake to mind this humble request of mine.”
And there is Isaac Barrow, the theologian whose scholarly concentration left him as “pale as his candle by which [he] studied.” And John Graunt, a haberdasher by trade who made important contributions to statistics. Gaunt was raised a Puritan but became a Catholic: “A man generally beloved; a faithful friend . . . a great peacemaker . . . my honored and worthy friend. God have mercy on his soul. Amen.” Graunt’s only son, Aubrey tells us, died in Persia.
What is this genre? Aubrey calls it “rejuvenescence,” that small resurrection performed in the remembrance of friends. On the road to Emmaus the disciples ask a stranger, “Have you not heard of Jesus of Nazareth?” They give their own version of his brief life, and in their speaking of their friend, seemingly dead, life is unveiled. So, too, the basis of our trust in existence comes into view. After all, a world without friends is almost one without God: So thought Aubrey, rightly.
There has been a renewed contemporary interest in friendship. Much of this current concern is driven by dissatisfaction with the public focus on marriage and family, which has gobbled up the energies of church and state alike. Friendship as a virtue has often, in our day, emerged out of exhaustion with the responsibilities of what used to be considered the normal human framework of spousal fidelity, childrearing, and honoring our mothers and fathers. These duties seem too hard; friendship is felt to be easier.
Perhaps, though, we should beware the charm of easiness. Aubrey is concerned with friends, not friendship. Rather than plot his “lives” along the philosophical map of Aristotle or Cicero, he is Baconian. Bacon compared friendship to a “pomegranate, full of many kernels . . . bearing a part, in all actions and occasions.” Friends provide multitude and latitude, not purity. Friends live—however briefly—in a given place and time. They provide the scaffolding of “being there” and “being here.” From one vantage, it is out of relations to friends that the world takes form: Friends get mixed into the dough of our projects; they are often cast off in the process or transformed into allies or enemies, who then melt into the dissipating fluid of our disappointments and forgetfulness.
By the ends of our brief lives, however, we can begin to see how mistaken our projects always were. Their once-compelling lineaments begin to blur. Our self-authored dreams lift like a thinning mist, and the world dissolves back into its basic human constituents: parents, siblings, spouses, children . . . and friends. Not friendship as a concept, but people, with whom one speaks or argues, sits and remembers. There is a way in which, around the café table, life really is resurrected, now as a set of small delights, recalled amusements, gentle regrets, and savored wonders. Compared to our once-expansive strategies for achievement, this smells of joy.
When Jesus says that there is no greater love than to die for one’s friends (John 15:13), he sets an ominously high bar for friendship. But perhaps having friends in this world is like having a scattered set of smaller and incomplete martyrdoms, sprinklings of polychromatic loves, whose place in a larger picture is not ours to assemble. Like the psalms, our lives have modest and large friendships interwoven throughout. Some of these are deeply disappointing: My own companion betrays me (Ps. 55:13)! But others are rich with an abundance, even a surplus of good: oil running down the beard (Ps. 133:2). Jesus’s own life with friends is made up of these elements, and we need not apologize for lingering over coffee or a glass of wine in order to sort happily (and inconclusively) through the bits. To say “I am wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14) is to recognize this fact in others, and recognizing it, to pay attention, to stick around, to enjoy, and, in the light’s refulgence and in its fading, to remember.
Aubrey includes, by the way, a biography of himself, shifting back and forth between first and third person, in which he says of himself, “His chief virtue: gratitude.”
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.