There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.
Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious.
Sometime c. 1267 Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote a short piece De regno ad regem Cypri or On Kingship To The King of Cyprus. The quotes above come from book 1, chapter 11, paragraph 77 in fuller context and a slightly different translation (the Latin is also included at the link above):
First of all, among all worldly things there is nothing which seems worthy to be preferred to friendship. Friendship unites good men and preserves and promotes virtue. Friendship is needed by all men in whatsoever occupations they engage. In prosperity it does not thrust itself unwanted upon us, nor does it desert us in adversity. It is what brings with it the greatest delight, to such an extent that all that pleases is changed to weariness when friends are absent, and all difficult things are made easy and as nothing by love.
I’ve been reading a book recently that demonstrates this point, The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writings, Ideas, and Influence by Colin Duriez. Friendship, good friendship unites us and preserves and promotes virtue. Certainly it did so for C. S. Lewis and his friends. J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and more. Friendship allows the safety to explore and test ideas and to grow. It was the Christian commitments of his friends, men he could argue with, getting below the surface level discussion that brought Lewis (back) to Christ and church.
Materialism was sweeping the academic landscape as Lewis returned to Oxford after the first World War and matured as a scholar. Lewis accepted this as liberating. In Surprised by Joy he writes:
In my first two years at Oxford I was busily engaged (apart from “doing Mods” and “beginning Greats”) in assuming what we may call an intellectual “New Look.” There was to be no more pessimism, no more self-pity, no flirtations with any idea of the supernatural, no romantic delusions. In a word, like the heroine of Northanger Abbey, I formed the resolution “of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense.” (p. 199, Surprised by Joy)
Those who’ve read Northanger Abbey (one of my favorite Jane Austen books) will get the allusion. No romantic delusions. For Lewis this meant no God.
Lewis and his friends would discuss philosophical ideas at length and, as steel sharpens steel, resulted in better formed arguments and changed perspectives. Owen Barfield had embraced Christian ideas (with an “interesting” twist) and the “Great War” between Lewis and Barfield over these ideas played an important role in Lewis’s eventual conversion.
Barfield’s arguments in their incessant “Great War” began to erode Lewis’s espousal of the “New Look.” Under his influence, Lewis saw that a dominant myth of his time was that of progress. Change itself had a supreme value in the modern world. … He came to see, however, that the “New Look” had the effect of blinding us to the past. One important consequence is that we lose any perspective upon what is good and what is bad in our own time. He explained in Surprised by Joy, “Barfield … made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (p. 71-72)
Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, and Lewis, at the time an atheist, would also talk long into the night or meet regularly in the morning, with conversations that ranged far and wide. His friendship with Tolkien broke down prejudices and “proved crucial to his abandonment of atheism and conversion to Christianity.”(p. 104) They led him to see the inadequacies and inconsistencies of his views.
Many of the details of Lewis’s conversion are interesting, and relevant yet today in a world (at least an academic world) where secular materialism is in the air we breathe and water we drink. His conversations with Tolkien helped convince Lewis that myths are “essential for coming into contact with reality: it is a mistake to regard them simply as “lies” or mere fictions.” (p. 121) Lewis later referred to the incarnation as myth become fact. In an essay now included in God in the Dock he wrote “Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” (p. 58 God in the Dock). However, although the content of the conversations between Tolkien and Lewis, or Lewis and others of his friends, played an important role, the crucial central role was played by true friendships which allowed for these conversations in the first place.
Though hugely generous with his friendship, much later in life Lewis wrote of his appreciation of having a group of Christian friends in particular. He saw them as participating in a feast in which God “has spread the board and it is he who has chosen the guests.” (p. 124-125)
The gift of friendship is a gift to be cherished, facilitated, and nourished. With friendship comes the opportunity to talk, to disagree, to grow. Friendship is nourished through shared meals, walks (a favorite pastime of Lewis’s), and in other informal settings.
We need friends, groups of friends.
I’ll come back to this theme in a later post covering the rest of Duriez’s book, the 30’s, the war years, and beyond.
What role should friendship play in our lives and churches?
What can we do to create space for friendship?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.