C.S. Lewis on Friendship

C.S. Lewis on Friendship

There are a handful of authors who could write on almost any topic, and always be interesting. These men and women possess a rare ability to articulate, describe, and teach, making their subjects come to life. They provide color when others can only muster black and white. C.S. Lewis belongs in this rare company. He has written on a wide range on subjects, and even the most obscure of his pontifications can possess a vein of gold. I recently read one of his non-fiction works, The Four Loves, and it instantly became a favorite. In it, Lewis distinguishes between the four different loves in the Greek language. Each of these has its own chapter, eventually concluding with the greatest of loves, the gift-love of God, Agape. The most thought-provoking, though, was the chapter on friendship, where the author’s clarity of thought shined throughout.

Lewis begins by demonstrating how little attention this love is given in modern culture. Affection and Eros (romance) are two the world delights in, but he says, it would be very difficult to find a poem today expounding the beauties of friendship. “To the ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” Everyone understands a parent’s natural affection for her child; also the beauty and usefulness (for multiplying and filling the earth) of romantic love, but it seems that very few moderns recognize the value of genuine friendship. “Friendship is- in a sense not at all derogatory to it- the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary.”

Lewis also takes note of evolutionary thought, and its influence on how society thinks of friendship. There is little need for this love, in the estimation of the biologist, for the development of the species. It doesn’t promote survival, and is not necessary for the propagation of the human race. Why then, should we place any real emphasis on it? And if it is not valuable for survival (or biologically necessary), how could friendship not really be a veiled expression of romantic (even homosexual) love? Could a man truly delight in the company of another man without erotic impulses? The ever quotable Lewis responds:

“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.” 

This last point is something Lewis spends time to expound- that friendships are not founded upon an affection that two people have for one another. The interest isn’t in the person for who he is, but for a shared interest in something outside of his personality. Careful attention is paid the what he calls “the matrix of friendship.” This is explained as the pre-history of modern friendship. In ancient days, men would necessarily have to hunt with one another for the survival of the community. That men participated in this activity together did not necessarily form a friendship. It was more instinctive, “something which is going on at this moment in dozens of ward-rooms, bar-rooms, common-rooms, messes, and golf-clubs. I prefer to call it Companionship- or Clubbableness.” Companionship, though having a particular value of its own, is not friendship. “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share…The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” Men were companions if they must hunt together. They would become friends if they began to see “what others did not; saw that the deer was beautiful as well as edible; that hunting was fun as well as necessary, dreamed that his gods might be not only powerful but holy.”

Friendship inevitably sets men apart from the herd, and they gladly welcome others who would take interest in the object as they do. Because this love isn’t simply for the person, friendship is not jealous of others who might join company. These additions enhance the love, not detract from it.

“The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer…The Companionship was between people who were doing something together- hunting, studying, painting or what you will. The Friends will still be doing something together, but something more inward, less widely shared, and less easily defined; still hunters, but of some immaterial quarry…still traveling together but on a different kind of journey. Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” 

And here, Lewis makes one of the more remarkable observations on the subject, one that anyone familiar with friend-making has seen in some time and place, but was probably incapable of putting his observation into words:

“That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. 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 travelers.” 

Who hasn’t seen the person (or been the person) who wanted what she called a “friend,” though in Lewis’ terms, may have simply been longing for Affection- a person to admire her, rather than a common interest. If, according to his explanation, you have interests in things other than yourself, you will make genuine Friendships. You will have someone to journey with; someone to stand alongside. What better then, to have a romantic love who is also your friend- two people who admire one another for the qualities they possess, but can also enjoy common pursuits over the course of a lifetime spent together (in marriage)?

Because Lewis has presented the point that friends stand side by side and not face to face, it may stand to reason that a friend does not have deep admiration for his fellow traveler- that he is staring so intently at the common object of interest that he has never looked over to appreciate the friend next to him. Lewis answers:

“The common quest or vision which unites Friends does not absorb them in such a way that they remain ignorant or oblivious of one another. On the contrary it is the very medium in which their mutual love and knowledge exist. One knows nobody so well as his ‘fellow.’ Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as he rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well informed kind. 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.”

C.S. Lewis speaks out of his own deep experience on this subject. It is well-known that he was part of a friendship known as the Inklings, a group of men who gathered over the course of years, to share their love of literature and writing. It is out of this friendship that the classics, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia sprung onto the pages in the hands of millions today. He gives us a picture of what He experienced alongside his fellow travelers in these pages.

I cannot help but relate his words on this subject into the life of the local church. Is it not a common interest in something (Someone), that has brought congregations of disciples together? Not to spend time in mutual admiration (or even to form a club), but to admire our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? If not for Him, we would have no reason to gather, and nothing to mutually praise. This doesn’t mean we don’t develop admiration and affection for those we journey alongside, but it is He who bonds us together in the first place, and He who presses us forward in step with one another over the course of a lifetime, sharing our burdens and joys. God gives us these friendships as a gift, not just to sweeten life (and they do), but to provide strength and encouragement for us to live it well. I’ll close with a final word from Lewis on the subject:

“(I)n Friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say ‘You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.’ 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.They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.