The first rule in the Manual for Quest Adventures is, “Always leave the beaten path and get lost in the woods”—a rule that counts double for April Fool’s, when this newsletter will appear. Therefore, I am allowing myself to trust the inspiration of something that has crossed my path and pursuing a subject different from the one I had planned. On March 24, David Brooks’ column in the New York Times was titled “The Secret of Lasting Friendships.” Although I have no secret to disclose, lasting friendship is a topic on which I feel I can speak, out of my own experience, although I will go on and sketch what the literary tradition has to say about the subject as well.
This week I had lunch with my friend and mentor Ted Harakas, whom I met when he was given the thankless task of advising me when I arrived as a freshman on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College (now Baldwin Wallace University) in 1969. It was Ted who introduced me to the work of Northrop Frye, without whose vision there would have been no Productions of Time and no Expanding Eyes newsletter or podcast. Ted is now 85, and I am 71. If you had told me back then that we would still be close friends so many years later, I would not have believed it. In addition, I arrived on campus in the company of my best friend, Dennis McCurdy, whom I met when I was 13 and he was 12—which means that we are approaching 60 years of friendship. Our friendship became the kernel around which formed a group of kindred spirits that I call the merry band. The Productions of Time is dedicated to them. We gather every few months to play music together, and always on “birthday weekend,” because my birthday is March 31 and Dennis’s is March 28, in other words this week. As Yeats says in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” “Say that my glory was I had such friends.”
Friendship is included in the imagination’s Big Picture as one of four types of love, as laid out in C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves (1960). There are people who loathe Lewis for ideological reasons, but the chapter on friendship is Lewis at his best. His fourfold typology includes the traditional contrast of Eros, or desire-love, both erotic and romantic, and selfless spiritual love or agape, the love that is called “charity” in the King James translation of the Bible. But Lewis is aware that tradition named friendship as a third type of love, philia, the main sources here being Classical: Cicero’s De amicitia and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It is from this that the city of Philadelphia gets its name, the city of brotherly love, named by its founder, William Penn, a member of the significantly-named Society of Friends. Penn envisioned a city of tolerance in which no one would be persecuted for any kind of difference, which is the reason for the setting of the early AIDS film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks. To these Lewis adds, on his own initiative so far as I know, a fourth variety of love, affection or storge, which includes family bonds as well as those of tribe or clan, and even bonds to pets.
I am going to make more glancing use of another book, Love and Friendship (1993) by Allan Bloom, a writer whose reputation was trashed by the culture wars but who was immortalized by the power of friendship, as his friendship with novelist Saul Bellow led to the fictionalized portrait of him in Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein, written when he was 85. I am in some ways at the other end of the ideological perspective from Lewis and Bloom, but one of the issues I hope to raise is whether something the Renaissance called “concord,” a social dimension of philia, a bonding despite ideological differences, is possible any longer either in the political or the academic world. Bouncing Brooks, Lewis, and Bloom off one another also raises some interesting questions about the number of one’s friends, whether friendship is always based on shared interests and values, and the role of gender.
How many friends can one have? How many friends should one have? David Brooks is also inspired by a source, the book Friends (2021) by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Despite the fact that the book is a best-seller, and despite the fact that some scientists do not think much of evolutionary psychology, Dunbar has serious credentials: academic position at Oxford, member of the British Academy, recipient of the Huxley Memorial Award. He is known for the concept of “Dunbar’s number,” the cognitive limit to the number of meaningful relationships, not merely casual acquaintances, that any person is capable of. That number is 150. That is supposedly the number of people at the average American wedding, the number of people on the average British Christmas card list, the number of people in a typical hunter-gatherer community. I have not read Dunbar myself, but Brooks says that, out of that larger number, in a series of narrowing concentric circles, people may have about 15 good friends, and, out of that about 5 intimate friends. Adjustment is made for introversion and extraversion: extraverts have a greater number of more casual friendships while introverts have a smaller number of more serious ones.
Dunbar’s magic number includes relationships beyond friendship, both in the realm of familial love that Lewis calls Affection, and also what he calls Companionship, which is not another type of love but the basis out of which Friendship arises (I’m capitalizing because he does). Companionship is gregariousness, what he calls “Clubbableness.” Sounding rather unexpectedly like an evolutionary psychologist, he speculates that it goes back to the kind of cooperation that was required in early societies, usually divided by gender. The men bonded as hunters or warriors, and socially they “talked shop”—best arrowheads, new flint-knapping techniques, that sort of thing. He says that “This Companionship is, however, only the matrix of friendship. It is often called Friendship, and many people when they speak of their ‘friends’ mean only their companions” (61). Friendship may arise when companions realize they have some kind of shared interest or value: “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’” (62). Lewis begs off talking about women’s Companionship, claiming lack of knowledge, but presumably such bonding was based on the common women’s tasks of food gathering and child rearing. He does have something to say about the possibility of friendship between men and women, at least in a society like our own in which there is no longer a rigid division of labor: namely, that it is possible, and has only been rare in the past because the segregation of men and women into utterly different realms of experience gave them nothing in common. “But we can easily see that it is this lack, rather than anything in their natures, which excludes Friendship,” he says, “for where they can be companions they can also become Friends. Hence in a profession (like my own) where men and women work side by side, or in the mission field, or among authors and artists, such Friendship is common” (68).
I would not underestimate the bond of Companionship: whether or not it qualifies as philia, it is not always merely casual and expendable, but can become, in the right circumstances, very important, even in activities that we think of as relatively superficial, such as shared interest and participation in games and hobbies. I have heard tell that the right chemistry is essential to such role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons, and such games mimic actual military dynamics. Under the pressure of a life-and-death situation, it is all-important to know that your buddy has your back. The intense bonding that takes place in team sports, those substitutes for warrior bonding, produce intense loyalties. Peacetime produces what William James called moral equivalents of war whenever it is a question of a collective activity that depends on the cooperation of an entire group. College theatre majors can bond as intensely as any football team, and not just for the production at hand, but as a way of life, a place to belong. The same is true in a conservatory, orchestra, or dance troupe, although intense rivalry within those groups often works in the opposite direction. The buddy or teammate is not a friend, although he or she can become a friend. In the Iliad, Achilles’ buddies Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax come to his tent to try to persuade him to return to battle—but already present in that tent is Patroclus, Achilles’ one true friend.
That relationship brings up another issue, the relationship of philia to Eros (capitalized as the other terms are not because Eros was the Greek god of love, offspring of Aphrodite, whom we call Cupid). Unlike Lewis, Bloom subsumes friendship to Eros, even though his introduction complains loudly of the modern reduction of Eros to sex, and the allegation that any close friendship between men is “homoerotic,” even if unconsciously. Making a messy situation messier is the controversy over whether or not Bloom himself died of AIDS. The relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad is not homoerotic, if that word means sexual—but in later tradition the two are at times portrayed as gay lovers, all the way down to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Lewis is clear that a man and a woman who begin as friends may—or may not—become lovers, and surely the same is true of two men, or two women. In book 9 of the Aeneid, Virgil, who was gay, tells the story of Nisus, who refuses to desert his buddy Euryalus, so that the two buddies die together. Virgil insists that their love was “virtuous,” but the emotionality with which he invests the scene gives rise to doubts. We are not a long way here from gay cowboys and Brokeback Mountain.
Philia differs from both Affection and Eros in wanting nothing, in being free of desire. This is the basis of the Renaissance claim that friendship is in fact superior to romantic love, because it is unselfish, giving it an odd resemblance to agape or compassionate love. When David and Jonathan in the Old Testament love with a love that is “passing the love of women,” this is what is meant. In what is probably his first attempt at a romantic comedy, Shakespeare tried to dramatize this in Two Gentlemen of Verona by having one male friend “unselfishly” offer his lover to the other as a gift, without asking the woman what she thought of the matter. If you are feeling indulgent, you may dismiss this as an error or immaturity. Even if you do not, I would credit a more mature Shakespeare for understanding, in a way that seems to me unique for his time, how important friendship is between women. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the two female leads, Hermia and Helena, speak movingly of how they grew up as “besties,” “two cherries on one bough,” and each suffers deep pain at what she sees as the other’s betrayal of that friendship out of competition for a man. Teaching the play, I have had any number of women students speak, and write, eloquently about how valued, yet how threatened, is friendship with another woman, threatened because women are conditioned to compete with one another, not just for a specific man but in terms of appearance, popularity, and so on. Somewhat surprisingly, despite its patriarchal party line, the Bible gives us a moving example of women’s friendship, that of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth.
The free and desireless character of friendship also distinguishes it in Lewis’s view from Affection, saying that “Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed” (66). It was sometimes said that one reason the sitcom Friends became so popular in the 90’s was the appeal of its picture of a group of friends who were not just free of Affection’s need to be needed but an alternative to it, an escape from the dysfunctionalities and guilt trips and demands for loyalty of modern families into a group to which one belonged by choice, in which one was accepted for what one was without all sorts of duties. I don’t know what is true now, when students seem to be constantly texting their parents, but in my generation, earlier than the generation of Friends, family was something to escape from. Friendship is also free from narcissism’s insecure need to be reassured. We all know the type of “friend” who is always keeping score, tallying every perceived failure to pay sufficient attention, every supposed bit of evidence that you might prefer another friend’s company over theirs. It is easy enough to see that this is neurosis disguising itself as friendship.
I was struck by how strongly Lewis and Bloom agree in stressing friendship’s basis in common interests, or, for those who are not reflective, common activities, or, at the very least, common values. I am still hovering over this—which is ironic, since I know exactly the deep pleasure they are talking about. Dennis and I have shared such a deep love of literature, music, and certain aspects of popular culture such as comics and folk music and shared it for long that we speak what amounts to a private language. We have learned over the years not to lapse too long into nerdspeak in the presence of others, who understandably feel left out. Not to mention all the private jokes and games. And yet, is that the only basis for friendship? Doesn’t such a reinforcing and validating of what is the same in us risk a kind of narcissism? I think we might have to add that it is the interplay of similarity and difference that truly cements a friendship. If Dennis and I (rarely) disagree about some book or song, it can be disconcerting—but also intriguing, even enticing. It is in this way that he has, over the years, widened my musical tastes far beyond what they would have been otherwise. Lewis seems to recognize this. At one point he says, “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” (62). It is that last sentence that touches upon wisdom.
I understand this too out of my own experience. I have a friend, Graham, with whom I conducted an enormous email debate during the period when I was writing The Productions of Time. I was the visionary idealist; he was the skeptical ironist. This went on for some months. We gave no quarter, and anyone reading some of it might have assumed we hated each other. Instead, we loved each other, and together we exemplified Blake’s aphorism “Opposition is true friendship.” Graham voiced, with relentless energy and a fierce wit, all the challenges, doubts, fears, and angers that are not apart from any vision of the imagination but a part of it. It is ideology that tries to eliminate opposition and achieve certitude and a unity that is really just uniformity. Imagination gives doubt a seat at the table. The Productions of Time is a better book because of Graham, all the more so because he went on to critique it in manuscript.
Aside from the sentence quoted above, neither Lewis nor Bloom really acknowledge the friendship of opposites. But just as people fall romantically in love with their opposite type, so people form yin-yang friendships, and for the same reason: vive la différence. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson, Fritz Leiber’s sword-and-sorcery duo of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kirk and Spock in Star Trek, Luke and Han Solo in Star Wars, Mutt and Jeff, Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple, later a TV series. Bloom does have a discussion of Falstaff and Prince Hal, the rogue and the prince, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. Yeats has another, and I think better, poem about friends from the past, called “All Souls Night,” the night on which he communes with their ghosts. Of the occultist MacGregor Mathers he says, “I thought him half a lunatic, half knave, / And told him so, but friendship never ends.” We do not always choose our friends because we approve of them. Sometimes we love them knowing that they are totally self-destructive. Sometimes we love them even though at times we can’t stand them: Yeats says of Mathers, “A ghost-lover he was / And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.”
A quiet contrast between Lewis and Bloom resides in their differing attitudes towards the number of one’s friends, at least of one’s close friends. Lewis’s ideal is less the duo than the close-knit group of kindred spirits, a kind of non-erotic polyamory. “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,” he says (59). “For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away’….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” (59). Given Lewis’s need to subordinate all values to Christian orthodoxy, that is quite a statement. I think it is quite likely that the warmth of feeling that pervades Lewis’s description of the friendship of small groups is informed by his own experience, by the social life of a bachelor in Oxford and, more specifically, by his membership in the Inklings, the group of scholars and creative writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and some lesser lights:
Sometimes he wonders what he is doing among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out what is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life—natural life—has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it? (68)
I am well aware that such a description is apt to provoke near-rage in those who hear in it a sentimental evocation of the good-old-boys mentality that has done so much harm to women. But it is possible distill a genuine vision out of its admixture in some quarters with a certain kind of cloistered misogyny, a vision whose literary antecedent is Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelème, an enclave of freethinking, open to women, whose motto was “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” The central chapter in Robertson Davies’ academic novel The Rebel Angels, of which Rabelais is a presiding spirit, consists of nothing but the recorded conversation, intellectual debating, and serious joking of a group in which the women scholars more than hold their own, a high-spirited dinner party in which everyone is eccentric, everyone is interesting, and no one is unkind.
Such a dinner party is not entirely fantasy. Davies may have had in mind what came to be called the Immortal Dinner, a party given by the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1817, so that the young Keats could be introduced to the famous Wordsworth, a dinner presided over by Haydon’s huge painting of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in which members of the crowd bore the faces of Wordsworth and Keats. This is one of those things that, as they say, you can’t make up. Another member of the party was a totally drunk Charles Lamb, who went around saying to people things like “Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?” upon which Wordsworth would murmur repeatedly, “My dear Charles!” When Lamb reached the point of singing “Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John” and crying “Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs!” Haydon and Keats locked him in the painting room, came back, and collapsed in laughter. The tradition of dinner party conversations mixing two parts brilliance with one part absurdity, fueled by alcohol, goes way back. The most famous of all discussions of the nature of love, Plato’s Symposium, was a dinner party conversation into which burst a drunken Alcibiades complaining of Socrates’ stubborn refusal to be seduced. Absurdity notwithstanding, however, Lewis makes a claim for the social utility of small groups of friends: “What we now call ‘the Romantic movement’ once was Mr. Wordsworth and Mr. Coleridge talking incessantly (at least Mr. Coleridge was) about a secret vision of their own” (64).
Allan Bloom focuses upon philia’s equivalent of monogamy, a single, unique, irreplaceable friendship. Whether he had personal reasons for this I don’t know, but what he is explicitly doing is laying out the contents of the essayist Montaigne’s famous essay “On Friendship,” and Montaigne did have a personal reason, namely, his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie, which was exclusive from its inception. They met at a feast “where there were many others but the two men were captivated by each other, drawing off into the exclusionary circle of their friendship, indifferent to all others. It was sudden and total” (410). It was a friendship based on ideas: “They discovered that they thought alike about the problems of their time” (416). “What an explosion of joyful recognition this must have been!” Bloom adds. “They could speak to each other without reserve, without fear of shocking each other, sharing each other’s learning, and compare their thoughts” (416).
It was because of this friendship that “Montaigne insists that a man can have only one friend, that such seamless identity is possible only once, and that having two or more friends might well compel one to choose whether to serve the good of one or the other” (413). This seems extreme to a modern sensibility, like the old-fashioned view that remarriage is impossible because marriage is once and forever. But there is something of priceless value in it, the insight that people are unique, and, although there can be other friendships, they will be different, not replacements. Bloom quotes the famous and poignant passage in which Montaigne says, “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” (427). I suspect that the difference between Lewis and Bloom is a manifestation of the problem that neither philosophers nor lovers can resolve, the problem of the one and the many, in the case of love the conflict between monogamy and polyamory, including the kind of serial polyamory we call remarriage. In friendship it is the conflict between the group of kindred spirits and the unique best friend.
We started with David Brooks’s discussion of a work on friendship from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. My favorite passage in Lewis, however, is the following: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival” (67). So much for evolutionary psychology. And yet I wonder whether that is the whole story. Each of the six books of Spenser’s Renaissance epic The Faerie Queene—one of those great, wonderful poems that nobody reads—is devoted to the exploits of one of King Arthur’s knights who exemplifies a particular virtue. The narrative strands of the two central books, 3 and 4, are woven together contrapuntally in a way unlike the other books, and form a kind of two-in-one, which is in fact a representation of their deepest meaning. The books are about love and friendship respectively. The virtue of book 3 is chastity, but its larger concern is the whole Eros tradition of Courtly Love descending from the Middle Ages, the tradition of ideal romantic love about which C.S. Lewis wrote one of the definitive books, The Allegory of Love.
The virtue of book 4 is not so much friendship itself, which can hardly be called a “virtue,” but what Spenser calls Concord, and figures as the reconciling of conflicting opposites in what the Renaissance called a discordia concors. symbolized in the narrative by such images as the marriage of two rivers, the Thames and the Medway, and by the imagery of the Temple of Venus at the book’s climax. This is not the Venus of desire but Venus as a cosmic principle that binds together the opposites of both the natural and the human world: veiled, her sculpture shows her to be hermaphroditic, a two-in-one. Book 3 displays examples of friendship that exemplify Jesus’ saying, “Greater love hath no man than he who lays down his life for his friends.” But it expands into a social dimension, because friendship is the individualized version of the Concord that binds together society: Spenser’s recurrent image is an interlinked chain, but in the Arthurian mythos Concord is symbolized by the Round Table itself. In opposition to Concord is Ate, strife.
Society is not held together by laws but by loyalty, and the crisis of democracy at the present moment has resulted from the loss of faith in a virtue like Concord, despite the fact that the American motto, “Out of many, one,” is an expression of discordia concors. Since the 1960’s, the left has attacked almost any expression of unity as hypocritical, as a cover for the domination of the ruling elites—and, sad to say, it has had some reason for its disillusionment. The right is now almost totally dominated by the worship of Ate. Social media were supposed to enable people to be “friends” able to connect in a new and distance-defying way. Instead, they have turned into a recruiting tool for Ate.
Joe Biden is often regarded as naïve because he still believes in reaching across the aisle, coming to a compromise that knits together discordant interests and groups—a process that often depends upon friendships of mutual respect between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Nor is the dismantling of Concord merely an American phenomenon, as the troubles of the European Union make clear, Brexit being only the latest symptom. And yet the alternative to the discordia concors that is “the United States of America” should give us pause. The American nation arose out of the feeling that we must all hang together or we will all hang separately. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, motivated by a cynicism that regards democracy’s discordia concors as wishful thinking, should give us pause. Perhaps it is in the process of doing so.
Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Brooks, David. “The Secret to Lasting Friendships.” New York Times, March 24, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/24/opinion/lasting-friendships-secrets.html
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. Fontana Books, 1963 (1st published 1960).