My first earnest prayer was for a good friend.
At eight years old, I developed a haunting sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere, and that insecurity only grew more intense through high school and into college. But what I discovered there floored me and, no, it wasn’t just the friendly people.
In an honors Great Books program characterized just as much by intellectual joy as by rigor, students of all majors were mixed together and plunged into the most influential texts and the biggest questions of Western history. And after discussing enough modern epistemology, epic poetry, mystical theology, and Victorian literature in a room of political science, viola, anthropology, and business majors, I discovered the biggest idea I’ve ever seen.
Our best discussions have been the ones in which we got to know the author, cared about what he or she cared about, and tried to discern the truth they communicated. My best job interviews have been the ones in which I have gotten to know the company, articulate my understanding of what they care about, and discussed how I could help them love what they care about.
To read a book, have difficult conversations, and get a fitting job, all require that I become a good friend: to care about the other person, care about what they care about, and seek their good and the good of whatever they love. True friendship binds all things together.
My most earnest prayer today is that I would continue to become a good friend.
Today, I am a high school teacher, and it is my job to commission students to faithfully enter whatever comes next. But marriage is not a universal calling, nor is college. Nor is church ministry or a traditional job? So to what can I commission my students?
To friendship with God and man.
My class will engage the story of friendship, the biggest and best idea I know, by reading and discussing a gleefully eclectic collection of classic and modern philosophy, children’s literature, theology, and films. What on this list surprises you? I’d love to interact in the comments section.
The Classical Vision: The Flower of Ethics and the Root of Politics
Whether or not they “hit the nail on the head” in terms of friendship, the classic philosophers, Plato (Lysis) and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric), started the conversation. And they cast a big vision. Hugh Black, saw that Aristotle envisioned friendship to be “at once the flower of ethics, and the root of all political community.” Cicero took him seriously enough to urge his readers to “pursue friendship above every other human concern imaginable,” and even Jesus identified “no greater love… than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” So we will read Cicero’s Laelius: On Friendship and The Gospel of John.
We’ll spend the end of the quarter grounding these philosophers in Jane Austen’sEmma, a delightful novel featuring several complicated friendships between men and women in both public and private worlds. The goal for this quarter is to become conversant in the classical vision set for the good life, and friendship within it: How does friendship relate with happiness, virtue, wisdom, justice, politics, love?
The Christian Re-Vision: Agape and Friendship with God
Knowing that “love” occupies a major place in the good life, Christians went on to ask what place friendship has in love. If you asked the church fathers, the saints, or the medieval scholars, you’d get a hearty “Of course!” So we’ll go there ourselves, reading Carolinne White’s Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century for a survey of the fathers. Then, we’ll sit in Aelred’s classic, On Spiritual Friendship, recognizing that he takes his definition of friendship word-for-word from Cicero. Alongside Spiritual Friendship, we’ll watch the 2005 documentary, Into Great Silence, which follows the daily lives of Carthusian monks, in an attempt to develop a practical imagination for the daily life Aelred may have had in mind. For our last major text, we’ll look at Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of Charity as “friendship with God” in the Summa Theoloica (II-II.23-27,45).
After reading Aquinas, students will consider whether “friendship with God” is really a big enough category to fit all of their future imagination for family, work, and Christian ministry.
The “Good” Life: A Modern Counter-Proposal
Our modern paradigms for understanding friendship seem to have developed in the wake of two modern ideas. First, that friendship is problematic in philosophical ethics because it is essentially “preferential.” Immanuel Kant went so far as to say that Heaven will be the end of friendship, that earthly thing. Our students will engage all the major essays in the conversation: Kant’s Lecture on Friendship, Kierkegaard’s You Shall Love Your Neighbor, Taylor’s The Measure and Offices of Friendship, one chapter of Lewis’ The Four Loves, and Newman’s Love of Relations and Friends (Sermons, II.5). Finally, they’ll read what I consider the most thorough recent piece in the conversation, Meilander’s Friendship.
I think the second idea has been even more devastating to friendship: the classical vision for friendship lost major “cool points” for even being interesting to ethicists, so modern voices began to develop new grounds both for friendship and the good life. Their positive contribution, I think, is a grounded, relatable vision of friendship expressed in the non-moral (aesthetic), mundane sphere of life. After all, if most of life is experientially mundane and aesthetic, it seems to follow that our friendships must be as well.
But the implications of protecting friendship from virtue are devastating. We’ll read Alexander Nehamas’, On Friendship. He concludes his history of friendship by sighing, “Some ancients thought that friendship binds the whole universe together. We are more modest. Friendship does no more than bind a few people together.” In the modern world, friendship is no longer the flower of ethics, but perhaps “the parsley of the private life.” To begin friendship’s eulogy, I point to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents which offers a diagnosis articulates a modern view of the good of the individual and his political community that directly contrasts Aristotle’s Ethics. We’ll also watch The Shawshank Redemption, which depicts all the loyalty of non-moral friendship and begs the question: Can bad people have good friendships?
Re-Constructing the Modern Vision: Friendship and Communion
As Christians, we must be committed to the revealed truth that all things hold together in the One who laid down his life for his friends. Of necessity, we are more mystically imaginative, and we believe in the deep, moral fecundity of even the mundane spaces of life.
I’m starting this quarter with a short story by Tolstoy called What Men Live By, whose thesis is that men live not by the care they have for themselves, but by the love shown them by others. After allowing Tolstoy to freeze Freud in his tracks, we’ll look at a contemporary theological grounding of friendship in Brother John of Taize’s Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church (an idea stolen from Dr. Hill) and Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
To end the year, we’ll focus on modern conversations in “friendship thought” in a more fun way. We’ll use Inside Out to discuss the role of emotions in friendship. Then we’ll read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which imagines that friendship participates in objective Beauty and Goodness, not just in tastes and hobbies; perhaps even the mundane space of our lives have objective value. Finally, we’ll read selections from Yalom’s The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship alongside L.M. Montgomery’s delightful Anne of Green Gables to discuss the particular features of female friendship.
We’ll end by reading The Gospel of John again, asking Who is this Jesus who calls us to be his friends?
I designed this class in partnership with my friends at Wheatstone Ministries, a Christian nonprofit whose mission is inviting youth into Christian adulthood. We believe that high school students are smart, thoughtful, and ready to inhabit Christian maturity. They just need to be set free to ask questions and seek truth.
If you find yourself thinking, “Hey, I’d like to think about these things too!” or “I’d like to ask Jack to do a writing project with me,” reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org, while I continue work on designing similar (but much smaller) courses for adults. If you find yourself thinking, “Do they have a week-long summer camp version of this class?” The answer is “Yes we do! Click here.” Finally, if you find yourself thinking, “Does your school offer classes online?” The answer, again, is “Yes we do! Click here.”