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Friendship: Chapter 1 - The Miracle of Friendship

By Hugh Black

            But, far away from these, another sort
            Of lovers linked in true heart's consent;
            Which loved not as these for like intent,
            But on chaste virtue grounded their desire,
            Far from all fraud or feigned blandishment;
            Which, in their spirits kindling zealous fire,
            Brave thoughts and noble deeds did evermore aspire.
            Such were great Hercules and Hylas dear,
            True Jonathan and David trusty tried;
            Stout Theseus and Pirithoeus his fere;
            Pylades and Orestes by his side;
            Mild Titus and Gesippus without pride;
            Damon and Pythias, whom death could not sever;
            All these, and all that ever had been tied
            In bands of friendship, there did live forever;
            Whose lives although decay'd, yet loves decayed never.

            - SPENSER, The Faerie Queene.

      The Miracle of Friendship

      The idea, so common in the ancient writers, is not all a poetic conceit, that the soul of a man is only a fragment of a larger whole, and goes out in search of other souls in which it will find its true completion. We walk among worlds unrealized, until we have learned the secret of love. We know this, and in our sincerest moments admit this, even though we are seeking to fill up our lives with other ambitions and other hopes.

      It is more than a dream of youth that there may be here a satisfaction of the heart, without which, and in comparison with which, all worldly success is failure. In spite of the selfishness which seems to blight all life, our hearts tell us that there is possible a nobler relationship of disinterestedness and devotion. Friendship in its accepted sense is not the highest of the different grades in that relationship, but it has its place in the kingdom of love, and through it we bring ourselves into training for a still larger love. The natural man may be self-absorbed and self-centred, but in a truer sense it is natural for him to give up self and link his life on to others. Hence the joy with which he makes the great discovery, that he is something to another and another is everything to him. It is the higher-natural for which he has hitherto existed. It is a miracle, but it happens.

      The cynic may speak of the now obsolete sentiment of friendship, and he can find much to justify his cynicism. Indeed, on the first blush, if we look at the relative place the subject holds in ancient as compared with modern literature, we might say that friendship is a sentiment that is rapidly becoming obsolete. In Pagan writers friendship takes a much larger place than it now receives. The subject bulks largely in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Cicero. And among modern writers it gets most importance in the writings of the more Pagan-spirited, such as Montaigne. In all the ancient systems of philosophy, friendship was treated as an integral part of the system. To the Stoic it was a blessed occasion for the display of nobility and the native virtues of the human mind. To the Epicurean it was the most refined of the pleasures which made life worth living. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes it the culminating point, and out of ten books gives two to the discussion of Friendship. He makes it even the link of connection between his treatise on Ethics and his companion treatise on Politics. It is to him both the perfection of the individual life, and the bond that holds states together. Friendship is not only a beautiful and noble thing for a man, but the realization of it is also the ideal for the state; for if citizens be friends, then justice, which is the great concern of all organized societies, is more than secured. Friendship is thus made the flower of Ethics, and the root of Politics.

      Plato also makes friendship the ideal of the state, where all have common interests and mutual confidence. And apart from its place of prominence in systems of thought, perhaps a finer list of beautiful sayings about friendship could be culled from ancient writers than from modern. Classical mythology also is full of instances of great friendship, which almost assumed the place of a religion itself.

      It is not easy to explain why its part in Christian ethics is so small in comparison. The change is due to an enlarging of the thought and life of man. Modern ideals are wider and more impersonal, just as the modern conception of the state is wider. The Christian ideal of love even for enemies has swallowed up the narrower ideal of philosophic friendship. Then possibly also the instinct finds satisfaction elsewhere in the modern man. For example, marriage, in more cases now than ever before, supplies the need of friendship. Men and women are nearer in intellectual pursuits and in common tastes than they have ever been, and can be in a truer sense companions. And the deepest explanation of all is that the heart of man receives a religious satisfaction impossible before. Spiritual communion makes a man less dependent on human intercourse. When the heaven is as brass and makes no sign, men are thrown back on themselves to eke out their small stores of love.

      At the same time friendship is not an obsolete sentiment. It is as true now as in Aristotle's time that no one would care to live without friends, though he had all other good things. It is still necessary to our life in its largest sense. The danger of sneering at friendship is that it may be discarded or neglected, not in the interests of a more spiritual affection, but to minister to a debased cynical self-indulgence. There is possible to-day, as ever, a generous friendship which forgets self. The history of the heart-life of man proves this. What records we have of such in the literature of every country! Peradventure for a good man men have even dared to die. Mankind has been glorified by countless silent heroisms, by unselfish service, and sacrificing love. Christ, who always took the highest ground in His estimate of men and never once put man's capacity for the noble on a low level, made the high-water mark of human friendship the standard of His own great action, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." This high-water mark has often been reached. Men have given themselves to each other, with nothing to gain, with no self-interest to serve, and with no keeping back part of the price. It is false to history to base life on selfishness, to leave out of the list of human motives the highest of all. The miracle of friendship has been too often enacted on this dull earth of ours, to suffer us to doubt either its possibility or its wondrous beauty.

      The classic instance of David and Jonathan represents the typical friendship. They met, and at the meeting knew each other to be nearer than kindred. By subtle elective affinity they felt that they belonged to each other. Out of all the chaos of the time and the disorder of their lives, there arose for these two souls a new and beautiful world, where there reigned peace, and love, and sweet content. It was the miracle of the death of self. Jonathan forgot his pride, and David his ambition. It was as the smile of God which changed the world to them. One of them it saved from the temptations of a squalid court, and the other from the sourness of an exile's life. Jonathan's princely soul had no room for envy or jealousy. David's frank nature rose to meet the magnanimity of his friend.

      In the kingdom of love there was no disparity between the king's son and the shepherd boy. Such a gift as each gave and received is not to be bought or sold. It was the fruit of the innate nobility of both: it softened and tempered a very trying time for both. Jonathan withstood his father's anger to shield his friend: David was patient with Saul for his son's sake. They agreed to be true to each other in their difficult position. Close and tender must have been the bond, which had such fruit in princely generosity and mutual loyalty of soul. Fitting was the beautiful lament, when David's heart was bereaved at tragic Gilboa, "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." Love is always wonderful, a new creation, fair and fresh to every loving soul. It is the miracle of spring to the cold dull earth.

      When Montaigne wrote his essay on Friendship, he could do little but tell the story of his friend. The essay continually reverts to this, with joy that he had been privileged to have such a friend, with sorrow at his loss. It is a chapter of his heart. There was an element of necessity about it, as there is about all the great things of life. He could not account for it. It came to him without effort or choice. It was a miracle, but it happened. "If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I can only answer, because it was he, because it was I." It was as some secret appointment of heaven. They were both grown men when they first met, and death separated them soon. "If I should compare all my life with the four years I had the happiness to enjoy the sweet society of this excellent man, it is nothing but smoke; an obscure and tedious night from the day that I lost him. I have led a sorrowful and languishing life ever since. I was so accustomed to be always his second in all places and in all interests, that methinks I am now no more than half a man, and have but half a being." We would hardly expect such passion of love and regret from the easy-going, genial, garrulous essayist.

      The joy that comes from a true communion of heart with another is perhaps one of the purest and greatest in the world, but its function is not exhausted by merely giving pleasure. Though we may not be conscious of it, there is a deeper purpose in it, an education in the highest arts of living. We may be enticed by the pleasure it affords, but its greatest good is got by the way. Even intellectually it means the opening of a door into the mystery of life. Only love understands after all. It gives insight. We cannot truly know anything without sympathy, without getting out of self and entering into others. A man cannot be a true naturalist, and observe the ways of birds and insects accurately, unless he can watch long and lovingly. We can never know children, unless we love them. Many of the chambers of the house of life are forever locked to us, until love gives us the key.

      To learn to love all kinds of nobleness gives insight into the true significance of things, and gives a standard to settle their relative importance. An uninterested spectator sees nothing; or, what is worse, sees wrongly. Most of our mean estimates of human nature in modern literature, and our false realisms in art, and our stupid pessimisms in philosophy, are due to an unintelligent reading of surface facts. Men set out to note and collate impressions, and make perhaps a scientific study of slumdom, without genuine interest in the lives they see, and therefore without true insight into them. They miss the inwardness, which love alone can supply. If we look without love we can only see the outside, the mere form and expression of the subject studied. Only with tender compassion and loving sympathy can we see the beauty even in the eye dull with weeping and in the fixed face pale with care. We will often see noble patience shining through them, and loyalty to duty, and virtues and graces unsuspected by others.

      The divine meaning of a true friendship is that it is often the first unveiling of the secret of love. It is not an end in itself, but has most of its worth in what it leads to, the priceless gift of seeing with the heart rather than with the eyes. To love one soul for its beauty and grace and truth is to open the way to appreciate all beautiful and true and gracious souls, and to recognize spiritual beauty wherever it is seen.

      The possibility at least of friendship must be a faith with us. The cynical attitude is an offence. It is possible to find in the world true-hearted, leal, and faithful dealing between man and man. To doubt this is to doubt the divine in life. Faith in man is essential to faith in God. In spite of all deceptions and disillusionments, in spite of all the sham fellowships, in spite of the flagrant cases of self-interest and callous cruelty, we must keep clear and bright our faith in the possibilities of our nature. The man who hardens his heart because he has been imposed on has no real belief in virtue, and with suitable circumstances could become the deceiver instead of the deceived. The great miracle of friendship with its infinite wonder and beauty may be denied to us, and yet we may believe in it. To believe that it is possible is enough, even though in its superbest form it has never come to us. To possess it, is to have one of the world's sweetest gifts.

      Aristotle defines friendship as one soul abiding in two bodies. There is no explaining such a relationship, but there is no denying it. It has not deserted the world since Aristotle's time. Some of our modern poets have sung of it with as brave a faith as ever poet of old. What splendid monuments to friendship we possess in Milton's Lycidas and Tennyson's In Memoriam! In both there is the recognition of the spiritual power of it, as well as the joy and comfort it brought. The grief is tempered by an awed wonder and a glad memory.

      The finest feature of Rudyard Kipling's work and it is a constant feature of it, is the comradeship between commonplace soldiers of no high moral or spiritual attainment, and yet it is the strongest force in their lives, and on occasion makes heroes of them. We feel that their faithfulness to each other is almost the only point at which their souls are reached. The threefold cord of his soldiers, vulgar in mind and common in thought as they are, is a cord which we feel is not easily broken, and it is their friendship and loyalty to each other which save them from utter vulgarity.

      In Walt Whitman there is the same insight into the force of friendship in ordinary life, with added wonder at the miracle of it. He is the poet of comrades, and sings the song of companionship more than any other theme. He ever comes back to the lifelong love of comrades. The mystery and the beauty of it impressed him.

       O tan-faced prairie-boy,
       Before you came to camp came many a welcome gift,
       Praises and presents came and nourishing food,
       till at last among the recruits
       You came, taciturn, with nothing to give--we
       but looked on each other,
       When lo! more than all the gifts of the world you gave me.

      After all, in spite of the vulgar materialism of our day, we do feel that the spiritual side of life is the most important, and brings the only true joy. And friendship in its essence is spiritual. It is the free, spontaneous outflow of the heart, and is a gift from the great Giver.

      Friends are born, not made. At least it is so with the higher sort. The marriage of souls is a heavenly mystery, which we cannot explain, and which we need not try to explain. The method by which it is brought about differs very much, and depends largely on temperament. Some friendships grow, and ripen slowly and steadily with the years. We cannot tell where they began, or how. They have become part of our lives, and we just accept them with sweet content and glad confidence. We have discovered that somehow we are rested, and inspired, by a certain companionship; that we understand and are understood easily.

      Or it may come like love at first sight, by the thrill of elective affinity. This latter is the more uncertain, and needs to be tested and corrected by the trial of the years that follow. It has to be found out whether it is really spiritual kinship, or mere emotional impulse. It is a matter of temper and character. A naturally reserved person finds it hard to open his heart, even when his instinct prompts him; while a sociable, responsive nature is easily companionable. It is not always this quick attachment, however, which wears best, and that is the reason why youthful friendships have the character of being so fickle. They are due to a natural instinctive delight in society. Most young people find it easy to be agreeable, and are ready to place themselves under new influences.

      But whatever be the method by which a true friendship is formed, whether the growth of time or the birth of sudden sympathy, there seems, on looking back, to have been an element of necessity. It is a sort of predestined spiritual relationship. We speak of a man meeting his fate, and we speak truly. When we look back we see it to be like destiny; life converged to life, and there was no getting out of it even if we wished it. It is not that we made a choice, but that the choice made us. If it has come gradually, we waken to the presence of the force which has been in our lives, and has come into them never hasting but never resting, till now we know it to be an eternal possession. Or, as we are going about other business, never dreaming of the thing which occurs, the unexpected happens; on the road a light shines on us, and life is never the same again.

      In one of its aspects, faith is the recognition of the inevitableness of providence; and when it is understood and accepted, it brings a great consoling power into the life. We feel that we are in the hands of a Love that orders our ways, and the knowledge means serenity and peace. The fatality of friendship is gratefully accepted, as the fatality of birth. To the faith which sees love in all creation, all life becomes harmony, and all sorts of loving relationships among men seem to be part of the natural order of the world. Indeed, such miracles are only to be looked for, and if absent from the life of man would make it hard to believe in the love of God.

      The world thinks we idealize our friend, and tells us that love is proverbially blind. Not so: it is only love that sees, and thus can "win the secret of a weed's plain heart." We only see what dull eyes never see at all. If we wonder what another man sees in his friend, it should be the wonder of humility, not the supercilious wonder of pride. He sees something which we are not permitted to witness. Beneath and amongst what looks only like worthless slag, there may glitter the pure gold of a fair character. That anybody in the world should be got to love us, and to see in us not what colder eyes see, not even what we are but what we may be, should of itself make us humble and gentle in our criticism of others' friendships. Our friends see the best in us, and by that very fact call forth the best from us.

      The great difficulty in this whole subject is that the relationship of friendship should so often be one-sided. It seems strange that there should be so much unrequited affection in the world. It seems almost impossible to get a completely balanced union. One gives so much more, and has to be content to get so much less. One of the most humiliating things in life is when another seems to offer his friendship lavishly, and we are unable to respond. So much love seems to go a-begging. So few attachments seem complete. So much affection seems unrequited.

      But are we sure it is unrequited? The difficulty is caused by our common selfish standards. Most people, if they had their choice, would prefer to be loved rather than to love, if only one of the alternatives were permitted. That springs from the root of selfishness in human nature, which makes us think that possession brings happiness. But the glory of life is to love, not to be loved; to give, not to get; to serve, not to be served. It may not be our fault that we cannot respond to the offer of friendship or love, but it is our misfortune. The secret is revealed to the other, and hid from us. The gain is to the other, and the loss is to us. The miracle is the love, and to the lover comes the wonder of it, and the joy.

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See Also:
   Chapter 1 - The Miracle of Friendship
   Chapter 2 - The Culture of Friendship
   Chapter 3 - The Fruits of Friendship
   Chapter 4 - The Choice of Friendship
   Chapter 5 - The Eclipse of Friendship
   Chapter 6 - The Wreck of Friendship
   Chapter 7 - The Renewing of Friendship
   Chapter 8 - The Limits of Friendship
   Chapter 9 - The Higher Friendship


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