Westmont Magazine AUGUSTINE AND C.S. LEWIS ON FRIENDSHIP
by Walter Hansen
Two great teachers on friendship, St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, gave themselves without reservations to their friends. Why then did Lewis shoot down Augustine’s view of friendship in “The Four Loves?”
“In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 4.),” Lewis wrote. “Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.
“This passage in the Confessions is less a part of St Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic ‘apathy’ or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he ‘loved.’ St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine—St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil. II.27).”
Everywhere else, Lewis refers to Augustine as a respected authority. Later in the same chapter in “The Four Loves,” he quotes with appreciation: “‘Thou hast made us for thyself,’ said St. Augustine, ‘and our heart has no rest till it comes to Thee.’” Lewis rejected St. Augustine’s view with reluctance, saying, “I do so with trembling, for it met me in pages of a great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.”
I’m similarly reluctant to question Lewis, a favorite author. Since I first read “The Four Loves” in the 1970s, I’ve accepted and quoted what Lewis said about Augustine. But recent study led me to investigate the validity of Lewis’s depiction of Augustine’s “hangover.” I now conclude he was wrong about Augustine’s view of friendship. Lewis could have relied upon Augustine as a great ally to strengthen his essay on friendship love. With trembling, I offer a correction to Lewis because of the supreme value of what they both teach about friendship love.
Lewis made a minor error in his reference to Nebridius. The death of an unnamed friend, not Nebridius, caused Augustine grief. Nebridius (mentioned briefly in Confessions IV, 3) was with Augustine much later in life after his conversion (Confessions IX, 3).
His major error is misrepresenting Augustine by saying he taught we must not give our heart to anything but God, for human beings pass away. What does Augustine really say about friendship?
“My greatest comfort and relief is in the consolation of friends,” Augustine wrote. “Friendship has joys that captivate my heart—the charms of talking and laughing together and kindly giving way to each other’s wishes, reading elegantly written books together, sharing jokes and delighting to honor one another. If we disagree with each other occasionally, it is without malice, as a person might disagree with himself, and the rare occasions of dispute lend spice to season our much more frequent accord. We teach and learn from each other, sadly missing any who are absent and gladly welcoming them when they come home. Such signs of friendship spring from the hearts of friends who love and know they are loved in return, signs to be read in smiles, words, glances and a thousand gracious gestures. These are sparks that kindle a blaze to melt our hearts and fuse them inseparably into one.”
This sounds like a paragraph about “those golden sessions” of friendship that Lewis describes in “The Four Loves.” In fact, Augustine expressed this view after the loss of his unnamed friend. “This is what we cherish in friendship. … This is why we mourn their death, which shrouds us in sorrow and turns joy into bitterness, so that a heart is drenched in tears and life becomes a living death because a friend is lost.”
Augustine says, “If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker, so that in the things that please you you may not displease him. If your delight is in souls, love them in God, because they too are frail and stand firm only when they cling to him.”
The story of Augustine’s love for his friend who died is a strong warning about the destructive turn of friendship love not centered in God’s love. In his early 20s, 10 years before his conversion, Augustine led his friend away from faith to the Manichean philosophy. When this friend was sick and seemed likely to die, his family had him baptized. Augustine visited him and made fun of this, assuming he would join in. But his friend warned that if Augustine wanted to be his friend, he must cease mocking his faith. Augustine left in shock, and his friend died. Twenty years later, Augustine realized God had rescued his friend from a destructive friendship love that might have corrupted him and led him to reject his faith a second time.
Augustine learned and taught that our love for God needs to order all our loves. If we refuse the love of God and substitute God’s love with friendship love, we will impoverish and eventually destroy friendship love. Only when we love God first above all can we then truly love our friends in God.
Immediately after rejecting Augustine’s view of friendship, Lewis wrote an emotional passage on the terrifying result of closing your heart to avoid the cost of vulnerability in friendship love.
“There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
This strong warning moves me, but Lewis misleads us by implying that following Augustine’s line of teaching produces “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable” hearts. Augustine’s homilies on the First Letter of John are replete with strong teaching that loving God above all will lead us to give our hearts away in love for our friends.
“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother suffering hunger and closes his heart against him, how can the love of God abide in him? See where love begins. If you’re not yet capable of dying for your sister or brother, be capable of now giving him some of your goods. Let love stir your heart to action now, not to do what you do for display, but out of an inner richness of compassion, thinking only of your fellow human being who is in need. If you can’t give what you have to spare for you sister or brother, are you able to lay down your life for anyone?”
A study of Augustine’s relationships with his close friends reveals he gave his heart and his life to his friends. This passage in the City of God reflects Augustine’s mature reflection on suffering deep grief at the loss of a friend.
“For, if their life delighted us with the comforts of friendship, how could it possibly happen that their death would bring us no sadness? Anyone who forbids such sadness must forbid, if he can, all friendly conversation; he must ban or banish all mutual affection; he must with unfeeling savagery sever the bonds of all human relationships; or else he must stipulate that they are only to be used in such a way that the soul gets no pleasure from them. But, if this is utterly impossible, how could it be that the death of a person whose life was sweet to us should not be bitter to us? This is why the grief of a heart that is not inhuman is like a wound or a sore, for whose healing we offer our kind words of consolation.”
A PLATONIC HANGOVER?
Saying that Augustine’s mistaken view of love arose from his Platonic hangover, Lewis advises us to turn instead to Paul to learn the nature of true love.
But Augustine saw the significant deficiency of Platonism. “How could I expect that the Platonist books would ever teach me charity?” When he turned to the teaching of the Apostle Paul he found what was lacking in Platonism. “So I seized eagerly upon the venerable writings inspired by your Holy Spirit, especially those of the Apostle Paul.”
Augustine strongly asserted his recovery from Platonism. “Their pages have not the message of the true love of God. They make no mention of the tears of confession or of the sacrifice that you will never disdain, a broken spirit, a heart that is humbled and contrite, nor do they speak of the salvation of your people, the city adorned like a bride, the foretaste of your Spirit, or the chalice of our redemption. In them no one sings. No rest has my soul but in God’s hands; to him I look for deliverance. In them no one listens to the voice which says: Come to me all you that labor. They disdain his teaching because he is gentle and humble of heart. For you have hidden all this from the wise and revealed it to little children.”
DANGERS OF FRIENDSHIP
Both Augustine and Lewis warned that friendship love can lead in the wrong direction.
Augustine’s Confessions recalls the time he and his friends stole an enormous quantity of pears from a neighbor for the pleasure they enjoyed in doing something forbidden, not because they were hungry. Later, he realized he was primarily motivated by the desire to win the esteem of other men. A higher love must direct friendship love. “Friendship among men, too, is a delightful bond, uniting many souls in one. All these things and their like can be occasions of sin because good though they are, they are of the lowest order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon those higher and better things, your truth, your law, and you yourself, O Lord our God. For these earthly things, too, can give joy, though not such joy as my God, who made them all, can give.”
In “The Four Loves” Lewis also cautions us about friendship love. “But the dangers are perfectly real. Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better and bad men worse.”
Augustine’s story of stealing pears to gain the approval of his friends provides a perfect illustration of Lewis’ warning that friendship can be a school of vice.
AGREEMENT ON BROKEN FRIENDSHIP
Lewis recognized the painful necessity of setting our face against a friend who turns away from God, not out of fear of getting hurt or personal resentment but because we must love God above all. “So, in the last resort, we must turn down or disqualify our nearest and dearest when they come between us and our obedience to God. Heaven knows, it will seem to them sufficiently like hatred. We must not act on the pity we feel; we must be blind to tears and deaf to pleadings.”
Augustine discloses the cause and pain of broken friendships in his life.
“The more friends we have, and the more widely they are scattered, the more numerous are our fears that some portion of the vast masses of the disasters of life may light upon them. … We are also affected with much more painful dread that their friendship may be changed into perfidy, malice, and injustice. And when these contingencies actually occur … who but the man who has experienced it can tell with what pangs the heart is torn?”
Both men affirm that love and obedience to God requires a break with those who turn against God, and both speak about the resulting pain.
Augustine taught that friendships will endure and deepen in God by the transforming power of God’s Spirit. “If your delight is in souls, love them in God, because they too are frail and stand firm only when they cling to him. If they do not, they go their own way and are lost. Love them, then, in him and draw as many with you to him as you can. Tell them, ‘He is the one we should love. He made the world and stays close to it.’”
Lewis also taught that God’s love transforms natural human loves. “Thus God, admitted to the human heart, transforms not only Gift-love but Need-love; not only our Need-love of Him, but our Need-love of one another.” The natural loves must be transformed by God’s love in order to continue as pure, beneficial loves. The Divine Love does not substitute itself for the natural.”
Lewis and Augustine teach essentially the same thing: All human loves flourish only in the Divine love. The redemptive story of God’s love in Christ points to the true measure of friendship love revealed in Christ’s life and death. Christ taught us how to love humans in full measure with redemptive love rather than destructive love.
I hope we’ll have the pleasure of joining in golden sessions of conversation with Augustine and Lewis in the presence of our Friend and Brother, the Lord Jesus, to listen and to learn in the golden City of God.