on friendship and brotherhood

Brotherhood, camaraderie and friendship are important values to me. So today during a business meeting I thought about the different attitudes to friendship and brotherhood I’ve encountered:

Jesus takes a very counter-cultural attitude to friendship – it can be a hindrance to following Jesus (Luke 14:26). Brotherhood is not determined by blood, or shared experience, whether hardship or pleasure; rather is it determined by a shared purpose in doing the will of God (Mat 12:48-50). There is however also something sacred in brotherhood, to love and care for one’s brothers is to do the same for Jesus (Mat 25:40). Jesus defines love as laying down one’s life for friends, while at the same time calling his friends to do the same for each other, and in so doing, become closer to Jesus (John 15:13-15). And finally Jesus insists that his followers should not love only their friends, but should show sacrificial love to enemies as well (Mat 5:43-48).

This flies directly in the face of a statement attributed to Simonides, which states that it is right to harm one’s enemies while loving one’s friends (Plato, Republic 1.334b). By the end of that particular discourse however Plato establishes that it is never right to harm anyone, friend or foe.

A world apart from that view, William Butler Yeats had this to say in his The Municipal Gallery Revisited:

You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.

Yeats’ fallen friends, many of whom had died to accomplish great things, were to him a source of pride and longing.

Xenophon took an altogether more pragmatic approach to friends. This is what he says through a fictionalised Cyrus the Great in the Cyropaedia:

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them. (8.2.8)

Here the marks of royal friendship – the giving of gifts and expensive jewelry – are a way to showcase a king’s royal wealth and to boost the friend’s social standing. The passage above is followed by an extremely altruistic view of the royal friendship:

That [Cyrus], the richest man of all, should excel in the munificence of his presents is not surprising; but for him, the king, to exceed all others in thoughtful attention to his friends and in care for them, that is more remarkable; and it is said to have been no secret that there was nothing wherein he would have been so much ashamed of being outdone as in attention to his friends. People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (8.2.13-14)

But then Xenophon reveals a more pragmatic side of why one should want to cultivate good friends, in another passage he put in the mouth of his fictionalised Cyrus:

But I follow the leading of the gods and am always grasping after more. But when I have obtained what I see is more than enough for my needs, I use it to satisfy the wants of my friends; and by enriching men and doing them kindnesses I win with my superfluous wealth their friendship and loyalty, and from that I reap as my reward security and good fame – possessions that never decay or do injury from overloading the recipient; but the more one has of good fame, the greater and more attractive and lighter to bear it becomes, and often, too, it makes those who bear it lighter of heart. (8.2.22)

This is a very pragmatic view of friendship (and a slightly disappointing one too, given the heady passages which came right before it). Interestingly Jesus also had something very pragmatic to say about friends in this rather puzzling commandment from Luke 16:9 – ‘use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ (I still really don’t know what this passage means though, and I suspect that Jesus was not expressing the same idea as Xenophon – if this was the case why did he command his followers to love and serve their friends, even unto death?)

And of course there is the passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V (4.3)

This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

Here brotherhood and friendship is freely given to those who share (and survive!) the hardship of one particular occasion.

Brotherhood and friendship can be viewed as an idealistic, altruistic thing – look at the bittersweet, longing pride of Yeats, Xenophon’s magnanimous care and Shakespeare’s fierce love for blood brothers – but it can also be something cynical (Xenophon) or even destructive (Simonides). Jesus’ commands regarding friendship are a world away from secular views of friendship, whether idealistic or pragmatic; Jesus (and indeed the Bible as a whole) sets up a whole new value system where friendship and brotherhood are not ends unto themselves, rather they revolve around a community’s allegiance to God.

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