You Are All My Friends: C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves”

In 1958, C.S. Lewis was asked by an American Christian radio station to record a series of talks. The subject he chose was Love. The talks were duly recorded, but—in an almost farcical irony—the Brit proved too liberal for the Americans; the Episcopalian bishops supervising the project were scandalized at how frankly Lewis had discussed sex (by the standards of their time, at least; we tend to find him more quaint than anything else). “I’m afraid you brought sex into your talks on Eros,” he was told. He replied, in amazement, “How can you talk about Eros and leave it out?” The talks were never widely broadcast, instead being sent to individual stations to make their own decision on the matter and later sold on cassette for more ‘discerning’ audiences. Meanwhile, the book that Lewis then wrote based on the talks has gone on to be one of his most admired works.

The four loves discussed are arguably better described as the four faces of Love, especially since they subtly shade into each other, a point Lewis recurrently makes. He calls them by the names Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.

Lewis is certainly known, not only as a respected author in his own right, but also for his friendships with other writers and the bond they formed as the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others. Some may come to this book primarily because of the sex chapter (for reasons they may or may not talk about), but it is his words on Friendship that we probably need most.

Friendship has been one of the blessings of my life, though I don’t always get along completely well with all my friends. I am sometimes jealous of them, sometimes demand too much of them, but I have known the intimate joy that comes from people who suddenly discover, in Lewis’ words, that “they stand together in an immense solitude.”

Despite this, I’ve not always valued Friendship for its great worth, certainly not to the level that Lewis does. For better or worse, he argues, it is the one thing which truly shapes society; religion, political movements, philosophies, even the practice of mathematics, all arose because of groups of people who got together to discuss mutual interests. “The little knots of Friends who turn their backs on the ‘World’ are those who really transform it.” He doesn’t set out to do it—and it’s possible he’d disagree with me—but he obliquely makes an argument here against the conservative notion that marriage and family is the cornerstone of society. Getting people together to make and raise children might populate a continent, but only Friendship can eventually build a country. This is because, far from being a biological imperative, “Friendship is unnecessary…It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

To be sure, Lewis’ limitations lead him into rather questionable territory, such as the assertion that men and women (at least when they have no other attachments or aren’t physically attractive to one another) cannot be friends without romance coming into the equation. In fairness, he does again remind us that the loves are aspects of Love and thus overlap. Dorothy L. Sayers hit the nail on the head, though, when she wrote to a friend, “I do admit that he [Lewis] is apt to write shocking nonsense about women and marriage. (That, however, is not because he is a bad theologian but because he is a rather frightened bachelor.)”

It is our experience which teaches us. Lewis had almost no female friends (Sayers herself being one of the exceptions); I’ve been blessed with a number of them in my life, but unlike Lewis I was raised in a mixed-company culture which educates the sexes together. Sometimes Eros decides to cause havoc, sometimes he waits in the wings for a cue that never quite comes, and sometimes he leaves well enough alone and heads off to grab a drink.

In the end, Friendship is the most spiritual of the natural loves, which makes it simultaneously unfit as a symbol of Christ and His Church (when Jesus says “You are all my friends,” He doesn’t speak metaphorically; you can’t make a symbol out of the reality itself) and still a real experience of the communion of saints.

Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.

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