A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. –Proverbs 18:24
It is being reported that select schools in the UK are now forbidding students to have best friends in favor of group play. The primary reason cited for the policy is the potential pain a child might feel when the friendship is broken. That certainly is a pain we all know, we have all felt.
But to deny the pain of losing a close friend is also to deny the joy in having one. It is ultimately to deny human nature itself. Aristotle observes this when he notes “man is by nature a social animal.” One who is sufficient unto himself–without need of friendship–he writes, “is either a beast or a god.” Aristotle rightly says, “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.”
The potential for the pain of loss we accept because by nature we crave, and fundamentally need, close friends. In a fallen world that inevitably leads to pain, man seeks to rise above the beast as he strives to be holy like God. But until the resurrection we will be caught between the two: a material body like a beast created in the likeness, and filled with the holy breath, of the Creator.
This rejection of friendship, and thus human nature, is the very opposite of conservatism. It is utopianism that denies the fall and rejects the particular. Man escapes the pain of the loss of a friend by instead embracing the pain of loneliness, a state that God from Creation recognized was not good for man.
Michael Oakeshott writes in his essay “On Being Conservative” (found in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays) that friendship is at its root conservative. “The relationship of friend to friend is dramatic, not utilitarian; the tie is one of familiarity, not usefulness; the disposition engaged is conservative, not ‘progressive.’” He writes, “Stay with me, because I am attached to you.”
The Biblical account of young David and Prince Jonathan is one of the great stories of friendship. Scripture records, “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” (1 Samuel 18:1-4, ESV)
This was far from a friendship of utility. David was God’s anointed choice to take the throne that Crown Prince Jonathan had been raised to occupy. By earthly expectation they should have been at one another’s throats. But Jonathan put aside the jealousy of David that consumed his father King Saul. He sought to rise above being Aristotle’s beast. Jonathan, we are told, “delighted much in David” (1 Samuel 19:1), and “loved him as he loved his own soul” (20:17).
As his political rivals Jonathan and Saul lie dead on a Philistine battlefield, David did not rejoice in political victory. Instead, the psalmist lamented the loss of his friend and friend’s father. David tore his clothes, mourned, wept, and fasted. To memorialize the occasion he composed a song to be taught to the children of Judah.
Jonathan lies slain on your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:25-26)
It was a friendship destined for pain and loss as anyone could have seen, but David and Jonathan said, with Oakeshott, “Do not leave me, because I am attached to you.”
Ultimately it is the deception of Satan that causes us to deny our humanity. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness to take the easy way out, the way of no pain, but also of no redemption. Jesus who died for all had his particular friends as well. Not only the twelve, but also Peter, James and John. He embraced their companionship although He knew Judas would betray Him and Peter would deny Him. Likewise, Jesus famously wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus: “So the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’” (John 11:36) Would Jesus have traded His friendship with Lazarus in order to avoid that moment of overwhelming sadness?
Friendship, Oakeshott writes, is an attachment that “springs from an intimation of familiarity and subsists in a mutual sharing of personalities.” A friend “is somebody who engages the imagination, who excites contemplation, who provokes interest, sympathy, delight and loyalty simply on account of the relationship entered into.” In short, friendship stimulates the best of our human characteristics. It shapes who we are, introduces variety and liveliness.
If David and even Jesus Himself were willing to take that risk knowing the pain it would cause, then let us too embrace our own friends boldly, with no fear of the hurt that may follow, no desire to deaden our senses and what it means to be human. And while friends must be chosen wisely (“Bad company ruins good morals”), we cause greater harm to our children by shielding them from the joy of friendship than fretting over the pain inherent to our fallen world.
Books by Michael Oakeshott, and others on conservatism, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.