Joseph Wood once asked me why I so highly esteem Samuel Johnson. Basically, I think that, if someone reads him, he has little other choice. In watching Pope Francis greet people, an issue comes up that Johnson addressed. The pope, along with many politicians, spends much time engaging people, touching them, making them feel known to him. Pope Wojytla was a genius at this. To the despair of police and those directing him to his next engagement, such figures insist on chatting with almost anyone and everyone.
We are urged to love our neighbor as our selves. But the minute we try to do this, we run up against the Aristotelian caution that “he who is a friend of everybody is a friend of nobody.” It is for this reason, among others, that we suspect that popes and politicians are rather lonely people. We increasingly hear it said of the president, greeter that he is on every stage, that “he seems to have no friends.” Kings are said to have no friends but other kings.
This same issue came up in Boswell’s recording (April 15, 1778) of Johnson’s conversation with “the ingenious Quaker lady,” Mrs. Knowles, with whom Johnson seems to have been a bit smitten. Evidently, Mr. Soame Jenyns had written a book, Views of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion, in which he remarked that “friendship is not a Christian virtue.” Mrs. Knowles vigorously objected to this view.
But Johnson agreed with Jenyns. “Why, Madam, strictly speaking, he is right. All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect of, or, perhaps, against the interest of others. . . .Now, Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brothers, which is contrary to the virtue of friendship.” Johnson next recalls the classic name given to the Quakers: “Surely, Madam, your sect must approve of this; for you call all men ‘friends.’”
Mrs. Knowles responds to Johnson: We are “commanded” to call all men our friends, especially those of the “household of the faith.” Johnson replies that this “household” is “very large” – meaning that such friendships must be quite diffused. To this, Mrs. Knowles observes that Christ had twelve apostles but He loved one the best. Johnson answers, “with eyes sparkling benignantly, very well, indeed, Madam. You have said very well.”
Dr. Johnson among friends: The Club, c. 1780
This passage always reminds me of the curious impact of Christian revelation on human relationships. Aristotle knew the differing kinds of friendship – of utility, of pleasure, and those based on the highest kind of virtue. We would be fortunate if, during our lifetime, we had one or two good friends. We know that it takes a whole lifetime just to know some one person well. Does Christianity deny this? As Mrs. Knowles implied, Christianity wants it both ways, to love everyone as friends and to keep the intimacy of a few friends. This fact means that we must keep things straight.
Is there any sense in thinking that we can be friends with everyone or even of those of the “household of the faith?” Many of the problems such considerations bring up were already in Plato. In the Republic, he wanted to destroy the family because its inner relationships were exclusive. They tended to separate everyone into small groups.
Yet the separation of friends into a small group is the very essence of the highest forms of friendship in which we live together in life and conversation. Plato too wanted everyone to be friends. This is precisely where Aristotle stepped in to warn of the dangers of thinking of everyone could be our friends in this world. Plato and Christianity had the same end: that we all be friends.
We are told that in Paradise, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, the most obvious example of exclusive and permanent friendship. Does this teaching mean that no marital friendships are found in heaven? It means that no further begetting takes place once the full number of elect is completed. But were Johnson’s initial remarks right about Christianity? Does it absolve the bonds of friendship? Is this desire that we see in the popes to greet and know everyone, to urge us to be friends with everyone, an illusion?
Christianity teaches that anyone can be our friend, not just those of our city or household. Then there is the little issue of loving our enemies and those who hate us. But we are not to be naïve. Christianity does not overturn Aristotle. What it does tell us is to find what is loveable in everyone, to recognize that we are all loved by God. All our lives are but introductions, glimpses of that eternal life in which we, finally, have the abiding presence to know and love those who respond to God’s call of everyone to Himself.