Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Poetic Knowledge Week 12

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.” —C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

HT: CS Lewis Blog, Mere Friendship

We are wrapping up the Poetic Knowledge Book Study!  There is only one more week, devoted to "personal conclusions and applications".   I feel a bit sad. I will miss these conversations!   I have a feeling I will be drawing personal conclusions and applications for some time to come.  Plus, as I mentioned to Silvia on her blog, I think I will probably be revisiting the discussion during the "winter of discontent" which hits me regularly, sometimes but not always in actual winter. 

In relation to that, James Taylor concludes his book Poetic Knowledge, from all the interconnected themes he might have picked, with a meditation on the idea of friendship. It has been a theme woven throughout the whole book, but here it is treated at some length.  This tells me that the concept of a "faculty of friends" is of central importance in the idea of poetic knowledge. 

Taylor writes:
The reward teachers and students experience when they abandon all the cumbersome paraphernalia of scientific education and confront one another and the truths of the subject at hand directly and simply, is friendship. It is friendship, a species of love....that defines such a school and echoes that first image in the West of the teacher Socrates, whose students playfully, affectionately detain him one day so that he will talk to them about justice, as seen at the beginning of The Republic. And this is why (John) Senior says that first of all a school is a faculty of friends.

Taylor quotes Plato's Seventh Letter. Plato is talking about how philosophy, the highest of the sciences in that it is the loving pursuit of wisdom, cannot be given by mere instruction through some kind of handbook, as the Sophists try to do.

after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.

He goes on:
But I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
Even though he is talking about philosophy, isn't this to some extent true of education in general?  When academics become purely utilitarian, when economic values of getting a job or ambitious values of prestige and influence and elitism take first place, it naturally results that those who learn from economic or ambitious motives either get contemptuous of all learning that doesn't have a cash value, or get vainglorious and puffed up by their supposed intellectualism.

To hinder this, teaching has to be sincere and in the context of relationship.   We have seen in this Book Club (or so I think) that honesty and real communication are possible even with differences of background and doctrine.   Without that basis, often communication becomes invested in power and manipulation and distrust --  which you also see often in Plato's Socratic dialogues, where a Sophist shows up and tries to treat Socrates with contempt.  Those people may influence others but they are not really following the truth, simply using some distortion of truth as a way to glorify themselves.

In this way teaching can be a difficult discipline, as friendship can be, because the temptation to cut corners and use wisdom as a tool is in all of us (well, I know for sure it is in me, at least) but it is a different kind of difficulty than the difficulty in preparing excellent formal lesson plans, or reading lots of parenting books for strategies on how to make your children behave.  It is a similar kind of difficulty to that of "losing yourself" in the Christian journey, where we actually by our fallen nature tend to want to "build ourselves" by pulling trappings around ourselves like walls or excess ornamentation so we don't have to be, as Lewis says, "naked personalities".  That willingess to be a person, not a collection of opinions and possessions and achievements, is a very difficult thing to achieve and takes a lifetime -- and God's grace, I believe.  

I mentioned before that though a lot of the parenting books tell you not to be friends with your children, I think they are missing the point.   Let's talk about some of the characteristics of friends.  I'm quoting from the article on CS Lewis linked above:

Lewis points out that friendship embodies a spiritual relationship that begins from the companionship among peers, when two or more individuals choose to break away as they discover and wish to share some common interest. As he notes, the development of friendship involves the question, “Do you see the same truth?—Or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’”
Contrasted with mere companions or colleagues who pursue a common physical goal, friends share a common interest that is more introspective and nonmaterial. And seeking friends as a material goal is pointless: “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. . . . There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice.” 

Friendship, like poetic knowledge, is deeply felt and experienced within but also refers outward to an exterior, objective reality that is loved and valued by both the friends.

As parents, we may be bound to our children by natural ties of affection and responsibility.  But surely it would be a minimal view of what the family is about if the ties only added up to proximity and preparation.   As parents we want our children to see beyond us and their natural interests and circumstances to see what we see and love what we love.  That doesn't mean that we want them to be carbon copies of us, any more than we want our friends to be our clones.  That would be a form of narcissism.   But in Christian families, Jesus is our brother.   He has called us "not servants, but friends."  Our Christian children are our brothers in Christ, and His friends as we are.  This gives us a common pursuit, a common interest, a common quest, and this is the stuff of friendship.  

Maybe "fellowship" might be a good word here.  I was thinking a lot about The Lord of the Rings while thinking about this topic.   The fellowship, the Nine, are not strictly peers or equals.  Gandalf is superior in wisdom, knowledge and power, while Aragorn is superior in role and heritage, to the simple hobbits, who in some ways are like children compared to the races of Elves, Men, and Dwarves.   Yet it is always recognized that they have a part to play and gifts to share in the quest, even though they are humble and simple and small in their hobbit nature.

The hobbits are taught, guided and sometimes chastised by some others in the Fellowship.  But nonetheless there is a very real reciprocal respect and acknowledgement of dignity  -- what you might in fact call a friendship.

I think this is one thing that we are intuitively drawn towards particularly in the homeschool, but we may distrust because we have heard a lot about maintaining authority and we may have embedded ideas about education and school which make us want to put lots of academic trappings between us and our children.

I hope it is clear that I am not talking about clinging to our children as companions, or parentifying them by confiding in them inappropriately, or hindering them from growing into their own identities and making their own lives.    I am simply trying to describe something that Plato says can't thoroughly be described or codified, but that is important anyway -- making room for that flame that passes from one person to another, that transcends instruction and training.  

This type of friendship has always been suspected and suppressed by tyrannies.   In fact, I think you could probably write a Gatto-style rant about the ways that institutional schools distort and starve and attempt to control true friendship.   I read a biography of Pope John Paul II called A Witness to Hope.   One of the first things the Nazi party tried to do was suppress clubs and shared culture and friendship, because they knew that these things were dangerous to their aims.  Similarly, the Communists in Poland struck at clubs and friendly associations and culture and religious fellowships, because they similarly saw that these things are fatal to totalitarianism.  True friendships, Pope John Paul II became aware, were the strongest counter-forces to the machines of alienation and control.   In that way they have something deeply in common with true families, which the schools and other institutional forces also try to disrupt and make powerless.

James Taylor writes, in relation to teacher/student relationships, but some of what he says holds true for the parent/child relationship as well:

But returning from such a passage up and down the scale of knowledge, always with love predominating, such a teacher is best suited to lead the student waiting to begin their journey through the modes of knowledge.   It is clear from all experience that youth do not really form the higher degrees of friendship -- theirs is mainly at the level of what is pleasing.  But given the presence of teachers who are friends and who love their students in the highest order, desiring their good, and understanding and patient of their age, students will have the model in their memory, the form of love in their minds...

I've been writing about the parent/child relationship here, but I think parenting best takes place in a rich context, and this is another thing that is often missing nowadays. My friendship with my husband, if it may be so called, is important soil in which my relationship with my children can either thrive or wither.

And I think friendships that go outside the family are of great importance, too. I am blessed by my "faculty of friends" both in real life and online (that sounds strange, doesn't it?). They make me see things in new ways, but in true ways. Aristotle says that we need more than ourselves and even more than our families to perfect us -- we need a society. When the wider society is somewhat hostile to our efforts, it's all the more important to have a "faculty of friends" to converse with and be around, because that is the way humans develop best. I've certainly gotten way more out of Poetic Knowledge by reading it alongside the "ladies of the club" than I did when I read it alone. Thanks very much all of you, I am grateful for this blessing of time and space to converse!


  1. This was beautiful, Willa! I didn't focus on the freindship theme while reading this book and now I wish I had! Certainly, it was there to see. Thanks for pointing it out. I also got a lot more out of this book re-reading it with "the ladies of the club"! Maybe we should re-visit it in five years or so! My adult children are defiantely my best friends and I'm sure it is because of all the great discussions we have had over the years about books and movies, the time together that homeschooling gave us.

  2. like! my friendly faculty member ;)

  3. yes, reading and watching a movie, too! ;)

  4. Well said, Willa!

    I'll miss the club, too. It has been so nice to read everyone's summaries and thoughts and added so much richness to the experience of reading such a book.

    One of the things you mentioned here crossed my mind also--that idea that we ought not be friends with our children. I think I even said, "I am not your friend" to my oldest one time. I don't remember why, but knowing him he probably shot me or hit me or something!

    All of that to say that I really like the distinction you made here--not as companions, but more in line with Aristotle, where friendship is based upon mutual love of the Good. In that sense, we are friends wtih our children now, and hope to grow in friendship along the way...

  5. Shari, I bet we would get even more out of it in five years! Your family relationships sound wonderful -- I've really enjoyed getting to hear more about that from your book club posts.

    Yes, Chari, a faculty of friends : ). We even lesson plan together just like TAC tutors -- well, maybe not JUST like.

    Brandy, I just read something from Charlotte Mason that I'm sure you are familiar with that seemed to make a good distinction. She quoted Lear's words about the "thankless child" and said that the problem was that Lear laid himself out for thanks. Perhaps that's the "bad kind of friendship" with kids, where you are kind of enabling them (and I fall into this trap sometimes). But there's another kind of friendship that helps build the friend up and in that sense we are our kids' friends even if they don't think we're being very friendly.

    In a lot of older books people refer to a person's family as "friends" -- just recently I was watching Emma with my daughter and noticed it where Mr Knightley talks about Harriet Smith's "friends", meaning her relatives, not doing very much for her.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!