Essayists are humans who stick their nose out and sometimes their neck and, if truth be told about some of them, the entire body. Regardless, each sticks out her or his mind and scratches down some thoughts on paper.
And, when you read them, you begin a wrestling match because instead of leading you along a logical argument they lead you to their study or their back porch for a conversation and often you disagree. This way you get to hear their ideas and get to know them personally. That is what essayists do, and a good example is the Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs.
I have at times blogged about his brilliant book on hermeneutics, which takes interpersonal cummunication to be the genuine window through which we see what reading is, and in particular he sees the love commandment as its biblical ground — and when I hear an allusion to the Jesus Creed I get interested. Actually, I was onto his book before I was onto my book. But, I’m not here to talk about his Theology of Reading.
Jacobs has two collections of essays: A Visit to Vanity Fair (Brazos) and Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling (Eerdmans). Most of these essays have been published elsewhere (that’s what essayists do — they write them and then bundle them up together and see if a publisher thinks they are the stuff of a book). Jacobs’ essays always are, so keep your eyes out for his essays. The first one has 15 essays and the second one 12 essays. Whatever he writes is worth reading, even when the topic is not what compels you. Which is the point of essayists: they write about more particular matters (he writes one about a Bible fit for children and worries about those who think some things must be removed for children) and they wander from one author and idea to another and they don’t always land on their feet and they don’t always have an argument. They are ruminative and suggestive and provocative, and they lead you to the authors they mention, and sometimes they get you fired up enough to write an essay on the same topic in your own way. So, you can wrestle with Jacobs and you might hurt his joints at times, but more often than not he’ll get the better of you.
In this blog, I’ll look at his essay on “Friendship and Its Discontents.” Essayists like to talk about friendship — and it all goes back, should you care to know, to Aristotle’s brilliant study of friendship. You can’t summarize a good essay because it is formless and conclusion-less (more often than not) and just a stroll in the park with an idea and a conversation with a few whom you take along. And he takes along Samuel Johnson and CS Lewis, and tells us that he likes to read Montaigne and then gets to the Norton Book of Friendship and a bundle of authors there. One of my blog-friends is Bob Robinson, and he is the one who has informed me that my browser (Safari) doesn’t let me edit my blogs and so he suggested something like Manzilla Firewall, which I suppose I’ll look into, but not just yet (I’m already blogging and prefer to keep it going).
In the NBF — and I do this to save space and time but I generally don’t like abbrvs — there are some notable omissions for Jacobs, which is the sort of thing that essayists point out. What they also do is assume that their readers know all they know and maybe more, and this makes reading them sometimes difficult because they assume a lot at times. If you don’t follow the thought, just keep going because essays and friendship are like that. And the one he observes is that of Augustine and here he sets the record straight: Christian friendship is through the Spirit-induced love. And this sets him to thinking that maybe he does have friends who are not Christians and this gives him something to sink his teeth into, but not too hard and he comes up for other ideas.
What I’ve enjoyed over the years about friendship essays is the return to Aristotle, who thought genuine friendship involved being vulnerable to one another and learning from one another and even rebuking one another, and the return to CS Lewis who puts friendship into the context of love. Essayists eventually wander onto Samuel Johnson and JJ Rousseau. Friendship for Johnson is more classical while for Rousseau it is more modern because the latter is entrenched in the self and the former in the other and the work involved.
And Jacobs, like all good essayists, has his mind around a lot of quotations, and some of them simply stunning. I’ve marked one down of Jacobs’ that I shall forever note: “Aristotle wrote that no one would wish to live without friends, even if he or she had every other worldly good; but then he had not met Rousseau or his innumerable progeny.” (And essayists don’t footnote for fear that the piece will get pedantic or for fear that such things will interrupt the flow of thought.)
Why, Jacobs asks, is there so little attempt by Christians to form a theology of friendship? Apart from Paul Wadell’s Becoming Friends, which isn’t essayist and only partly gets us there, can you name some?