Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book Review: Cicero's "On Friendship"

Since so much of my time and thought revolves around the books I’m reading, I’ve decided to make it a regular practice to offer “book reviews” from time to time here on my blog. Normally, book reviews offer the service of analyzing books that are relatively new and giving opinions on them. However, I read very few new books. And it seems to me that readers nowadays need more of a push toward reading old books than reading new ones. So the service I’m offering is this: as I read through the books in my collection—classic fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, theology, and so on—I’ll highlight, here in my blog, the ones I find most worth reading. So rather than reading book reviews to interact with new ideas and to choose which new books to read, you can come here and read book reviews to interact with old ideas and, hopefully, be inspired to pick up a few old books yourself. Of course, there are undoubtedly many reviewers who are more distinguished and qualified to discuss the works I’ll present. But my main hope is not to explain in full depth and precision an author’s system of thought, but rather to offer encouragement for those who might be looking for a thought-stimulating “pleasure read,” as well as to describe how these works have been influential in my own life. This will be a good discipline for me, giving me opportunity to ponder and interact with an author’s ideas for awhile instead of just closing the book and moving on to another one as soon as I finish reading. As such, I’ll be focusing mostly on works that I’ve recently read myself. But, every once in a while, I may turn back to highlight one of the deeply formative all-time favorites on my reading list (The Imitation of Christ, Julian's Revelations of Divine Love, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are just a few that come immediately to mind).

For this review, we’ll look at Cicero’s treatise On Friendship (or Laelius). It’s a short read—you can cruise through it in a single evening. And it’s a fine introduction to the thought of Cicero, one of the great orators of Western civilization. In this treatise, Cicero gives us his thoughts on friendship as if from the mouth of Gaius Laelius, reflecting on a long companionship with the late Publius Scipio. Friendship is a theme that I've written about before in this blog (3/20/2009), and I think our culture is in particular need of a reminder about its true nature. Cicero gives us that reminder--not just appealing to the lowest common denominator of the slight mutual affections that all people can relate to, but pointing us toward a kind of friendship that is exceedingly rare and unbelievably precious.

He begins with what might seem at first glance like an indefensible statement: "Friendship can only exist between good men" (I:5). Well, we all know bad men who appear to have friends. But that's not the kind of friendship he's talking about. In the post I wrote a year ago on friendship, I outlined three basic levels of friendship, and the highest, what I called "soul friendship" or "true friendship," is the sole aim of Cicero's treatise. Lower levels of friendship--mere common affection or acquaintances, which unfortunately compose the sum of most of our culture's friendships--only earn a few mentions in this treatise.

For Cicero, friendship can only exist between good people because friendship is intimately tied to virtue. It's only in people who have learned to tame their natural, self-interested impulses that true friendship can thrive. So many of what we normally think of as friendships are either tainted by self-interest (i.e., what we can get out of it, or how the relationship makes us feel) or by a lack of love for the other person. But we should not be content with that. There is a higher level of friendship that we can aspire to, and if we reach it, then we have tasted that thing of which "the immortal gods have given us nothing better or more delightful" (II:13). It is only in virtuous people, unbound by selfishness and thus independent from the need of flattery or consolations from others, that this level of friendship can flourish. It is virtue itself that draws two like-minded friends together, "on our finding some one person with whose character and nature we are in full sympathy, because we think that we perceive in him what I may call the beacon-light of virtue. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue" (II:8).

That's not to say that lower forms of friendship aren't valuable. Few of us (if any) have attained such heights of virtue yet as to have no trace of self-interest in our friendships. But Cicero gives us a wonderful goal to shoot for--a relationship that is "the most valuable and beautiful furniture of life" (II:15), in which there is "no satiety--the older the sweeter, as in wines that keep well" (III:19). Or in my own words, taken from my earlier blog-post: "Soul-friendships are immeasurably rich and transformative--havens of peace and loyalty, strength and honor, adventure and joy."

But how do we get there? That's the crucial question. It's not that people in our culture don't want those rich, deeply satisfying relationships--it's that they don't know how to find them, or if they're even possible at all. And here Cicero hits the nail on the head: "Most people unreasonably want such a friend as they are unable to be themselves, and expect from their friends what they do not themselves give. The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character" (III:22). If Americans could get this one truth worked into their relationships, we would see a much less broken society around us. To find a virtuous friend, first be a virtuous person. To find a loyal and loving spouse, first become a loyal and loving person. Then we would understand better who we are ourselves, and not ask our friends and spouses to be something that not even we can measure up to.

But virtue isn't merely the prerequisite of friendship--once established, friendship is also the rich soil that can carry your character into regions of virtue hitherto unattainable. It is in communion with others, not alone, that we become good. "Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another" (III:22). This is why mentoring relationships and accountability partnerships and close friendships are so important to Christian discipleship--it's in those dynamics that virtue grows best.

I was drawn to read Cicero's thoughts on friendship, partly because I've had richly rewarding relationships on the past that had potential to grow into covenants of virtue and affection, and partly because I find myself in a new place now, without any old friends around me. (Rachel and I, of course, are good friends, but the truth is that a man will find his life impoverished without a male friend, and a woman will find her life impoverished without a female friend--the marriage relationship, as wonderful as it is, was never meant to be independent and all-sufficient.) Having tasted just a hint of what such a friendship can be like, I'm finding myself on the lookout now for just such a friend. And by God's grace, I'm sure I'll find one.

I've sketched out the main points of Cicero's treatise that hit home to me; but there are many other chords he strikes along the way--if you've read this far in my post, you probably owe it to Cicero to read his thoughts for yourself. I leave you with this quote, from his conclusion, which bears echoes of Paul's famous line from 1 Cor. 13: "Make up your minds to this: Virtue (without which Friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship" (III:27).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thoughts on Sports, Part 3

And now for the final installment of my much-acclaimed, prize-winning series "Thoughts on Sports." The case being made, against certain critics of pro sports within American Christianity on the one hand, and against pro-sports fanatics on the other, is that sports have an important cultural role to play in our society, but that we always need to be aware of the inherent cultural-influence dangers associated with them. In this article, we'll look at addressing some of the common objections that are made against the practice of pro sports.

Objection #1: Sports heroes get idolized in inappropriate ways
All too true. While it's natural for sports heroes to get idolized because they fill the cultural niche of mythology/legend for us, it is still inappropriate. Why should I devote so much of my attention and affection to someone whose one great skill is an ability to throw a ball accurately? It's impressive, but hardly laudable. We are constantly reminded, over and over again by the events on our news channels, that great athletes are not always great people. Every once in a while, you run into an athlete who also has a laudable character. And good for them. But the fact remains--I have a ton of people with laudable characters in my church and in my town, so why do those few athletes merit extra-special attention for their good deeds? I would even argue that in the case of those few "good" athletes, it's still better not to set too much admiration on them, because the milieu they live in is so full of temptations that they are probably more likely to disappoint us than any other group of people (except maybe politicians). And here's the main point I want to get across: why on earth do we celebrate and idolize physical prowess, and pay almost no attention to spiritual prowess? Why is it that men who obsessively devote their lives to building freakish amounts of muscle gain more acclaim than those who devote their lives to constant, passionate prayer? Why is it that physical fanaticism is applauded, and spiritual fanaticism is seen as revolting and absurd? The true heroes are the ones no one knows about, the old ladies who are prayer warriors all day long, the missionaries giving their lives to gain one inch of ground in a hard-hearted land, the monks who study God's word until it becomes their every thought. There was once a day when it was the other way around--when people from all over would flock out to the desert to see the "spiritual athletes" who had given their lives to the service of God in prayer. But no more. Now, churches and Christian conferences drool over the prospect of finding an athlete who is also a Christian to speak in their services. Athletes may at times be good people, but let's give the honor where it's really due--let's pin up full-size posters of Benedict and Francis on our walls instead of LeBron James and Peyton Manning. And maybe--here's a radical idea--it might even be worth trying to take spiritual discipline and exercise as seriously as we take physical exercise in our own lives. You don't need to play ball to be a hero--just learn how to pray.

Objection #2: Players' salaries are so gaudy as to be a repulsive mockery of cultural values
This is true, to a degree. It is downright ridiculous how much you can earn for being good at playing a ball game. Although sports fill an important cultural niche, is it so important that our athletes ought to be paid far more than the president of our country? Probably not. Regardless of what we think of the president, I think we could all agree that our country would get along better without an athlete or two than without a president.
However, there are a few points that need to be made here. Usually when this objection is brought up, it's in a sense of revulsion for the players themselves. But we need to remember that it's not the players' fault (though they can be inordinately greedy at times)--it's really our fault and our neighbors' fault. Athletes earn so much money because we pay them so much money. Because sports are marketed as entertainment, the athletes earn their share of what the audience will pay to see them play--and that turns out to be a lot. I bet that if I was a statistician, I could give throw out some hefty numbers at this point to prove that the money we pay to professional sports could easily solve world hunger. Thankfully, some sanity is beginning to come back into the sports world thanks to the recent financial crunch, and several of the professional leagues are arming up for some number-crunching battles between athletes and owners. Apparently some Americans aren't as comfortable as they used to be in paying thousands of dollars for gameday seats. All that to say--it's not the players' fault, and if we want their salaries to come down, then we need something akin to a full cultural revolution on the level of the American individual's personal priorities. Until that time, the best we can do is to applaud those athletes (and there are lots of them) who use their money to do tremendous good for their communities and the world.

Objection #3: Don't sports promote violence?
Yes and no. Some sports (football, hockey, boxing, etc.) do promote a certain level of violence. But in most cases, it's not a violence of hatred or aggression so much as a tactical sort of violence. It's no more than the sort of violence that boys naturally engage in. But it can run to unhealthy extremes--for example, when football shows run montages of brutal hits and tackles just for shock value. Some sports--like professional wrestling or MMA or UFC--also seem to me to cross the line. Early Christian tradition had a long history of avoiding "the games" because the violence being practiced in the arena was degrading to the great truth that human beings are made in the image of God. This takes careful discernment--there are natural thrills to be had in viewing and practicing violence, even in a "harmless" game format--but we need to be asking ourselves whether such things honor the body as the temple of God.

Objection #4: What about the Sabbath?
Unfortunately, very few people in our society practice the Sabbath at all. Most professional athletes, because of their schedule, can't use Sunday as a Sabbath-day. They have to wait for a "day off," whenever that may come. If I were pastoring a professional athlete, though, I would recommend that the principle behind the Sabbath-commandment be followed. It need not be on Sunday (my Sabbath isn't, either), but the important thing is to set aside time to rest, to reflect, and to be in the presence of God. And for all of us Christian sports-watchers out there, I would speak a word of caution: it's far too easy for us to spend our Sabbath-time watching non-stop sports. There are so many sporting events offered up for our entertainment that a whole Saturday or Sunday can go by in front of a TV screen. And that's a waste. It's fine to watch some sports as a way to relax and unwind, but if you're not using your Sabbath as a time to re-charge spiritually, then you're missing one of the greatest blessings God has given us. Take some time to pray, to read, to go on a reflective walk in the woods. If we took the Sabbath seriously, I think we would be people who are much more spiritually "in tune" to what God is doing and saying, to us and to our world.

Objection #5: Don't sports distract us from real life?
Yes, they can. And that's why we need to be careful. They have their place, as I argued in my earlier posts. But we need to be discerning. Following our favorite sports teams can consume our lives. We need to set boundaries, particularly in regard to how we spend our time. Sports are fine as entertainment, but we rarely get anything edifying out of them. And if all we do is watch sports and read about sports, then we could be missing out on learning and reading about stuff that matters, stuff that could change our lives. If we just put some boundaries in place so that our sports-affection doesn't run over into idolatry, and if we take some time to focus on things that can build up our souls, then we will be better people in the end for it.

So in short--love your sports-teams with passionate loyalty, but be wise about who they really are and what they really mean. Let sports be a signpost that turns your attention toward the things that really matter. Appreciate sports for what they are, but don't let them steal your heart from its deeper loves.