Summaries: The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Letter Eleven: Friendship (part one)

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here for more chapter summaries from The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

Letter eleven opens with Florensky’s description of a snowy night that brings back memories of his friend. “I light a fragrant candle of amber-yellow wax before the Mother of God. We brought this candle from there, that is, from where you and I wandered together… Again I am with you. Every day I remember something about you, and then I sit down to write. Thus, from day to day, my life slides toward ‘the other shore,’ so that I could at least look at you from there, ‘by love having defeated death / and by death having defeated the passions . . .’”

He writes of the love shared with his friend. “You and I took communion together. That was the seed to everything that I now have.” This love is long-attained and spiritually transformative: “The spiritual activity in which and by which knowledge of the Pillar of the Truth is given is love. This is love full of grace, manifested only in a purified consciousness. It can only be attained by a long (O how long!) ascesis.” Florensky writes intimately and passionately: “Love shakes up a person’s whole structure, and after this ‘earthquake of the soul,’ he can seek. Love opens for him the doors of the worlds on high, whence drifts the cool of paradise.”

When faced with love, the soul is confronted with a choice: “either to submerge itself in the sin that eats away at the person or to adorn itself with heavenly beauty.” Love is found particularly in friendship. “In a friend, in this other I of the loving one, one finds the source of hope for victory and the symbol of what is to come. And one is thus given preliminary consubstantiality and therefore preliminary knowledge of the Truth.”

Greek has “four verbs that describe different aspects of the feeling of love.” Eran means “to direct a total feeling to an object” in passionate love. Philein refers to an intimate relationship, “an inner inclination toward a person induced by intimacy, closeness, common feeling.” Stergein is “a calm and permanent feeling in the depths of the loving one”, an organic relation “of kith and kin, a relation that not even evil can destroy.” Agapan is a rational love “based on a valuation of the loved one”, with “fewer sensations, habits, or direct inclinations”, and is close in meaning to “to value, to respect.” Letter eleven focuses on “the love of friendship… that combines the aspects of philia, eros, and agape.”

Florensky elaborates particularly on philein, and notes four features in it. First, it has an “immediacy in origin, based on personal contact, but not conditioned by organic ties alone.” Second, it involves “deep insight into the person himself, and not only a valuation of his qualities.” Third, it involves “a quiet, cordial, nonrationalistic character of feeling, but, at the same time, one that is not passionate, not impulsive, not unrestrained, not blind, not turbulent.” Finally, it involves “a closeness that is personal and deeply inward.”

The various kinds of love have had diverse treatment in the Christian tradition. Though the “words eran and eras are virtually absent from the books of the Old Testament… [they] have found a place in ascetic writings”, including those of Gregory of Nyssa, Nicholas Cabasilas, and Symeon the New Theologian. Agapan is used in the commandment to love God and one’s neighbors. In the call to love enemies, agapan is used but never philein, while both terms are used to denote Christ’s “intimately personal love for Lazarus… and His relationship with his Beloved Disciple.”

The Greek text of John 21 is particularly significant for understanding the distinction between agape and philia. Following His resurrection, Christ appears to Peter and asks him: “agapais me?” After Peter’s threefold denial of Christ, “the resurrected Christ indicates to Peter that he had violated friendly love–philia–for the Lord and that henceforth one can demand of him only universal human love [agape], only that love which every disciple of Christ necessarily offers to every person, even to his enemy.” Peter, however, “does not even want to hear such a question, and keeps speaking of the authenticity of his personal, friendly love: ‘Philo se’–’I am your friend.’” Again, Christ asks: agapais me? Peter responds a second time: philo se. Finally, “the Lord agreed to speak of this kind of love only in the third question… ‘Phileis me?–Are you My friend?’” Finally, Peter is asked the question he desires. “The ear hears tears in his halting answer: ‘Lord! You know everything, You know that I am your friend.'”

Florensky writes that this was a necessary exchange: “what Peter really needed was the restoration of friendly, personal relations with the Lord… He had injured the Lord as a friend injures a friend, and therefore he needed a new covenant of friendship.” This passage is extremely intimate and “exclusively concerns this Apostle’s personal fate and life.”

Florensky notes that the “quartet of words of love is one of the greatest jewels in the treasury of the Greek language.” It has been used in some variations in other languages, though not truly repeated. In ancient society, one’s personal and societal relations were bound, respectively, by eros and storge, while Christian personal and social relations are bound by philia and agape. In Christianity, “both forces are spiritualized and transformed, are saturated with grace, so that even marriage, the preeminent repository of storge, and ancient friendship, the preeminent repository of eros, were painted in Christianity in the hues of spiritualized agape and philia.” Thus, Florensky writes of a progression in the great Symposia on love, from Xenophon to Plato to St. Methodius of Olympus.

In the Christian life, agapic and philic relations are mutually reinforcing and mutually necessary. “In order to live among brothers, it is necessary to have a Friend, if only a distant one. In order to have a Friend, it is necessary to live among brothers, or at least to be with them in spirit. In fact, in order to treat everyone as oneself it is necessary to see oneself at least in one person, to feel oneself in him; it is necessary to perceive in this one person an already achieved–even if only partial–victory over selfhood.”

Florensky then turns to the particular unity and necessity of friendship. “Friends are linked in an intimate unity… Therefore, a friendship cannot be destroyed by anything except by a blow directed against the very unity of the friends, by what strikes at the heart of the Friend as a Friend, by betrayal, mockery of the friendship itself, of its holiness.” However, “higher trust and higher forgiveness must belong to a friend.” Even after perceived harm, one retains hope in his friend. “The greatest trust that can be bestowed upon a man is to believe in him despite condemnations of him, despite evident facts that testify against him, despite all that speaks against him… The greatest forgiveness consists in acting as if nothing had happened, in forgetting what had happened. Such forgiveness must be offered to a friend.”

The biblical account of David and Jonathan is particularly touching, according to Florensky.” It is “depicted in just a few words, but for that reason almost painfully touching: ‘Written as if for me,’ everyone thinks.” Similarly, the wailing of Psalm 88 for a friend reveals how the lost of a friend “is beyond words. It is the limit to sorrow, a kind of moral vertigo… ‘To be without a friend’ has a mysterious relation to ‘to be without God.’ The deprivation of a friend is a kind of death.”

(Part two of this summary can be found here.)

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