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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Humanist Bible review series: Concord (5/15)

(c) Walker Publishing Co. Inc.
This is part of a series of reviews on each 'book' within the new book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, by A.C. Grayling. Click HERE to go to the beginning of this series for more explanation.
“I declare that of all the blessings which either fortune or nature has bestowed upon me, I know none to compare with friendship.”  --Concord 16:9
The book of Concord is primarily about friendship, although the breadth of the matter is covered such that one can easily see romantic as well as platonic relationships included. It appears most of the book has been inspired by, or a paraphrasing of, a treatise on friendship (Laelius de Amicitia) by Cicero. Here Laelius and Fannius carry on a dialogue on the attributes of true friendships and the importance of finding them. Concord is one of the shorter books in Grayling’s bible, but packed tightly with good material. As I read I generally try to take note of ‘quotable quotes’ and Concord has had the most so far.

Many a verse is spent illustrating the benefits and value of a true friend, and on choosing friends carefully. Concord explains how life’s experiences are made all the more meaningful when we have real friends with which to share them.
“To begin with, how can life be worth living, which lacks the repose to be found in the companionship and goodwill of a friend?”  --Concord 3:4
While some may view friends as a means to some material, strategic, or social end, Concord warns against these shallow kinds of friendships. It explains that affection should be the basis of friendships rather than manipulation or utility.
“If you take away emotion, what difference remains, I do not say between a man and a beast, but between a man and a stone or a log of wood?”  --Concord 8:2
On defending such affection Concord notes by asking, “Who would choose a life of the greatest wealth and abundance on condition of neither loving nor being loved by any creature?” (Concord 9:1). Concord even touches on maintaining long term friendships and the occasional need to call a friend to task for a wrongdoing:
“It is a strange paradox that people are not at all vexed at having committed a fault, but very angry at being reproved for it.”  --Concord 15:15
Concord’s emphasis on the value of friendship to a rich life, as well as its appeal for affection, may seem at odds with the Stoicism-inspired teachings in the book of Wisdom. In Chapter 7, versus 13-14 of that book, we are told, “Examine appearances by the rules of reason, first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns things which are in our control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” Of course, friendship is a two-way street, necessarily involving the choices of other people, which are beyond our control, most certainly considered so by the Stoics that inspired that portion of Wisdom.

However, in defense of Grayling’s collection as a whole, it seems that as we move through the books – from Wisdom to Parables, and now on to Concord – it should be clear we are moving beyond the bare necessities of the good life, and on toward the benefits of a fully perfected life experience that includes the luxuries in a more Epicurean than Stoic sense. It is never claimed that friendship is necessary for the good life. In fact, if there is one repeating mantra throughout Concord, it is that virtue must be sought first and foremost because, ultimately, true friendship can only take place within a framework of the good. As Laelius tells us in the very first chapter:
“But I must at the very beginning lay down this principle: that true friendship can only exist between good people.”  --Concord 1:13
Thus we are advised in Chapter 16 to put virtue first when we are told, “To seek the good is the first demand we should make upon ourselves; but next to the good, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is friendship.” (Concord 16:16-17).

And so it is that Concord has fortified against advocating the kind of ‘gangster ethos’ we see between criminals and wrongdoing cohorts. In these kinds of “friendships”, the virtue of loyalty is placed above that of the good. Yet, if we understand that true friendship can only take place among those who place goodness first, then we will see that such “friends” are nothing of the kind:
“Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends, only what is good.”  --Concord 7:1
As Concord concludes, Grayling attempts to synthesize the worthy approaches of the Stoics and the Epicureans with the following systemic prescription:
“The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character. It is between such that the stability of friendship we have been talking about can be secured; when, that is to say, those who are united by affection learn, first of all, to rule those passions which enslave others, and secondly to take delight in fair and equitable conduct, to bear each other’s burdens, never to ask each other for anything inconsistent with virtue and rectitude, and not only to serve and love but also to respect each other.”  --Concord 13:5-9

The next part in this series will look at the next book of Grayling's bible, Lamentations.

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