A reader writes:
Reading Montaigne also changed my life. Picking up his Essais was what I consider the first step in my growing up. It was the first step in becoming secure in my failings, asking questions about myself that most people shy away from, embracing my curious nature, overcoming anxiety and genuinely embracing life.
It has become one of my guidebooks to living in a fulfilling way (and it pointed me to some great classics, which have also turned into guidebooks). When it comes to the religion debate, you and I would most likely be on opposite ends; however, what has always interested me is what both sides have in common. The rest is just an engaging and riveting debate.
And, I would say, Montaigne's essay on friendship is a prime example of that which the religious and the nonreligious have in common (at least both sides should recognize that is what brings us together).
Please update us if How to Live is ever published in the US.
Will do. On friendship, my own essay tries to bridge the atheist and religious views of the subject. I begin with Aristotle (the Nicomachean Ethics) and Cicero (De Amicitia), include Montaigne (de L'Amitie) whose religious inclinations, like Shakespeare's, have been the topic of debate for centuries and add the great gay twelfth century Christian monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, whose classic on spiritual friendship is tragically overlooked, and on to Emerson.
As a Christian, it's the Gospels that, to me, represent the greatest celebration of friendship as well as some of the most brutal attacks on the family ever written. It's always staggered me how the church has managed to ignore this for so long in favor of a cult of the family that Jesus clearly violated in almost everything he did.
Remember: Jesus rebuked his parents in public, told his disciples to abandon their wives and children without so much as a buh-bye, continually violated the cultural gender norms of his day (unlike the current Catholic church hierarchy, who insist on much more rigid gender subjugation than the culture in which they exist), and whose closest female disciple was unmarried. His fundamental relationship - the way he expressed the love that defined him as divine - was friendship.
In this, his deepest human relationship was clearly with John, the beloved disciple. Meditating on their love for one another - not sexual, much, much deeper than sexual - helped me overcome the loss of my dearest friend in the plague years. The Gospels tell us that John rested his head on Jesus' bosom at the Last Supper and was the only disciple to have attended Jesus' crucifixion. He was the one to whom Jesus entrusted his own mother as he died.
When was the last time you heard a Christian leader speak of friendship as a supreme virtue, as the ancients understood it? When was the last time you heard a homily about the profound relationship between Jesus and John. Of its essential freedom and self-giving. And note too one of the most memorable things Jesus said;
Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.
What word in that sentence is the one thing we never hear about in our churches? The last section of my book is devoted to the relationship of Jesus and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.
(Image: a classic depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John.)