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Friendship as Sacred Knowing
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kimbriel, Samuel, 1986–
Friendship as sacred knowing : overcoming isolation / Samuel Kimbriel.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978–0–19–936398–8 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978–0–19–936399–5
(electronic text) 1. Knowledge, Theory of (Religion) 2. Philosophical theology.
3. Friendship—Religious aspects—Christianity. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
My second friend
PA RT I: Friendship and Disengagement
1. Friendship and Isolation
2. Friendship, Virtue, and Contemplation
PA RT II: Friendship and Enquiry: Beyond Disengagement
3. Sacred Knowing and Indwelling Love
4.The Porous Enquirer
5. The Veiled Path: Enquiry, Agency, and Desire
6.Human Finitude and the Paradox of Enquiry
7. Friendship and Deification
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the present work manifests, not least, the great generosity of the
friends and communities with whom I have been privileged to share my
life. I wish to note how grateful I am for Johannes Börjesson, Federico
Tedesco, Blake Allen, Cassie Kimbriel, Cooper Kimbriel, Simon Oliver,
Alison Milbank, Karen Kilby, Eric Lee, Vittorio Montemaggi, Jacob Sherman, Elizabeth Powell, Josh Vargo, Alex Englander, Richard McLauchlan,
Jeff Phillips, Andrew Davison, and John Hughes. Their constant quiet
support over these last years has been a great gift. In addition to their
amity, many of these companions have offered the most fruitful comments about various drafts of this work, as have both of my parents, Beth
Ratzlaff and Sam Kimbriel. I am particularly indebted to Catherine Pickstock as well as to John Milbank and Janet Soskice for their abundant support and kindness.
I have been moved by the generosity and attentiveness with which
Cynthia Read of Oxford University Press has supported this project, and I
am grateful to her and to her assistants, Stuart Roberts and Marcela Maxfield, for their expertise and enthusiasm in preparing the work for publication. I am grateful to my sister, Mariah Velasquez, for her help in editing
the manuscript and to the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College and
the trustees of the Bethune-Baker Fund for financially supporting my
I have dedicated this work to D Thompson, who first taught me the
word friend. It is her love and that perpetually shown to me by my wife,
Christine, that continue nearly every day to startle me with the resplendence of what this word could mean.
Feast of St. Benedict 2013
Pembroke College, Cambridge
BFSumma theologiae, 1964–73. Blackfriars edition. 60 vols.
Translated by Thomas Gilby et al. London: Eyre and
CCSL Corpus Christianorum series Latina. 1959–. Turnhout: Brepols.
CSELCorpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. 1886–. Vienna:
Akademie der Wissenschaften.
FCFathers of the Church. 1947–. Washington DC: Catholic
University of America Press.
FDPSumma theologica, 1912–36. Fathers of the English Dominican
Province edition. 22 vols. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne.
OCTOxford Classical Texts or Scriptorum classicorum bibliotheca
Oxoniensis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
OOLS. Thomae de Aquino opera omnia. 1882–. Rome: Comissio
PCWPlato: Complete Works. 1997. Edited by John Cooper.
PLPatrologiae cursus completus: Series Latina. 1841–55. Edited by
J.-P. Migne. Paris.
POPlatonis opera. 1900–1907. Oxford Classical Texts. Edited by
J. Burnet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DeEnt De ente et essentia
Quaestiones disputatae de potentia
Quaestiones disputatae de veritate
Quaestiones disputatae de virtutibus
Sententia libri De anima
Super librum Dionysii De Divinis nominibus
Super Boetium De Trinitate
In duodecim libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis expositio
In octo libros Physicorum expositio
Summa contra Gentiles
Contra duas epistulas Pelagianorum
De civitate Dei
De catechizandis rudibus
De doctrina Christiana
De natura et gratia
GenMan De Genesi contra Manichaeos
De gratia Christi et de peccato originali
In Epistolam Ioannis ad Parthos tractatus
In Iohannis evangelium tractatus
De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo p arvulorum
De perfectione hominis iustitiae
De Spiritu et littera
DeAm Laelius de amicitia
he Holy Bible. 1999. New American Standard Version –
Updated Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
he New Oxford Annotated Bible. 2007. New Revised Standard
Version. Augmented Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University
SATaylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
SSTaylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge
Friendship as Sacred Knowing
Ours is an age of lonely-mindedness. We are haunted, I suggest, by a
certain habit of isolation buried, often imperceptibly, within our practices
of understanding and relating to the world. The chapters of this volume
seek in various ways to work through the complexities of this disposition
and to contest its settled self-evident place within contemporary thought
and practice. Towards this end I focus, throughout this work, upon the diverse interactions between the human activities of friendship and knowing, for it is in these two loci, I suggest, that the crisis into which the
tradition of interiorised seclusion has fallen can be glimpsed with particular clarity. The work begins in Part I with an examination of the difficulties which arise when friendship and enquiry are severed, going on
in Part II to contrast these isolated ways of relating with a tradition—that
of late-antique and early-medieval Johannine Christianity—that displays
very much the opposite possibility in which intimacy and understanding go hand in hand. Taken together, the chapters of this study endorse
a return of sorts, beyond modern presumptions of isolation, to an antique and particularly Christian philosophical habit—“the befriending of
wisdom”—in which understanding was taken to be a kind of communion.
To call the age “lonely-minded” is to say something more than simply,
as many others have done, that it is an age of loneliness, however true
that may be. For some, the standard story of the time is that of fragmentation and alienation, as societal ruptures seem to have withdrawn the very
conditions of community.1 For others, the apparent expansion of human
vision in this scientific time has come only with the recognition that the
cosmos upon which such a gaze rests is indifferent and faceless.2 Whilst
both analyses are insightful in important respects, each, I suggest, attends to a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental disposition that is as
fr iendship a s s ac r ed k now ing
pivotal to the present way of life as it is elusive. The disposition in question
involves how we comport ourselves to the world in knowledge and action.
Modernity frequently reminds its inhabitants of its tremendous success
in gaining ever deeper understanding of reality through reason and of
the way in which this understanding brings along with it tremendous
potential for expanded technical control. What is far too little discussed,
however, is that this claim to expanded knowledge comes only on the
basis of a shift in what counts as “knowledge” or “reason.” For modernity,
enquiry becomes a remarkably insulated and self-defined affair manifesting a basic tendency towards isolation or, indeed, loneliness. From our
way of knowing, habits of isolation then ripple outward into nearly every
corner of modern life.
The first chapter of this work is concerned with drawing attention to
this habit of solitude. I shall undertake this task chiefly in dialogue with
Charles Taylor’s narratives regarding the origin and development of modernity.3 I focus especially upon the process by which modernity came to
press itself into such habits of isolation, giving particular care to the way
that it felt it necessary to reformulate radically the role played by intimacy
within the “proper” human life. Inasmuch as a certain resistance towards
isolation is constitutively bound up with friendship, the rise of an isolating habit could only be achieved by pushing friendship out of the serious
public business of life. Intimacy was thus severed from the activity of
knowing as it was confined to the sphere of the private and sentimental,
away from official public human activity.
Whilst I discuss various reasons that such severing was understood to
be salutary, I also argue that this attempt to create a human life broadly
detached from bonds of love and intimacy created a number of acute difficulties. To say that the present age is lonely-minded is to suggest not
simply that it is characterised by certain tendencies towards solitude, but
that powerful and persistent human desires stand in protest against their
confinement; in loneliness one’s aloneness becomes an affliction unto
oneself. It is precisely this sort of affliction that has arisen in the wake of
the attempt to carve out a way of living broadly detached from intimacy.
The desire for intimacy, has, as I shall argue, not merely proven itself
ineliminable within the present age but appears indeed to have taken on
new intensity even as the possibilities for the fulfilment of this desire
appear ever more remote. What is seen in friendship is not, furthermore,
confined to friendship but manifests a deeper ailment which troubles the
modern subject as a whole.
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As should be apparent, my interest in this study is not with friendship alone, but with this whole nexus of issues with which friendship’s
ailments are bound. The conditions for these difficulties were set into
place, Taylor argues, by a slow movement towards “disengagement,” a
movement which, for him, sits behind the entirety of the present age.
Disengagement, Taylor suggests, is defined by the attempt to withdraw
from direct and vulnerable connection to the external cosmos by establishing a realm of secure internality. For Taylor, the ancient and medieval
“porous stance” —in which the philosophical life was driven by desire
to befriend the highest things (hence the etymology of the term “philosophy”)—slowly gave way to the latter “buffered stance” which was defined by a certain autonomy and invulnerability. Whilst I question and
refine certain aspects of these (admittedly broad) claims in later parts of
this work, there is much to affirm in Taylor’s argument that the pivotal
shifts in metaphysical vision that took place in the late medieval and early
modern periods had less to do with straightforward rational advancement
(as is often assumed by the standard “narratives of progress”) and more
to do with an alteration in “stance” (Taylor’s term) to reality. Enquiry thus
became identified with the quest for self-defined certainty (procedural
reason) even as the prime mode of action which arose from such procedural reason became that of instrumental control.
As I shall suggest, Taylor’s narratives call into question the legitimacy
of core aspects of these developments, and this for two reasons. First, even
to see the contingency by which modern ways of interacting with reality
arose is to question the bid to neutrality upon which so many of them rest.
Secondly certain intractable difficulties that seem to arise on the basis of
these developments—the disintegration of coherent practices of intimacy
not least—not only draw attention to critical internal ruptures within the
disengaged stance but also create substantial motivations to find viable
alternatives to it.
In the present project the search for such alternatives turns primarily
to premodern sources, in part because it is in their light that the contours
of the disengaged consciousness can be glimpsed more clearly, and in
part because, in certain cases, they do appear to provide genuine pathways beyond present difficulties. It should be emphasised, however, that
the present project is not anti-modern in any straightforward sense. One
reason for this is that, contrary to Taylor’s assessment, the buffered self
should not be considered an exclusively modern phenomenon. Disengagement rather should be seen as embracing and radically expanding certain
fr iendship a s s ac r ed k now ing
tendencies that have long been lingering within the Western tradition.
This point can be seen, for example, within the visions of friendship articulated in Plato’s Lysis, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Cicero’s De
amicitia, all of which are discussed in chapter 2. I consider Aristotle’s
approach in particular depth. Whilst I commend certain aspects of his
robustly political vision of friendship, I argue that even here, the roots
of the buffered self can be glimpsed in his tendencies to separate friendship from contemplation, practical virtue from intellectual. As I suggest,
his inability to formulate a single coherent vision of virtue is intrinsically
linked to his failure to countenance friendship as a cosmic phenomenon.
Nor, indeed, is modernity itself entirely “buffered.” Indeed, the present project is an attempt to do justice to certain aspects of modernity
which have been neglected or hidden by the buffered self. As Taylor’s accounts make clear, the impulse to find an alternative to the patterns of
isolation discussed here arises from a crucial ambiguity within the present age. To many, disengagement has been welcomed precisely because
of its capacity to deliver certainty, control, invulnerability, and the like.
Yet, as Taylor points out, even the greatest proponents of disengagement
have never been fully able to settle into its patterns, as the buffer all too
frequently comes to seem a prison. It is for these kinds of reasons that
Taylor understands modernity to be defined not so much by disengagement alone, but by a complex interplay between the disengaged stance
and vigourous countermovements against it (as seen, for example, in the
enduring strength of Shaftesburean and Romantic sensibilities). Thus,
for Taylor, critique of the buffered self should lead one not so much to
reject the present frame as a whole, but rather to attend to its particularities so as to recognise and foster certain inclinations within it which, if
properly matured, can aid the construction of a more coherent and stable
frame of life. 4
After analysing these buffered (chapter 1) and semi-buffered (chapter 2)
ways of life along with their attendant problems, chapters 3 through 7 of
this work consider the possibilities for constructing a radically “porous”
or “un-disengaged” mode of enquiry by drawing the activities of friendship and understanding into unity. This task is undertaken through examination of a particular strand of Christian reflection stretching from
the Gospel of John into St. Thomas Aquinas (with some more minimal
consideration of Plato’s later discussions of friendship as well).
In chapter 3, I argue that the Gospel of John manages to overcome
the aporiai of friendship through the embedding of human intimacy
within a vision of Christological making and remaking. Friendship now
(in contrast, for example, to Aristotle) is seen to form an integral part
of the highest human life because it is present even in the very act of
creation from which humanity has emerged. Friends are good because
goodness has been given to them from beyond, and their very friendship
is a moment in that activity of goodness. Christ who is the “first friend”
is thus perfectly able to respond to this basic human desire, captivating
the deepest longings of the human soul. The superabundance of this first
friend is such, however, that it ever enables creaturely love to reach him
through mediating institutions such as human friendship. In grasping
this Johannine point about the inner logic of friendship, one has also
been opened to the possibility of an engaged form of enquiry. Loving and
knowing become identified precisely because the deepest contours of reality are those defined by divine love, whether that be within God himself or
as displayed within creation.
In chapters 4 and 5 I attempt to show how friendship and enquiry
become intertwined for Augustine under the force of such Johannine convictions, and this in two directions. First, concrete practices of befriending
become disclosive of the Divine character itself since the lover knows “the
love more dearly with which he loves than the brother whom he loves” (De
Trin VIII.viii.12). Secondly, enquiry takes on the character of friendship as
Augustine seeks to become ever more present to the Inner Teacher who
rests at the very core of his own existence. Throughout my treatment of
Augustine, I attempt to highlight the radical contrast between this Augustinian stance and that definitive for Taylor of the buffered self. Towards
this end, I attempt in chapter 5—through narrating an encounter with a
“disengaged interlocutor”—to show the way in which the lack of a basic
commitment to isolation enables this Augustinian porous stance to evade
deep difficulties that haunt the disengaged. I conclude this chapter, in
dialogue with Plato and Augustine, by considering the way that concrete
human friends are enabled to participate in a broader cosmic movement
of love by which the enquirer is caught up ever more fully into the truth.
In chapters 6 and 7, I seek to complete the dialectic that has been
building in the previous chapters by examining Aquinas’s cosmic vision
of friendship. In chapter 6, I mount a critique of the disengaged stance
by arguing that it is constructed around the evasion of a paradox which,
for Aquinas, is definitive of human enquiry: one is unfit to behold that
for which one longs. Disengagement, I argue, is a kind of disorder of love
which attempts to reestablish parity between longing and capacity by
fr iendship a s s ac r ed k now ing
denying this conundrum of human finitude. In contrast, I argue that it is
only participation in charity qua friendship that allows one to respond to
this paradox aright. Charity follows the logic of gift knit into human existence to its completion as one is ever more caught up into the Truth for
which one longs by taking on a deiform shape. When all evasions are set
aside, the impulse to enquiry is revealed to be the impulse to such “Divine
friendship,” and it is only in being responsive to such friendship that one
is able to come to one’s proper end.5
All of this, then, builds to a conclusion in which I seek first to present disengagement in a new light and second to articulate its alternative.
Disengagement comes to be seen not now simply as Taylor would have it,
as a life inside of a buffer in which all vulnerability has been eschewed,
but as a life that has been half-severed even from its own most defining
impulses. It is for this reason, I suggest, that the path of charity as friendship comes to take on such central importance, for it is only in this way
that the impulse towards enquiry can be inhabited aright.
Friendship and Disengagement