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Ode to Friendship

by Sangharakshita

Seminar on Doctor Samuel Johnson's "An Ode to Friendship"
Held at: Padmaloka on February 13th, 1983Those Present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Dharmacaris Subhadra, Ratnaprabha,
Mangala, Cittapala, Vajrananda, Prasannasiddhi and Subhuti.
Transcriber's Note: Although this seminar has been transcribed again since its first publication, as it needed a large number of changes and
corrections, the original page numbers have been kept so that those using an earlier index can still find quotations in the same places. This
means that the text on some pages will end at a different point on the page than it does on some other pages.
Day 1 Tape 1 Side A
Sangharakshita: Today's study is something of an experiment because as Vajrananda mentioned
this was his first non-Dharmic study text I think this is the first time I've taken a non-Dharmic study text
in this sort of way as far as I can remember. But it is as it were part of or maybe the beginning of our
attempt to bring certain works of Western literature within the orbit, so to speak, of the FWBO, to draw
from them whatever is useful and inspiring for our own purposes and especial y in the course of the last
few months we have been thinking and talking quite a lot on the subject of friendship, especial y
spiritual friendship. But obviously one can't really understand much about spiritual friendship until one
has had some understanding to begin with of friendship itself. That would seem to be the basis. It did
occur to me some months ago, that we ought perhaps to study different texts drawn from Western and
maybe Eastern literature too dealing with this subject of friendship and I hope we can get around to that
in the course of the next couple of years. So this is to be viewed perhaps as a bit of a pilot project, a
very small sort of foretaste of what we may wel be experiencing then when we study some of those
major contributions to Western literature by various distinguished writers on the subject of friendship.
Samuel Johnson is of course a very well-known, I won't say writer so much, but wel -known figure in
English literature. According to the encyclopaedia which I consulted a little while ago, he is probably
along with Shakespeare, one of the two best-known figures in English literature. The comment was
made 'figures' - not that his works are the best known, by any means, but he is probably, along with
Shakespeare, the best known figure in English literature. And also his sayings and even some of the
things he has written are fairly widely quoted. Very wel -known, I mean, for instance sayings like
"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." That comes from Johnson, and "Second marriages
represent the triumph of hope over experience" also comes from Johnson, who did once consider a
second marriage. And so on, there are dozens of these sayings which are very, very wel -known
indeed. It is perhaps not always appreciated about Johnson that we know a great deal about him, not
only through Boswel 's wel -known biography, but through other biographies and sources, too, that he
was what he himself would have cal ed 'a very clubbable man', he sort of coined this word clubbable,
that is to say a man who is apt to associate with other men in clubs and enjoys doing that, enjoys
conversation, he enjoyed friendly exchange, he enjoyed discussion, even heated argument, repartee.
He loved al these things. He in fact...I think he once said that a tavern chair... meaning a tavern... you
know a room in a tavern with his friends... a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity (laughter) or
something to that effect. In other words, he greatly enjoyed the company of his friends and he had
many very good friends, he real y did cherish his friendships, he real y did keep them in repair. I think
that is in fact his own phrase: that one should 'keep one's friendships in good repair'. He would have
been a very good friend and also was very generous, very warm-hearted, and was very, very
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Doctor Samuel Johnson's "An Ode to Friendship" Seminar
Page 1 fond of his friends and didn't hesitate to show it. He would take a lot of trouble for his friends, would
help them in any way he could. So he was quite a good example of the virtues that he recommended in
connection with friendship.
So this, the poem we are going to study, which is entitled "Ode on Friendship", seems to have been
written very early in life. It was almost certainly written before he was 25, it may wel have been written
when he was 18, or shortly afterwards. It is supposed to have been either written on the occasion of, or
afterwards, reflecting on, his leaving his friend Hector, when he went up to Oxford. [long pause]
So there's actual y... there are seven verses which is rather interesting as there are seven of you
present. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, yes. So we'l deal with it in the usual way and first of al
go through it verse by verse, with each person reading a verse and then we discuss it. So would
someone like to read that first verse?
Subhadra:
An Ode to Friendship
Friendship! Peculiar boon of heaven,
The noble mind's delight and pride,
To Men and Angels only given,
To al the lower world deny'd.
S: We probably have to sort of begin this study by just making sure we have actual y understood the
words, because Johnson's English is not quite contemporary English. He uses his words much more
precisely, with a much greater awareness of their meaning, even their origin, than we usual y do today.
And the meaning of some words, of course has changed a little in the meantime. So the construction of
his sentences is not quite what it would perhaps be nowadays, and he doesn't write like a modern poet,
obviously. But before we go into verse itself, a few words on the word friendship. I took the precaution
of looking this also up in the dictionary a little while ago. It occurs to me I've never done this, which is
rather interesting, because normally I do look up words in the dictionary, but though we have talked a
lot about friendship over the last few months, I must confess I hadn't myself actual y looked the word up
in the dictionary. Perhaps we assume that we know what it means or what it's origin is. Has anybody
got any idea of the etymology of the word 'friend'? Has anybody got any idea of the Sanskrit word with
which it might be cognate?
Subhuti: Isn't that 'Mitra'?
S: No, I said cognate, not the... etymological y connected... I mean cousins, etymologically speaking.
[pause] I'l give you a sort of hint. There can be an interchange very often between 'F' and 'P' when
words travel from one language to another. [pause] Wel , no, maybe it's too much to expect. But
strange to say, it is connected with the Sanskrit 'priya'... Several voices: Ah! Hm!
S: Priya which means 'beloved', and this just il ustrates the fact that a friend is not just someone to
whom one feels the modern sentiment of friendship, but someone whom one loves. I thought that was
quite interesting. I mean there are various forms of the word in Old High German and Medieval French
and so on and they've al got the same meaning; a friend is a person whom one loves.
Mangala: Priya is p-r-i-y-a ?
S: Yes. I was also very interested to discover that the words 'friend' and the word 'free' are connected,
because according to... what shal I say?... ancient ideas you could only love an equal, you could only
love someone who, like yourself, was a free man. Hm? You see what I mean?
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Doctor Samuel Johnson's "An Ode to Friendship" Seminar
Page 1 You couldn't love a slave because a slave was dependant upon you, you owned him, he was your
property. You could love only another person who was like yourself free. So a free man was the kind of
man towards whom you could experience love, whom you could take as a friend. Do you see the
connection?
Subhuti: Did 'free' come out of 'friend'?
S: 'Free' came out of 'friend', it would seem, yes, which is quite interesting.
Prasannasiddhi: Does that mean slaves couldn't have friendships with other slaves?
S: I don't think it means it directly but I think it means it by implication, because a slave is not a master
of himself, he doesn't belong to himself, so to speak, he belongs to somebody else. So he is not at his
own disposal, so how can he enter into a relationship of friendship? You have to be free in order to be
able to do that. So this could be used of course as an argument against slavery, that slavery makes
friendship impossible. I don't know if it is an argument that has ever been used but it could wel be
used, if argument was needed.
Vajrananda: ...work nowadays... people don't even... (unclear)
S: Wel , can you be a friend if you are a wage-slave? Can you be a friend if you're tied to your wife's
petticoats? Or apron - mother's apron-strings? You can be a friend only if you are free to be a friend.
One can look at it in that way. There's not just legal slavery, there's economic slavery, there's domestic
slavery and bondage. There's ideological slavery. Is it possible to be a friend with a communist, or a
Jehovah's Witness or a Seventh Day Adventist or with a fol ower of the ...

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