When Public Orthodoxy published “Conjugal Friendship” on May 2, a number of commentators objected in particular to its conflation of friendship with conjugacy. The present reflection seeks to address some of those concerns. 

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“Happy Battle” – from Father Pavel Florensky’s 1914 “Friendship”

My use of conjugal in a sense that both subsumes and transcends its marital connotation derives from a number of interrelated linguistic factors, mainly its Latin cognates and their Greek equivalents. I share Florensky’s structuralist approach to language, which gives priority to the embedded etymological meaning of a word over its conventional usage in a given time and place or the idiosyncratic intention of a given speaker. This places us at odds with postmodern assumptions about language while not denying its intrinsic malleability as a living medium of communication. Our attention to the morphemic structure of words, with its implicit premise that language possesses on some level an interior life of its own that operates independently of us—to wit, that language imposes itself on us, both shaping and revealing human reality no less than we shape and reveal our own reality through our creative use of language—remains as central to understanding Florensky’s theology of friendship as it does, for instance, to biblical studies.    

The Greek σύζυγος and its Latin calques, the noun conjux or conjunx and the adjective conjugalis, share the basic meaning of co-yoked. Σύζυγος appears once in the New Testament, and this in a non-marital sense: ἐρωτῶ καὶ σέ, γνήσιε σύζυγε (Phil 4:3). Outside of Scripture, σύζυγος and συζυγία—whence the English syzygy, but translatable literally as conjugacy—serve a wide range of purposes across a history of classical and Christian usage in military, marital, theological, monastic, and other contexts. One’s σύζυγος might be a fellow soldier, gladiatorial opponent, biological or spiritual brother, fellow monk with whom one lives as a couple, husband, or wife. In St. Paul’s case, we know neither whom he addresses nor the specific nature of their relationship. Συζυγία might refer to married life, sexual intercourse, the union of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and again the living arrangements of two monks in a committed relationship of mutual care and support. In contemporary Greek, σύζυγος designates a spouse of either gender.

Similar versatility prevails in the vocabulary of two first-millennium translations of the New Testament. The Vulgate renders the addressee of Phil 4:3 as conpar, a variant of compar and meaning co-equal, which can also denote a spouse. The Slavonic New Testament gives супружникъ—from пружатися, to strain or exert—which can mean a comrade, co-labourer, or husband. It survives in the Russian words супруг (husband), супруга (wife), супружеский (married; marital), супружество (matrimony; wedlock), супружник (hubby), and супружница (wifey). (The Slavic prefix с-/су-/со- corresponds to the Greek συ-/συν-/συμ- and the Latin co-/con-/com-.) Even the KJV’s yokefellow means a husband or wife in some contexts.

Conjugalis itself does not appear to have the same range of uses as σύζυγος. Yet conjux or conjunx, while usually referring to a spouse, also means a companion, comrade, attendant, fellow slave, or yokefellow. Conjunctio, a calque of συζυγία, conveys a conjugal relationship in the marital sense as well as an intimate bond of friendship.

This enduring analogy between marriage and “co-yoked” male pairs, inscribed across languages, reveals a consistent linguistic pattern which commends the adoption of conjugal as perfectly compatible with Holy Tradition for the kind of exclusive, lifelong friendship that Florensky envisions. Repeatedly and in various ways he characterizes such a friendship as no different from marriage. The assumption that the Church assigns a specialized vocabulary uniquely to marriage and its sexual enactment, which can never describe analogical relationships between two persons of the same gender, collapses under the weight of scrutiny.

Florensky bases his sense of the conjugality of friendship  on a similar linguistic analysis of the following: φίλος and its cognates; its Russian equivalent, друг, and the cognation between this and другой, other or second; the dual meaning of φιλεῖν as любить and целовать, to love and to kiss; and the cognation between целовать and целый, whole. In parsing “the four loves” a half century before C.S. Lewis he unveils the latent eroticism of friendship when understood not as a happenstance or opportunistic relationship with an indeterminate number of individuals, but as a spiritually unitive bond between two persons, no less exclusive and no less irreplicable than the monogamy of marriage. In the following passage as elsewhere, he uses the terms friends and lovers interchangeably:

Beyond the moment of eros in the Platonic sense, φιλία is revealed in the soul—the  highest point of earth and the bridge to heaven. Constantly revealing in the person of the loved one the glimmer of primordial beauty, φιλία erases, if only in a conditional and preliminary way, the bounds of selfhood’s separateness, which is aloneness. In a friend [Въ другѣ], in this other I [въ этомъ другомъ Я] 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. It is upon this peak of human feeling that the heavenly grace of that love descends. […]  

[Φ]ιλεῖν conforms most of all to the Russian любить in its general meaning…. […] In particular, φιλεῖν (with or without the addition of τῷ στόματι, i.e., with the lips) signifies the outward expression of this intimacy, to kiss [цѣловать]. As finding its fulfilment in the very closeness of the lovers, φιλεῖν includes the element of satisfaction, of self-satiety…φιλεῖν means “to be satisfied with something, to seek nothing more.” […] Φιλία, φιλότης signifies a friendly relation, a tender expression of love, which refers to the inner disposition of the lovers. In particular, φίλημα is a kiss [поцѣлуй].

“But in fact,” Florensky concludes of the four loves, “none of these words expresses the love of friendship that we are considering in the present letter, a love that combines the aspects of φιλία, ἔρως, and ἀγάπη [emphasis mine]…. In any case, the most suitable word here is φιλεῖν with its derivatives.” 

Florensky later returns to друг to reiterate that a conjugal friend constitutes not so much one’s “other half” as one’s other complete self. He examines more thoroughly the connection between friendship and the act of kissing in Greek, and between kissing and wholeness in Russian, and conflates these three—friendship, kissing, and wholeness—in the spiritual need for bodily intimacy:

Friendship is the seeing of oneself with the eyes of another [другого]…. The I, being  reflected in a friend [въ другѣ], recognizes in its I its own other I [свое другое Я]. The image of a mirror naturally comes to mind here, and, indeed, this image has been knocking on the door for many centuries beyond the threshold of consciousness. Plato uses it. According to the greatest of those who know, Plato’s Socrates, a friend sees himself “in a loving one as in a mirror.”

And later:

…[T]he “together” of love must not be limited solely to abstract thought but necessarily requires palpable, concrete manifestations, including physical closeness. It is necessary not only to “love” one another but also to be close together, to attempt, as much as possible, to come closer and closer to one another. But when are friends closest to each other, if not when kissing? The very word for “kiss” in Russian (поцѣлуй) is close to the Russian word for “whole” (цѣлый), and the Russian verb for “to kiss [each other]” (цѣловаться) signifies that friends are brought to a state of wholeness (цѣлостности) or unity [единства, oneness]. A kiss is the spiritual unification of the persons kissing. Its connection with friendship, namely with φιλία, is seen from the Greek word for it, φίλημα. Moreover (as we have already mentioned), φιλεῖν, with the addition of τῷ στόματι or without it, means “to kiss” [цѣловать].

It is necessary to live a common life, it is necessary to illuminate and suffuse everyday life with closeness, even outward, bodily closeness. Christians will then acquire new, unheard-of powers. They will overcome Satan, cleansing and removing all of his impure powers.

Although unnoted by Florensky, the cognation of wholeness in Slavonic and Russian not only with kissing but also with healing—цѣлъ and цѣлити, целый and исцелить—suggests that the wholeness and oneness experienced by conjugal friends when their bodies draw together to kiss comprises the healing of their existential isolation. Florensky portrays the bodily intimacy of conjugal friendship not at all as a begrudging pastoral concession to the weakness of the flesh, but as holy and beautiful in itself, necessary for the nurturance of purity and the acquisition of shared spiritual powers. Earlier he writes, “The pairedness of spirit-bearing persons [парность духо-носныхъ личностей] is unquestionable. And whatever the initial stimuli to their friendship, one must conclude that the gifts the friends received in their friendship necessarily led to the pairing of their persons.”

Even in English the originary exclusivity of friendship is deeply embedded, if rather less obviously than in other languages: friend derives from the Old Dutch and Old High German friunt, lover, and from the Gothic frijōn, to love. Thus Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary, puts into the mouths of the 14th-century Edward II and his beloved Gaveston:

            “My father is deceased; come, Gaveston,

            And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.”

            Ah, words that make me surfeit with delight!

            What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston

            Than live and be the favourite of a king?

            Sweet prince, I come. These, these thy amorous lines

            Might have enforced me to have swum from France

            And like Leander gasped upon the sand,

            So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy arms.

            The sight of London to my exiled eyes

            Is as Elysium to a new come soul,

            Not that I love the city or the men,

            But that it harbours him I hold so dear,

            The king, upon whose bosom let me die….

That Alan Bray should name his study of male couples in the Christian West, The Friend, comes as no mystery. Even our everyday speech must preserve something of the unique quality of a particular friendship in our subtle distinction between my friend and a friend of mine.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. His dissertation will comprise a textual and contextual study of Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.