Men Without Friends: Eros is Killing Phileo

Men Without Friends: Eros is Killing Phileo

Last update on June 19, 2013.

Few relationships from literature tell a more beautiful tale of friendship than that of Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. One scene from the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, especially stands out: Frodo and Sam crossing the River Anduin (destination: Mordor) without the rest of their companions. When Frodo tries to leave without him, Sam exhibits the same love and devotion that has marked his friendship with Frodo from the very beginning—and which will carry him, quite literally, to the very end.

This scene from the book is better but longer, so here’s the abbreviated version from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation:

“Go back, Sam. I'm going to Mordor alone.”

“Of course you are. And I'm coming with you.”

“I didn’t know Frodo and Sam were gay.”

This last, of course, came not from the movie but from some anonymous rube in the row behind me at the theater. As if the plucky hobbits had to carry the Ring of Power not to Mount Doom, but to Brokeback Mountain.

In truth, we may need to feel sorry for that sad, outspoken philistine, because he likely never had a friend.

In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis identifies several types of love. The two that concern us here are phileo (friendship) and eros (romance or sexuality). Of the occasional confusion between phileo and eros, Lewis writes, “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”

It isn’t so much that the boor in the theater was uncomfortable with the love between Sam and Frodo, but that he had lost the ability to conceive of their love as anything but a disguise for the erotic. I don’t think he’s alone. As a culture, we’re losing those categories in which deeply intimate relationships between men exist without sex—or at least without suspicions of sex. To put it in Greek, we’ve lost our phileo and the only category that remains is eros.

The author of a recent article has rightly characterized today’s increasingly popular conception of marriage as “a genderless institution, grounded in norms of companionship and personal fulfillment.” Problem is, the exact same thing can also be said of friendship. This definition leaves no room for a distinction between the phileo of friendship and the eros that exists in marriage—and in our culture, eros is trump.

This is one of the reasons the boundaries drawn around traditional, gendered marriage—one man and one woman—are so important. They tell us what marriage is, clarifying its nature and purpose and providing a model for male-female relationships in their highest form. But equally important is that these boundaries also tell us what is not marriage, providing distinctions that allow us to understand the nature and purpose of non-marital relationships as well. If these boundaries seem narrowly restrictive, it is only because we have forgotten how much freedom they actually provide: They give all of us, married and unmarried, young and old, the freedom to engage in relationships characterized by non-erotic love.

In other words, until now, one main purpose of marriage has been to teach our children that this is not that. Yet when my sons see Sean and Eddie living happily next door, they lose something of the boundaries between marriage and friendship, and may begin to wonder, perhaps for the first time, whether this might really be that after all.

I can see the accusations gathering like storm clouds on the horizon, so let me make myself explicitly clear: I don’t believe that gay marriage will make our sons gay. Rather, I think the problem is precisely the opposite: that confusion about the nature of intimate relationships between men will lead, not to more intimate relationships between boys, but to relationships between boys that are both less intimate and fewer in number.

Without the reinforcing social norm of marriage, our boys will be less free to develop deep, intimate, committed, adoring, loving yet non-sexual relationships with other boys, precisely because they will be less able distinguish between phileo and eros. My oldest son can’t even tell the difference between hunger and boredom, much less between two different loves.

Although this confusion may have little effect on a young boy’s sexual orientation (that is, it will not make him gay), it is sure to have a profound effect on his relationship with young Charlie, or, for that matter, with Joey and Eric and Scott and Randy and... well, you get the picture.

Anthony Esolen has written that “one of the reasons why we cordon off male homosexuality as unnatural is to give boys the breathing room to develop” friendships with other boys, and elsewhere that “the assumption that a boy is a boy [gives] them protection, some breathing space, some time to sort out their feelings and to grow up.”

Normalizing and institutionalizing same-sex eros booby-traps a boy’s path to manhood by subtly undermining those essential, formative male relationships: the hunting buddy, the card club, the platoon, the ball team, the scout troop. And without these relationships as boys, the ability to develop the same type of relationships as men, with other men, will be grossly impaired. Even the expectations that men can or should have lasting and intimate friendships will suffer.

Men need other men. We need each other for encouragement and accountability, for support and advice, for honest criticism and a solid punch when we need it. We need each other for laughter and rough-cut tobacco and pints of fine ale and, yes, for the substantive love of phileo—reinforced through our marriages and defined, at least in part, by what marriage is not. Men without friends are impoverished men.phileo

No one familiar with the story needs to be told what would have come of Frodo without Sam to share his burden and lift his spirit, without Sam to cook a brace of coneys, without Sam to call the Shire back to mind in the darkest hours. Yet we are inviting a world where Sam doesn’t exist. No, more than that: a world in which Sam cannot exist.

I have a picture pinned above my desk. It shows my oldest son, Jack, when he was three years old, walking away from the camera lens with a friend.  Both boys are in their winter coats, and they’re holding hands. It is a perfect image of boyhood companionship, of young phileo. And I keep it at my desk because I’m afraid it won’t last. 

Josh Bishop

Josh is a husband, father and professional writer. He lives and works in West Michigan. Follow him on twitter @joshbishop.


  1. Dave Curd

    Dave Curd on 06/20/2013 8:08 a.m. #

    We are constrained now by the very language we use. The word "gender" is a grammatical term applying to WORDS and yet if we replace that with the correct term "sex" (the quality of being male or female) we can not help but think of coitus or sodomy.

    Don't surrender the language!

  2. Harleys

    Harleys on 08/16/2013 5:42 p.m. #

    Strong work, Mr. Bishop. Strong work. I tripped over this while hunting for similar souls that recognized why men in general these days have few (if any) real friends. Lots of guys have "buddies" but these are acquaintances under specific and limited conditions or situations, by and large. I applaud your insight and articulate statements about this phenomenon. The sexualization of everything has dissolved what could be termed culture or society.

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    mike wittmer on 02/04/2014 2:02 p.m. #

    This is wise and prescient. Everyone who is contemplating a revised definition of marriage should engage your argument. We don't yet know all of the consequences from changing a foundational institution, but we shouldn't be surprised that there are some.

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