Cicero on Friendship

In the person of Laelius, Cicero speaks of friendship this way: “there is nothing which so fits in with our nature, or is so exactly what we want in prosperity or adversity.”:”(“On Friendship,” in Treatises On Friendship and Old Age, trans. E.S. Shuckburgh [Echo Library, 2007], pg. 7. Note – this edition has no actual page numbers, so I have simply counted them as I went, beginning with the first page of “On Friendship.”)”:

The first principle is “friendship can only exist between good men.”:”(Ibid., italics in original.)”: If it be asked who constitute “good men,” the answer is, “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honour, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence, and who have the courage of their convictions.” These are the ones who “follow nature as the most perfect guide to a good life.”:”(Ibid., pg. 8, italics in original.)”: Following this, the definition of “friendship” is: “a complete accord on all subjects human and divine, joined with mutual goowill and affection.” The gods have given mortal men nothing better than this. Indeed, “nature abhors isolation, and ever leans upon some-thing as a stay and support; and this is found in its most pleasing form in our closest friend.”:”(Ibid., pg. 32.)”:

Cicero is aware of unattainable ideals of friendship (probably purely Greek ideas), and as a practical Roman he wants none of them: “Let us account as good the persons usually considered so, such as Paulus, Cato, Gallus, Scipio, and Philus. Such men as these are good enough for everyday life, and we need not trouble ourselves about those ideal characters which are nowhere to be met with.”:”(Ibid., pp. 8-9.)”: Life without friendship is not worth living, for “What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself?,” and “On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself.” Friendship “gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair.” In a friend “a man sees as it were a second self,” and “in his friend’s life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished.”:”(Ibid., pg. 9.)”: In seeking a friend, a man “seeks another whose spirit he may so blend with his own as almost to make one being of two.”:”(Ibid., pg. 29.)”:

What is the cause of friendship? Is it just the mutual expectation of interchange of goods and support? Cicero (again, in the person of Laelius) doesn’t think so. Rather, the word friendship is the word amicitia, and the root of amicitia is amor – love. Love is the “prime mover” of all attraction, and so friendship results from “an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer.”:”(Ibid, pg. 11.)”: That “most beautiful and spontaneous friendship” is the one which is “sought solely for itself without any ulterior object.”:”(Ibid., pg. 28.)”: But friendship is also rooted in virtus (virtue): when we meet someone in whom we see “the beacon-light of virtue,” assuming that we ourselves are virtuous we are naturally inspired to love them as a friend. Indeed, “when a man’s confidence in himself is greatest, when he is so fortified by virtue and wisdom as to want nothing and to feel absolutely self-dependent, it is then that he is most conspicuous for seeking out and keeping up friendships.”

The idea of “self-sufficiency,” a staple of Stoic thought, raises an interesting question about friendship. Why seek a friend if oneself already has everything one needs? The Stoic, psychologically and emotionally in command of himself, does not need friendship, as if he had defects in himself that only another could supply. However, he can profit from continually seeing his own virtues in a mirror: “Did Africanus, for example, want anything of me? Not the least in the world! Neither did I of him. In my case it was an admiration of his virtue, in his an opinion, may be, which he entertained of my character, that caused our affection.”:”(Ibid., pg. 12.)”: Indeed, “the good love the good and attach them to themselves as though they were united by blood and nature. For nothing can be more eager, or rather, more greedy, for what is like itself than nature.”:”(Ibid., pg. 20.)”: One may wonder just how it is that the “self-sufficient” Stoic could have a “joyless life” if his life was without friends,:”(Ibid., pg. 22.)”: especially since later Cicero / Laelius says that “nature abhors isolation, and ever leans upon some-thing as a stay and support; and this is found in its most pleasing form in our closest friend.”:”(Ibid., pg. 32.)”:

Another question that arises, particularly in connection with the fact that many friendships fall apart when subjected to various severe strains, is to what extent personal feelings should be involved in the friendship. Should a man assent to an immoral request made by his friend? Should differences of opinion in politics or rivalry in love or competition for the same office affect the friendship? If your friend wants you to revolt against the lawful government, should you do it? To what extent should one be loyal to one’s friend? Only if virtue and honor are maintained, says Cicero / Laelius. For “seeing that a belief in a man’s virtue is the original cause of friendship, friendship can hardly remain if virtue be abandoned,” and friends should “neither ask nor consent to do what is wrong.”:”(Ibid., pp. 14-17.)”: This is especially the case in issues that affect the health and security of the state – “[good men] ought not to consider themselves under any obligation to stand by friends who are disloyal to the republic.” Any confederation of men out to harm the state and who invoke the shelter of “friendship” for their actions “must be visited with the severest punishment, lest the idea should prevail that fidelity to a friend justifies even making war upon one’s own country.”:”(Ibid., pg. 17-18. Cicero was well-known for his ardent passion for the republican liberty of the Roman state, and his equal willingness to bend various laws and customs which, if slavishly followed, would militate against the health and security of the state.)”:

The “first law of friendship” must be that “we should ask from friends, and do for friends, only what is good.”:”(Ibid., pg. 18, italics in original.)”: Sounding somewhat like Proverbs 27:6 (“faithful are the wounds of a friend”), Cicero / Laelius continues, “In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed.”:”(Ibid.)”: By way of contrast, Cicero compares the friendless life to the life of the tyrant:

For who, in heaven’s name, would choose a life of the greatest wealth and abundance on condition of neither loving or being beloved by any creature? That is the sort of life tyrants endure. They, of course, can count on no fidelity, no affection, no security for the goodwill of anyone. For them all is suspicion and anxiety; for them there is no possibility of friendship. Who can love one whom he fears, or by whom he knows that he is feared? Yet such men have a show of friendship offered them, but it is only a fair-weather show. If it ever happen that they fall, as it generally does, they will at once understand how friendless they are…life can never be anything but joyless which is without the consolations and companionship of friends. :”(Ibid., pp. 21-22.)”:

Cicero / Laelius notes that some claim the following three principles are essential to friendship: “that we should love our friend just as much as we love ourselves, and no more; another, that our affection to them should exactly correspond and equal theirs to us; a third, that a man should be valued at exactly the same rate as he values himself.” Cicero / Laelius disagrees with all three. The first, he says, is false because we do all kinds of things for friends which we would never do for our own sakes, and some even which are against our own interests. The second is false because friendship is far richer a relationship than a stark credit / debit scheme can handle. Friendship is not afraid of giving more than it receives. The third idea is false because people often have too high or too low opinions of themselves, and a true friend tells his friend what is good for him rather than merely confirming him in his own prejudices.:”(Ibid., pp. 22-23.)”:

In selecting our friends, we must take care “never to enter upon a friendship with a man whom we could under any circumstances come to hate. And even if we are unlucky in our choice, we must put up with it…” But, in order to maximize our potential for having good friends, “The real limit to be observed in friendship is this: the characters of two friends must be stainless. There must be complete harmony of interests, purpose, and aims, without exception.”:”(Ibid., pg. 23.)”: Admittedly, our judgments about such matters are not always sound, and so we “should test our friends’ characters by a kind of tentative friendship.”:”(Ibid., pg. 24.)”: By this means we can better determine the quality of his loyalty, the simplicity (uncomplicatedness) of his character, his candidness, and his pleasantness. While “a gloomy temper and unvarying gravity may be very impressive,” friendship “should be a little less unbending, more indulgent and gracious, and more inclined to all kinds of good-fellowship and good nature.”:”(Ibid., pp. 24-25.)”:

Another rule of thumb is to “put yourself on a level with your friend.” That is, “If any of us have any advantage in personal character, intellect, or fortune, we should be ready to make our friends sharers and partners in it with ourselves….For the advantages of genius and virtue, and in short, of every kind of superiority, are never realized to their fullest extent until they are bestowed upon our nearest and dearest.” But at the same time, if we are actually surpassed by our friend, we must take care not to be annoyed. Maturity, which comes only with time, helps here since “difference of character leads to difference of aims, and the result of such diversity is to estrange friends.”:”(Ibid., pp. 25-27.)”: Despite what was earlier said about plainly speaking necessary rebukes to a friend, it seems that another thing that hurts friendships is speaking too plainly: “Plain speaking is a cause of trouble, if the result of it is resentment, which is poison of friendship.” On the other hand, “compliance is really the cause of much more trouble, because by indulging his faults it lets a friend plunge into headlong ruin.”:”(Ibid., pp. 32-33.)”: A friend cannot flatter his friend, for flattery is based on a desire “to please with-out any regard to truth.” This destroys friendship by subverting the oneness of mind and trust between the friends.:”(Ibid., pg. 33.)”:

What should we do if a friendship does become estranged? Although we should strive first to prevent the breach, “our friendship should seem to have died a natural rather than a violent death” – that is, we should “take care that friendship is not converted into active hostility, from which flows personal quarrels, abusive language, and angry recriminations.” However, if this happens, we should try to let the party inflicting the injury be in the wrong by just submitting to it, how ever unjust it is. But again, this all can likely be avoided by taking care with whom we form friendships to begin with.:”(Ibid., pg. 28.)”: “The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character.” Again: “Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, not a partner in guilt.”:”(Ibid., pg. 29.)”: Consequently, “you must satisfy your judgment before engaging your affections: not love first and judge afterwards.” Friendship is too important a thing to let be scandalized by our poor choices and subsequently breaking off the friendship “in full career.”:”(Ibid., pp. 30-31.)”:

To sum the discourse up: “in view of the in-stability and perishableness of mortal things, we should be continually on the look-out for some to love and by whom to be loved; for if we lose affection and kindliness from our life, we lose all that gives it charm….One piece of advice on parting. Make up your minds to this. Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship.”:”(Ibid., pp.37-38.)”:


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