On the Nature of Friendship
Fannius…. Since you mention friendship and since we have free time, please do us a favor and tell us about the nature of friendship and what friendship requires of us.
Laelius…I wouldn’t mind, if I felt myself up to the job. We definitely have the time. But who am I to talk about friendship? What is so great about me? Certain Greek teachers are put on the spot like this all the time, but to speak on a subject without any preparation is very hard to do and requires a lot of training. So I will first ask you to consider this: friendship is the greatest thing in the world; nothing is more natural to mankind and nothing more useful in good and bad times than friendship.
Let me start by laying down this first principle: friendship can only exist between good people. I will not delve into this too deeply, like some scholars who like to split hairs. Perhaps they arrive at true conclusions, but their conclusions are not very useful. Indeed, these same scholars deny that one can be good without being wise. Though in a certain sense, that may be true, they are talking about a wisdom that is beyond the ability of ordinary men to attain. I would reply to them that we should rather consider the world as it is, not some imaginary world of our own creation. Our ancestors considered men such as Gaius Fannius, Manlius Curius, and Tiberius Coruncanius to be wise, but given the definition of wisdom that some of these scholars put forward, we would not be able to call even these men wise. What’s worse? They won’t even let us call these men good. No, they say…only the wise can be good.
Let us talk about goodness then. Who are the good? They are those whose lives testify to their faith, integrity, justice, and generosity. They are those who are not greedy, lustful, and rash. They are those who have perseverance (like the men I named above). We consider these men to be good because they follow nature as a guide for life, at least as much as human beings can.
Now, it seems to me that there is a bond that ties all people together, but that bond is stronger between those who are closer to each other. We are more tightly bound to our countrymen than to foreigners, and to our relatives than others. In the case of our relatives, nature itself has created the bond, though perhaps it is not strong enough. But the greatest bond in the world is friendship. Friends are even better than relatives because relatives can hate each other, but friends cannot. If there is no goodwill between friends, they are not really friends; whereas, if there is no goodwill between relatives, they are still relatives.
Think how powerful friendship is. It is as if the strength of all the bonds that nature has established between the whole human race were condensed into one single bond, so that all the charity of the world held together just two or three people.
Friendship is nothing if not agreement in all divine and human things with good will and charity (caritas). Except for wisdom, friendship is the greatest gift of the immortal gods. Some people say the greatest thing in the world is to have wealth, some say health, some say power, some say honor. Many say that pleasure is the greatest thing in the world. But pleasure is a good that we share even with animals, and we can lose any of those other goods with a simple change in luck. Some people think the highest good is virtue, and this is a splendid idea, but it is virtue itself that nurtures and maintains friendship, and without virtue, friendship cannot exist.
(Let us use the word virtue in its ordinary meaning, not as some learned scholars do in utilizing fancy definitions. Let’s call Paulus, Cato, Gallus, Scipio, and Philus good. They are good enough for everyday life. Let us not try to imagine the good man who doesn’t actually exist anywhere).
I can barely tell you how advantageous friendship was for these men. Who can truly live without the mutual goodwill that arises between friends? What is sweeter than having a friend who listens to all that you have to say? What joy can you have from the good things in life, unless you have someone to share your joy? How hard would it be to face life’s difficulties without someone to help you bear your troubles?
Some of the goods of life are really only good for a single purpose. Money is only good for spending, influence for acquiring public office, honor for being praised, pleasure for enjoyment, health for freedom from sickness and the proper functioning of our bodies. But friendship is good for so many things. Wherever you wander, friendship goes with you. It is everywhere. There is never a wrong time for friendship. It is never bothersome. We use friendship as much as any other good in life. I am not now using the common definition of friendship (as delightful and useful as that kind may be); rather, I am speaking of the true and pure kind of friendship…for friendship makes favorable business more splendid and makes life’s difficulties easier to bear because we have someone to share them with.
Friendship brings with it a number of goods, but one is more important than all the others: namely, a friend always encourages his friend and does not allow him to lose heart or be discouraged. Indeed, whoever looks at his true friend looks upon an image of himself. That is why even when friends are not near, they seem to be close to us…and even departed friends seem alive, since the living cherish their memories and thus make their deaths into a blessing…But if you were to take the bonds of good will away from the world, no house, no family, and no city would be able to stand; the fields themselves would not bear fruit. And if you cannot understand what I mean by that, consider how great the power of friendship and concord is by pondering what happens when we don’t have it. What family is so stable, what city is so firm that it could avoid devolving into hatreds and quarrels? Think about that, and then judge how great friendship is.
On the Origins of Friendship
I have often thought about the question: Do we only desire friendship because of our weaknesses and needs? Do we make friends so that we might get those things from others that we cannot obtain on our own and in turn give to others what they cannot obtain on their own? Giving and receiving are certainly essential parts of friendship, but I wonder whether there is not some cause of friendship that is older and more beautiful, some cause that arises from nature herself. Indeed, it is love (amor), from which the word friendship (amicitia) takes its name, and it is love that moves us to unite with others in goodwill. Though even false friends might be useful, there is nothing false in true friendship, nothing simulated. Whatever friendship might otherwise be, it is always true and free. Thus, it seems to me that friendship arises more from our nature than from our needs, and that we choose our friends because of an inclination of our souls and a sense of love rather than because we think they might be useful to us. We can even see this inclination in animals, who love their offspring and are in turn loved by them. It is even more evident in humans, first from the charity that exists between children and their parents (a bond that can only be broken by the most detestable wickedness) and second from the love that arises between those who are similar in character and nature.
When we find a friend who shares our character, it is almost as if we see in him or her the mirror of goodness and virtue; for virtue is the most lovable quality a person may have, and nothing leads us to delight in another person more than it. Indeed, it is possible to love someone that we have never even met on account of their virtue or goodness. For instance, who can think about Curius Fabricius or Marcus Currius without some charity and good will, even though they have never seen either? On the other hand, who can think about Tarquinus the Proud, Spurius Cassius, and Spurius Melius without hating them? We Romans have battled over Italy with two generals: Pyrrhus and Hannibal. Because of his honesty (probitas), we carry no grudge against Pyrrhus, but this city will hate Hannibal until the end of time because of his cruelty.
Now, if honesty is so powerful that we can admire it in men that we have never even met (or even in our enemies), it is no wonder that men are deeply moved when they see virtue and goodness in those with whom they can develop closer ties. Nevertheless, it is true that love is strengthened by the exchange of benefits, the promise of exchanged benefits, or occasions of intimacy. When these things are added, like fuel to the original flame of love, the good will that exists between friends burns into an admirable love.
On the other hand, if friendship arises from nothing more than need and want, it arises from a very humble origin indeed. And if this were the case, the people who are the most needy would be the most inclined to friendship, which is certainly not true. Rather, it is when a man feels most confident in himself, when he feels himself most strengthened by virtue and wisdom, when he feels least in need of anything, it is then that he most desires to cultivate friendships. What need did Scipio Africanus have of me? None at all, by the gods. And I didn’t need him either. But I loved him for his virtue, and he loved me for the opinion he held of my character. And our good will for each other grew with time. Although we both gained advantages from each other, I did not love him because I hoped to take advantage of him. Just as we give without expecting thanks or repayment, but rather because our own nature spurs us to give, so we believe that we are led to friendship not for the hope of gain, but because love itself is its own reward.
Those who think the highest good in life is pleasure will surely disagree, but is it any wonder that people with such contemptible thoughts are not able to raise their minds to such a magnificent and divine idea. Thus, let us banish them from our conversation and let us believe that feelings of love and charity and good will towards good men spring from our own nature. Moreover, when one begins to desire friendship and spend time with a friend, they try very hard to better themselves and to equal their friend in love, so that they might be worthy of the rewards of the friendship. There might even be a rivalry of virtue between friends. In this way, great advantages will come from friendship, and the origin of friendship will be deeper and truer since it will not arise from weakness. For if friendship arose from mutual advantage, it would fail when those advantages ceased to exist, but nature is unchangeable, and thus, true friendship never dies.
So, there are my views on friendship. Would you like to hear more?
Fannius: Go on, Laelius. I will speak for both Scaevola and I, since I am older.
Scaevola: Fannius is quite right. Let’s hear the rest.
Laelius: Well, then my good men, listen to some conversations about friendship that I frequently held with Scipio. He used to say that nothing was more difficult than for friendship to last until death; either the friendship loses its advantages or the friends have political disagreements. Indeed, men often change character either because their fortune changes or because they age.
Scipio used to illustrate this truth by pointing out that we often lose our childhood friends when we grow into manhood. And even when friendships outlast boyhood, they will often break apart when, for instance, friends compete for a woman or for some other thing that they can’t both have at the same time. If a friendship survives adolescence, it might be undermined by a competition for public office. Indeed, though it is greed that kills the friendships of most men, it is the pursuit of honor and glory that kills the friendships of the best men and even makes the worst of enemies out of the best of friends.
Friends often part ways when one friend asks another to do something immoral, whether that be helping him to satiate his lust or to injure another. However morally right the refuser may be, his friend will accuse him of breaking the laws of friendship. Now, if a person has no scruples about asking a friend to do something immoral, he or she shows that they have no scruples about doing something immoral for their friends, and by their complaints against their friends, they not only kill the friendship, they create everlasting hatreds. Indeed, Scipio used to say, “so many things can kill a friendship that wisdom alone is not enough to preserve it; rather, good friendships need lots of luck as well.”
Let us examine, then, the limits of what should be done for those whom we love. For instance, if Coriolanus had had any friends, should they have taken up arms with him when he betrayed his country? Should the friends of Vecellinus or Spurius Melius have helped them to establish a tyranny? When Tiberius Gracchus was stirring up trouble against the republic, he was utterly abandoned by Quintus Tuber and his other friends. On the other hand, when I was giving advice to the consuls who were trying the conspirators [of Gracchus’s revolt], a friend of your family, Scaevola, named Blossius Cumanus asked my pardon on the grounds that he always did whatever his friend Gracchus asked. I asked him if he would burn down the capitol if Gracchus asked. He replied, “Gracchus would never ask that, but if he wanted it burned down, I would do it.” You see how despicable this line of reasoning is. And by Hercules, he did even more than he said he would. He did not even wait for Gracchus’ commands; rather, he went right ahead and became a leader of the disorder. Because of his rashness and because he was afraid that he would be brought to trial, he fled to Asia and joined with our enemies, for which actions he was justly punished by the republic. Indeed, there is no excuse for immorality, even for the sake of our friends; for if we choose our friends because we think they are virtuous, it should be difficult to remain friends with them if we see that they are not.
But if both friends have perfect wisdom, then no harm will result if we grant our friends whatever they want and they grant us whatever we want. But let us speak of those friends who are before our eyes and in our memory, since several of them were indeed very wise. For instance, Papus Amelius was a close friend of Luscinus; they were twice consuls together and they were colleagues as censors. Manlius Curius and Tiberius Coruncanius were the best of friends with both of them and with each other. We cannot even suspect that any one of these men asked anything of their friends that caused their friend to break an oath or harm the republic. It goes without saying that none of them would have honored such a request. These were most holy (sanctissimi) men, and each of them would have thought that asking such a deed would be as immoral as doing it…
Let this be a law of friendship then: let us never ask anything shameful (turpe) of our friends and let us never do anything shameful that they ask of us. Friendship is no excuse for any moral offense, especially offenses against the republic…We should only ask from friends what is good and right, and only do for them what is good and right. But we should not even wait to be asked. We should be eager to help our friends and never delay in doing so. We should dare to give them advice freely. The authority of a friend is a great help in persuasion, so let us put such authority to use in not only openly but even bitterly warning our friends of danger, if need be, and in heeding their warnings when need be.
I say this because I hear that there are several clever scholars in Greece making arguments that I can scarcely believe (though there is nothing these men won’t ruin with their verbal trickery). Some of them say that we ought to avoid having too many friends, so that we don’t need to feel responsible for too many people. They say that our own cares and worries are enough, and we ought not to bother ourselves with the cares and worries of others. They say that we should hold the reins of friendship loosely, so that we may tighten or slacken them as we wish. For these men say that a happy life consists primarily in security for ourselves, which one cannot enjoy if one cares for others.
Others say something much more inhumane…namely, that we ought to choose our friends for our own benefit and defense, not out of good will or charity; thus, the weakest and least manly should desire friends the most; by this logic, wretched women ought to seek the shelter of friendship more than men, the poor more than the rich, and the unfortunate rather than those who think themselves fortunate. What great wisdom this is! Take away friendship, which is the greatest gift of the immortal gods, and you might as well take away the sun and the earth.
Thus, I will say it again, a person should choose friends because he is attracted to their virtue, and when this happens, love will surely follow.
For what could be more absurd than to delight in inanimate things like public office, glory, buildings, clothes, and accessories, but not delight in a virtuous soul, who is capable of loving and thus capable of loving you back? For, there is no more pleasing repayment for your good will or for the good deeds that you do a friend than for them to love you in return.
If we can all agree that in friendship, one friend binds himself to another that is like himself, then we must agree that because good men love good men, friends might be so similar that they consider themselves almost family. Our very nature greedily seeks out what is like itself, for which reason, Fannius and Scaevola, I think it necessary that between good men there be good will, which means that the source of friendship is part of our very nature.
Moreover, it seems to me that those who think “interest” is the source of friendship thereby take away the best part of friendship. It is love itself, not usefulness, that makes one delight in a friend, and we only find a friend’s services pleasing if those services are inspired by love. Let us reject, then, the idea that friendships arise from mutual need and that the strongest and richest among us are the least in need of friends.
To be entirely honest, I don’t think that it is good for friends to never need anything. How could I have shown my love to Scipio unless he had needed my help, both domestically and militarily? But it is not right to say that friendship arises from utility; rather, utility arises from friendship.
Who is stupider than the man who can acquire anything, whether it be property, horses, servants, fancy clothes, and expensive furniture, but does not acquire friends, whom, I might say, are the greatest and most beautiful furniture of life. Why do we work hard to acquire these other goods? They will belong to whomever can take them from us. However, when we make friends, we are getting something permanent and stable, and even if we are able to keep all the other goods of fortune, we will not be able to enjoy them if we live a life without friendship.
On The Limits of Friendship
We have now to decide upon the limits of friendship and, as it were, boundary lines of affection. I have heard three opinions on the subject, none of which I approve of. First, that we should have the same feelings for our friends that we have for ourselves; second, that we should do as much for our friends as they do for us; and third, that we should do for friends however much they are willing to do for themselves.
I just don’t agree with any of these opinions. The first opinion, which holds that a man should value his friend as he values himself, is simply not true. How much more would we do for a friend than we would ever do for ourselves? For a friend, we will ask favors of unworthy people; we will attack others more bitterly and speak more hostilely against them for the sake of a friend, something that would not seem quite right if we were doing it for ourselves, but is most right if it is for the sake of a friend. Moreover, good men frequently give up things that they want so that their friends might enjoy them instead.
The second view maintains that we should do as much for our friends as they do for us. This is an exceedingly petty and feeble view of friendship, as if friendship consisted in equaling out the amount that one gives with the amount one receives. True friendship seems to me to be something much richer than that. A true friend does not worry about giving more than he has received. Indeed, we should not worry about what we lose by friendship, or if we have given to our friends more than we have received.
Finally, we come to the third opinion, which holds that we should do for our friends only as much as they do for themselves. Now, sometimes people think less of themselves than they should or have less hope for their own future than is warranted. Therefore, we should not do for our friends only what they will do for themselves; rather, we should do more for them than they would do for themselves, so that we might raise their spirits and lead them to hope for better days.
So there must be some other limit to friendship, and I will get to it in a moment, but first, I will give you a maxim that Scipio used to be fond of. He used to say that there was no greater enemy of true friendship than the man who first uttered the words, “you should love your friend, knowing that you may hate him one day.” He could not believe that this was a saying of Bias, one of the seven sages. Rather, he said it must have been uttered by some impure or ambitious greedy man. How can one be friends with another, if he thinks that one day his friend will become his enemy? For then he will want his friend to do as many wrongs as possible so that he will have ammunition against him later, and conversely, he will be anxious and jealous when his friend succeeds. Rather, this saying is far more useful for destroying friendships than maintaining them. Here is a better one. “Let us not become friends with anyone whom we may one day grow to hate.” Moreover, Scipio thought that even if we made a bad choice in a friend, it was better simply to put up with our friend than to plan on becoming enemies with him.
I think the limit of friendship is this: when the morals of the two friends are spotless, then there should be a perfect community of all things between them, including their goods, thoughts, and wills without any exception, so that even if fortune would have it that one friend needs a little help in a matter that concerns his life or reputation and even if the friend’s desire is a little less than just, we can make an exception and help him out, provided that we don’t do something entirely morally wrong. Indeed, a little something should be conceded for the sake of friendship. However, in helping our friends we cannot forget to think of our own reputations nor think we can do without the good will of our fellow citizens. Though reputation should not be sought by flattering others, we must practice virtue, which is the reason others love us.
Let’s get back to Scipio, since everything I know about friendship comes from him. He used to complain that men were more careful with their goods than their friends. Anyone could tell you how many goats and sheep they had, but no one could tell you how many friends they had. And they took great care in selecting their sheep and their goats, but they took very little care at all in selecting their friends, neither did they have any criteria by which they could judge whether someone would be a suitable friend at all. Now, we ought to be looking for friends with firmness, stability, and constancy, but friends like these are hard to find. And it is difficult to judge well without experience, but one can only gain this experience by having friends. Indeed, we often are in a friendship before we can judge whether the person is a good friend or not.
Thus, it is imprudent to rush into friendships; rather, we should hold back our good will a little bit, as if we were reining in a horse, and get to learn the characters of our friends in a kind of probationary period. Frequently, we can find out who is untrustworthy in small monetary matters; others show themselves to be untrustworthy in large monetary matters. However, even if we find men who value friendship more than money, where will we find men who value it more than political office, magistracies, dominion, power, and other goods? And what man will not prefer these things to the dues of friendship?
It is very difficult for human nature not to seek power, and even if a man neglects his friends in order to gain power, he thinks little of it, since he thinks he did it for a great cause. Thus, true friendship is very difficult for those in public positions. What man prefers that his friend win office rather than himself? Think, moreover, how terrible and difficult it seems to most men to share in their friend’s political misfortune. When a man falls from power, he is not likely to find that many of his friends are willing to fall with him. That is why Ennius writes:
A friend in need is a friend indeed.
However, these are the two ways in which friends most often show themselves to be untrustworthy, either by ditching their friends when things are going well for themselves, or deserting a friend in his or her hour of need. Thus, when we find a friend who will not leave us in his fortune or desert us in our misfortune, but remains serious, stable, and constant in either situation, we must consider him a rare friend indeed, and very nearly godlike.