Concerning Friendship by Marcus Tullius Cicero

A Dialogue

Fannius: I agree with you, Lælius; never was man better known for justice or for glory than Scipio Africanus. That is why everyone in Rome is looking to you; everyone is asking me, and Scævola here, how the wise Lælius is bearing the loss of his dead friend. For they call you wise, you know, in the same sense as the oracle called Socrates wise, because you believe that your happiness depends on yourself alone, and that virtue can fortify the soul against every calamity. May we know, then, how you bear your sorrow?

Scævola: He says truly; many have asked me the same question. I tell them that you are composed and patient, though deeply touched by the death of your dearest friend, and one of the greatest of men.

Lælius: You have answered well. True it is that I sorrow for a friend whose like I shall never see again; but it is also true that I need no consolations, since I believe that no evil has befallen Scipio. Whatever misfortune there is, is my misfortune, and any immoderate distress would show self-love, not love for him. What a man he was! Well, he is in heaven; and I sometimes hope that the friendship of Scipio and Lælius may live in human memory.

 Fannius: Yes—your friendship: what do you believe about friendship?

Scævola: That's what we want to know.

Lælius: Who am I, to speak on such a subject all on a sudden? You should go to these Greek professionals, who can spin you a discourse on anything at a moment's notice. For my part, I can only advise this—prize friendship above all earthly things. We seem to be made for friendship; it is our great stand-by whether in weal or woe. Yet I can say this too: friendship cannot be except among the good. I don't mean a fantastical and unattainable pitch of goodness such as the philosophers prate about; I mean the genuine, commonplace goodness of flesh and blood, that actually exists. I mean such men as live in honour, justice, and liberality, and are consistent, and are neither covetous nor licentious, nor brazen-faced; such men are good enough for us, because they follow Nature as far as they can.

Friendship consists of a perfect conformity of opinion upon all subjects, divine and human, together with a feeling of kindness and attachment. And though some prefer riches, health, power, honours, or even pleasure, no greater boon than friendship, with the single exception of wisdom, has been given by the gods to man. It is quite true that our highest good depends on virtue; but virtue inevitably begets and nourishes friendship. What a part, for instance, friendship has played in the lives of the good men we have known—the Catos, the Galli, the Scipios, and the like!

How manifold, again, are its benefits! What greater delight is there than to have one with whom you may talk as if with yourself? One who will joy in your good fortune, and bear the heaviest end of your burdens! Other things are good for particular purposes, friendship for all; neither water nor fire has so many uses. But in one respect friendship transcends everything else: it throws a brilliant gleam of hope over the future, and banishes despondency. Whoever has a true friend sees in him a reflection of himself; and each is strong in the strength and rich in the wealth of the other.

If you consider that the principle of harmony and benevolence is necessary to the very existence of families and states, you will understand how high a thing is friendship, in which that harmony and benevolence reach their perfect flower. There was a philosopher of Agrigentum who explained the properties of matter and the movements of bodies in terms of affection and repulsion; and however that may be, everyone knows that these are the real forces in human life. Who does not applaud the friendship that shares in mortal dangers, whether in real life or in the play?

Scævola: You speak highly of friendship. What are its principles and duties?

Lælius: Do we desire a friend because of our own weakness and deficiency, in order that we may obtain from him what we lack ourselves, repaying him by reciprocal service? Or is all that only an incident of friendship, and does the bond derive from a remoter and more beautiful origin, in the heart of Nature herself? For my part, I take the latter view. Friendship is a natural emotion, and not an arrangement of convenience. Its character may be recognised even in the lower animals, and much more plainly in the love of human parents for their children, and, most of all, in our affection for a congenial friend, whom we see in an atmosphere of virtue and worth.

The other is not an ignoble theory, but it leaves us in the difficulty that if it were true, the weakest, meanest, and poorest of humanity would be the most inclined to friendship. But it is the strong, rich, independent, and self-reliant man, deeply founded in wisdom and dignity, who makes great friendships. What did Africanus need of me, or I of him? Advantages followed, but they did not lead. But there are people who will always be referring everything to the one principle of self-advantage; they have no eyes for anything great and god-like. Let us leave such theorists alone; the plain fact is, that whenever worth is seen, love for it is enkindled. Associations founded upon interest presently dissolve, because interest changes; but Nature never changes, and therefore true friendships are imperishable.

Scipio used to say that it was exceedingly difficult to carry on a friendship to the end of life, because the paths of interest so often diverge. There may be competition for office, or a dishonorable request may be refused, or some other accident may be fatal to the bond. This refusal to join in a nefarious course of action is often the end of a friendship, and it is worth inquiring how far the claims of affection ought to extend. Tiberius Gracchus, when he troubled the state, was deserted by almost all his friends; one of them who had assisted him told me that he had such high regard for Gracchus that he could refuse him nothing. "But what," said I, "if he had asked you to set fire to the capitol?" "I would have done it!"

What an infamous confession! No degree of friendship can justify a crime; and since virtue is the foundation of friendship, crime must inevitably undermine it. Let this, then, be the rule of friendship—never to make disgraceful requests, and never to grant them when they are made.

Among the perverse, over-subtle ideas of certain Greek philosophers is the maxim that we should be very cool in the matter of friendship. They say that we have enough to do with our own affairs, without taking on other people's affairs too; and that our minds cannot be serenely at leisure if we are liable to be tortured by the sorrows of a friend. They advise, also, that friendships should be sought for the sake of protection, and not for the sake of kindliness. O noble philosophy! They put out the sun in the heavens, and offer us instead a freedom from care that is worse than worthless. Virtue has not a heart of stone, but is gentle and compassionate, rejoicing with the joyful and weeping with those who mourn. True virtue is never unsocial, never haughty.

With regard to the limits of friendship, I have heard three several maxims, but disapprove them all. First, that we ought to feel towards our friend exactly as we feel towards ourselves. That would never do; for we do many things for our friends that we should never think of doing for ourselves. We ask favours and reprehend injuries for a friend, where we would not solicit for, or defend, ourselves. Secondly, that our kindness to a friend should be meted out in precise equipoise to his kindness to us. This is too miserable a theory: friendship is opulent and generous. The third is, that we should take our friend's own estimate of himself, and act upon it. This is the worst principle of the three; for if our friend is over-humble, diffident or despondent, it is the very business of friendship to cheer him and urge him on. But Scipio used to condemn yet another principle that is worse still. Some one—he thought it must have been a bad man—once said that we ought to remember in friendship that some day the friend might be an enemy. How, in that state of mind, could one be a friend at all?

A sound principle, I think, is this. In the friendship of upright men there ought to be an unrestricted communication of every interest, every purpose, every inclination. Then, in any matter of importance to the life or reputation of your friend, you may deviate a little from the strictest line of conduct so long as you do not do anything that is actually infamous. Then, with regard to the choice of friends, Scipio used to say that men were more careful about their sheep and goats than about their friends. Choose men of constancy, solidity, and firmness; and until their trustworthiness has been tested, be moderate in your affection and confidence. Seek first of all for sincerity. Your friend should also have an open, genial, and sociable temper, and his sympathies should be the same as yours. He must not be ready to believe accusations. Lastly, his talk and manner should be debonair; we don't want austerities and solemnities in friendship.

I have heard it suggested that we ought perhaps to prefer new friends to old, as we prefer a young horse to an old one. Satiety should have no place in friendship. Old wines are the best, and so are the friends of many years. Do not despise the acquaintance that promises to ripen into something better; but do not sacrifice for it the deeply rooted intimacy. Even inanimate things take hold of our hearts by long custom; we love the mountains and forests of our youth.

There is often a great disparity in respect of rank or talent between intimate friends. Whenever that is so, let the superior place himself on the level of the inferior; let him share all his advantages with his friend. The best way to reap the full harvest of genius, or of merit, or of any other excellence, is to encourage all one's kindred and associates to enjoy it too. But if the superior ought to condescend to the inferior, so the inferior ought to be free from envy. And let him not make a fuss about such services as he has been able to render.

To pass from the noble friendships of the wise to more commonplace intimacies, we cannot leave out of account the necessity that sometimes arises of breaking off a friendship. A man falls into scandalous courses, his disgrace is reflected on his companions, and their relation must come to an end. Well, the end had best come gradually and gently, unless the offence is so detestable that an abrupt and final cutting of the acquaintance is absolutely inevitable. Disengage, if possible, rather than cut. And let the matter end with estrangement; let it not proceed to active animosity and hostility. It is very unbecoming to engage in public war with a man who has been known as one's friend. On two separate occasions Scipio thought it right to withdraw his confidence from certain friends. In each case he kept his dignity and self-command; he was grieved, but never bitter. Of course, the best way to guard against such unfortunate occurrences is to take the greatest care in forming friendships. All excellence is rare, and that moral excellence which makes fit objects for friendship is as rare as any.

On the other hand, it would be unreasonable and presumptuous in anyone to expect to find a friend of a quality to which he himself can never hope to attain, or to demand from his friend an indulgence which he is not prepared himself to offer. Friendship was given us to be an incentive to virtue, and not as an indulgence to vice or to mediocrity; in order that, since a solitary virtue cannot scale the peaks, it may do so with the loyal help of a comrade. A comradeship of this kind includes within it all that men most desire.

Think nobly of friendship, and conduct yourselves wisely in it, for in one way or another it enters into the life of every man. Even Timon of Athens, whose one impulse was a brutal misanthropy, must needs seek a confidant into whose mind he may instil his detestable venom. I have heard, and I agree with it, that though a man should contemplate from the heavens the universal beauty of creation, he would soon weary of it without a companion for his admiration.

Of course, there are rubs in friendship which a sensible man will learn to avoid, or to ignore, or to bear them cheerfully. Admonitions and reproofs must have their part in true amity, and it is as difficult to utter them tactfully as it is to receive them in good part. Complaisance seems more propitious to friendship than are these naked truths. But though truth may be painful, complaisance is more likely in the long run to prove disastrous. It is no kindness to allow a friend to rush headlong to ruin. Let your remonstrances be free from bitterness and from insult; let your complaisance be affable, but never servile. As for adulation, there are no words bad enough for it. Even the populace have only contempt for the politician who flatters them. Despise the insinuations of the sycophant, for what is more shameful than to be made a fool of?

I tell you, sirs, that it is virtue that lasts; that begets real friendships and maintains them. Lay, therefore, while you are young, the foundations of a virtuous life.