Reading Cicero’s “De Amicitia” at 17
When I first read Cicero’s celebrated treatise De Amicitia (45 BCE), I was a high-school senior in the late 1950s. I thought it an inspired choice to begin Latin IV. Friendships are important at any age, but especially during one’s teenage years, and as a 17-year-old, I naturally read it as all teenagers do in terms of their own teenage experience. Cicero, of course, didn’t write it for teenagers but for adults, and so reading this book was like eavesdropping upon the concerns of adults in their dealings with each other rather than with us teenagers as we were usually wont to see them. This perspective alone would be worth the price of admission, I recall telling myself.
Nevertheless, we were urged to bridle our youthful enthusiasm and to read this text as our parents and grandparents would, while our teacher, like any good teacher, opened up the text to us in ways we couldn’t possibly be expected to understand at seventeen. We didn’t finish the entire text if memory serves, as several of Horace’s Odes, Epodes, Epistles, and Satires were impatiently awaiting us in the wings. Our teacher, a gentleman in his 70’s, who had served in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army in the First World War, thought it essential as part of our training to read Horace, who had a different worldview altogether from that of Cicero, some of whose orations we had already read as juniors.
Don’t Be Indoctrinated by Any One Author
We were simply told by our present teacher that we should continually read both Cicero and Horace as each was, as he ominously put it, “the antidote to the other.” That comment alone gave us a lot to chew on for the next few months. In fact, in one of his extended asides, he mentioned that while we were young and still open-minded, we should read every author we could get our hands on, especially authors of novels, plays, history, and philosophy.
However, it was dangerous to spend too much time on any one author because that would give that author too much power over us, whereas carefully reading several authors and their different worldviews would broaden our perspective, which was “the essence of a first-rate education.” Reading and thinking deeply about what we read was even more important than all the courses we would ever take. That, too, struck us as worth noting. It was precisely this broadening outlook that was needed at our age, since we still lacked the critical discernment and life experience that could protect us from any one author’s bias.
Doubting is Good & Certainty is a Species of Closed-Mindedness
However, this wouldn’t matter if we read several authors, since each bias would counteract the other, make things more interesting, and force us to sort things out for ourselves, which was the only real way of getting an education in the rough and tumble of the world. We had to sort out all the contradictions for ourselves! This kind of confusion, today we would say “cognitive dissonance,” was essential, and the only way an education would “take”! Struggle toward clarity, but not too much clarity was good, because certainty was a species of closed-mindedness.
It was important that we educate ourselves and not surrender our autonomy to any school, college, or university, whose teachings we should naturally consider, but not necessarily accept until we had first thought those teachings through for ourselves but, even then, hold those views only provisionally. We were young and still in flux! From that point on, we began to see school, teachers, and education in an entirely new light. This is what happens when you’re taught by a war veteran who by thirty, it was rumored, had read everything and endlessly thought about everything he had read while serving four tumultuous years in that most hellish apprenticeship in that most terrible of all schools — the trenches as described in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
As we made headway through On Friendship, we were struck by what we thought were its cynical assumptions about human nature, but were told that antiquity was a much darker world than 1950’s America, which was still a young country and, in some respects, a very innocent one. Other countries and cultures around the world went back thousands of years with long historical memories and viewed America as a Johnny-come-lately nation without deep roots in the past. As far as these other cultures were concerned, America was born only yesterday with no memory of its past because, briefly put, it had none apart from a few centuries.
Blind Spots of Antiquity
We were also surprised that the friendships discussed by Cicero had only to do with men, as though women didn’t even exist, and we were assured that they didn’t as far as classical antiquity was concerned, a view that was also believed in many parts of the world today, and even in parts of America. In fact, this dismissive attitude toward women was one of the blind spots of Greek and Roman antiquity, and of the ancient world in general, we were told, and why we shouldn’t accept the classical world’s view of women, their “lack of importance,” and the disregard of their many gifts and refinements that men could learn from. With respect to women, antiquity was still in the Dark Ages!
Other blind spots we discussed that year were Rome’s ethnocentrism; its sense of grandiose entitlement to subjugate and plunder the entire world; its untroubled acceptance of slavery as an indispensable part of the human condition; its enthusiastic embrace of cruelty in the Colosseum as humans heartlessly slaughtered their fellow humans and humans slaughtered innocent animals for entertainment — for entertainment! Rome’s exclusive concern was for the upper classes alone, as though the general population didn’t exist, except to swell the ranks of its battle-hardened imperial legions for the glory and grandeur of Rome’s ruling elite.
The notion of the “timeless wisdom of the ancients” had always to be taken with a smile and several grains of salt in view of these blind spots, against which no Roman author, with the exception of Seneca, ever spoke out as though he were from another galaxy. The notions of “self-cultivation” and “the philosophical life,” for example, never reached beyond a very small coterie of the Roman world, while the masses were left to themselves to rot and be brutalized by watching the Games.
Sixty-four years later, I see Cicero’s view of male friendships as the inevitable expression of a frat-house mentality within a male-dominated ancient world, which excluded women from the same rights and opportunities as enjoyed by males. And after more than fifty-four years of marriage, I see those same male friendships as blessedly superseded by today’s infinitely more profound and enriching relationships between husband and wife, about which Cicero and the ancient world had no conception or about which had little to say.
Women’s civilizing and humanizing effects upon the male of the species as took place in medieval Provencal love poetry and the 18th-century salons of aristocratic Paris presided over by cultivated upper-class women opened a new chapter in the cultural refinement of the Western male who finally decided to come down from the trees. Cicero’s view of friendship, in short, was what one would expect as a bachelor view of the world that relegated women to peripheral satellites that revolved around males whom they were supposed to authenticate in their delusions about themselves.
I can only imagine what women in antiquity thought about their non-status, and what contemporary university women schooled in the classics in recent generations have thought about “an enlightened classical tradition” riddled to the core with misogyny and sexism, addressed now in the professional journals and, hopefully, more and more in the classroom. Given these very real limitations about classical antiquity, Cicero’s quotations nevertheless suggest some of the richness and depth of Cicero’s reflections for anyone who cares to peer beneath the surface of friendship.
There is much more in this text than suggested by the following quotations and their commentaries, so that, at some future time, you might want to read this work yourself — which is to say if you don’t have to read it, but want to and on your own time. If you do, chances are that you may never think about your friends in quite the same way again.
Nature of True Friendship
“For friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection, and I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to man by the immortal gods.” (20)
Cicero then proceeds to give his reasons why he believes in the primacy of friendship: Some prefer riches, some good health, some power, some public honors, and many even prefer sensual pleasures. This last is the highest aim of brutes; the others are fleeting and unstable things and dependent less upon human foresight than upon the fickleness of fortune. Again, there are those who place the chief good in virtue and that is really a noble view; but this virtue is the parent and preserver of friendship and without virtue friendship cannot exist at all.
The idea of “virtue” keeps appearing again and again throughout the text and is the only foundation upon which genuine friendship can be based. “Virtue” has the same meaning that “being a good person” has for us in the 21st century. Unless both friends are good persons, wanting the best for each other, respecting each other, never compromising the integrity of one another, reinforcing each other’s constant resolve of becoming a better person every day, they cannot be true friends, but only acquaintances.
For someone like Cicero, friendship is at the heart of an ethical ideal that raises human existence to a higher plane of noble aspiration. This is the hallmark of Cicero’s mind as a public intellectual. His view of friendship cannot be fully understood unless one takes into account all of his ethical writings, especially his De Officiis (44 BCE). If you wish to understand this work and De Amicitia (45 BCE) in historical context, you have to read Books 8 and 9 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (340 BCE).
Christian Rejection of Antiquity’s Natural Ethics
Anyone who has read these three works is immediately struck by the difference between them in vocabulary, tone, content, worldview, and the later Christian writings one usually associates with ethical behavior which emphasizes religious or supernatural motivations for leading a moral life — love of God and wanting to please him by obeying the Ten Commandments, reading the Scriptures, hope of heaven and fear of hell, and trying to see Christ in everyone whom we may dislike.
If you read the De Officiis (late 380’s CE) of Ambrose, for instance, a Latin Father and Doctor of the Church, he sought to adapt (actually, replace) Cicero’s treatise to the new Christian world order with its radically different view of humanity and the purpose of life, a view which Cicero and Aristotle would never have understood or accepted. See Book III, sections 124–138 of Ambrose’s work to see how antiquity’s understanding of human existence was already receding and being replaced by a decidedly religious view of life.
These early Christian thinkers didn’t reverence these Latin and Greek classic texts as we do today, because they saw them as gravely deficient in their understanding of human nature, the purpose of life, and the centrality of God and religion, views that these classical authors would have rejected out of hand as smacking of Eastern mysticism. It is in reading the commentaries of these Christian authors of the first five centuries that you notice that these Christian intellectuals were not content in having the Greeks and Romans to have the last word but by having them supplemented by Christian doctrine to be acceptable to the Christian world.
These ancient texts, at least those not yet destroyed and rediscovered by the Renaissance humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries CE, were always read through a Christian prism for they were found woefully inadequate to be placed in the hands of the laity who could read. No religious or supernatural considerations whatsoever appear in Cicero’s writings or those of other Roman or Greek ethical writers or modern secular treatises on the ethical life, all of which stress human reasons alone as sufficient for leading a virtuous life, which can be reduced to “virtue is its own reward.” Authors like Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus have always been popular among those leading a moral life for human reasons alone.
The Renaissance Read the Classics as They Were Meant to be Read
The little from the Latin and Greek authors that survived during the intervening centuries was always read through this Christian filter, until the Renaissance when the humanists discovered so many of these ancient texts which created a sensation in the scholarly world because they could now understand these ancient writings as they were originally intended to be read and understood without any admixture of religious interpretation.
This raises the question to be dealt with perhaps in a later chapter whether it’s even possible to be a good person unless one does so for religious motives, but suffice it to say that Cicero and other Stoic thinkers would be taken aback by the very question. There is also the related question of whether it is even possible to be a good person if one didn’t believe in God or an afterlife, a question we may also be examining in a later series. Such questions would have made no sense to these classical authors.
“What is sweeter than to have someone with whom you may dare discuss anything as if you were communing with yourself?” (22)
Friendships in your teenage years are among life’s greatest joys because you can discuss anything with a friend, and it is much more heartfelt than talking with a parent or teacher. Having a trusted friend by your side can get you through anything during this time in your life. You’re there for each other to talk about everything that is happening to you, and you can trust this person with your soul. However, it goes without saying that you have to be very careful whom you choose as a friend and you have to have spent a long time together in order to develop this mutual trust to be open with this person as your second self.
And you can rest assured that a true friend will never, under any circumstances, reveal a friend’s secrets. And should you by chance overhear someone else revealing his or her secret to another, it goes without saying that you should also bury that secret in your heart for that secret, too, is sacred and belongs to that person alone and to the person with whom it was shared. Whenever you’re in doubt about what to do, just put yourself in that other person’s place and ask yourself what would you want from someone who had overheard your secret? If you would want that person to keep your secret, then you have your answer. You need only a human reason to be a good person. And when there aren’t any witnesses and you still do it, then you know that you’ve done the right thing.
“Adversity would indeed be hard to bear unless you had someone who felt its burden even more than you.” (22)
Just getting something off your chest instead of keeping it bottled up is marvelous therapy. Having a sympathetic ear can spell all the difference in the world because talking it out can lift a heavy weight off your shoulders, making you a new person. This is especially true when this person is your friend and isn’t judging you, but simply listening and trying to help you heal yourself. Even though your friend may not always have something to say, the mere fact of having a sympathetic listener will itself bring you relief and healing.
And how would you feel if someone opened their heart to you? You would realize that your friend trusts you profoundly to tell you either their secret or their hurt. It’s like you’re suddenly on holy ground even though you’re not in a church, synagogue, or mosque. You know that something extraordinary is happening when you’re involved in such an experience of trust.
“For friendship adds a brighter radiance to prosperity and lessens the burden of adversity by dividing and sharing it.” (22)
We have the proverb that a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. This is also true with the good times we experience. We need someone with whom we can share our joys as well as our sorrows, someone who is always there to support us because this is what friends are for. We can be ourselves with them, ask their opinion, express our fears and doubts, get valuable feedback, and be assured that what we share will go no further. Life is full of fair-weather friends, but the genuine article is hard to find.
“Whenever a friend performs an extraordinary service in sharing the dangers of a friend, who does not celebrate this and proclaim it with the loudest praise?” (24)
The example Cicero then gives is taken from Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris and makes his meaning clear at once: “What shouts recently rang through the entire theatre during the performance of a new play when the King asked who was Orestes, whom he wanted to put to death, when Pylades, wishing to be put to death instead of his friend, declared, “I am Orestes while Orestes continued steadfastly to assert, “I am Orestes!” The people in the audience rose to their feet and cheered at once.” It is not every day that a friend is willing to die for a friend. I will leave you to your private thoughts to digest this awe-inspiring noble deed!
“We believe that friendship is desirable not because of hope of gain, but because its entire profit lies in the love itself.” (31)
Cicero admits that there will be those who will disagree with him but dismisses as unworthy “those men who, after the manner of cattle, judge everything by the standard of pleasure.” He then continues that we should not think this strange because “raising one’s vision to anything lofty, noble and divine is impossible to those who have abased their every thought to a thing so mean and lowly; nevertheless, we believe that the sentiments of love and kindly affection spring from nature.” There are those who are simply beyond redemption, and so he refuses to waste his time on them. They are what they are, and you will never change them.
Not All Friendships Last a Lifetime
“Those who liked to hunt or play ball when young shouldn’t feel obligated to keep those same friends as they grow up.” (74)
As we age, we change, as do our interests. Having childhood friends shouldn’t make us feel that we’re committed to them for life. Perhaps it was only circumstances that threw us together in the first place — growing up in the same neighborhood where we played ball, or were assigned to the same class for a few years in school, and later went our separate ways. Proximity isn’t destiny, or one common interest does not a lifelong friendship make. Only a special bond or connection does, and if that is missing, we were just short-term acquaintances.
“Nothing is harder than for a friendship to continue to the very end of life.” (33)
This is a sad thought that may not occur to us when we’re young, but the friends of one’s youth may drift apart to go their own separate ways through no fault of their own for any number of legitimate reasons: going away to college and then losing touch; moving to a different part of the country for a job; encountering adversity, sickness, or failure and wanting to be forgotten; experiencing rivalry, jealousy, or a difference in politics, a falling out, or as an old song title had it, “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.” Life simply moves on as a never-ending succession of letting go.
Different Views on Treating Friends
“There are some who are considered philosophers in Greece who hold that too much closeness in friendships should be avoided lest this give rise to too much anxiety for ourselves when we already have more than enough of our own to deal with, and that it is too much of a bother to be involved in the affairs of others.” (45)
Cicero exposes this view as morally bankrupt because leading a happy life with freedom from care shouldn’t mean turning your back on a friend in need of your help. The philosophical way of life is not about heartlessly walling yourself up from the sufferings of others, especially your friends, which is simply shutting down your humanity.
This is merely self-centeredness and indifference to those less fortunate, similar to those who pride themselves on being good people, godly people, religious people, who nevertheless want to cut food stamps for the poor or deprive them of health care. Refusing to help those in need no matter their race, religion, or nationality because you don’t want the “bother and inconvenience” of helping your fellow human beings because it would disturb your peace of mind is not what being a good person is about, but heartlessness.
Cicero then confronts a question that most people don’t even think about because of its crassness — how should we determine the limits of our good will and affection towards our friends? He gives three possibilities:
First, “That we should have the same feeling for our friends that we have for ourselves”; second, “That our goodwill towards our friends should correspond in all respects to their goodwill towards us,” and third, “That whatever value a man places upon himself, the same value should be placed upon him by his friends.” (56)
Cicero will have none of these. The first holds that as we feel toward ourselves, so we should also feel toward our friends. This is rejected. For how many things would we do for our friends that we would never do for ourselves, like begging someone whom we view as detestable to grant us a favor, which, however, we would not hesitate to do for a friend?
The second holds that our goodwill towards our friends should correspond to their goodwill toward us seems petty as though we were keeping a record of credits and debits, whereas true friendship is not about keeping a tally sheet lest we pay out more than we receive. This is an accountant’s view based on cold calculation as if we were unfeeling machines.
The last holds that whatever value a man places on himself, the same should be placed on him by his friends is the worst of the three options for the simple reason that there are some who are pessimistic by nature with little hope of improving their lives, but they would never treat their friends this way but try to improve their lives as far as they could.
There is also the view that we should treat everyone as a tool to advance our own interests, a view he dismisses in the strongest possible terms. Worst of all is the view that even our friend may someday become our enemy. How could we ever befriend anyone with such a cynical view of human nature? For this would mean that everything we told our friend could later be used against us, and so we would want to learn everything we could about him to use against him.
This is a nightmare view we should instantly put out of mind. Such a mentality would destroy even the possibility of friendship or any semblance of humanity. On the contrary, both friends should try to be as blameless of character as possible and wish only what is best for each other.
“For what person is there who would wish to be surrounded by unlimited wealth and to abound in every material blessing on condition that he love no one and that no one love him? Such indeed is the life of tyrants — a life in which there can be no faith, no affection, no trust in the continuance of goodwill; where every act arouses suspicion and anxiety, and where friendship has no place.” (52)
Such is the nature of “political friendships” with tyrants and those in power. Could people really love someone they fear because a tyrant is courted only under a pretense of love while he is in power? Removed from power, he understands how many were really genuine in their affection toward him.
Cicero then quotes the words of Tarquin, Rome’s last king and tyrant, as he was about to go into exile: “I have learned which friends of mine are true and which are false, now that I am no longer able to reward or to punish them.” Given Tarquin’s haughtiness and perversity of character, Cicero wonders if such a person could ever have had a real friend since the mere possession of power makes this impossible.
Tyrants can be easily deceived by empty flattery since their pride and obstinacy make them such insufferable fools. Such people, however affable in manner they may have been before coming to power, are changed by high office and spurn former friends since they no longer need them, but cultivate new ones to assist them in their upward ascent of limitless ambition. Or they haven’t been changed by power at all, but were always that way and only concealed their true nature until they did come to power and had no further need of living a lie.
Cicero is talking here not only about Tarquin, but any political figure suddenly thrust into power because his former restraints have now fallen away and his true megalomania becomes apparent. Has there ever been a more deftly drawn portrait of someone who suddenly finds himself ruling a kingdom? Or of the many around him who seize this opportunity to exploit his gullibility by fawning upon him for their own self-advancement as he, blinded by self-love, naively laps up this false adulation as genuine affection?
“True friendships are very hard to find among those in political office or public affairs. For where can you find a man so high-minded as to prefer his friend’s advancement to his own? . . . How hard is it for most people to share the misfortunes of others! Nor is it easy to find those who would embrace the depths of calamity endured by their friend. Thus, the old saying that a true friend is found only in adversity!” (64)
What Cicero describes here was rarely found among those who spent their lives in the law or public life. Everyone was using everyone else for mutual advantage by doing favors for one another, but no one was under the illusion that they were close friends. They simply needed one another for mutual advancement and exploitation.
It was simply part of the political game. You help me and I’ll help you. Amicus omnibus, amicus nemini. If you’re everyone’s friend, you’re nobody’s friend. Everyone is your friend while you’re in office, because you can use one another, but once you’re out, you’re forgotten. It’s Politics 101.
Everyone in public life is on the make and uses one another, and the sooner you realize this, the better off you’ll be. Public life is a high-wire act with lots of excitement. It’s about temporary alliances at best, shifting, quixotic, and ephemeral — a masked ball, where everyone is cordial and jolly well-met to everyone else because no one knows when they may have to work with that somebody later.
Public life is also a battlefield and you have little control over the terrain and who you’ll be up against at the next encounter. You may have to work with anyone in future, so you never want to burn any bridges behind you because manus manum lavat. One hand washes the other. Politics is reciprocity. You never know what will happen down the road and how swiftly alliances shift. So say as little as possible for the walls have ears.
Choosing True Friends
“Scipio used to complain that men were more painstaking in all other things except friendship; that everybody could tell you how many goats and sheep he had, but not how many friends; and that men took pains in choosing the animals they bought, but careless in choosing their friends.” (62)
To solve this problem, we should choose as friends only those who are good persons, get a sense of how loyal and steadfast they are, and find some way of testing them. If money were their Achilles’ heel and they would prefer gain over friendship, we would know at once that they could never be trusted. Likewise, with those who put political office, civil or military rank or power above friendship. They were only about themselves.
“Now the support of that unwavering constancy, which we look for in friendship, is loyalty; for nothing is constant that isn’t loyal. In addition, you have to choose a friend who is honest, sociable, and sympathetic, someone like yourself who is motivated by the same things, since all these qualities foster loyalty.” (65)
It’s impossible for someone to be loyal who is ambivalent about everything; if he’s not motivated by the same things as you are, he cannot be a loyal friend. A friend protects your good name even when you’re not around and believes in you no matter what is said about you. This is why friendship cannot exist unless you’re willing to stand up for each other.
“Those worthy of being your friends have within themselves the reason for their being loved. They are a rare class, since everything excellent is rare . . . Most people can find nothing good in anyone unless they can profit from it, as if they were buying cattle. They value someone who can bring them the biggest gain.” (79)
A friend is another self. Some people are simply blind to the intangible qualities about those we call our friends because those friends enhance our existence. They appreciate the same things as we do, look at life in the same way, give us the strength to face life together, and we simply like to be in each other’s company.
“Friendship was given to us by nature as the handmaid of virtue, not as a comrade of vice; because virtue cannot attain her highest aims unattended, but only in union and fellowship with another.” (83)
Some have the misguided notion that friendship exists only to have a comrade in crime, whereas Cicero argues that friendship serves to make us better human beings because each reveres the other and has only the other’s best interests at heart. This mutual concern strengthens our moral character, and we cannot but profit in having a friend who brings out the best in us. Mutual regard is the secret of such lasting relationships.
Since we want what is best for our friend and will do nothing to jeopardize his honor and reputation, such concern necessarily makes us better persons. It’s like parents wanting only what is best for their child, and by doing everything in their power to ensure that this happens they become better parents. Each friend has a stake in the other’s welfare and will do everything to promote the best interests of that friend.
“Since happiness is our best and highest aim, we must, if we want to attain it, give our attention to virtue, without which we can obtain neither friendship nor any other desirable thing; on the other hand, those who slight virtue and yet think that they have friends, will at last perceive their mistake when some grievous misfortune forces them to put those friends to the test.” (84)
This is why it’s important to test a friend before we commit to him as a reliable person. The sad alternative is being grossly negligent in admitting to our trust someone whom we haven’t yet tested, and are careless in welcoming into our lives someone we may later regret. So, what are we to do, then, since we have already accepted him as our friend and must now end that friendship? To prevent this from happening, we must test our friend at the beginning of our relationship.
However, there are those who regard virtue itself with contempt and dismiss it as mere pose and pretense, while others disagree and disdain riches, being content with little and taking delight in plain dress and meager fare, counting themselves rich for everything they can do without by living a simple life free of all distraction and clutter.These individuals also despise empty political honors, for which some have a burning desire. Likewise, other things, which seem to some to be worthy of admiration, are dismissed as being of no account at all.
But concerning friendship, everyone thinks the same way. Those who have devoted themselves to public life; who find their joy in knowledge and philosophy and manage their own business free from public cares; and those who are wholly given up to sensual pleasures — all of them believe that without friendship life is no life at all.
Old and New Friends
“Are new friends who are worthy of friendship to be preferred to old ones? The question is unworthy of a human being, as if we couldn’t have too many friends as we can have too many things. As wine improves with age, so too do our old friends who have been through a lot with us.” (67)
New friendships are certainly to be welcomed, but the old friendships continue to have their special appeal because of what we and our friends have been through together in good times and bad. They are like one’s own family, and when you share a common history, words cannot express your mutual devotion.
Dealing with False Friends
“A serious quarrel can arise when asking a friend to do something wrong by committing a crime or engaging in some act of violence. When the request is refused, no matter however honorably, it is nevertheless resented that one has disregarded the law of friendship.” (35)
It must always be remembered that a true friend never tries to compromise a friend’s moral integrity by expecting him to commit a crime by saying, “I need your help because I thought you were my friend!” If you ever find yourself in this situation, you can do only one thing — dump this “friend” as quickly as possible because the friendship is over. A true friend never pressures, manipulates, or uses a friend, or, as in this case, makes a friend feel guilty when he refuses to do wrong.
On the contrary, he respects his friend and would never ask him to do anything that would violate his conscience. You never want to let yourself be used by anyone, especially by such a “friend.” The sooner you drop this person, the better off you’ll be. In fact, anyone asking you to do something immoral or illegal is doing you a favor by revealing him- or herself as your worst enemy. What is more, you should never act as if you were sorry that you couldn’t help him or feel apologetic in any way. Instead, you should immediately express your outrage at his insulting you by even thinking that you would even consider doing something wrong. Then tell him in no uncertain terms that your friendship is over.
Had you complied, he would have made you complicit and would have a hold over you for the rest of your life, even blackmail you by making even more demands on you. This is why you must terminate the friendship immediately because, if you don’t, he’ll think you were weak by failing to send him packing. Such a “friend” will be your downfall and you might even wind up in prison.
“Therefore, there is no justification for wrongdoing even if you do it for a friend; for, since it was his belief in your virtue that began your friendship, it is hard for that friendship to continue if he thinks you’d do wrong.” (37)
This reinforces Cicero’s initial point that only good persons can become friends because a friend would never want to compromise you morally or legally. No one has a right to ask you to do something morally wrong or commit a crime for him. Should you decide to help him, you demonstrate that you can be manipulated and that henceforth this person owns you. Others may already have turned him down, and so he asked you because he thought that your resistance could be easily broken.
“Therefore, let this be the first law of friendship: Ask of friends only what is honorable and do for friends only what is honorable.” (44)
If your friend is involved with something dishonorable, illegal, or immoral, you have to confront him at once without mincing words. This is one of the benefits of being a friend even at the risk of hurting his feelings, especially if you feel that your silence would make it appear that you were giving your consent to what he is doing. (Qui tacet consentire videtur. Whoever is silent appears to consent.) In fact, you must leave no stone unturned in waking him up to the magnitude of what he is doing lest he proceed with his plan.
You have to send him a clear and unequivocal message that if he goes ahead with what he is planning, you will have nothing whatever to do with him. This is the only kind of message that will bring him back from the edge. You must also do this for your own protection. If you don’t, he’ll be leading you into a swamp of moral compromise that will grow even worse and damage your reputation.
A friend has no right to destroy your good name. There are some individuals who are walking plagues, and every person they associate with they infect and corrupt and will ultimately bring down. Keep your distance from such people. They will only destroy you.
“Friendship offers many different advantages, but it also presents many occasions for suspicion and offence, which sometimes it may be wise to ignore, make light of, or endure. But there is one cause of offence which must be confronted if we want to preserve a trusting friendship. Friends must not only be advised but also rebuked, but this advice and rebuke must be given and accepted in a spirit of good will.” (88)
Even though this reprimand may not be easy to give or receive, it is essential to do so if the friendship is to endure. If they want to salvage their relationship, they have to face the problem frankly in order to clear the air. The guilty party has to acknowledge what he did, apologize, and try to overcome his weakness. Honesty is the only way of dealing with this kind of problem. Momentary discomfort is a small price to pay to ensure that both friends understand one another if they want to continue their friendship.
“Truth brings trouble and hatred, which can poison a friendship; but much more troublesome is cowardly indulgence, which acquiesces in a friend’s wrongdoing and thereby allows him to become worse until he is finally destroyed. But the greatest fault rests with him who both scornfully rejects the truth and is driven by this friend’s indulgence to his ultimate ruin. It’s important, therefore, that tact be used so that the advice is firm but not overly harsh or insulting.” (89)
The problem is that if someone refuses to hear the truth even from a friend, he is beyond being reached, in which case he is better served by the brutal words of an enemy than the kind words of a friend. At least he’ll hear the bitter truth and may be shocked into reality. Such individuals become angry more for being criticized for wrongdoing than for doing wrong itself, whereas they should rather grieve at their wrongdoing and rejoice at its correction.
A true friend, on the other hand, admonishes the other frankly but not harshly or receives criticism patiently without resentment. Nothing is worse in a friendship than false flattery that says what is pleasing rather than telling the truth. This lack of moral courage will doom a friendship. It takes courage to be a friend especially when the other is starting to go off the deep end. You have to intervene at once, or your friend will only grow worse. You may be his last hope, and if you don’t confront him, he may be lost and you’ll be haunted by guilt for the rest of your life.
This section is particularly relevant to college students, who have all sorts of pressure to deal with, especially when they’re away at college. Academic pressure, emotional pressure dealing with their academic workload in balancing their many priorities, social pressure of wanting to be accepted, financial pressure of having enough money to finish college, the everyday pressure of dealing with several different kinds of people, and perhaps a free-floating sense of alienation, depression, even hopelessness in meeting these many demands — all of which may take their toll. Not that everyone experiences this full range of problems, but some students may, and it’s important to understand what may be happening when it does.
You could be fine, but your friend could be struggling with these problems, and you will as his friend have to look after him. He may become depressed and start behaving in unusual ways. When this happens, you have to become the adult and keep him on the straight and narrow by suggesting that he go for counseling. Or the group you hang out with could be going through the same problem and want you to join them, but you see where it’s heading and have to keep your guard up lest you, too, be drawn in.
Groupthink can take many forms, especially in college where everyone is living in a closed universe, which can induce its own mindset unless you get off campus at regular intervals to regain some measure of objectivity. College is a pressure cooker, and you have to be wary about how the experience can affect your judgment. All sorts of things can happen when you’re away from home, are always exhausted, not getting enough sleep or exercise, and are buffeted about by many priorities. Under these conditions, people sometimes do things they may later regret. Any closed universe like a college campus can cause a situationally-induced neurosis or worse. Getting off campus for a while can sometimes break the spell.
Always be aware of the irrational in life when anything may happen. Always be ready to protect yourself or your friend. Be cautious, learn to anticipate, and always think long-term and see the Big Picture.
“Many wish not to be virtuous, but only want to give that impression. They delight in flattery, and when someone pays them a compliment, they take these words as proof of their virtue. There is no substance to a friendship when one doesn’t want to hear the truth and the other lacks the courage to tell it and begins to lie to avoid unpleasantness.” (98)
Flattery is a drug to control someone who needs it to deceive himself because his problems are finally being recognized. Such flattery may be sincere with no ulterior motive; or it could be a way of making someone compliant before being asked a favor, or even silencing a potential critic.
“Since human beings are frail and evanescent creatures, we must forever be in search of those whom we may love and be loved by in return; for if goodwill and affection be taken away, every joy is removed from life.” (102)
Life is very short and we are fragile creatures. A loving spouse or a few close friends can mean all the difference in our all-too-brief lives. They can give us the companionship, understanding, and perspective we need in getting through this world, and we can do the same for them. When all is said and done, there are four essential things in life — food, shelter, meaning, and friends. Without the first three, we couldn’t survive, but without our friends, we couldn’t be human.
What we learned about friendship by reading Cicero’s De Amicitia would have been beyond us as teenagers to discover on our own. At 17, we thought as 17-year-olds and needed to be raised to a higher plateau by a wonderful text and a gifted teacher to appreciate friendship as essential to the life of a healthy human being.
The text also served as an early-warning-system of what actually did unfold later in our lives: friendships gradually ending after high school as we returned home to different parts of the country and went our separate ways in attending college, pursuing careers, and marrying, as our lives simply moved on. We knew that these things did happen, but never suspected that it would ever happen to us, but the practicalities of life made this inevitable as one of life’s many sad lessons.
Our discussions about taking responsibility for our own education; reading as many authors as possible when young; the importance of continually broadening our outlook; antiquity’s “dark world”; America as a young nation; Rome’s male friendships with its dismissal of women; its sense of ruthless entitlement to conquer the world; “the examined life” for the few but not for the many; the ethical basis for true friendship; the sufficiency of human reasons alone for leading a moral life; the ephemerality of everything human; and dealing with false friends — these were unusual thoughts for teenagers to ponder.
We were put in contact with a much broader universe of concerns and grand perspectives that gave us a far different outlook from others our age. The deeper aspects of friendships we didn’t fully understand, but we knew that, by remaining patient, our questions about life and growing up — and we had thousands of them — would gradually reveal their answers when we were ready for them. We knew enough to realize that we understood this book only to a certain extent and that no matter how insightful Cicero was, we could only see in this text what we ourselves brought to it and were just beginning to sense the enigmas of life and to savor their mystery.
The deeper aspects of friendship that could only be understood in the way they were meant to be understood would have to wait until we were older, and we were content with that since we were used to waiting, as waiting was the essence of life. We didn’t need Beckett or Godot to tell us that or that waiting brought its own kind of wisdom.
The unforeseen ethical challenges of adult friendships made us realize how relatively simple the friendships of youth really were, and how murky adult friendships could slowly become. This gave us pause, for what other troubling aspects of becoming an adult had we failed to foresee? Nevertheless, becoming an adult seemed now even more intriguing, so we bided our time for the next revelations.
Becoming an Adult
Were there no fixed guidelines in finding our way in becoming the adult we wanted to be? At life’s halfway mark, would the purpose of life finally come into view or gradually change? What would sustain us after forty? To whom would we answer and from whom seek guidance when our parents were gone, and where did they get the assurance that what they told us was right? Or was there something they weren’t telling us? In an odd sort of way, this book was a reconnaissance mission into our future that suggested the general contours of what awaited us as we moved deeper into the foothills of human experience.
We knew that adults didn’t have our psychology since they had already been teenagers before and during the Great Depression when the country was coming apart and there was even talk of America going socialist since capitalism was working only for the few. How did our parents see life now, not even fifteen years after the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945? Had they achieved all they desired? Had they found the answers? Did they know that we wondered about them, and that they were a Sphinx and didn’t even know it? We couldn’t rush this process since the answers would come when we were ready for them. We had to wait our turn and there was no jumping the line.
A Broader Dimension
Reading Cicero and the other Roman and Greek authors in high school, college and later ushered us into a dimension of philosophical inquiry virtually non-existent today except for a small number of teenagers in every generation privileged to be enrolled in a classical humanities program. These students, as we did, cultivate an awareness that excellence is only achieved by unapologetically withdrawing from conventional activities and devoting oneself to their unique interests with fierce dedication.
What may have struck us at first about the classics as somewhat irrelevant to teenagers’ lives gradually loomed up before us as immensely relevant by preparing us with an endless number of insights that popular culture could never bestow since it dealt only with the surface of life, the non-essential, immediate, and distracting Realm of Appearance that was blind to the Enduring. The classical authors, by contrast, taught us the intangibles, the imponderables, and life’s transcendent lessons that were perennially timely and timeless by opening up contemplative vistas that guided us amidst life’s perplexities, and taught us how confused the world is obsessed with the Now.
The Romans Led Us Back to the Greeks
Don’t misunderstand me. We never forgot Classical Antiquity’s stark deficiencies, blind spots, and class-ridden prejudices, all of which paled in significance next to its classical spirit that transformed our minds, imaginations, and sensibilities forever during those impressionable years we spent marinating in the hundreds upon hundreds of wise quotations about virtually every conceivable aspect of life and the wondrous tales and anecdotes told by our teachers.
They taught us grammar, vocabulary, and unraveled the byzantine passages of translation with us, but they did much more than that by opening up antiquity by discussing an endless procession of questions about how the Greeks and Romans saw the universe, which was totally alien from that of our own and even more alien from one another. Nothing brings this difference out more starkly than the blood-drenched floor of Rome’s institutionalized Slaughter House, the Colosseum, and Athens’ Altar of Pity:
“There was in the midst of the city an altar belonging to no god of power; gentle Pity had there her seat, and the wretched made it sacred; never did she lack she a new suppliant, none did she condemn or refuse their prayers. All who petition are heard, and night and day one may approach and win the heart of the goddess by lamentations alone” (Statius, Thebaid, 481 – 483).
Those old-fashioned teachers explained to us the respective psychologies of the Roman and Greek, the things that were important to them, their beliefs about death, the Underworld, Fate, and the Gods. What also fascinated us was how the Greeks always strove to do their best even when no one was looking; how they fell in love with the beauty of struggle, and accepted reality no matter how painful.
The only problem was that the more they tried to explain them to us, the more elusive they became. They captured our imaginations by their view of Fate, which was more powerful than the gods themselves; their view of the myths as the great symbols of life; and how they made their peace with so short a life as compared to ours.
Some Questions Discussed
We discussed all sorts of questions posed by their myths, plays, and philosophical schools: Did they think that their lives had any ultimate meaning and purpose beyond this world? Or was this world all there was? Were they free in their choices when even the gods were subject to Fate? Did the gods themselves ever do wrong and if they did, were they then truly gods? Did they think that the gods treated humans fairly or were they simply their playthings? Were the gods open- or narrow-minded and did they ever laugh? Why were they always so inscrutably silent, and yet so juvenile in the way they behaved? Why were they depicted as anthropomorphic in every way that only insulted their majesty? Why did they make humans suffer, especially infants and animals who were innocent, couldn’t do wrong, yet were made to suffer?
Where did the Greeks find the strength to endure life? Did too much human success really anger the gods, and didn’t that seem petty as though the gods were jealous? Did the gods really want women to be subject to men, or was this simply male propaganda? Is wisdom found by following tradition, authority, reason, emotion, or suffering alone? Should the dead rule the living by following the ancient ways?
If death ends everything, why lead a moral life, or are there other reasons for being moral? If there is something or nothing after death, how do we know, and would it matter one way or the other? Did the educated Greeks believe in the myths and the Gods of Olympus, or did they have a more purified view as taught by their philosophers?
The Melancholy of the Greeks
The more we discussed the Greeks and their passion for thinking, their childlike curiosity and Faustian yearning to know, their irrepressible joy in living, their playfulness and love of games, and their eternal yes to the universe and to whatever befell them, the more we were astonished that they also possessed an undeniable dark side, a deep pessimism, a profound despair and melancholy. They realized that they were going to die, and this knowledge always seemed to be hanging over them.
They saw life as a never-ending succession of troubles prepared by the gods with no cure for death or defense against aging. Their life was full of short-sightedness, ignorance, and blindness at not recognizing what could have helped them lead a more meaningful life. Why were they born into a world if all they knew was one calamity after another? Why didn’t the gods, who must have foreseen all this pointless suffering, even create the human race in the first place?
Was having too much insight a curse? Why was so much of their knowledge only illusion? Why did their lives fall so short of their wishes? The ideals of youth were shattered by the time they reached middle age, which finds wanting all that life had to offer. Disease, ill-health, and the death of loved ones were his lot. The delights of youth were fleeting, and old age seemed loveless, joyless, and lonely. Was it better to die young or not to have been born?
The sufferings of the righteous undermined their belief and trust in the gods when they allowed the wicked to prosper. The way the world was arranged lacked reason or justice, and the goodness of Zeus seemed less than his power. Man was overwhelmed by the sadness of his destiny, and he saw himself as but “a creature of a day,” a mere “shadow’s dream.” His happiness was momentary and his future uncertain. He fed on hopes and dreams, and had no belief in progress. Man and society were deeply corrupt, and all was ashes and nothingness.
Our Fascination with the Greeks
They seemed to touch every note of human existence, refusing to sugarcoat anything. And yet this was the mystery about them, for despite all their melancholy, pessimism, and despair, they continued to love life with a passion and exuberance that defied comprehension. In some miraculous way, they internalized all of life’s misery, overcame it, and transformed it to joy. This was the paradox of the Greeks — how did they do it? The more we read and thought about them, the more confused we became, and this confusion only deepened our fascination.
Their insatiable curiosity about everything startled the ancient world since other cultures had their religions to answer their questions, but weren’t as half alive to the ecstasy of living. However, those religious answers were not enough for the Greeks, driven to use their reason to take the universe apart and everything in it to see what held it together. Their search for Truth was their real and only religion.
The questions they posed were very simple yet dealt with the essentials that gave instant perspective on the meaning of life and on what it means to be human. Their questions are the grand universals that speak to all times, conditions, and cultures. They are both timely and timeless, as was their courage in answering them by reason alone. This is why Greek drama still continues to enthrall audiences after two and a half millennia by bringing us back to life’s fundamentals.
After discussions like these, we needed no teacher incentive to read Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides on our own. Imagine the plots we found: a wife slaying her husband who had killed their daughter; a son murdering his mother who had slain his father; a man killing his father and marrying his mother; a mother, abandoned by her husband, killing her children; a wife going to her death in place of her husband; a sister sentenced to death for burying her brother.
From these grisly tableaux of indescribable anguish, these three dramatists created different visions of life, plays like Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, Prometheus Bound; Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus , Philoctetes, Ajax, Antigone, Electra, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, The Suppliants, Orestes, Ion, Helen, The Bacchae, Alcestis, Hippolytus, The Phoenician Women, Andromache, The Trojan Women, Heracles, and Hecuba. These were the classics that survived the ravages of time, and they transported us beyond ourselves.
We read them in the hope of finding their meaning and answers, but instead of answers, found even more questions. And these plays were their religious service. You can imagine the emotional impact these plays must have had on their audiences. Did we have a broadened humanity exposed to these characters? Wider horizons in struggling with the chilling answers to the eternal questions posed by their plays?
We had fallen in love with the Greeks, their questions, their courage in raising them, and their honesty in making their peace with their unanswerability. Of the three dramatists, Euripides was what we today would call modern in his iconoclasm and thoroughgoing skepticism. Not that we accepted his or any of their answers as our own, but only considered them, for the last thing they wanted was to be our masters who did our thinking for us.
How We Were Taught
We learned various names that at first meant little to us as boys— Jacob Burckhardt, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, Friedrich Nietzsche, Werner Jaeger, John Pentland Mahaffy, Gilbert Murray, Gilbert Highet, Theodor Gomperz, and on and on and on. If interested, we could find out more by reading their works, and our teachers left it at that. What we did with this learning was our affair. Our teachers merely pointed the way, and that was all we wanted from them.
They gave us the facts, but more than anything else, they conveyed the living spirit behind those facts, without which those facts were pointless, for what was the point of the classics if they didn’t change us as human beings and discover the mystery that was all around us? Antiquarian knowledge for its own sake didn’t interest us teenagers. If what we were learning didn’t help us live more fully, more insightfully, and more intensely, such learning was useless. This is how we teenagers thought.
These teachers weren’t concerned with what we would be majoring in come graduation, but simply wanted to pass on their fire, as their teachers had doubtless done to them a generation or two in the past. They seemed to intuitively understand that creating enthusiasm for the classics was all that mattered, for the future would take care of itself. If students wanted to major in the classics later, they would, but only because of an emotional attachment to them, which they tried to instill by teaching in a way that spoke to students as teenagers, who had those three gifts crucial for learning — passion, excitement, and love.
They never taught us as young classicists-in-training, but as young people who longed to be swept away by a love for knowledge to help them grow and experience the sheer joy and wonder of being alive, and not to master abstruse grammatical nuances, for that kind of preparation was the kiss of death for any meaningful life of the mind.
Carneades Creates a Sensation
You may recall that the Romans were always intrigued by the Greeks even before the philosopher Carneades made his legendary visit to Rome in 155 BCE and created a sensation with his back-to-back two-day lecture course. The first day he made a dazzling case for the noble cause of political justice, unleashing a barrage of irrefutable philosophical arguments why justice should be universally practiced by every tribe and nation, a performance that brought the audience of young Roman aristocrats to their feet in paroxysms of admiration and wonder.
The very next day he returned to demolish all of those seemingly irrefutable arguments, which at the same time implicitly justified all the actual Roman conquests and wanton depredations to the great embarrassment of Cato the Censor and the other City Fathers in attendance that proved the danger of unfettered intellect to practical politics.
So dazzled by this second display of philosophical wizardry and oratorical splendor that the audience of young Roman aristocrats were beside themselves yet again, and the news of what had just occurred spread like wildfire throughout the city so that these Roman young men were eager to learn this breathtakingly dazzling rhetorical skill themselves.
Cato immediately drew two contradictory lessons from Carneades’ devastating performance: Should Rome want to demonstrate to all the world that it was indeed a just republic, it could return all the provinces it had unjustly conquered and annexed. This, to be sure, would never occur. Should it choose not to, however, it would reveal to the audience — and to all Rome and the world — what a moral hypocrite it was in playing the role of a just republic that preached to other nations why they should at all times behave justly.
Both of these lessons made it clear that Carneades’ public ambush tore the mask of respectability from Rome’s public face to reveal it as just another predatory nation while preaching to the world the Gospel of political justice. It was this that terrified Cato about the danger of iconoclastic Greek learning to which the young men of Rome’s upper classes had just been exposed.
If they could be instructed in this new revolutionary Greek logic it could topple the Roman republic itself by making plain to all the world the moral duplicity of what Rome had been doing for over a century and would continue doing for centuries more. This unraveling of Rome’s visionary plans for the future could never be allowed to happen, and so Carneades was banished from Rome the very next day.
Cicero and the Greeks
Over a century passed, and Cicero brought much of this Greek theorizing defanged of its Attic iconoclasm to the attention of Rome’s practical-minded educated classes in his philosophical works, De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Officiis, De Re Publica, De Legibus, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, De Natura Deorum, De Divinatione, and De Fato. These works served as a cultural bridge that gave Romans a greater familiarity with Greek philosophy by giving them a Latin vocabulary to bring out its nuance and subtlety in their own Latin tongue.
Reading our way through Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, The Nature of the Gods, On Duties, and Of Fate; Plato’s Apology, Phaedo, and Crito; and Xenophon’s Anabasis and Memorabilia later after graduation taught us that here was an entire universe of discourse and philosophical repose that still existed and would always exist for those who wanted to enter it on their own by going aside and not allowing themselves to be carried away by modernity.
And for those who later made classical antiquity a lifelong pursuit by either profession or hobby, this habit of reading the Latin and Greek classics opened up vast stretches of the ancient world and its concerns that endure to this day among those who partake of the Great Conversation with the past. The following are among the authors that have sustained generations of readers, some of whom may read these authors only once, while others keep reading them again and again, for the longer they live, the more these authors say to them:
The Romans: Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Ammianus Marcellinus, Suetonius, Curtius Rufus; Vergil, Horace, Juvenal, Catullus, Ovid, Martial, Persius, Lucan, Plautus, Terence, Seneca the Younger, Pliny the Younger, Quintilian, Phaedrus; Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Lucretius, and Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in Greek.
The Greeks: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Lucian, Demosthenes, Aesop; Epicurus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus; Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Dio Cassius, Plutarch, Appian, Arrian, and Diodorus Siculus.