Laelius de Amicitia, sometimes known simply as De Amicitia (On Friendship) is one of a series of philosophical dialogues written by Marcus Tullius Cicero describing what is usually called the Scipionic Circle, a loose group of people gathered around the Stoic philosopher Panaetius and the statesman Scipio Aemelianus Africanus (himself best known for being the general who destroyed Carthage and ended the Third Punic War) who would discuss intellectual topics of interest. (It is not known whether this Scipionic Circle really existed or is an idealized picture or even fiction by Cicero.) The other Scipionic Circle dialogues are Cato maior de senectute, De oratore and Cicero's great work, De re publica. In De amicitia, Scipio has just recently died, and a number of people gather with his old friend Laelius to discuss friendship. The work shows many signs of being directly influenced by discussions of friendship in Plato (Lysis), Xenophon (Memorabilia), and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), and possibly also a lost treatise on friendship by Theophrastus; but as with all of Cicero's philosophical works, much of the distinctively Ciceronian is found in what he does with his sources.
You can read Laelius de Amicitia online in English at Project Gutenberg. There is a nice set of webpages by Tom Sienkewicz with basic study resources on the dialogue, including an outline of the dialogue.
Laelius is an old friend and political ally of Scipio. He was often nicknamed Sapiens because of his moderation and willingness to listen to the objections of his critics. He is also a character in Cicero's Cato Major and De Re Publica. He is obviously the main character of this dialogue, which is structured as a conversation in which Laelius makes three major speeches.
Quintus Mucius Scaevola
Scaevola is Laelius's son-in-law (married to his eldest daughter). Scaevola was one of Cicero's own teachers and is also a character in both De Oratore and De Re Publica.
He is also a son-in-law of Laelius (married to his younger daughter). In real life he and Scaevola seemed not to have gotten along; Scaevola was younger, but by marrying the older Laelia had managed to get the coveted position of augur, which Strabo may have wanted for himself. It's difficult to be clear about his real life, though, because he is often confused with another Fannius, and Cicero himself seems to have had only a very rough notion of his actual history.
In addition, Cicero directly addresses Titus Pomponius Atticus, to whom the work is dedicated; Atticus was an old friend and ally of Cicero; he was also a student of Scaevola and a lover of philosophy, and in fact seems to have taken the name 'Atticus' to indicate how much he loved Athens and its philosophy. Cicero and Atticus were both in their sixties when the dialogue was written.
Dedication to Atticus
Cicero gives an account of the background of the dialogue, attributing it to his teacher, Scaevola. According to the story Cicero relates, Scaevola was sitting with a number of friends and the discussion came to the topic of friendship. Atticus had apparently suggested that Cicero write on friendship, and so he presents this work to fulfill that, writing, he says, "to a friend in the friendliest spirit on the subject of friendship" by presenting a conversation in which Laelius, "pre-eminent on account of his own glorious friendship, will speak about friendship" (I/5). He asks Atticus to forget him for a while and imagine that it is Laelius himself who speaks, and to recognize in Laelius's exposition of friendship a portrait of Atticus himself.
Fannius opens the dialogue in the middle of the discussion by complimenting Laelius on his wisdom, and noting that people have asked him how he is coping with the death of his friend Scipio, since he missed a meeting he scrupulously attends. Scaevola says that when people have asked him, he always says that Laelius missed not because of his grief, which he has but keeps under control, but because of illness. Laelius confirms that he has been sick, and says he thinks obligations should be fulfilled as long as one is well, regardless of the situation. He notes, though, that he would be lying if he said that he was unaffected by Scipio's death, "since I have been deprived of a friend such as I suppose there will never be again" (III/10). But Scipio himself had lived such a full life that a few more years could have hardly added to his honors, so nothing bad has happened to Scipio; and dwelling too long on his own misfortune in losing Scipio would be a mark not of his love for his friend but of his love for himself.
Laelius rejects the idea that the soul dissolves at death, on the ground of authority: his ancestors gave honors to the dead that showed that they thought this was false, and the Pythagoreans teach reincarnation, which show that they think it false, and Socrates, judged wisest by the oracle of Apollo himself, was on this point not obscure and puzzling but quite clear. Scipio held this view as well. Thus one can reasonably expect that one so good as Scipio would be rewarded for his excellence. But even if one held that the soul was destroyed at death, then it follows that even if there is nothing good in death, there is also nothing bad in it for the dying. Thus the only misfortune here is Laelius's, but he will always have the memory of their friendship.
Laelius's First Discourse
Fannius and Scaevola both take this as an opportunity to ask him to talk about friendship. Laelius says that it is an excellent subject, but rejects the idea that he is well suited to speak on it. All he can do is encourage them to recognize that friendship is the greatest thing in human life. True friendship, however, can only arise between those who are good. He rejects the idea that this is due to a particularly restrictive definition of friendship itself, or that it is unattainable; what he means is that friendship requires ordinary decency and strength of character of the sort that we can actually find in real life.
The very fact of our being born makes it so that we live in society, but proximity creates special bonds, so that those who are our compatriots are closer than foreigners, and kin closer than strangers. This make up a natural friendship, although not stably so, for friendship in a proper sense is greater than any of these -- after all, we can be related to people without any benevolence or goodwill existing between us, but friendship requires benevolence. Friendship is far more powerful than ordinary society, even familial society, because it takes all that connection and concentrates it. Affection (caritas) is always found between two, or at most a small group.
Laelius then gives his definition of friendship: "friendship is in fact nothing other than a community of views [consensio] on all matters human and divine, together with goodwill and affection [cum benevolentia et caritate]" (VI/20). Of all gifts of the gods, only wisdom can be seriously regarded as its rival for the greatest. People do often treat other things as more important -- wealth, health, power, public honor, honors, or even pleasures. These things are not stable enough. To be sure, one could say that virtue is the greatest good, but virtue is such that it produces and sustains friendship. Again he insists that we should take virtue here in our ordinary, everyday sense, such as we attribute to great men like Cato or Scipio, not in any rarefied philosophical sense, and then gives some of the advantages such men derive from friendship.
The greatest advantage of friendship, however, is that "it lights a beacon of hope for the future, nor does it allow the human spirit to weaken or to stumble" (VII/23). Who sees a true friend in some sense sees himself, to such an extent that we can say that through friendship the dead live, because of the memory of their friends, so that on this alone we can in some sense say that the dead are blessed. Were benevolence gone from the world, it would all fall apart; friendship and concord hold the world together.
This is, again, simply common sense: anyone can know it, and everyone in their practice endorses it. We see this in the fact that people who are true friends will face danger together, and that we all praise such action.
Having said his piece, Laelius recommends again that they might be better served by finding a professional philosopher to discuss the subject. But his sons-in-law will insist that he speak more, and we'll see what's said in a future post on the dialogue.
* In the course of discussing Scipio's belief in the afterlife, Laelius makes a reference to a discussion captured in another of Cicero's dialogues, De re publica, in which Scipio recounts a dream had by his father. This is one of the most famous and influential passages in all of Cicero, the Somnium Scipionis, on which Macrobius wrote a commentary that was very influential in the Middle Ages. The Dream of Scipio is about the reward waiting for the good and noble statesman.
* Laelius explicitly identifies (V/18) four virtues as part of the character required for friendship: fides (good faith or honesty), integritas (soundness or integrity), aequitas (fairness), and liberalitas (generosity). He excludes three three vices: cupiditas (greediness), libido (wantonness), and audacia (shamelessness or brazenness). He also says that friendship requires magna constantia (great constancy).
* Cicero's talking about friendship (amicitia) in terms of affection (caritas) is certainly an influence on another, much later discussion of friendship: Aquinas's discussion of charity (caritas) in terms of friendship (amicitia). The discussion of what is the greatest good (VI/20) is also fairly clearly an important influence on the argument of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and the major influence on the overall structure of that work's argument.