Sunday, February 08, 2015

Cicero, Laelius on Friendship (Part II: The Foundation of Friendship)

Laelius's Second Discourse

Reluctantly, Laelius continues his discussion of friendship at the behest of his sons-in-law. The next topic of discussion is why we make friends. Two options present themselves immediately: either friendship arises from need seeking out mutual benefit or it arises directly from human nature itself. The fact that we name friendship (amicitia) from love (amor) suggests the latter; friendship does not arise from a calculation of benefits but from an internal inclination of love. We see this even with other animals, in how parents show affection to their offspring and vice versa; this affection is taken to a very high degree in human beings because of our ability to understand things like betrayal, and is found as well in the relation we have with those whom we admire for their virtue. Indeed, a remarkable feature of this natural inclination is that we are inclined to love those whom we have never met, if we hear of their virtue and integrity, and we can even love our enemies if we can see the excellences of their character.

But it's not as if this affection were itself friendship; friendship does seem to have some relation to mutual benefit. The combination of natural inclination to love with the actual services and favors performed for each other is what fully develops a strong friendship. This mutual benefit, however, is not based on need, and we see this in the fact that people who are most confident, virtuous, and wise are most able to form friendships, despite the fact that they are precisely the ones who have least need for anything else. Scipio himself was a case in point; his friendship with Laelius was not because Scipio had any need for Laelius, but because of a mutual regard for character intensified by close association. We see this as well in the reverse -- the more mercenary a person is, the less they are able to form genuine friendships because of the ignobility of their character. And this establishes one of the key properties of friendship. Were friendship based on need, friendship would necessarily change with need; but because it is not, it can last forever.

Laelius's Third Discourse

Pressed further by his sons-in-law, Laelius talks about discussions he had with Scipio on the subject of friendship. Scipio had noted the difficulty of forming these undying friendships -- there are so many ways in which people can come into conflict. It takes wisdom to negotiate these, but even this is perhaps not sufficient to overcome all the obstacles; one also needs good fortune.

And it is true, too, that it is in some cases unnatural for friendship to continue. Even friendship has its limit, at the point at which one person falls away from virtue. Friendship is not an excuse for wrongdoing, and a person who, out of friendship, determined to stick with a friend literally no matter what, is in effect demanding that both he and his friend be perfectly wise; and, as Laelius notes, they already agreed to talk about real friendship that can be had in the real world, not hypothetical friendships assumed to be in-principle possible based on abstract theories. Thus we find that there is a sort of law of genuine friendship: we are not to ask a friend to do what is wrong, nor are we to do what is wrong using the friendship as our excuse. It is an interesting part of Laelius's discussion of this point that he emphasize the political importance of this throughout; Rome, as he sees it, was slowly degenerating it because people in power were not genuine statesmen and friends like Scipio, but false friends, doing wrong and demanding that their friends do wrong in turn. The result was violence, war, loss of faith in the Senate, contempt for traditions.

It follows from this law that friends must not be hesitant to advise, even sharply, if necessary. The law also suggests that a number of common assumptions about friendship, especially those held by the abstract-minded and men with systems, ring hollow, particularly those that downplay the profound importance of friendship for human life. Friendship founded on virtue concerns the whole community, because virtue by its nature looks after the good of the whole community.

If we look at the question of the limits of friendship, three common ideas suggest themselves immediately, but all three are wrong: first, that we should do for our friends only those things we do for ourselves; second, that we should match the good we do for our friends to the good they do for us; and third, that our friends should value us as we value ourselves. In a genuine friendship, we will in fact do many things for our friends that we will not do for ourselves, so the first is wrong. The second is wrong because friendship is not based on calculation. But the third is the worst, and the problems with it can be seen if we think of how things stand when one friend is melancholy and feeling like a failure. Scipio in addition insisted that the old adage attribute to Bias, that we should love all friends as if we would eventually be enemies, was atrocious; we should instead be cautious enough in making friends that we can reasonably say that we are only friends with those with whom we will never be enemies.

Thus we can say that when friendship is based on virtue, friends have such a complete community of interests and goods that they will stand with each other even if there is a deviation of one from right, as long as it does no harm virtue itself. We need people as our friends who are steady and constant, but such people are not found everywhere, and we often cannot discover that they are until we are actually friends with them. In addition we need faithfulness (fides), which in practice also requires that they be people with whom we share interests. And friendship requires that the friends not tolerate lying or dishonesty among each other, nor on the other hand give easy credit to things about each other that might be false. There is also a need for geniality, since rigidity is not easily made consistent with the mildness that best adorns friendship.

Older friendships, like good wine, should be treated as more precious the older they are. We should make new friends, but keep the old. Superiors should equalize themselves with their inferiors by raising the latter up, as Scipio, the most eminent of his circle, constantly treated others not so eminent as equals, and, on the other side, inferiors should not resent the fact that they are surpassed by their friends. At the same time, we must be careful not to let affection become the enemy of the friendship itself, as sometimes happen when friends try to discourage each other from good deeds out of fear for the other, or when friends refuse to be separated despite the appropriateness of it.

In bringing friendships to an end, cases where a friend has done some public wrong should be ended by being 'unstitched' rather than severed -- that is, interaction should be suspended without gradually, if possible. And even if there is some egregious change of character on the part of the friend, one should try to undo the friendship in such a way that no enmity arises, because there is dishonor in contending against one who has been one's close friend. All of this is best handled by simply forming friendships in the right way in the first place, being cautious and careful about them and trying to find those of good character, and making sure that friendships are formed so that the love is like that we have for ourselves: we do not love ourselves for any usefulness but because we regard ourselves as precious in our own right. Friends are other selves. Most of all, then, we should begin by being good ourselves and taking care to regard the virtue of our friends because it is virtue, rather than treating the qualities of our friends as virtues simply because they are our friends.

A true friendship will have a regard for the truth, and thus friends will admonish and let themselves be admonished. It follows from this that one of the great enemies of friendship of friendship is flattery. Flattery is insincere, but without sincerity people cannot be of one mind, which is what friendship is. But flatterers can be distinguished from the sincere; even the masses can often distinguish between the person of real substance and the one who is primarily governed by a thirst for popularity. Many of Scipio's own greatest achievements arose from the fact that, even in cases in which they originally inclined the other way, people recognized that he, unlike his opponents, was not pandering.

It is virtue that makes and preserves friendships:

In it is found all harmony, stability, and trust. Whenever it rises up and shows forth its light, and recognises the same thing in another, it moves out towards it and in turn receives what the other has to give. Thence love, or friendship (for both have their origin in loving) blazes forth; and loving is nothing other than showing affection for the object of love for his own sake, not because of any lack in oneself, or the prospect of any advantage; though advantage does indeed flower from friendship even if one was not particularly aiming at it. (XXVIII/100)

Scipio may have been snatched away, but for Laelius he lives and always will; his virtues are not extinct, but are constantly before Laelius's eyes, and will shine through the generations. Nothing Laelius has ever had matches in importance and value his friendship with Scipio. And thus Laelius concludes his discourse, and the dialogue, with his moral: virtue being that without which friendship cannot truly exist, we should all regard it in such a way that it alone is treated as more important than friendship.

  Additional Notes

* The third discourse covers an immense number of topics, but it can be seen as going through many of the commonplaces on friendship, from Aristotle and others, and showing how they are unified by the recognition of virtue as the fundamental precondition of true friendship.

* Fides, which keeps coming up in the discussion of friendship, is to be understood in its political sense: a magistrate shows fides by doing what he is supposed to do and not shirking his duty, and so too a friend.

* Cicero gives several different kinds of flattery: adulatio, which is the kind of fawning dogs do with their masters; blanditia, which is oily ingratiation; and assentatio, which is yes-man-ship. All three of these are counterfeiters of friendship.

* Three effects of friendship are noted at XXVII/100: harmony (convenientia rerum), stability (stabilitas), and trust (constantia). All three of these have been the threads of the main arguments of each of the three discourses.


Quotations are from Cicero, Laelius on Friendship & The Dream of Scipio, J. G. F. Powell, tr., Oxbow Books (Oxford: 1990).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.