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Topic #I66

Cicero, On Friendship, Laelius 1-61

15 March 2002
Scribe: Oksana Werbowy


These minutes were spoken on 1 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


<Professor’s postscript, 2002.iv.18: in the course of a political letter I penned in January 2002, I quote from this work (section 37), to wit: your alliance with your friend is not sufficient excuse for you to follow him into foolish or wicked behaviour.  To see that letter (concerning the Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan), click here.>



Cicero became an important and influential voice in the history of philosophy, whose works were greatly valued, particularly because of his discussion of friendship. Cicero’s account takes over from earlier models discussed by philosophers who suggested that the whole world was generated by love and strife. While this is true on a chemical or sexual level, this account does not represent a serious meditation on friendship. The first focussed discussion of friendship comes from Socrates through the writings of Xenophon (Memoirs of Socrates, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6) as well as Plato’s dialogue Lysis. Both accounts show that Socrates had a keen interest in friends and conceptions about what makes them valuable. In Xenophon, Socrates asks whether friends, like articles, can be appraised. The discussion concludes that friends have worth only relative to themselves; they are not detachable like personal possessions. Socrates advises that instead of appraising others, the focus should actually be on self-development, that is, making oneself a better candidate for a friend to someone else.


Plato’s Lysis, explains two possibilities for friendship: a relationship between people and a connection between a person and wisdom. [This is a coinage taken from the Pythagorean notion of philosophy as affection for sophia (wisdom)]. According to the dialogue, friendship is a relationship between a person and the object of knowledge. Furthermore, it is a relationship that is based on need and a sentiment of kinship with wisdom that arises out of human love for sophia.


                        Aristotle’s treatment of friendship found in the Eudemian Ethics, Book VII, and Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII and IX offer two parallel treatments of friendship. In these works, Aristotle addresses questions such as: under what circumstances is it reasonable to break off friendships or let them be broken off? He also addresses the merits of having or being a friend who is self-sufficient. [Similar topics are addressed by Seneca in Letter IX]. While Aristotle’s self-sufficiency is a good characteristic, a picture of the solitary life as an ideal does not make sense. Where would friendship fit in if not as a case of need? Indeed, the ideal of individual self-sufficiency is either a myth or represents a confusion about the essential form of our life. At best, we are “species self-sufficient” or sufficient within our respective ethnic groups. Thus, any individual who finds him or her self entirely on their own is beyond the outer limits of society because we normally function as interdependent units.


Aristotle divides our capacity for friendship into three distinct categories. First, the friendship of mutual advantage: this relationship occurs between acquaintances or colleagues who are in a position to perform favours for each other. These are the people who we take extra care to greet or address politely in correspondence; we grease their wheels out of our need and in an expectation of having our wheels greased in return. Although Professor Hutchinson admits that such relationships define the extent of his relations with some colleagues, it is clear that these relationships are not among the most satisfying encounters. The second, more fundamental category of friendships is that of friendship for mutual exchange of pleasure. These relationships arise out of the simple recognition that it is much more fun to do stuff with companions. Friendships defined by such a trade-off of fun are limited, however, as in these relationships we have no interest in doing something which does not fall under the category of pleasurable amusement. For instance, when a friend asks for help in dealing with a painful business such as being jilted by a wife, our pleasure buddy usually disappears. Although such relationships rank high on the fun factor, they leave us wanting.


Aristotle’s final category of friendship is a relationship based on the pleasure derived from affection and loyalty to someone who one comes to respect. [This is the version of friendship praised by Cicero]. Quaintly described as honouring a person’s virtue, in modern terms this notion is reflected in our praise of friends’ achievements, spirituality, integrity and a list of other virtues found in modern language. While we can readily put together such pithy words and phrases about our closest friends, the idealized notion of the absolute goodness of the person who qualifies as a friend needs to be demystified.


In their position papers, many students objected to Cicero’s outline for good people; they assumed the formula implied that someone who has a flaw is ineligible for having true friends. However, people do not become our friends because they are paragons of virtue who have been tested in the crucible of experience. Rather, the inverse is true. We believe our friends have these virtues because they make us feel good about ourselves. We notice how a person is when he or she has a general disposition which we want more of ourselves and we learn to connect our awareness of such a virtue with an appreciation of our friend.


A student asked: what is it that attracts one person to another? Could it be the virtues themselves? The professor replied that this would be the Stoic answer. Epicureans, on the other hand, believed that the prospect of pleasure and benefit is what actually directs people to pursue friendships in the beginning. The Stoics said this posed a logical problem: if someone admits that a motive is self-directed to begin with, how can it be transformed later to its opposite direction and suppress selfish urges? The Epicurean reply is that we come to love our friends and all our selfish desires are obliterated through a natural psychological process that occurs over time- like water dripping on a stone that with wear becomes smooth, or a ghastly but agreeable woman whom we come to love (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book IV, 1280).


Is the act of self-sacrifice a pleasurable act in itself? The professor responded: one of the fine things about friendship is that it provides a certain forum for other-concern. Thus, performing a small miracle for a friend can be a theatre where one can dance beautifully. Furthermore, it feels good to live up to one’s own image of the self. However, this is not a self-centred response since the pleasure is not the source of the motivation. Rather, it is because we have concern and we act in an other-concerned way that we get pleasure. A similar comparison can be made with sex. The pleasure of the act is a test of affection for the other person, and what makes sex most massively pleasurable is loving the person you are being intimate with. According to Plato, what is also wonderful about human lovemaking is that, unlike for most primates, the act represents a yearning for success in finding significance. The same seems to be true of friendship. Mutual trust represents our theatre or zone of significance where it always matters to the other how a person is doing or feeling. With both friendships and sex, the zone of significance is multiplied and deepened in a trusting relationship.


Other references to the importance of significance can be found in Plato in the Myth of Aristophanes, which conveys a need for fulfillment, and the Myth of Diotima, where yearning for permanence and beauty is a yearning for what is eternal outside of time. (Plato, Symposium, 189d-193d and 201d-212b respectively). The poem Ozymandias, by Percy B. Shelley also explores this topic.  Shelley writes:


I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


(Representative Poetry On-line: Editor, I. Lancashire; Publisher, Web Development Group, Inf. Tech. Services, Univ. of Toronto Lib. o Edition: 2RP 2.244. © J. D. Robins and I. Lancashire, Dept. of English (Univ. of Toronto), and Univ. of Toronto Press 1997).



Shelley draws out a lesson for all those who consider fame and excellence highly important: After death, there comes a time when no one will know or remember you; the report of you will not last; all goes to oblivion. This would seem to make everything in our existence absurd, but this is obviously not how we think in our ordinary lives. The absurdity of existence only becomes an issue if we mistake our cosmic significance for our human significance. If we answer honestly, there is need for us to be important for others but not in the cosmic sense.


In Plato, Alcibiades, 132d, it is said that to see oneself is to look into a mirror and to know oneself is to look into the mind. If you enter into the philosophy of the other person you will also come to know yourself. Furthermore, to see oneself active in the other person is to feel twice as active. According to Aristotle, both philosophy and self-knowledge can be conducted through friendship’s wider significance.


A few quotable quotes from the position papers:

1)        “What keeps us from being better friends is that we act as number watchers on the elevators of life, when it is the simplest thing to turn and say hello.”

2)        ‘The profit from having a friend comes from the process of giving and not expecting anything in return and the wealth of such experiences increases when shared with friends.’