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Topic #I67

Cicero on Friendship, Laelius 62-104

18 March 2002
Scribe: Teesha Izzard


These minutes were spoken on 20 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Cicero’s background knowledge for his writings on friendship came from the Greek philosophers writing about friendship.  His work on this subject can be seen as a recycling and repackaging of Greek wisdom for a Roman audience.


                  The Greek arts achievements at this time were primarily in commerce, science, and literature.  The Roman achievements, on the other hand, were also in commerce, but as well in trading, and military conquests, which led them to be a more coordinated power, and allowed Rome to rise  from a city to a massive empire.  The Romans did not have a long history of scholarship and creative arts.  Almost all models of the arts come from the Greeks, including philosophy. 


                  Cicero studied liberal arts in Athens and Rhodes.  He networked and maintained contacts.  He was most interested in mediating what he learned in Greek for a Latin speaking audience.  For the Romans, to study classics meant to study the Greeks.  The “classics” were already a Roman idea. 


                  Cicero used the method of paraphrasing what he had learned and then putting it into a Roman mouth, therefore making it his own.  An example of this is found on page 208:


But let me get back to Scipio, since he had a lot to say on the subject.  He used to complain, for example, that people are prepared to take more trouble about everything else in the world than about friendship.  Everyone has an idea how many goats and sheep he owns, but nobody can say how many friends he possesses.  And an immense amount of care is devoted to acquiring the cattle, but none, Scipio believed, to choosing friends; and no one has at his disposal an definite signs or criteria for determining which candidate satisfies the necessary conditions for friendship and which does not. (Cicero: On the Good Life, tr. Grant, “On Friendship”. Penguin 1971)


The ideas presented in this passage are lovely to think about, however they are not originally Cicero’s.  These same thoughts were first presented by Socrates, which can be found in Xenophon’s Memoirs, within a conversation with Antisthenes.   


                  Therefore, it was impossible for a writer to make a living as a writer until the mid 18th century because until Hume they did not receive royalties.  In the modern age, ownership of the work is regarded as a serious idea, but this idea was not present in the ancient world.


                  The genre of Cicero’s work is fiction not fact.  He used fiction in order to provide a network to hang a recycled framework of friendship.  The work is almost entirely Greek in content but he uses the names of no Greek philosophers.  This form is a sort of airbrushing, a touching up through Latin faces and voices. 


                  For the most part, Cicero depicts friendship in a political environment, from a practicing politicians viewpoint, found on pages 222-224.  Some of the lessons do not apply to private friendships at all, and realizing this he then comes back by saying, “But somehow or other I have drifted away from my theme” (Cicero,225), which indeed he had.


                  Cicero frames the fiction by putting it into a formal setting, similar to that of a symposium.  The model for his dialogue does not come from Plato or Xenophon, but rather seems like he modeled his dialogue after Aristotle.  However, this cannot be confirmed because most of Aristotle’s dialogues are lost.  The contention then is that the way Aristotle built on Plato; Cicero built on Aristotle.  


Cicero’s obvious “plagiarism” is again exemplified when looking at a passage that is taken right out of the prologue to one of Plato’s dialogues:


I memorized the main points of what Laelius said, and now, after my own fashion, I have set them down in this book.  I have done so by bringing the actors on to the stage to speak for themselves.  My intention was to avoid constant interruptions of ‘I said’ and ‘he said’, since I wanted to make it seem as if they were actually in our company and talking to us themselves. (Cicero, 176) 


Cicero took these lines directly from Greek sources and Latinized them.  Ironically, this transformed version became the most influential discussion of friendship.



Cicero was regarded as a better writer of Latin than Seneca, and this view prompted many replies, the best being from the late 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne who wrote an essay also entitled, “On Friendship”.  The obsession with friendship did not last past the 18th century.  Previous to that time there was a wide distribution of writers who tackled the topic, such as Hume, Bacon and Kant.  Kant was scorned on the whole topic.  He said, “Friendship is a favourite hobby-horse of all rhetorical moralists”.


                  Montaigne recycled many ideas from the ancient world.  He distinguished between different types of relationships such as between parents and children, siblings, and marriage.  He also dealt with the dilemma of what friendship is based on, which is the sociability of peers.  A passage from his essay was then read:


                  I return to my description of a more right and proper kind of friendship: ‘In general you cannot judge a relationship until the partners have attained strength and stability in mind and in years’ (Cicero, De Amicitia, xx = p. 213 of Cicero, On the Good Life).  For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships are no more than acquaintanceships and familiarities, contracted either by chance or for advantage, which have brought our minds together.  In the friendship I speak of they mix and blend one into the other in so perfect a union that the seam which has joined them is effaced and disappears.  If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’

                        There is, beyond all my reasoning, and beyond all that I can specifically say, some inexplicable power of destiny that brought about our union.  We were looking for each other before we met, by reason of the reports we had heard of each other, which made a greater impression on our emotions than mere reports reasonably should.  I believe that this was brought about by some decree of Heaven.  We embraced one another by name.  And at our first meeting, which happened by chance at a great feast and gathering in the city, we found ourselves so captivated, so familiar, so bound to one another, that from that time nothing was closer to either than each was to the other.  He wrote an excellent Latin satire, which has been published, in which he excuses and explains the suddenness of our understanding, which so quickly grew to perfection.  Having so short a time to live, and having begun so late, for we were both grown men and he some years the elder, it had no time to lose, and none in which to conform to the regular pattern of those mild friendships that require so many precautions in the form of long preliminary intercourse.  Such a friendship has no model but itself, and can only be compared to itself.  It was not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand; it was some mysterious quintessence of all this mixture which possessed itself of my will, and led it to plunge and lose itself in his; which possessed itself of his whole will, and led it, with a similar hunger and a like impulse, to plunge and lose itself in mine.  I may truly say lose, for it left us with nothing that was our own, nothing that was either his or mine. (Montaigne. Essays, tr. Cohen, Penguin 1958, p.97-8)


Montaigne brings the question of friendship directly back to his own experience, and draws on themes from Cicero, such as the ideal friendship that students complain about: heroization.  Friendship has the power to do remarkable things, and can be more powerful than sexual love, such as friends willing to die for one another.  However, Cicero advises us to enter into friendships cautiously:


Any sensible person, then, will behave like a charioteer applying the reins to his team, and will check the vigorous impulses of his affections.  In this way he will be able, to some extent at least, to subject his friends to the same sort of preliminary testing operation that men apply to their horses. (Cicero, 208-9)


This is good advice and it makes sense.  However, most people can give an example of when they entered into a non-sexual relationship that did not start slowly and cautiously.  Montaigne maintains that cautiousness in a relationship is a good idea, but one should not be too cautious when your soul mate is standing right in front of you.


Cicero also tells us that it is not right to expect strong friendships to emerge from childhood.  It is true that most childhood friendships will wither away, but it is possible to have strong friendships with ancient roots, such as the friendship Professor Hutchinson described of his friend Joel, whom he knew from the age of six.


                  A friendship is less exclusive than the relationships between lovers, it is not monogamous, and therefore it is possible to cultivate more than one friendship, and include your friends in a wider group, whereas it is not normally possible to include your partner in a threesome.  Friends are networked, but sexual relationships are less fruitful, in this sense.  Most married couples will have to decide how close to perfection they will settle for.  They may have to compromise in their relationship.  Compromises made for a friend are nobler than love relationships because they are examples of more indisputable self-sacrifice. 


                                    In conclusion, friendship/companionship is very important in one’s life.  Cicero tells us how detestable it would be to go through life with no company, and acquaints us with such a man:


                  Picture someone who is by nature so savage and forbidding that he shuns and detests the company of his fellow-men.  Tradition tells us that there once lived just such an individual at Athens, called Timon. (Cicero, 219)


Timon was so disagreeable that he gave in the assembly a public service announcement proclaiming that he was going to cut down a certain tree that was know for people hanging themselves on, and to let anyone know, who wished to hang themselves, to do it before he commenced cutting down the tree.  Shakespeare wrote a play partly about this man whose character can be summed up in Act 4.1:



                        Let me look back upon thee.  O thou wall

                        That girdles in those wolves, dive in the earth

                        And fence not Athens!  Matrons, turn incontinent!

                        Obedience, fail in children!  Slaves and fools,

                        Pluck the grave wrinkled Senate from the bench,          

                        And minister in their steads!  To general filths

                        Convert o’th’instant green virginity!

                        Do’t in your parents’ eyes!  Bankrupts, hold fast;

                        Rather than render back, out with your knives,

                        And cut your trusters’ throats!  Bound servants, steal!

                        Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,

And pill by law.  Maid, to thy master’s bed:

                        Thy mistress is o’th’brothel.  Son of sixteen,

                        Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,

                        With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,

                        Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,

                        Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,

                        Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,

                        Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,

                        Decline to your confounding contraries;               

                        And yet confusion live! Plagues incident to men,

                        Your potent and infectious fevers heap

                        On Athens ripe for stroke!  Thou cold sciatica,

                        Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt

                        As lamely as their manners!  Lust, and liberty,

                        Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,

                        That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,

                        And drown themselves in riot!  Itches, blains,

                        Sow all th’Athenian bosoms, and their crop

                        Be general leprosy!  (William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, ed.Klein, Cambridge, 2001)


This is a figure of the only person who attributes a positive aspect to living on his own in the world.