Friendship can only exist between good men.
This is what Cicero said in his letter called On Friendship. I decided to read it tonight after seeing it referenced in St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I’m working my way through this month.
Is it true that friendship can only exist between good men?
Well, to parse it some, I’d argue that friendship can exist between good women as well as between a good man and a good woman. And before you go and say that it’s 21st-century feminist mumbo jumbo that’s making me claim that Cicero meant only a man-to-man relationship I will tell you that he meant exactly that. He said so explicitly. Repeatedly. Only. Between. Men.
Moving on, do both parties have to be good? I got a kick out of his definition of “good”. Cicero was Roman, the speakers in his story are Romans, and while they acknowledge some indebtedness to the Greeks, they’re not going to blindly accept Greek philosophy. So where Socrates would have spent 20,000 words building an imaginary city to define “good”, Cicero (or his narrator, Laelius) snorts at the philosophers:
I do not, however, press this [definition] too closely, like the philosophers who push their definitions to a superfluous accuracy. They have truth on their side, perhaps, but it is of no practical advantage. Those, I mean, who say that no one but the “wise” is “good.” Granted, by all means. But the “wisdom” they mean is one to which no mortal ever yet attained. We must concern ourselves with the facts of everyday life as we find it — not imaginary and ideal perfections.
The argument Cicero makes as his letter drags goes on is that people who aren’t good can’t be good friends and therefore can’t have good friends. Or something like that.
Aside from a few snarky remarks, this was a pretty dry read. It ended up, in fact, being an occasion where the book itself became more interesting than the contents.
Take this excerpt from the introduction:
The evils which were undermining the Republic bear so many striking resemblances to those which threaten the civic and national life of America today that the interest of the period is by no means merely historical.
The edition I’m reading was published in 1909.
More fun are the notes a previous owner made in the margins, helpfully dated July 28, 1951. This passage was underlined:
There are people who give the palm to riches or to good health, or to power and office, many even to sensual pleasures.
And next to it, double-underlined and with an exclamation point is:
So of course my imagination has drifted away from what Cicero had to say about friendship and toward whatever Tom must have done 60-some-odd years ago to merit double-underlining and immortality in my book. Was he into money or politics or *gasp* sensual pleasures? I want to know, RBJ (I only have your initials) … it must be a good story.
And now you see why I have trouble finishing tough reads.
But I did finish this one.
Categories: Brain Workouts