On Friendship

In De Amicitia, Cicero claims to be reconstructing the thoughts of Laelius on the topic of friendship, and Peabody, at least, thinks that Cicero was honest to his source: “Laelius is here made to say not a word which he, being the man that he was, and at the date assumed for this dialouge, might not have said himself.” (vi) Still, over 80 years have passed between the actual composition of De Amicitia and the time of the dialogue when takes place, and despite the direct line of mentorship that binds Cicero to Laelius (through Scaevola, who has a place in the dialogue), it seems an unusual choice to make. Certainly the Republic had seen changes that must have seemed significant to Cicero, especially since he was at the political heart of some of them as consul.

But Cicero feels himself, in his address to Atticus, that he has successfully faded into the background: “this method of treatment, resting on the authority of men of an earlier generation, and illustrious in their time, seems somehow to be of specially commanding influence […] I want you for the while to turn your mind away from me, and to imagine that it is Laelius who is speaking.” (4)

Two avenues of inquiry to pursue come to my mind: the first is the interesting parallel of boyhood friendship that runs between Cicero and Laelius. Laelius claims that “the older a friendship is, the more precious should it be” (50), but also reminisces about Scipio’s claims of “the most ardent loves of boyhood being often laid aside with its robe” (28), and says too that “friendships that are properly so called are formed between persons of mature years and established character” (53). Yet Laelius and Scipio Africanus were friends since boyhood, as were Cicero and Atticus whom he is corresponding with: in a manuscript full of philosophies on friendship that seem today almost common-sense or platitudinous, the gap there is interesting. Perhaps Laelius considered himself particularly lucky (or particularly virtuous?) to maintain the longstanding friendship he had with Scipio — and it is interesting too that he’s quoting Scipio when he talks about how friendships are hard to maintain.

The second thing I’m thinking about in relation to Cicero and Laelius is the image of Socrates and plato that we’ve been seeing on the cover of Derrida. We’ve discussed, a bit, the potential gap between the scriptor vs. the author of a particular text, and how the person writing down the dialogue can, in some ways, exert final control over the thoughts of the mentor figure they’re recording. Cicero draws attention to this in a way that Plato (or at least Derrida’s p/Plato) never does; I’d be interested in hearing (in comments or in class) whether this rhetorical move makes us feel more or less concerned/aware of the gap between the speaker and the writer.  I suppose in a way this question is at the heart of most epistolary literature.

I also like how Cicero talks about his Cato Major, written around the same time, and talks about how he chose “the old man Cato” because “there seemed to be no other person better fitted to talk about old age than one who had been an aged man so long” (3) — even though at this point Cicero himself is getting up there in years, so that “I then wrote as an old man to an old man about old age” (4). Since both Cicero and Atticus are aging, it feels particularly poignant when Laelius discusses his loss of Scipio: “I can miss his society but for a brief season, and all sorrows, however heavy, if they can last but a little while, ought to be endured.” (71)

It lends an interesting twist too, I suppose to Laelius’s aside to Fannius and Scaevola on their own friendship: “With this affection I in my youth loved those old men, […]in my turn, as an old man, I find repose in the attachment of young men, as in yours” (70). There’s a nice feeling of continuity there, and maybe that sense of continuity is something Cicero is particularly encouraging in order to justify his own use of previous generations in epistolary literature.


6 thoughts on “On Friendship

  1. I agree that Cicero’s thoughts on friendship here can come across as a bunch of platitudes, but I do think that this treatise and this conception of “amicitia,” which may or may not be properly translated as “friendship,” attempts to define both a real and a rhetorical relationship between people. In Cicero’s case, it’s important to note that he is specifically talking about MEN, and not just any men, but MEN of VIRTUE, which is does not just mean “good” men. To some degree, we could see this treatise as the basis for the Boy Scouts or any other exclusive or elitist forms of camaraderie. However, I’m an optimist (and I hope not a cruel one, in Lauren Berlant’s sense), and I would like to believe that Cicero’s thoughts here have some genuine purchase on the way we relate to each other rhetorically, especially through letters or any kind of correspondence. In other words, I don’t read this as a “How to be a good friend” manual. I read it as a rhetorical ideal, in which written relationships do not have to be structured according to preconceived hierarchies. One of the problems that Abelard and Heloise encounter is their “unequal” footing, which results in the confusion about salutation conventions. This is the result of their training in the “ars dictaminis” or the medieval art of letter writing, which prescribed rules for addressing superiors or inferiors. Cicero’s “De Amicitia” offers an alternative, which suggests that rhetorical relationships can be equalized and the role of the personal has a central place in any kind of correspondence. This explains to some degree, I think, Heloise’s desire to be Abelard’s “amica” instead of his wife.

  2. Throughout reading this I was also wondering if he was discussing only men when he is actually saying “man” or “men” in relationship to “his” correspondence with those such as Atticus or Cato, which makes me more critical of Cicero’s actual discussion of friendship. However, that should to be for another discussion.

    Cicero seems to be writing this treatise of friendship, at times a kind of “how to guide” for friendships; but I’m not sure what he is actually saying about friendships, whether it is rhetorical or more personal and or physical. Certainly, when reading I wondered how the friendships I had formed in the past, whether they have ended or still continue, held up to Cicero’s own discussion and personal friendships. What was shared between friends, in relation to Cicero, seemed elitist on its own and certainly made me critical of my relationships that vary on the level of personal friendships.

    In particular, the discussion of age and Cicero’s “own” age was most interesting to me and how Cicero, as well as the other “MEN” he had relationships with and the “MEN” he writes for, felt as they were young and looked at the “old men” verses when they were that age and examining/”looking back on” their various “amictias” (is that a word?). It has left me pondering my own “amictia” in and throughout life and what it was, is, and will transpire to be which all seem to be dependent on the type of communication one “individual” has with another whether it is written, (which seems to be held in much higher esteem according to Cicero), or is void of it.

  3. I do think that Cicero does mean “men” when talking about friendship, somehow I do not see him even considering friendship between women and also no friendship between men and women (but as we saw in Sam’s link to Psychology Today (on twitter) this kind of friendship doesn’t really exist anyway).

    I think that the definition of friendship is very interesting. A true friendship needs complete sympathy in all matters of importance, goodwill, and affection. But, according to Laelius, the most important is virtue. It does seem that those attributes do lead to a good working friendship. Therefore, I agree with Penelope that is seems like a “how to guide.” Additionally, I fully agree with the sentiment that true friendship is rare. Many people pass through your life, some you might consider friends, but only very little stay with you. But does this mean that those friendships that are only temporary are worth less?

  4. Alex, your comment did a lot to dispel, not confusion, but a range of questions concerning what Cicero et al were discussing. Knowing that they were striving for a sort of Platonic discourse frames the writing in a way that contextualizes their point of view. I actually find unearthing an ancient text’s pretenses to be just as engaging sometimes as the text itself (I once heard an essay that proved 14th Century Londoners had already adopted the camera-obscura model of the eye through the mention of the sun’s rays in a few of the Canterbury Tales. Awesome.)

    MJ, I think you bring up an interesting point going back to the derridian scriptor/author debate for this text. This might be a bit reader-responsey, but when I was reading the text, even though I academically knew that a question should be raised about authorship, I found myself easily suspending my disbelief when actually reading. I’m sure there might be some psychological reasoning behind this, possibly tied to human’s propensity for source amnesia, but for me I merely see it as becoming absorbed in the drama (so to speak) of the work. For me it’s approaching a work on its own terms. Here, there is no doubt that Cicero is reconstructing “Laelius’” thoughts on friendship; whether or not this is the historical figure or a fiction invented is a secondary question. Laelius has to be somewhat fictionalized anyhow, as even if his words are exactly correct, they are still being filtered through Cicero before they end up on the page.

  5. I just wanted to comment on the fact that Cicero wrote as Laelius some eighty years after his death. Does that make it any reason to seem less realistic? I don’t believe so for two reasons. One, its possible for any of us who have had a close relationship with a grandparent, and that grandparent had a close friend who was older, and that person could have been good friends with Laelius. Some of the history our seniors have experienced is pretty amazing. The older one gets (or so I speak from experience), the not so far removed you feel from eighty years. The second reason, which only enhances the first is, the tradition of Oral History was much stronger back then. The stories of people, places and events would regularly be shared and communicated making Cicero’s epistolary essay on friendship all the more plausible.

  6. I really like the idea that Cicero is writing as Laelius after his death and Laelius is reflecting on his friendship with Scipio after his death. I don’t know if there was any suspension of belief from my part but I guess I didn’t fully interpret this text as a “How to be a good friend manual.” Instead, as I was reading I thought of this as the archiving of a friendship to achieve some type of immortality. It was probably Cicero’s reflection of what happens to the soul that got me thinking.

    And your reflection MJ, on the differences between boyhood friendships and adulthood friendships reminded me of when Laelius reflects as an old man and how he finds “repose in the attachment of young men […] just emerging from boyhood” (69). In a way this type of friendship works for Laelius in that he will be remembered by his much younger friends after he dies because “friendship will live in eternal remembrance” (13).

    I just have one thing to say about that idea of “virtue,” and how without it friendship cannot exist (17) and at the same time virtue “is by no means to be scarified to friendship” (46). Laelius says that friendship is based on love and not on need; that you share virtue and fortune with your friends because they are your friends but you aren’t supposed to want friends just because they are rich or well connected. But then, if you are fortunate, you must help your friends and share your fortune. I don’t know, I just found him so confusing. And he contradicts himself because you need friends to remember you and to make sure your friendship lives in eternal remembrance. But I might have gotten all these thing wrong, I was just trying to think of the text not as a “How to be a good friend” manual.

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