Friends Without Benefits

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), the Roman politician and thinker, developed provocative theory about the nature of genuine friendship.

For Cicero’s contemporaries, the ideal individual embodies independence and self-sufficiency; strength of character is defined as the ability to face whatever life brings with personal resolve. Internal fortitude. Needing other people is a liability. Philosophically, Cicero finds himself in a conundrum: he agrees that the wise person is independent and self-reliant, but he also believes the wise person needs friends.

This apparent contradiction compels him to prove that self-sufficiency and friendship are not mutually exclusive.

To reconcile this dilemma, Cicero argues friendship is a function of nature. We do not need friends because we are lacking in anything, but because, “friendship springs rather from nature than from need, and from an inclination of the soul joined with a feeling of love rather than from calculation of how much profit the friendship is likely to afford” (Cicero, Laelius 27, trans. Falconer 1923). Confessing your need for a friend is not a disclosure of personal inadequacy, but a universal human phenomenon – a law of nature, if you will. Even the most self-sufficient person in the world is still designed for living in community.

This leads Cicero to his ‘ah ha’ revelation about the nature of friendship: the purpose of having a friend has nothing to do with gaining some personal advantage. I should not be your friend because your companionship improves my status, wealth, or happiness, but simply because having friends is to my soul what oxygen is to my lungs — a natural necessity. But most people foolishly make the mistake of winning friends for selfish reasons or personal advantages, which is what dooms folks to flit from one social circle to another: once the ‘personal advantage’ of being your friend is removed, what reason remains to stick around?

The ideal friendship Cicero conceptualizes looks something like this: two people who having nothing whatsoever to gain (socially or materially) from one another, and yet who intimately share their lives, time, and conversations. This conclusion might seem counterintuitive: true friends are the people who can look each other in the eye and honestly say, ‘I don’t need you’, and thereby deeply trust the other. Their commitment to each other has nothing to do with one being an asset or means for the other. There is nothing one can leverage over the other, nor anything that one can exploit in the other. Their self-sufficiency guarantees their equality. Their independence, precisely the fact that they do not need anything from the other, is the key ingredient which eradicates pretense from their friendship.

These kind of friendships, according to Cicero, are not only infrequent and precious, but they are virtually divine; “real friendships are eternal” because they are not concerned with gaining some advantage in this world here and now (Laelius 32). Today, when you see two people love and appreciate each other without casting an eye to how their relationship furthers their own personal agendas, you are catching a glimpse of the gods.

[Friendship is] cultivated by those who are most abundantly blessed with wealth and power and especially with virtue, which is man’s best defence; by those least in need of another’s help; and by those most generous and most given to acts of kindness… It is not the case, therefore, that friendship attends upon advantage, but, on the contrary, that advantage attends upon friendship. (Laelius 51)

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