Friendship is a Virtue

As a person grows wise, they learn to accept the world as it really is — they rise above chance and circumstance and determine their own attitude and response to life.

When two wise individuals become friends, they form a relationship that exists for its own sake. Both partners in the friendship are self-sufficient, so there are no ulterior motives. Neither has any need to utilize the other to get ahead by climbing another rung up the, ‘it’s all who you know’ ladder. They are friends not because they ‘need’ the other to boost their social credibility, notoriety, or even to abate their loneliness, but simply because friendship is good.

It is here that Cicero spots an important correlation: wise people are virtuous people. Therefore, genuine friendships — that is, friendships between two wise individuals — must manifest goodness and virtue. If your best friend in the world compels or incites you to do something that is wrong or morally reprehensible, then they are not properly your ‘friend’. True friends, wise friends, will only push you to become a better person.

Therefore let this law be established in friendship: neither ask dishonourable things, nor do them, if asked. And dishonourable it certainly is, and not to be allowed, for anyone to plead in defence of sins in general and especially of those against the State, that he committed them for the sake of a friend. (Cicero, Laelius 40)

Therefore let this be ordained as the first law of friendship: Ask of friends only what is honourable; do for friends only what is honourable and without even waiting to be asked; let zeal be ever present, but hesitation absent; dare to give true advice with all frankness; in friendship let the influence of friends who are wise counsellors be paramount, and let that influence be employed in advising, not only with frankness, but, if the occasion demands, even with sternness, and let the advice be followed when given. (44)

Virtue, in Cicero’s worldview, is the principle aim in all things, including friendships. He believes that virtue is the objective of friendships because it is first the foundation of friendships. Friendships not based on virtue must be based on something else, and anything other than virtue eventually leads to self-gratifying indulgence and vice.

Therefore it is no justification whatever of your sin to have sinned in behalf of a friend; for, since his belief in your virtue induced the friendship, it is hard for that friendship to remain if you have forsaken virtue. (37)

Some contemporary readers are likely to take all this talk of virtue with a pinch of indignation. Virtue? Who’s definition moral truth are we talking about here? Why should Cicero’s subjective, highfalutin creed of ethics be imposed on us?

Cicero’s response? I can only guess if he could speak from the grave he might say, “If the aim of your friendships are not to promote what is good and right in another person, then what is it, exactly? To exploit them? To ride on the coattails of their popularity? To use them to quench your loneliness? These are the objectives of the self-obsessed, not the self-sufficient. The wise, virtuous person has only goal for their friends — that their wisdom and virtue may only increase.”

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