A thought experiment, from the Roman philosopher and thinker Cicero (106-43 BCE):
Suppose that a god should remove us from these haunts of men and put us in some solitary place, and, while providing us there in plenteous abundance with all material things for which our nature yearns, should take from us altogether the power to gaze upon our fellow men – who would be such a man of iron as to be able to endure that sort of a life? And who is there from whom solitude would not snatch the enjoyment of every pleasure? (Cicero, Laelius 87,trans. Falconer, 1923)
If the preceding translation was a bit too archaic, here’s a paraphrase: imagine that a god suddenly hoisted you up from the Earth and took you to another dimension of reality — a realm of luxury, delight, and ease. However, you soon realize that you are all alone. There is no other human being anywhere. The awe turns to horror as you suddenly realize you have just been sentenced to an eternity of isolation — solitary confinement in the heavenly spheres. Suddenly, heaven turns into hell.
We are social creatures, made to live in the company of one another. Even the most introverted and curmudgeonly of us can only survive so long without interaction. But for Cicero, the point of this illustration is more than a simple psychological observation about our need for companionship. He provokes us to look deeper, to discover something about the essence of beauty and meaning itself. Quoting Archytas of Tarentum (428-347 BCE), an ancient Greek philosopher, Cicero makes his point: “If a man should ascend alone into heaven and behold clearly the structure of the universe and the beauty of the stars, there would be no pleasure for him in the awe-inspiring sight, which would have filled him with delight if he had had someone to whom he could describe what he had seen” (Laelius 88).
In praise of friendship, Cicero proposes that everything we describe as good depends on being shared with others; “For the fruit of genius, of virtue, and, indeed, of every excellence, imparts its sweetest flavour when bestowed on those who are nearest and dearest to us” (70). Regardless of our economic position in society, our overall well-being correlates first to the quality of our relationships, not to our reserves in the bank; “For friendship adds a brighter radiance to prosperity and lessens the burden of adversity by dividing and sharing it” (22).
This should not surprise us. In nature, Cicero observes, nothing is solitary. Everything is interconnected, joined by, “some sort of support, and man’s best support is a very dear friend” (88). Poverty is therefore better than riches if it means keeping your friends. The person who basks in the glory and honour of the masses and yet finds themselves all alone in their house is worse off than the person who lives in virtual obscurity but enjoys the camaraderie of close friends. Friendship is the only thing that makes the good things in life worth having and the bad things in life worth surviving.
How can life be what Ennius calls “the life worth living,” if it does not repose on the mutual goodwill of a friend? What is sweeter than to have someone with whom you may dare discuss anything as if you were communing with yourself? How could your enjoyment in times of prosperity be so great if you did not have someone whose joy in them would be equal to your own? Adversity would indeed be hard to bear, without him to whom the burden would be heavier even than to yourself. In short, all other objects of desire are each, for the most part, adapted to a single end-riches, for spending; influence, for honour; public office, for reputation; pleasures, for sensual enjoyment; and health, for freedom from pain and full use of the bodily functions; but friendship embraces innumerable ends; turn where you will it is ever at your side; no barrier shuts it out; it is never untimely and never in the way. (22)
Nothing that is truly beautiful can be left unshared with another. It is in sharing and co-experiencing that the beautiful becomes manifest. Nothing worth possessing is worth having to oneself alone. It is only by partaking and participating in life together that joys and sorrows of life make any sense at all. Therefore, Cicero invites us to triage our personal objectives with a different metric than the bland and popular definition of ‘success’.
Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE), writing to a friend many decades later, agrees:
I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it. (Seneca, Lucilius VI.4, trans Gummere 1920)