Reflections on Friendship

"It's a blessing when you have a like-minded group to support you. One that gets the challenges you face, offers support and advice and is there for you when you need it." Gemma Drinkall, my LinkedIn correspondent wrote the above, which beautifully highlights the important role friendship plays in our lives. And this is the topic for this article.


This morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 by the commentator Catherine Pepinster inspired today’s sententia. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00120hj between 48:10-51:00 minutes). I was also moved to revisit the In Our Time show dedicated to the concept of friendship from over ten years ago now, featuring Professor Angie Hobbs, Dr. Mark Vernon, and Professor John Mullan. The relevance and pertinence of the value on friendship by the Greeks and Romans rang clearly in both. Catherine Pepinster pointed out that friendship was one of the most highly valued of human relationships. In biological terms, it is not strictly essential to our survival, it is something we fundamentally choose to engage in. But it certainly enriches our lives and affects us deeply. We have that mutual support and sense of not being alone, which Gemma mentioned. We share laughter, tastes, and good news. The ancients really did have a point in seeing it as something we chose, nurtured, and valued. True friendship is truly noble. This was Catherine Pepinster’s essential message.


Here, I wish to look at some ancient terms for friendship, including different types of friendship, and some examples of friends from the ancient world as well as philosophical works on friendship.


I start with book six of Homer’s Iliad. Diomedes, fighting for the Greeks, and Glaucus, on the Trojan side, meet on the battlefield, poised to fight, but halt realising the connection of friendship between their families. Their grandfathers had been great friends, being guest friends, and Diomedes urges that they respect this and do not fight each other. The Greek word is xenia both ‘guest friendship’, that is to respect one’s host who offers shelter and hospitality. It denotes a respect for one who has shown duty and kindness, normally to a stranger. But it is so powerful that two generations later, they feel bound to respect the kindness shown. Paris is the antithesis of good xenia – running off with your host’s wife is kind of a no-no. A beautiful tale of xenia is told by Ovid in the eighth book of his Metamorphosis. Philemon and Baucis take in Jupiter and Mercury in disguise as travellers needing shelter for the night. The rest of the village has rejected them. Philemon and Baucis are offered a reward for their kindness and ask only that they die together when the time comes and that they do not have to see the other die. Their wish is granted, and they become trees intertwined together.


I love xenia, because it shows a sense of duty and courtesy to our fellows in need, and respect for kindness done to our elders. Do I feel a sense of duty of kindness to those who were kind to my grandmother? Of course, I do.


Friendship was something the Greeks and Romans thought deeply about. The Roman term amicitia is a very interesting term. It can mean a formal, social friendship characterised by political obligation and the mutually beneficial patron/client relationship. ‘Friendship’ could be very political, almost ritualised. However, it can also denote friendship that comes with a sense of genuine concern and care. The two concepts are beautifully played with by that legend Horace. Whilst the patron/client relationship existed between him and Maecenas, the latter being the patron and Horace the client, Horace I think shows a genuine concern, influenced by his Epicurean learning for Maecenas, wearied by his public political woes. His exquisite poem, Ode 3.29, respectfully and honorifically addresses his sponsor, ‘Tyrrhena regum progenies tibi’ and beseeches him to put aside his cares for a while and take some mental respite. The honorific address is contrasted at the end to Horace’s own sense of peace in his life, that is away from the political mire. He invites his friend to share. Horace may indeed be reflecting the Epicurean principle of ataraxia, a freedom from psychological anguish and turmoil. In his article on the Epicurean stance on friendship, ancient philosophy scholar Philip Mitsis refutes the notion that the Epicureans viewed friend in purely instrumental terms. Disinterested friendship, that is to say friendship without ulterior motive, based on personal connection, was indeed part of their ethical framework.


Friendship was even a valid character defence in the Roman court. This might seem strange to us now. But argument from character was considered a more reliable defence. People who could honestly and reliably attest to the ‘kind’ of person a defendant could carry considerable persuasive power. Written statements and documents were far too easily corrupted, they thought. Cicero employs this argument in pro Caelio using his friendship with Caelius’ father, the trust placed in him as Caelius’ tutor, and thus his long acquaintance with the young man in the dock. Of course, the patron/client friendship is also at work here.


Nevertheless, the genuine importance of friendship is shown by the fact that treatises and philosophical discussions were dedicated to it. Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius on the subject. Seneca notes that Epicurus rebuked those who claimed that the sage was so self-sufficient in his wisdom that he had no need of friendship. Lucilius has apparently asked Seneca whether he agrees. Seneca makes the following distinction: the wise man might BE ABLE to do without friends, but it does not mean he desires to do without them. He gives a selfless image of friendship. A friend is someone for whom he can care, for example, sit by them when they are ill. Friends are recipients of the wise man’s nobility.


We will end with Cicero’s treatise on friendship, de amicitia. The work was written in 44 BC, when Cicero was still very much mourning the death of his daughter Tullia in 45. The work is also known as Laelius, the great friend of Scipio Aemilianus, sacker of Carthage. Laelius had allegedly heard the discourse from Scipio, passed this on to Quintus Mucius Scaevola, Cicero’s tutor in Roman law, and then to Cicero himself. It takes the form of a dialogue, mimicking Plato. Laelius discusses a great many factors affecting friendship and laments how profit has come to be far too strong a motive for forming these ties. He ends by lamenting his dear friend Scipio Aemilianus. Laelius for Scipio, and Scipio for Laelius entirely fulfilled the quotation from Gemma Drinkall that opened this article: like-minded, always there, and fellow counsellor.

Should we still philosophise about friendship? Yes, I think we should. The esteem in which the ancients held it was surely correct, as Catherine Pepinster showed. When a friend drops everything to come to you in distress, listens, comforts, and you know you would do the same for them, such a bond is invaluable. Not necessary to survival, but to true well-being, yes. So, I will end with the words of Cicero as ‘Laelius’.


“I urge you to value goodness (without which friendship cannot exist) such that, with the

exception of virtue itself, you will think nothing more precious than friendship.”

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