Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book Review: Cicero's "On Friendship"

Since so much of my time and thought revolves around the books I’m reading, I’ve decided to make it a regular practice to offer “book reviews” from time to time here on my blog. Normally, book reviews offer the service of analyzing books that are relatively new and giving opinions on them. However, I read very few new books. And it seems to me that readers nowadays need more of a push toward reading old books than reading new ones. So the service I’m offering is this: as I read through the books in my collection—classic fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, theology, and so on—I’ll highlight, here in my blog, the ones I find most worth reading. So rather than reading book reviews to interact with new ideas and to choose which new books to read, you can come here and read book reviews to interact with old ideas and, hopefully, be inspired to pick up a few old books yourself. Of course, there are undoubtedly many reviewers who are more distinguished and qualified to discuss the works I’ll present. But my main hope is not to explain in full depth and precision an author’s system of thought, but rather to offer encouragement for those who might be looking for a thought-stimulating “pleasure read,” as well as to describe how these works have been influential in my own life. This will be a good discipline for me, giving me opportunity to ponder and interact with an author’s ideas for awhile instead of just closing the book and moving on to another one as soon as I finish reading. As such, I’ll be focusing mostly on works that I’ve recently read myself. But, every once in a while, I may turn back to highlight one of the deeply formative all-time favorites on my reading list (The Imitation of Christ, Julian's Revelations of Divine Love, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are just a few that come immediately to mind).

For this review, we’ll look at Cicero’s treatise On Friendship (or Laelius). It’s a short read—you can cruise through it in a single evening. And it’s a fine introduction to the thought of Cicero, one of the great orators of Western civilization. In this treatise, Cicero gives us his thoughts on friendship as if from the mouth of Gaius Laelius, reflecting on a long companionship with the late Publius Scipio. Friendship is a theme that I've written about before in this blog (3/20/2009), and I think our culture is in particular need of a reminder about its true nature. Cicero gives us that reminder--not just appealing to the lowest common denominator of the slight mutual affections that all people can relate to, but pointing us toward a kind of friendship that is exceedingly rare and unbelievably precious.

He begins with what might seem at first glance like an indefensible statement: "Friendship can only exist between good men" (I:5). Well, we all know bad men who appear to have friends. But that's not the kind of friendship he's talking about. In the post I wrote a year ago on friendship, I outlined three basic levels of friendship, and the highest, what I called "soul friendship" or "true friendship," is the sole aim of Cicero's treatise. Lower levels of friendship--mere common affection or acquaintances, which unfortunately compose the sum of most of our culture's friendships--only earn a few mentions in this treatise.

For Cicero, friendship can only exist between good people because friendship is intimately tied to virtue. It's only in people who have learned to tame their natural, self-interested impulses that true friendship can thrive. So many of what we normally think of as friendships are either tainted by self-interest (i.e., what we can get out of it, or how the relationship makes us feel) or by a lack of love for the other person. But we should not be content with that. There is a higher level of friendship that we can aspire to, and if we reach it, then we have tasted that thing of which "the immortal gods have given us nothing better or more delightful" (II:13). It is only in virtuous people, unbound by selfishness and thus independent from the need of flattery or consolations from others, that this level of friendship can flourish. It is virtue itself that draws two like-minded friends together, "on our finding some one person with whose character and nature we are in full sympathy, because we think that we perceive in him what I may call the beacon-light of virtue. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue" (II:8).

That's not to say that lower forms of friendship aren't valuable. Few of us (if any) have attained such heights of virtue yet as to have no trace of self-interest in our friendships. But Cicero gives us a wonderful goal to shoot for--a relationship that is "the most valuable and beautiful furniture of life" (II:15), in which there is "no satiety--the older the sweeter, as in wines that keep well" (III:19). Or in my own words, taken from my earlier blog-post: "Soul-friendships are immeasurably rich and transformative--havens of peace and loyalty, strength and honor, adventure and joy."

But how do we get there? That's the crucial question. It's not that people in our culture don't want those rich, deeply satisfying relationships--it's that they don't know how to find them, or if they're even possible at all. And here Cicero hits the nail on the head: "Most people unreasonably want such a friend as they are unable to be themselves, and expect from their friends what they do not themselves give. The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character" (III:22). If Americans could get this one truth worked into their relationships, we would see a much less broken society around us. To find a virtuous friend, first be a virtuous person. To find a loyal and loving spouse, first become a loyal and loving person. Then we would understand better who we are ourselves, and not ask our friends and spouses to be something that not even we can measure up to.

But virtue isn't merely the prerequisite of friendship--once established, friendship is also the rich soil that can carry your character into regions of virtue hitherto unattainable. It is in communion with others, not alone, that we become good. "Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another" (III:22). This is why mentoring relationships and accountability partnerships and close friendships are so important to Christian discipleship--it's in those dynamics that virtue grows best.

I was drawn to read Cicero's thoughts on friendship, partly because I've had richly rewarding relationships on the past that had potential to grow into covenants of virtue and affection, and partly because I find myself in a new place now, without any old friends around me. (Rachel and I, of course, are good friends, but the truth is that a man will find his life impoverished without a male friend, and a woman will find her life impoverished without a female friend--the marriage relationship, as wonderful as it is, was never meant to be independent and all-sufficient.) Having tasted just a hint of what such a friendship can be like, I'm finding myself on the lookout now for just such a friend. And by God's grace, I'm sure I'll find one.

I've sketched out the main points of Cicero's treatise that hit home to me; but there are many other chords he strikes along the way--if you've read this far in my post, you probably owe it to Cicero to read his thoughts for yourself. I leave you with this quote, from his conclusion, which bears echoes of Paul's famous line from 1 Cor. 13: "Make up your minds to this: Virtue (without which Friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship" (III:27).


Ben said...

Grateful for your friendship, Matt! I'm always challenged and inspired when you share your deep thoughts about life, faith, and relationships.

Vale, amicus meus!

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