Lessons on Friendship from 44 BC

Yong Yang
3 min readJun 19, 2021

A Roman Philosopher’s Advice

Photo by Dương Hữu on Unsplash

In my previous article, I highlighted the need to live with ourselves. Nevertheless, we also have to keep friendships whilst maintaining a distance from one another.

Living in a world where social media, online relationships challenges the very idea of deep and enduring bonds, the search for true friends is all the more important.

Fortunately, Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia (On Friendship), written in 44 BC, offers us a compelling guide to finding and preserving true friendships.

We shall explore his wit and wisdom below.

1. Never avoid friendship to avoid suffering

Granted, we all have problems to deal with every day. As our friends share their problems with us, we are sometimes emotionally charged. Pain shall befall us.

Therefore, we should free ourselves of such distress by removing friendships.

This notion sounds enticing at first, but in truth it is to be ignored.

Cicero rejected the idea categorically by arguing that this only occurs in those whose feelings have disappeared:

If you take emotion away, what difference is there, not I say between a human being and a beast, but between a living person and a tree trunk or a rock or some such thing?

2. We should choose our friends with care

True friendships stand the test of time.

Giving ourselves time to slowly uncover what lies deep in a person’s heart before committing yourself that real friendships ask for.

“Don’t love too quickly and don’t give your friendship to those unworthy of it.

“Those worthy to be your friends are those who have within themselves reasons to be loved — a rare type, but then everything precious is rare.”

— Cicero

3. Only good people can be true friends

Individuals with despicable character can have friends but only on the grounds of utility.

Even if such friendship exists, it will be a fleeting one.

Trust, wisdom and kindness, qualities not present in base people, engender true friendships.

“For virtue itself gives birth to friendship and nourishes it, so that without virtue friendship is not not able to exist.”

— Cicero

4. Friends make us better people

A true friend also points out our blind spot barriers and challenge our biases and assumptions. He appreciates who you are and believe the potential inside you.

“True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.”

— Cicero

Cicero also cautioned that a true friend should not be a flatterer:

For flattery is unworthy not only of a friend, but of any free person; living with a friend should not be like living with a tyrant.

5. The reward of friendship is friendship itself

Strong friendships are built upon mutual love through giving and receiving kindness, companionship and caring for each other without putting one’s needs and advantage first.

It is not about fulfilling the need of another as Cicero says:

Real friendship cannot be the child of poverty and need. If this were true, the less people had, the better their qualifications for friendship would be. But this is far from the truth.

He also says:

Friendship doesn’t result from advantage, but advantage results from friendship.

All You Need To Know:

  • Never avoid friendship to avoid suffering
  • We should choose our friends with care
  • Only good people can be true friends
  • Friends make us better people
  • The reward of friendship is friendship itself

Without friends, life is not worth living.

The following quote from Cicero is surely a food for thought on the significance of friendships:

Suppose a god carried you far away to a place where you were granted an abundance of every material good nature could wish for, but denied the possibility of ever seeing a human being. Wouldn’t you have to be as hard as iron to endure that sort of life? Wouldn’t you, utterly alone, lose every capacity for joy and pleasure?

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