Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Little Cicero, and Why Even Bad Friendships Might Be a Little Good

But I must at the very beginning lay down this principle - friendship can only exist between good men. I do not, however, press this too closely, like the philosophers who push their definitions to a superfluous accuracy. They have truth on their side, perhaps, but it is of no practical advantage. Those, I mean, who say that no one but the "wise" is "good." Granted, by all means. But the "wisdom" they mean is one to which no mortal ever yet attained. We must concern ourselves with the facts of everyday life as we find it - not imaginary and ideal perfections. Even Gaius Fannius, Manius Curius, and Tiberius Coruncanius, whom our ancestors decided to be "wise," I could never declare to be so according to their standard. Let them, then, keep this word "wisdom" to themselves. Everybody is irritated by it; no one understands what it means. Let them but grant that the men I mentioned were "good." No, they won't do that either. No one but the "wise" can be allowed that title, say they. Well, then, let us dismiss them and manage as best we may with our own poor mother wit, as the phrase is.
- Cicero, De Amicitiae, I.5

The principle here is that only good people can be friends. Strictly speaking, this must be false. If Hitler spends a lot of time together with Joe, if they enjoy one other’s company, if each readily sees the good qualities of the other, if they are prepared to defend one another at some risk to their own personal comfort or well-being, then Hitler and Joe must be friends, no matter how terrible a person Hitler is in other respects. Bad people can be friends.

Maybe Cicero’s (really, the speaker Laelius’) statement of his principle is an imprecise formulation of the view that friendship necessarily consists, at least in part, in treating one’s friends as good people treat one another. Even if it is bad of Joe to treat Hitler as a friend, Joe does treat Hitler, in many respects, as a good person treats another good person. In many instances, it is good, if difficult, to defend somebody else at risk to oneself. In many instances, it is good, if difficult, to be ready to see the good qualities in another person. In many instances, it is good, if difficult, to be happy to be with other people. Even if one picks one’s friends poorly, friendship would seem to be a sort of training ground for treating or dealing with non-friends in these difficult but good ways. This is an empirical proposition – I guess I should look through the social psych literature to see whether it’s true. But if it is, it’s one reason to think that friendship of any sort is, in at least one respect, instrumentally good.

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