In 44 BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote about friendship. He was inspired by Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who also wrote on the topic, but Cicero’s guide has been influential since the time he put pen to paper.
Through a fictional setting in a garden in 129 BCE, Cicero tells us the story of a conversation between Roman general and orator, Gaius Laelius and his two sons-in-law, Gaius Fannius and Quintus Mucius Scaevola. In the story, Laelius is mourning his best friend, Scipio Africanus, who died a few days before the conversation took place. The sons-in-law ask Laelius to tell them what Laelius learned about friendship over the years.
Cicero heard the story many years later from Scaevola, who was one of Cicero’s teachers. Cicero wrote it down for his friend Atticus and for us, two thousand years later, about the nature of friendship.
“How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship,” or De Amicitia in Latin, is filled with heartfelt advice as relevant today as it was when Cicero wrote it.
Translator Philip Freeman noted ten of the best pieces of advice in the book in his introduction. Number four is my personal favorite.
“Friends make you a better person: No one can thrive in isolation. Left on our own, we will stagnate and become unable to see ourselves as we are. A true friend will challenge you to become better because he appreciates the potential inside you.”
I have had to learn some hard lessons when it comes to true and honest friendship over the years. The book gave me a lot to ponder about who it is I would like to be in my life, influencing me for the positive, and generally accepting me as I am instead of who they want me to be.
“How to Be a Friend” is an easy read. You can finish in a day, but it will keep you thinking for a long time after you put the book down. The following are some key points for me from the book along with examples I thought of while reading.
53. It’s said that when Tarquin [the last king of Rome] went into exile, he confessed that it was only then he knew which of his friends were faithful and which were not, since he was no longer able to reward anyone.
Now, Tarquin was a jerk. He was arrogant and cruel, so one could wonder if his friends ever were true or were there for whatever advantage they could get.
When I read this passage, I stopped reading and began reassessing my own failed friendships. I questioned myself as to whether I was as cruel and arrogant. When satisfied I had honestly answered no, I began to wonder why some people acted as my friends, but have since disappeared.
When I worked at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, I had many friends. They would ask me out to eat, text, and chat. Some of the relationships were truly business ones and I never expected more, but there were a few that felt like more. It has been nearly a year since I left the newspaper and several people who acted as friends have disappeared.
I was, indeed, in a sort of position that Tarquin was in. I wasn’t an ass, but I was in a position of power to get their stories out to a wider audience for free, which was advantageous to them. I respect the people who were upfront about it. After all, there is a give and take between journalists and people behind the story. We know what is expected and you get on with it.
It’s the relationships that build themselves up to be something they aren’t, but you don’t realize it until they are over that get to you. This didn’t just happen at the Star-Herald. I’ve had it happen a couple of times in regular life. Twice in the past two years, I have helped a friend with a personal crisis, but, when the crisis was over they disappeared. They didn’t want to deal with or listen to me because my mental health issues aren’t something that will be fixed in a couple of months.
69. It is especially important to treat friends of a lower rank as equals. Often in friendships one person will stand out above the others, as Scipio did in what I would call our little flock.
But never did he treat Philus or Rupilius or Mummius or any of his friends of inferior rank as less important than himself. Even his brother Quintus Maximus — a fine fellow in his own way, though not equal to Scipio — he held as his superior because he was older. Scipio also always tried to improve the prospects of his friends by his association with him.
Most of my friends are wealthier than me. They were when I met them and they continue to be for a variety of reasons. In the years I have been friends with them, money has ever mattered.
About fifteen years ago when my cable modem was wonky and about to die, I told my friend, Bas, I would probably have to go back to handwriting letters to him in The Netherlands. I had to save up for a new modem. The next day, I had a new one. Bas didn’t do it because he was rich or to hold it over me. He did it because he wanted to keep in touch with his friend.
When Bas got married, he told me he wouldn’t get married if I couldn’t come. I never questioned whether he was serious about that statement. I’ve always assumed it was true.
At dinner after the wedding, I sat next to one of his friends. Apparently, Bas had a conversation with his friends, who were also wealthier than me, before I arrived in The Netherlands and told them if any of them said one bad thing about me or made fun of me he would end their friendship. Bas’ friend wondered why Bas would say such a thing as his friend would never be that cruel. It was really hard for me to sit at the dinner table, keep the conversation going, and not cry.
58. I think that true friendship is something richer and more abundant than that. It doesn’t check the books to see if it’s giving more than it has received; it doesn’t fear that some favor will get lost or overflow and spill onto the ground, or that it’s pouring more into the other’s bowl than it’s getting back.
In the fall of 2018, my therapist notified me she was leaving her practice and I had to transition to a new therapist. I was devastated. I made a Facebook post using binary numbers. Bas and another friend responded back in binary. Both tried to reassure me everything would be fine.
Bas continued the conversation before writing in hexidecimal. I thought, “Dammit, I can’t read hexidecimal,” but I figured it out. He made me smile when I was at my lowest point. He also got my mind distracted so I could clear my head and think rationally.
We eventually switched to English and talked for a long time. Bas didn’t lecture. He listened to his friend, who was in turmoil, and gave gentle, yet firm, advice. At that moment, we were fulfilling point 91 in Cicero’s book and didn’t even know it.
91. To graciously give and receive criticism is the mark of true friendship. You must offer your corrections with kindness, not harshly, and take them patiently, not with reluctance.
Nothing is worse or more destructive among friends than constant flattery, fawning, and affirmation. Call it what you will, it is the mark of a weak and false-hearted man to tell you anything to please you except the truth.
In the twenty-seven years I have known Bas, we have never felt a need to “check the books.” We help each other when we can and never keep a running total of who did what. We have never owed a favor to the other.
We are friends because the rewards we receive are the friendship itself. It benefits us both and makes us each a better person. There is no final score. There is no thinking one person is better than the other. We are simply friends sharing our lives and wisdom with each other.
Though we live thousands of miles away from each other in different countries and have different socio-economic status, none of that has ever mattered. We always walk away from a visit having learned something new and appreciating each other more.
I have a small, handful of other friends who are trustworthy and good, but as I read Cicero’s account of friendship, my friendship with Bas continued to pop up in words written more than two thousand years ago. To you, Bas, 54 68 61 6e 6b 73 20 66 6f 72 20 62 65 69 6e 67 20 6d 79 20 66 72 69 65 6e 64.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an expensive but important call to make.