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On Friendship - De Amicitia, lessons learnt from Cicero

Among human relationships, friendship is one of the most important but also the most difficult to understand and to define. This is because we are used to give legal status to the most important relationships we have. 

Love relationships are registered as marriage and partnerships. Family relations are well recorded and kept track of through certificates and there is a large legal body that has a normative function to define boundaries and permissions within the family. Motherhood, fatherhood, brotherhood, are not only biological relations but also legal relationships between individuals. The relationship one has with fellow country men and the institutions of a country, is called citizenship. Citizenship is also well regulated and certified. It comes with rights and obligations and it is most often carried through generations.   Even religious devotion or spiritual practice is being catalogued in institutional records. Belonging to a certain country, church, family is documented and can be proven. 

slhouettes of people running inside a moving cylinder

Yet there is one other important human relationship that we have all experienced through different stages of our lives and which we did not create institutions and certificates for. And that is friendship. Sure, one might look at their facebook list of three hundred plus friends and vehemently disagree but I tend to look at the social platforms as a form of indexing one's  acquaintances. The social platforms serve as the new market place to keep track of people's life course. At least their social media life course. And this is a very useful tool to have an easy way to connect with people you have once met. 

However, what I mean by friendship here is that precious meeting of souls that happens between people. The origin of the word friend stands as testimony to the deep connection that it entails.  The English word "friend" comes from the Old English word "frēond," which meant "friend" or "lover." The word can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic root "frijōn," which meant "to love" or "to befriend."

silhouette of women making a heart shape with their hands

The latin languages have a similar conceptual origin for the word friend. In latin,  "Amicus" comes from the Latin verb "amare," which means "to love."  It originally referred to someone who was loved or who loved another, but eventually came to mean specifically a friend. The modern latin languages including French ("ami"), Spanish ("amigo"), and Italian ("amico") often derive the word from friend from the same root. 

In both the germanic and latin language families, the notion of friend and friendship is both etymologically and conceptually connected to a sense of a deep affection and familiarity. 

Yet, these meaningful and transformative relationships are being formed and dissolved ad hoc between people without leaving any specific legal or administrative trace in contrast to how most other important relationships are being regulated. It is precisely this aspect of friendship that makes it a truly personal connection. Since it requires no external validation and book keeping than the people involved feel appropriate. 

It often happens that friendships evolve and transform into romantic, legal, or business partnerships and then they fall under the normative rules prescribed for that specific relation. But pure friendship is a relationship that does not require any class, age, gender prerequisite and it is forged by the shared values and mutual affection of the people involved. 

Friendships cannot be imposed by external actors. Whereas all the other important human relationships have a strong social component, meaning that for the sake of being part of society or gaining status, a marriage, alliance or partnership can be imposed by external factors, true friendship can never be obligatory, and therefore it cannot be institutionalized. One cannot have an arranged true friendship. 

tattooed hands with bird and cage

This makes the friendships we have even more meaningful, since they truly become the vehicles through which we assert our individuality and freedom. We are citizens, employees, devotees, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters to people in a big web of societal restrictions. But we are friends only to the people we chose ourselves and for the reasons we arbitrarily find important. 

One of the most well read and the first translated antique texts is the essay that the roman politician Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus, on friendship. In this letter, Cicero describes what friendship means  and how it is built on loyalty, reciprocity, communication, and mutual respect.

"Friendship cannot exist unless it is founded upon mutual esteem and regard; and these qualities cannot be preserved unless friends are equal."

Cicero also writes that a true friend should not be motivated by self-interest or a desire for personal gain, but rather by a genuine desire to support and uplift their friends. He writes,

"The man who loves requires nothing; the man who is loved does everything he can to fulfill the desires of the one who loves him."

Even when friendship is forged between people of different levels of seniority and social status, the two people must enter the friendship as equals. A friend who placed themselves above others or acts in a self-centered manner is not engaging into a true and lasting friendship. 

The way we find and know who our friends are is through conversation. Conversation refers to the exchange of ideas and thoughts between friends, characterized by a mutual respect for each other's opinions and a willingness to listen and learn from one another.

Cicero emphasizes the importance of conversation in building and maintaining strong friendships. He writes that good conversation is essential to understanding one another's values, interests, and personalities, and that it is through conversation that friends can cultivate trust and deepen their bonds.

According to Cicero, conversations between friends should be honest, respectful, and free of judgment. He also emphasizes the importance of active listening and the need to give one's full attention to the speaker in order to truly understand their perspective.

Conversations can be a powerful tool for transformation, fostering personal growth, building empathy and understanding, facilitating problem-solving, and driving social change. Let us look closer:

  1. Encourage self-reflection: Conversations can help individuals gain a better understanding of their own thoughts, feelings, and values. Through honest and open dialogue, individuals can be challenged to examine their beliefs and attitudes, which can lead to personal growth and transformation.

  2. Build empathy and understanding: When people engage in meaningful conversations, they have the opportunity to learn about perspectives and experiences that differ from their own. This can help to build empathy and understanding, breaking down barriers and fostering greater compassion and connection.

  3. Facilitate problem-solving: Conversations can be used to work through disagreements or conflicts, leading to creative solutions that benefit all parties involved. When people engage in constructive dialogue, they can find common ground and work together to achieve shared goals.

  4. Drive social change: Conversations have the power to challenge dominant narratives and create new ways of thinking about social issues. When people come together to discuss topics such as politics, social justice, or inequality, they can help to bring about meaningful change by raising awareness, building alliances, and mobilizing for action.

As any powerful tool, it can lead to meaningful changes for the better but it can also give the false sense that one of the friends is more enlightened than the other and he is justified in imposing his view as a standard view that defines the friendship. This can have negative effects upon the friendship as a whole. 

Firstly, it can create a power imbalance in the relationship, with one friend assuming a dominant or controlling role in the conversation. This can lead to feelings of resentment and mistrust, as the other friend may feel like their thoughts and feelings are not being given equal consideration.

Secondly, it can lead to a breakdown in communication and a lack of transparency in the friendship. If one friend is attempting to capitalize on the transformative power of conversations, they may not be fully honest or forthcoming with their thoughts and feelings, leading to misunderstandings and miscommunications.

Thirdly, it can undermine the very foundation of the friendship itself. If one friend is solely taking credit for the transformation, it may suggest that they are not valuing the input and contributions of the other friend. This can lead to a breakdown in trust and a sense of betrayal, ultimately damaging the friendship.

It is important for both friends to approach the conversation with openness, honesty, and a willingness to listen and learn from one another. By doing so, they can avoid the pitfalls of power imbalances, lack of transparency, and undermined trust, and instead build a stronger, more meaningful friendship based on mutual respect and understanding.

When this balance cannot be achieved, friendships may sometimes come to an end. Cicero writes,

"Friendships are to be dissolved when their motive is gone."

Friendships represent a meeting of souls, under the right circumstances. Since the relation between friends is mutually enriching, it can only be based on mutual respect, shared values, and a common purpose. If these foundations are lost or eroded over time, it may be difficult to sustain the friendship. 

There are, of course, also external factors, such as distance, politics, or social obligations, which may sometimes lead to the end of a friendship. For whatever reason, a friendship must end, a true friend should always seek to part amicably and with mutual respect, even if the friendship has run its course. He writes,

"A friend must not only be faithful, but must also be graceful in parting." 

Even true friendships may sometimes come to an end, but it is important to maintain a sense of dignity and mutual respect throughout the process.

Friendship and communication are like a dance between partners. Just like in a dance, effective communication requires both partners to be in sync with one another, responding to each other's cues and movements.

children exchanging flowers

In the context of friendship, good communication involves a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Both friends need to be actively engaged and attentive to each other, responding to what the other is saying and adjusting their own responses accordingly. This requires a certain level of trust, vulnerability, and openness, much like a dance between partners who must trust one another and be open to the movements of their partner.

Just as in a dance, there is a give-and-take in the conversation between friends. One friend may lead the conversation for a time, but then it is important for the other friend to have a turn to speak and share their thoughts and feelings. Similarly, in a dance, one partner may take the lead for a time, but then the other partner may have a chance to lead and take the dance in a new direction.

When both partners are fully engaged in the dance, it can be a beautiful and transformative experience. Both partners have the opportunity to learn from each other, grow together. Just like in a dance, friendship requires both partners to be fully present and committed to the process in order to create something truly special.

Friendship is one of the most important human relationships. Even if we cannot show a certificate or registration number for friendship, it has an enriching and transformative effect on our lives and it uniquely gives a sense of meaning, connection, affection and belonging. 


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