Socrates on Friendship

These selections are taken from The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon.


I remember likewise a discourse which I have heard him make concerning friendship, and that may be of great use to instruct us by what means we ought to procure ourselves friends, and in what manner we should live with them.  He said “that most men agree that a true friend is a precious treasure, and that nevertheless there is nothing about which we give ourselves so little trouble as to make men our friends.  We take care,” said he, “to buy houses, lands, slaves, flocks, and household goods, and when we have them we endeavour to keep them, but though a friend is allowed to be capable of affording us a far greater happiness than any or all of these, yet how few are solicitous to procure themselves a friend, or, when they have, to secure his friendship?  Nay, some men are so stupid as to prefer their very slaves to their friends.  How else can we account for their want of concern about the latter when either in distress or sickness, and at the same time their extreme anxiety for the recovery of the former when in the same condition?  For then immediately physicians are sent for, and all remedies that can be thought of applied to their relief.  Should both of them happen to die, they will regret more the loss of their slave than of their friend, and shed more tears over the grave of the former than of the latter.  They take care of everything but their friends; they will examine into and take great notice of the smallest trifle in their affairs, which perhaps stand in no need of their care, but neglect their friends that do.  In short, though they have many estates, they know them all; but though they have but few friends, yet they know not the number of them; insomuch that if they are desired to name them, they are puzzled immediately, so little are their friends in their thoughts.  Nevertheless, there is nothing comparable to a good friend; no slave is so affectionate to our person or interest; no horse can render us so great service; in a word, nothing is so useful to us in all occasions.  For a true friend supplies all the wants and answers all the demands of another, either in the conduct of his private affairs or in the management of the public.  If, for instance, his friend be obliged to do a kindness to any man, he puts him in the way of it; if he be assaulted with any danger he immediately flies to his relief.  At one time he gives him part of his estate, at another he assists him with the labour of his hands; sometimes he helps him to persuade, sometimes he aids him to compel; in prosperity he heightens his delight by rejoicing with him; in adversity he diminisheth his sorrows by bearing a share of them.  The use a man may make of his hands, his eyes, his ears, his feet, is nothing at all when compared with the service one friend may render another.  For often what we cannot do for our own advantage, what we have not seen, nor thought, nor heard of, when our own interests were concerned, what we have not pursued for ourselves, a friend has done for his friend.  How foolish were it to be at so much trouble in cultivating a small orchard of trees, because we expect some fruit from it, and yet be at no pains to cultivate that which is instead of a whole estate—I mean Friendship—a soil the most glorious and fertile where we are sure to gather the fairest and best of fruit!”


To what I have advanced above I shall here relate another discourse of his, as far as I can remember, in which he exhorted his hearers to examine themselves, that they might know what value their friends might set upon them; for seeing a man who had abandoned his friend in extreme poverty, he asked Antisthenes this question in presence of that very man and several others: “Can we set a price upon friends as we do upon slaves?  One slave may be worth twenty crowns, another not worth five; such a one will cost fifty crowns, another will yield a hundred.  Nay, I am told that Nicias, the son of Niceratus, gave even six hundred crowns for one slave to be inspector of his silver mines.  Do you think we might likewise set prices upon friends?”  “I believe we may,” answered Antisthenes; “for there are some men by whom I would rather choose to be loved than to have twenty crowns; others for whose affection I would not spend five.  I know some, too, for whose friendship I would p. 76give all I am worth.”  “If it be so,” said Socrates, “it would be well that each man should consider how much he can be worth to his friends, and that he should endeavour to render himself as valuable as he can in their regard, to the end they might not abandon him; for when I hear one complain that his friend has betrayed him; another that he, whom he thought faithful, has preferred a small gain to the preservation of his friendship, I reflect on these stories, and ask whether, as we sell a good-for-nothing slave for what we can get for him, we are not likewise tempted to get rid of an ill-friend when we are offered more for him than he is worth? because I do not see men part with their slaves if they be good, nor abandon their friends if they be faithful.”


The following conversation of Socrates with Critobulus may teach us how we ought to try friends, and with whom it is good to contract friendship:—“If we were to choose a friend,” said Socrates to him, “what precaution ought we to take?  Ought we not to look out for a man who is not given to luxury, to drunkenness, to women, nor to idleness?  For with these vices he could never be very useful to his friend nor to himself.”  “That is certain,” answered Critobulus.  “Then,” said Socrates, “if we found a man that loved to live great, though he had not an estate to support the expense, and who having daily occasion to employ the purses of his friends should show by his actions that whatever you lend him is so much lost, and that if you do not lend him he will take it ill of you, do you not think that such a man would be very improper to make a friend of?”  “There is no doubt of it,” said Critobulus.  “And if we found another,” continued Socrates, “who was saving of what he had, but who, on the other hand, was so covetous that it would be quite unfit to have anything to do with him, because he would always be very ready to receive and never to give again?”  “In my opinion,” said Critobulus, “this would be a worse friend than the former.  And if we should find a man who was so carried away with the desire of enriching himself that he applied his mind to nothing else, but getting all he could scrape together?”  “We ought not to have anything to do with him neither,” answered Critobulus, “for he would be good to no man but himself.”  “If we found a quarrelsome man,” continued Socrates, “who was every day like to engage all his friends in new broils and squabbles, what would you think of him?”  “That he ought to be avoided,” answered Critobulus.  “And if a man,” said Socrates, “were free from all these faults, and were only of a humour to desire to receive kindnesses, but never to concern himself to return them, what would you think of him?”  “That neither he, too, would be proper to make a friend of,” replied Critobulus; “and indeed, after having rejected so many, I can scarce tell whom we should take.”  “We ought to take,” said Socrates, “a man who were the reverse of all those we have mentioned, who would be temperate in his manners, faithful in his promises, and sincere in all his actions; who would think it a point of honour not to be outdone in civilities so that it would be of advantage to have to do with him.”  “But how can we be certain of all this,” said Critobulus, “before we have tried him?”  “When we would give our judgment of statuaries, we have no regard,” replied Socrates, “to what they say of themselves, but consider their works; and he who has already made good statues is the person of whom we have the best opinion for those he shall make for the future.  Apply this to the question you asked me, and be assured that a man who has served his former friends well will be likely to show no less affection for those that come after; as we may strongly conjecture that a groom, whom we have formerly seen dress horses very well, is capable of dressing others.”  “But,” said Critobulus, “when we have found a man worthy of our choice, how ought we to contract a friendship with him?”  “In the first place,” answered Socrates, “we must inquire whether the gods approve of it.”  “But supposing they do not dissuade us, how are we to take this precious prey?”  “Not by hunting, as we catch hares,” said Socrates; “nor in nets, as we take birds, nor by force, as we take our enemies; for it is very difficult to gain any man’s friendship against his will, or stop him by force, and detain him in prison as a slave, seeing such ill-usage would oblige him rather to wish us ill than to love us.”  “What, then, ought we to do?” pursued Critobulus.  “It is reported,” replied Socrates, “that there are some words so powerful that they who know them make themselves loved by pronouncing them, and that there are likewise other charms for the same purpose.”  “And where can one learn these words?” added Critobulus.  “Have you not read in Homer,” answered Socrates, “what the Syrens said to enchant Ulysses?  The beginning of it is thus—

‘Oh, stay! oh, pride of Greece, Ulysses, stay!’

“You say true,” continued Critobulus; “but did not they say as much to the others, to stop them too?”  “Not at all,” said Socrates, “they enchanted with these words only the generous men who were in love with virtue.”  “I begin to understand you,” said Critobulus, “and seeing this charm, which is so powerful to enchant and captivate the mind, is nothing but praise, you mean that we ought to praise a man in such a manner that he may not distrust we laugh at him; otherwise, instead of gaining his affection, we shall incur his hate; for it would be insupportable to a man, who knows he is little and weak, to be praised for his graceful appearance, for being well-shaped, and of a robust constitution.”  “But do you know no other charms?”  “No,” answered Socrates; “but I have indeed heard it said, that Pericles knew a great many, by means of which he charmed the Republic, and gained the favour and esteem of all.”  Critobulus continued, “What was it that Themistocles did to make himself so esteemed?”  “He used no other charms,” said Socrates, “than the eminent services he rendered to the State.”  “Which is as much as to say,” replied Critobulus, “that to gain the friendship of the great, we must render ourselves capable to perform great actions.”

“And could you think it possible,” said Socrates, “that any one should share in the friendship of men of merit without being possessed of one good quality?”  “Why not?” answered Critobulus; “I have seen despicable rhetoricians beloved by the most famous orators, and persons who knew nothing of war live in familiarity with great generals.”  “But have you seen men who are fit for nothing (for that is the question we speak of) get any friends of consequence?”  “I confess I have not,” answered Critobulus; “nevertheless, since it is impossible for a man of no worth whatever to have the friendship of men of condition and merit, tell me whether the man who acquires the character of worth and merit obtains, at the same time, the friendship of all who possess that excellent character?”  “The reason, I suppose, why you ask this question,” answered Socrates, “is because you frequently observe dissensions among those who equally cherish honour, and would all of them rather die than commit a base action; and you are surprised, that instead of living in friendship, they disagree among themselves, and are sometimes more difficult to reconcile than the vilest of all man.”  “This is a misfortune,” added Critobulus, “that arrives not among private men only; for dissensions, nay, even wars, will happen sometimes, to break out in the best-governed republics, where virtue is in the highest repute, and where vice is held in the utmost contempt.  Now, when I revolve these considerations in my mind, I know not where to go in search of friends; for it is impossible, we see, for the wicked to cultivate a true friendship among themselves.  Can there subsist a true and lasting friendship amongst the ungrateful, the idle, the covetous, the treacherous, and the dissolute?  No, for persons of such a character will mutually expose themselves to hatred and contempt; to hatred, because of the hurtful effects of their vices; to contempt, on account of the deformity of them.  Neither, on the other hand, can we expect, as you have well observed, to find friendship between a virtuous man and a person of the opposite character.  For how can they who commit crimes be in good amity with those that abhor them?  But what puzzles me most, my dear Socrates, is to see men of merit and virtue harassing one another, and endeavouring, to the utmost of their power, to crush and ruin their antagonists, when, in different interests, both are contending for the most lucrative posts of the Republic.  I am quite at a loss to account for such a conduct on the principles of friendship; for when I daily observe the noblest affections of the mind rooted up by the sordid views of interest, I am in a great doubt whether there is any real friendship and affection in the world.”  “My dear friend,” replied Socrates, “this matter is very intricate; for, if I mistake not, Nature has placed in men the principles both of friendship and dissension.  Of friendship, because they have need of one another, they have compassion of their miseries, they relieve one another in their necessities, and they are grateful for the assistances which they lend one another: of dissension, because one and the same thing being agreeable to many they contend to have it, and endeavour to prejudice and thwart one another in their designs.  Thus strife and anger beget war, avarice stifles benevolence, envy produces hate.  But friendship overcoming all these difficulties, finds out the virtuous, and unites them together.  For, out of a motive of virtue they choose rather to live quietly in a mean condition, than to gain the empire of the whole earth by the calamities of war.  When they are pinched with hunger or thirst, they endure them with constancy, till they can relieve themselves without being troublesome to any one.  When at any time their desires for the enjoyments of love grow violent and headstrong, then reason, or self-government, lays hold on the reins, checks the impetuosity of the passion, keeps it within due bounds, and will not allow them to transgress the great rule of their duty.  They enjoy what is lawfully their own, and are so far from usurping the rights and properties of others, that they even give them part of what they have.  They agree their differences in such a manner, that all are gainers, and no man has reason to complain.  They are never transported with anger so far as to commit any action of which they may afterwards repent.  Envy is a passion they are ignorant of, because they live in a mutual communication of what they possess, and consider what belongs to their friends as things in their own possession.  From hence you see that the virtuous do not only not oppose, but that they aid one another in the employments of the Republic; for they who seek for honours and great offices, only to have an opportunity of enriching themselves, and exercising a cruel tyranny, or to live an easy and effeminate life, are certainly very wicked and unjust, nor can they ever hope to live in friendship with any man.

“But why should he who desires not any authority, but only the better to defend himself from the wicked, or to assist his friends, or be serviceable to his country; why should such a man, I say, not agree with another, whose intentions are the same with his own?  Is it because he would be less capable to serve the Republic, if he had virtuous associates in the administration of affairs?  If, in the tournaments and other games, the most strong were permitted to enter into a league against the weaker, they would infallibly be victors in all the courses, and win all the prizes; for which reason they are not suffered to do so.  Therefore, in affairs of State, since no man is hindered from joining with whom he pleases, to do good to the Republic, is it not more advantageous, when we concern ourselves in the government, to make friendship with men of honour and probity, who are generally, too, the most knowing and capable, and to have them for our associates than to make them our adversaries?  For it is manifest, that when a man is engaged in a combat, he ought to have some to assist him, and that he will have need of a great many, if those whom he opposes be valiant and powerful.  Besides, he must be liberal, and give presents to those who espouse his quarrel, to encourage them to make a more resolute and vigorous defence.  Now, it is beyond all dispute, that it is much better to oblige the good, though they are but a few, than the wicked, of whom there is a great number, because the former are easily gained over to your side; whereas the latter are hardly won by the best favours, and those in the greatest abundance, too, to espouse your interest.

“However it be, Critobulus, take courage, endeavour only to become virtuous, and then boldly pursue the friendship of honest men; this is a sort of chase in which I may be helpful to you, because I am naturally inclined to love.  I attack briskly those I love, and lay out all my skill to make myself beloved by them.  I endeavour to kindle in their minds a flame like mine, and to make them desire my company, as ardently as I long for theirs.  You stand in need of this address when you would contract a friendship with any one.  Hide not, then, the secrets of your soul from me, but let me know who they are for whom you have a regard: for, having made it my study to please those who were agreeable to me, I believe that, by long experience, I have now got some considerable insight into the pursuits and ways of men.”  “I have longed a great while,” said Critobulus, “to learn this art, especially if it may be employed to gain me the friendship of those whose persons are not only comely and genteel, but whose minds are replenished and adorned with all virtue.”  Socrates replied: “But my method forbids to use violence, and I am of opinion that all men fled from the wretch Scylla, because she detained them by force: whereas the Syrens did no violence to any man, and employed only their tuneful voices to detain those who passed near them, so that all stopped to hear, and suffered themselves to be insensibly charmed by the music of their songs.”  “Be sure,” said Critobulus, “that I will use no violence to them whose friendship I would gain, and therefore delay no longer to teach me your art.”  “Will you give me your word likewise,” said Socrates, “that you will not even give them a kiss?”  “I promise you,” said Critobulus, “I will not, unless they are very beautiful persons.”  “You mistake the matter,” replied Socrates; “the beautiful permit not those liberties; but the ugly grant them freely enough, because they know very well that should any beauty be ascribed to them, it is only in consideration of that of the soul.”  “I will not transgress in this point,” said Critobulus; “only impart to me the secret you know to gain friends.”

“When you would contract a friendship with any one,” said Socrates, “you must give me leave to tell him that you have a great esteem for him, and that you desire to be his friend.”  “With all my heart,” answered Critobulus; “for sure no man can wish ill to a man who esteems him.”  “And if I add besides,” continued Socrates, “that because you set a great value on his merit you have much affection for his person, will you not take it amiss?”  “Not at all,” said Critobulus; “for I am sensible we have a great kindness for those who bear us goodwill.”  “I may, then,” said Socrates, “speak in that manner to those whom you desire to love: but will you likewise give me leave to advance that your greatest pleasure is to have good friends, that you take great care of them, that you behold their good actions with as much joy as if you yourself had performed them, and that you rejoice at their good fortune as much as at your own: that you are never weary when you are serving them, and that you believe it the glory of a man of honour to surpass his friends in benefits, and his enemies in valour?  By this means I think I shall be very useful to you in procuring you good friends.”  “Why do you ask me leave,” said Critobulus, “as if you might not say of me whatever you please?”  “No, indeed,” answered Socrates, “for I remember what Aspasia once said, that match-makers are successful in their business when they tell truth of the persons in whose behalf they court, but that the marriages made by their lies are unfortunate, because they who are deceived hate one another, and hate yet more the person that put them together.  And therefore, for the same reason, I think I ought not to tell lies in your praise.”  “You are then so far only my friend,” replied Critobulus, “that if I have any good qualities to make myself be esteemed, you will assist me; if not, you will invent nothing in my behalf.”  “And do you think,” said Socrates, “that I should do you more service in giving you false praises, that are not your due, than by exhorting you to merit the praise of all men?  If you doubt of this, consider the consequences of it.  If, for instance, I should tell the owner of a ship that you are an excellent pilot, and he upon that should give you the conduct of the vessel, what hopes could you have that you should not perish?  Or if I should say, publicly, that you are an experienced general, or a great politician, and if you, by that character which I should unjustly have obtained for you, should be promoted to the supreme magistracy, to what dangers would you expose your own life, and the fortune of the State?  Or if I should make any private person believe that you were a good economist, and he should trust you afterwards with the care of his family, would not you be the ruin of his estate, and expose yourself to ridicule and contempt?  Which is as much as to say, Critobulus, that the shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be: and if you observe, you will find that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice and experience of them.  Take my advice, then, and labour to acquire them: but if you are of a different opinion, pray let me know it.”  “I might well be ashamed,” answered Critobulus, “to contradict you: for no good nor solid objection can be brought against so rational an assertion.”

The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon on Project Gutenberg


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