Philip Freeman: How to Be a Friend (according to Cicero)

In a world where social media, online relationships, and relentless self-absorption threaten the very idea of deep and lasting friendships, the search for true friends is more important than ever. In this short book, which is one of the greatest ever written on the subject, the famous Roman politician and philosopher Cicero offers a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating friends. With wit and wisdom, Cicero shows us not only how to build friendships but also why they must be a key part of our lives. For, as Cicero says, life without friends is not worth living. Translator Philip Freeman has taken the time to answer some questions about How to be a Friend.

Who was Cicero?

A Roman lawyer, politician, and philosopher who lived in one of the most dangerous places and important times in human history—first-century BC Rome. He was friends and sometimes enemies with Julius Caesar and almost every other key player at the end of the Roman Republic. It was an age of war, revolution, and mass slaughter, yet also a time of amazing creativity. Cicero saw it all and lived long enough to write about it until Marc Antony finally had his head cut off.

What did he write about?

Practically everything. God, religion, sex, greed, growing old—you name it. He was also a key political philosopher. The American founding fathers were huge Cicero fans. In fact, the American government as found in the US Constitution is largely based on the writings of Cicero. But one of his best little works is about the subject of friendship.

Why should we care what Cicero says about friendship? I mean, he lived over two thousand years ago. Surely in an age of social media, all the rules have changed.

Friendship—like all the important things in life—doesn’t change at all as the centuries pass. How people make and communicate with friends may have shifted in some ways, but the crucial role of friendship in our lives never will. We all hunger for the ties we make with friends whether we’re in ancient Rome or a modern California suburb. Without some form of friendship in their lives, most people would wither away and die, spiritually if not physically. We are social creatures who desperately need meaningful connections with others. Cicero is right when he says that life without friends is simply not worth living.

Cicero talks about different kind of friendships. What does he mean?

He says we all by necessity have different types of friendships, each good in its own way. There are friendships of utility such as those we have with our auto mechanic or dentist. You can have hundreds of these in your life. They are an essential part of living in any society in which you must interact with others. But you’re hopefully not going to tell your most intimate secrets to the guy who sells you bagels at the corner shop. Then there are friendships of pleasure, the dozen or more people you enjoy hanging out with at the local pub or in your neighborhood. Finally there are the deepest of friendships you have with only a handful of people—or maybe just one or two—friends you tell everything to and would take a bullet for if necessary. These last sort of friends are what Cicero calls “another self.”

What’s the best way to tell if a person can be a true friend?

Cicero would say look if they’re willing to be honest with you. Not honest in a hurtful way—plenty of people will do that—but honest because they care deeply about you. A true friend will tell you if a boyfriend you’re crazy about is bad news even if you don’t want to hear it. That kind of friend is willing to risk even the friendship for the sake of honesty. If you find friends like that, never let them go.

Can a bad person have friends?

A good way to answer this is to look at the extreme case of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies. He’s a character totally focused on himself who cares nothing about others except how he can use them for his own purposes. Thankfully there are few Voldemorts in the real world, but I imagine all of us know people who seem to use others only for their what they can get from them. These selfish sorts could have friendships of utility, maybe even of pleasure, but never true friendships.

Would Cicero be on Facebook?

I think he would love Facebook. He was an accomplished letter writer, the only social medium of the day. We actually have a collection of many of his letters, especially those he sent to his best friend Atticus who lived far away in Greece. But I think Cicero would draw an important distinction between posting photos of his cat to thousands of followers and intimate interactions with his closest friends, whether written or face-to-face. Cicero would probably say that the social media universe can be a good thing if used properly and terribly harmful to the soul if not.

Philip Freeman is the editor and translator of How to Grow Old, How to Win an Election, and How to Run a Country (all Princeton). He is the author of many books, including Searching for Sappho (Norton) and Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths (Simon & Schuster). He holds the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture at Pepperdine University and lives in Malibu, California.