Michele Pinto: “Friendship: A Natural And Necessary Desire”

Article By Michele Pinto:

Inspired by the considerations on the Epicurean friendship of Phillp Mithis in the book “The Ethical Theory of Epicurus – The pleasures of Invulnerability,” I want to summarize the thought of Epicurus on friendship, trying to use his own words as much as possible, and adding mine where necessary. I am indebted to Carlo Diano because his thematic collection of Epicurus’s maxims was essential. The first Epicurean festival, whose general theme was about friendship, was also very useful. I thank all the speakers. You can read these considerations in English thanks to the valuable work of Cassius.

At first glance, Epicurus would seem an austere sage who lives withdrawn in his garden and lost in his thoughts and his pleasures. Every person who comes to visit him or ask him for advice would seem to be disturbing, especially when we hear him say: “The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.” (U 209) or “Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits, as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm.“(VS 46) or “If your enemy makes a request to you, do not scorn his request; but keep on your guard; for he is like a dog.” (U 215). Perhaps it is no coincidence that in his masterpiece, the Letter to Meneceus, he never speaks of friendship.

And that’s not all! The teacher of the garden goes so far as to say that friendship is born of profit. As if to say: I would gladly be alone, but I need friends. These friends, however, should keep to a safe distance: “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as it is the confidence of their help.” (VS 34).

What does Epicurus need from friends? Probably protection from the reverses of life: “The same knowledge that makes one confident that nothing dreadful is eternal or long-lasting also recognizes, in the face of these limited evils, the security afforded by friendship.” (PD 28). But the friend is also an example and a guide: “We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.” (U 210) and “Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself; and with a companion like to yourself, and never shall you be disturbed waking or asleep, but you shall live like a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal blessings is not like unto a mortal being.” (Letter to Meneceus).

At this point an austere sage who would live in solitude in a garden would realize something: Those people who were kept at a distance and admitted to the garden only out of necessity may become a source of pleasure. “Every friendship is worth choosing for its own sake, though it takes its origin from the benefits.” (VS 23). More! These people become pleasures in themselves when they become friends. The friend is not only a tool of pleasure by responding to our need for security or to our need for wisdom, but his very presence is itself a source of pleasure. Indeed, it is not presence that gives pleasure, the mere existence of a friend is sufficient. The thought of having someone you can rely on to share philosophical research is already a source of joy.

We can therefore try to make a portrait of a friend in the view of Epicurus. “Most beautiful too is the sight of those near and dear to us, when our original kinship makes us of one mind; for such sight is great incitement to this end.” (VS 61) The wise man is also willing to leave his own garden to meet people who are like-minded to him, with whom to share his ideas. But it is not strictly necessary to be too demanding if the friend does not share our every thought. What matters is coming together, but here too Epicurus sets limits. Not everyone can be friends of the wise man. “I never desired to please the rabble. What pleased them, I did not learn; and what I knew was far removed from their understanding.” (U 187) and “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.“(U 208)

In short: “We must not approve either those who are always ready for friendship, or those who hang back, but for friendship’s sake we must run risks.” (VS 28) Epicurus recommends a fair balance in friendship, without exaggerating either in opening or closing. When you bind yourself to a friend, you make yourself vulnerable in some way.

Even the two natures of friendship seem to be in equilibrium: “He is no friend who is continually asking for help, nor he who never associates help with friendship. For the former barters kindly feeling for a practical return, and the latter destroys the hope of good in the future.” (VS 39)

The security we seek from friendship is a value to be preserved, and it is valid, it must necessarily be valid, on both sides: “Let us show our feeling for our lost friends, not by lamentation, but by meditation.” (VS 66). The trust Epicurus has towards friendship must be total and absolute, otherwise it would become useless for security purposes. Thus he reaches poetic peaks, because we do not want concrete help but serenity of mind from friendship: “The wise man feels no more pain, when being tortured himself than when his friend is tortured. On occasion a man will die for his friend, for if he betrays his friend, his whole life will be confounded by distrust and completely upset.” (VS 56 and 57). We want the certainty of help in the remote case that we need help, because “The wise man, when he has accommodated himself to straits, knows better how to give than to receive, so great is the treasure of self-sufficiency which he has discovered.” (VS 44).

Whoever has a child can understand what Epicurus means when he says that he feels someone else’s suffering as his own. But even in this case, friendship can bring a new source of pleasure: the knowledge that the friend is happy because the idea of envy is completely foreign. “We must envy no one, for the good do not deserve envy, and the bad, the more they prosper, the more they injure themselves.“(VS 53)

But the pleasure of a friend’s company is also essential. Epicurus recommends, “You should be more concerned about inspecting whom you eat and drink with, than what you eat and drink. For feeding without a friend is the life of a lion and a wolf.” (U 542) Further: “Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.” (PD 27)

Epicurus travelled to friends, and wrote letters such as these: “I am quite ready, if you do not come to see me, to spin thrice on my own axis and be propelled to any place that you, including Themista, agree upon.” (U 125), “The way in which you have provided for me in the matter of sending the grain was godlike and magnificent, and you have given tokens of your regard for me that reach to high heaven.” (U 183).

Epicurus and his friends worked to build a network of relations throughout Greece, so much so that the wise man of the Garden came to sing: “Friendship dances around the world, bidding us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness!” (VS 52).

Friendship is therefore an essential ingredient in the recipe of happiness, so much so that Epicurus no longer speaks of the happiness of the wise, but of the happiness of the community of friends: “As many as possess the power to procure complete immunity from their neighbours, these also live most pleasantly with one another, since they have the most certain pledge of security, and, after they have enjoyed the fullest intimacy, they do not lament the previous departure of a dead friend, as though he were to be pitied.” (PD 40) and “The noble soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship; of these, the one is a mortal good, the other immortal.” (SV 78).

Friendship, therefore, in addition to being at the center of the life of the wise man, goes beyond his own life, not only because: “The memory of a dead friend is pleasant on every count.” (U 213). We read some of the last words written by Epicurus, the letter he sent to Idomeneus at the point of death: “On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus.” (U 138)

Once dead, Epicurus will no longer care about the children of his close friend Metrodorus, because his soul and his thoughts will be dissolved with his body. But on his last day, knowing that they will have no one to take care of them after he is gone, gives him a terrible pain – worse than his diseased bladder and ulcerated stomach. But friendship intervenes. The certainty that his friend Idomeneus will take care of them, with the same love with which he took care of them, allows Epicurus to live happily, albeit in pain, on his last day.

Friendship is therefore for Epicurus a natural and necessary good, both for the body and for the soul; both for survival, because it responds to the need for security, and for happiness, because it responds to the need not to feel alone.

The quotations from Epicurus are taken from the Vatican Sentences (SV), from the Principal Doctrines (PD), from the Usener Collection (U), and from the Letter to Meneceus.

Translations of the Usener quotations are those of Attalas.org (http://www.attalus.org/translate/epicurus.html). Translations noted as SV, PD, and the letter to Menoeceus are those of Cyril Bailey (as collected here: https://www.epicureanfriends.com/wcf/index.php?texts/) except SV23, which is the Epicurus Reader translation.