Would a True Friend Help His Friend Do Something Bad?

Cicero says no:

It must, therefore, be enjoined upon good men that if by any chance they should inadvisedly fall into friendships of this kind, they must not think themselves so bound that they cannot withdraw from friends who are sinning in some important matter of public concern; for wicked men, on the other hand, a penalty must be enacted, and assuredly it will not be lighter for the followers than for the leaders in treason. Who was more eminent in Greece than Themistocles, who more powerful? But he, after having saved Greece from slavery by his leadership in the war with Persia, and after having been banished because of his unpopularity, would not submit to the injustice of an ungrateful country, as he was in duty bound to do: he did the same thing that Coriolanus had done among our people twenty years before. Not one single supporter could be found to aid these men against their country; therefore, each took his own life.Hence such alliances of wicked men not only should not be protected by a plea of friendship, but rather they should be visited with summary punishment of the severest kind, so that no one may think it permissible to follow even a friend when waging war against his country. And yet this very thing, considering the course affairs have begun to take, will probably happen at some future time; as for me, I am no less concerned for what the condition of the commonwealth will be after my death, than I am for its condition to‑day.

Therefore let this be ordained as the first law of friendship: Ask of friends only what is honourable; do for friends only what is honourable and without even waiting to be asked; let zeal be ever present, but hesitation absent; dare to give true advice with all frankness; in friendship let the influence of friends who are wise counsellors be paramount, and let that influence be employed in advising, not only with frankness, but, if the occasion demands, even with sternness, and let the advice be followed when given.

[Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Friendship (De Amicitia) Loeb Classics Library pp.156-7]


10 thoughts on “Would a True Friend Help His Friend Do Something Bad?

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Cicero is right that we should generally avoid friendships with evil people. However, almost nobody is totally evil, so I’d make exceptions. In high school, one of my friends was a gang member who took a liking to me — Heaven knows why — and taught me how to street-fight so I wouldn’t get bullied by other guys like him. He was a “bad” person, but the worst thing he ever asked me to do was help him with his homework once or twice.

    As for asking and doing only honorable things, a lot depends on how you define “honorable.” The Romans had a very severe idea of what it meant: Lucius Junius Brutus, the first consul of the Roman Republic, reluctantly had his own sons executed for treason. I would include personal loyalty as a factor, balanced against honesty, utilitarian concerns, and so forth. Circumstances also matter: I would almost never help a friend commit a real crime (a “malum in se”), but I might help him or her evade capture afterward. It depends.

  2. Pietas was hugely important; you only need look to pius Aeneas for the ideal Roman,

    Loeb are ideal for reading Cicero; the more literal translation is ideal for replicating his spirit. Good excerpt.

      • Good question! One of those words we have had to adopt because there’s nothing quite like it (with all of its connotations, I mean) and our version in ‘piety’ is supposedly too narrow (so say Classics academics). To the Romans, it was the purest of virtues that all Romans should strive for; I remember scholars spending chapters and chapters of analysis (so I’m a poor guide really) on the importance of pietas to the Romans. Aeneas carrying Anchises was considered the most symbolic part of the poem. It encompassed duty to the gods, to your country, to your family, to yourself. It had a spiritual dimension but in that real, *classical* sense of purity, of virtue. Its connotations were quite broad. The relationship between a father and son (often the son towards the father) is an archetypal demonstration– I’m not sure if that’s in consequence of Vergil’s depiction of Aeneas and his father or whether it was a long held Roman ideal; my memory fails me. You’ll have often seen that particular scene, as they leave burning Troy, depicted in sculptures, on vases, in Renaissance paintings, etc..

        As an aside but somewhat related note, I remember Adrian Goldsworthy spending pages explaining the concept of*auctoritas*, which was interesting. The root of authority, it had added dimensions during the Roman public. Someone’s auctoritas depending on their lineage, wealth, public image, personality and more. He cited an interesting example of when, in a court of law, a lowly citizen brought an unbeatable case against a particular politician and, in response, the politician stood and said something to the extent of: ‘X has brought a case against me, Y. Whose auctoritas is greater?’ The court immediately ruled in Y’s favour. My memory is hazy but (loathe as I am) Wikipedia’s summary is quite good on this:

        “In ancient Rome, Auctoritas referred to the general level of prestige a person had in Roman society, and, as a consequence, his clout, influence, and ability to rally support around his will. Auctoritas was not merely political, however; it had a numinous content and symbolized the mysterious “power of command” of heroic Roman figures.”

        Sorry for the ramble. It’s fun walking down memory lane.

      • thanks — this is really helpful! are you a retired classics professor? the auctoritas discussion reminds me of a claim by Roberto Calasso that dual rulership by a figure of potestas and a figure of auctoritas has incredibly ancient indo-european roots; goes back to the chief and the shaman. care to weigh in on “Sacer” and “honestas”?

      • I’m not, I’m afraid. Latin literature was my undergraduate degree– it just feels as if it was some time ago! I’m afraid I don’t have as much to contribute on ‘Sacer’ and ‘honestas’– nothing jumps to mind in the same way as the other two words I mentioned. No flashbacks to extensive discussions and reading. Do you have any thoughts on those two?

  3. What, ‘bad’ in some kind of global, universal way? An objective ‘bad’ – one you can measure with a slide rule? Of course you shouldn’t! But then again that’s like saying you shouldn’t hug the boogeyman – of course you shouldn’t!

  4. Mikey says:

    I think conventional wisdom says you should choose your friends. I have always thought you shouldn’t and that’s a bit of an arrogant stance. I’m not a very humble person so I sometimes choose my friends, but I feel like a good ideal is to be friends with anyone who wants to be friends with you. I was quite influenced by Trainspotting and the line “The beggar’s fucking psycho, man. But… he’s a mate. You know? So what can you do?”

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