Facebook and Friendship: A Ciceronian Analysis

Charles Blow of the NYTimes has a brief op-ed analyzing how Facebook and other social networking sites are changing the nature of human relationships:

A report issued Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that only 43 percent of Americans know all or most of their neighbors by name. Twenty-nine percent know only some, and 28 percent know none. (Oh, my God! When Roger (Cohen) dashes off to Paris this summer, I’ll become a “none.”)

Yet I have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on the social-networking sites in which I vigorously participate. (In real life, I maintain a circle of friends so small that I could barely arrange a circle.) Something is wrong with this picture.

But is there really something wrong? Let us turn to Cicero’s De Amicitia for a classical characterization of friendship. First of all, what is a friend? Laelius, the main speaker in De Amicitia writes that “In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend’s strength is his; and in his friend’s life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished.”

Blow would likely agree with this, and bemoans the fact that we seek for such friendships on social networking sites, rather than in our neighbors. In fact, he seems to associate neighbors and friends quite closely, and sees a general link between the decline in neighborliness and true friendship. But Cicero would be wary in thinking that our friends should necessarily be our neighbors:

The Latin word for friendship (amicitia) is derived from that for love (amor); and love is certainly the prime mover in contracting mutual affection. . . Therefore I gather that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than a wish for help: from an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from a deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue. Why, in a certain sense we may be said to feel affection even for men we have never seen, owing to their honesty and virtue.

What attracts us to a friend is not necessarily proximity, but virtue. Proximity is important, however, but it may lead only to relationships, and not true friendship:

. . . [N]ature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but that this tie becomes stronger from proximity. So it is that fellow-citizens are preferred in our affections to foreigners, relations to strangers; for in their case Nature herself has caused a kind of friendship to exist, though it is one which lacks some of the elements of permanence.

The difference between friendship and relationship is the bond of affection that exists in friendship, the true love that exists between friends that allows them to bear one another’s burdens, anxieties, cares, pleasures, and joys. The prerequisite for such love is virtue, for a selfish person cannot selflessly share in the joys of a friend, nor can an intemperate person share is the simple pleasure of conversation. The true problem with the “frienships” that we see on Facebook is not the lack of proximity between us and our 500 or so friends; rather, it is the lack of a shared pursuit of virtue which makes mutual affection possible. Facebook friends take on the nature of property, a collection which provide us some amusement but not the true solace of friendship. We are utterly un-discriminating when choosing our Facebook friends, as if the larger the quantity, the more happiness we will accrue. This isn’t a new problem, as Cicero reminds us:

He [Scipio] used to complain that there was nothing on which men bestowed so little pains: that every one could tell exactly how many goats or sheep he had, but not how many friends; and while they took pains in procuring the former, they were utterly careless in selecting friends, and possessed no particular marks, so to speak, or tokens by which they might judge of their suitability for friendship.

Blow is definitely onto something in his wariness towards social networking sites as the new venue for friendship, but he shouldn’t think it a problem that his actual circle of friends is small (Cicero maintains we can have only a few true friends) or that his friends are not among his neighbors (except for Roger Cohen, his NYTimes colleague). He should only be wary of his friendships if he finds that his “friends” are not men and women of exemplary character and virtue, that they do not share his interests, and that the bond of affection is woefully absent.

how can life be worth living, to use the words of Ennius, which lacks that repose which is to be found in the mutual good-will of a friend? What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself. . . .

Facebook gives us fast “friends,” people who share some context or some interest that we find amusing. But such relationships are not true friendships, as Cicero prophesied: “As a general rule, we must wait to make up our mind about friendships till men’s characters and years have arrived at their full strength and development. People must not, for instance, regard as fast friends all whom in their youthful enthusiasm for hunting or football they liked for having the same tastes.”

If we want true friendships, Cicero tells us, we must work on cultivating not more acquaintances, but rather, more virtue:

Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, not as a partner in guilt: to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another. . . .This is the partnership, I say, which combines moral rectitude, fame, peace of mind, serenity: all that men think desirable because with them life is happy, but without them cannot be so. This being our best and highest object, we must, if we desire to attain it, devote ourselves to virtue; for without virtue we can obtain neither friendship nor anything else desirable. In fact, if virtue be neglected, those who imagine themselves to possess friends will find out their error as soon as some grave disaster forces them to make trial of them.

In conclusion, Facebook is only a problem if we find all of our friends through the site, and if we fail to cultivate those real relationships which are so essential to life. And we can only cultivate those relationships by first cultivating virtue. Facebook can help us in this task. We can use social networking sites to spread information about injustices in the world, about politics, about philosophical doubts and opinions. Using social networking sites to learn more about the world around us can incite the kind of moral awareness that can lead to virtue. Facebook can provide us with certain moral exemplars to follow (I, for example, am Facebook friends with Thomas Aquinas!). Facebook can help us develop virtue, if it helps us to involve ourselves more in the world and in the lives of those whose character we find excellent and worthy of imitation. So we conclude with the words of Laelius:

It is virtue, virtue, which both creates and preserves friendship. On it depends harmony of interest, permanence, fidelity. When Virtue has reared her head and shewn the light of her countenance, and seen and recognised the same light in another, she gravitates towards it, and in her turn welcomes that which the other has to shew; and from it springs up a flame which you may call love or friendship as you please. Both words are from the same root in Latin; and love is just the cleaving to him whom you love without the prompting of need or any view to advantage-though this latter blossoms spontaneously on friendship.

Now excuse me while I go post this on Facebook.

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6 comments so far

  1. chris on

    paucI virI amIcOs habent, et paucI sunt dignI. AmicItia vEra est praeclAra, et omnia praeclAra sunt rAra. MultI virI stultI dE pecUniA semper cOgitant, paucI de amIcIs; sed errant: possumus valere sine multA pecUniA. sed sine amIcitiA nOn valEmus et vIta est nihil

    Cicero, DE AmIcitiA 21.79-80 via Wheelock’s Latin pg 29

  2. Peter on

    Thanks for drawing the connection between Facebook and Cicero.

    I have limited knowledge of Roman history, but Cicero seems a worthy exemplar of the Facebook age. Cicero lived during an era of rapid geographic expansion of the Roman state, travelled widely, and developed expertise in politics, rhetoric, and Greek philosophy. As such, he probably maintained many of his closest friendships by correspondence, rather than by close proximity.

    Did any of his contemporaries write on the subject of friendship, or respond to his emphasis on virtue as the proper basis of friendship?

    • everydaythomist on

      Cicero did indeed have to maintain friendships at a distance since he was so heavily involved in the affairs of state. His ideas on friendship and virtue were common to the era and can be found in Stoic writings but also most famously in Aristotle’s ethics and politics.

  3. sandi on

    awesome article~ May I share it:)

    • everydaythomist on

      Thank you, please do.

  4. [...] friendships from an EverydayThomist perspective. I’ve addressed this question before using Cicero, but I think the question demands further examination in light of the rising importance of Facebook [...]


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