Princeton (2018) h/b 203pp £13.99 ISBN 9780691177199
E.M. Forster once famously wrote, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ This is not, however, a recent dilemma. It has been debated for centuries, together with other issues about the limits, definitions, challenges, pitfalls, joys and sorrows etc. of friendship.
No one has contributed more to these discussions than Cicero, who, drawing on his extensive reading and experience, used his time out from front-line politics in 44 BC to write a number of extended essays on moral and political subjects.
His contribution on friendship, Laelius de Amicitia, takes the form of an imagined conversation between Gaius Laelius, consul 140 BC and his sons-in-law, Fannius and Scaevola, centring on his friendship with his recently deceased friend Scipio Africanus.
This literary conceit is a favourite of Cicero, and, in his dedication to his friend Atticus, he writes that by putting his thoughts in the mouth of another, such as Cato in his work on old age, Cato de Senectute, ‘sometimes I’m so moved that I think it’s actually Cato speaking.’
As he did in his translation of de Senectute, also published by Princeton, F., who holds the Fletcher Jones chair of Western Culture at Pepperdine University, offers a short introduction in which he identifies ten themes running through this work, including choosing our friends with care, making new friends but keeping the old, being honest with each other, and not seeking advantage from friendship but seeing friendship as its own reward. Since friendship is based on trust not self-interest, he notes the stress Cicero put on true friendship only being realisable by the virtuous.
The Latin and the English translation are on parallel pages. There is no commentary on any textual or syntactical issues, so presumably the Latin text is included to enable readers whose Latin is rusty to get to grips with some of the nuances which may inevitably be missed in even the best translations. F.’s translation is excellent, easy to read and idiomatic without using ephemeral slang. For example, when Fannius says that he would rather listen to Laelius than other experts on the subject, he explains that he has heard them sed aliud quoddam filum orationis tuae, which F. renders ‘but you have a way of getting to the heart of things.’
A brief set of notes giving details of citations and allusions which Cicero makes to Roman and Greek characters, and two pages of suggestions for further reading complete this neatly produced book.
As F. implies in his introduction, in an age where social media can create instant and spurious ‘friendships’, Cicero’s ideas are well worth serious consideration. This excellent book will help to make them more widely known. And, by the way, Forster’s view would have horrified Cicero, who wrote, ‘No one should ever think it forgivable to aid a friend in a plot against one’s own country.’ He describes it as improborum consensio—a conspiracy of the wicked.