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This webpage reproduces the essay
On Having Many Friends


as published in Vol. II
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. II) Plutarch, Moralia


The work appears in pp45‑69 of Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1928. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1956 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

 p45  Loeb Edition Introduction

Plutarch's essay on friendship may possibly have been offered on some occasion as a lecture, but there is nothing to prove or disprove this assumption. From what we know of Plutarch's relations to his friends we can well believe that he was singularly happy in his friendships, and hence well fitted to speak on the subject. He was familiar, too, with the literature dealing with friendship, and the result is an essay well worth reading. Cicero's essay on friendship (De amicitia) may profitably be compared with Plutarch's.

Two or three emendations of a more radical nature have been adopted in the text, in the effort to make it intelligible: for example, in 96A the translation probably gives the right sense of the passage, as Wyttenbach seemed to see, but whether the emendation is right is more doubtful. Even more doubtful is Paton's προσεντείνειν, based on an even more dubious emendation of ἐντείνασθαι in the quotation from Euripides; for Plutarch would not be apt to refer to an aorist middle by a present active form. In these matters Plutarch was more careful than Paton.

 p47  (93) 1 1   [link to original Greek text] Meno,​1 the Thessalian, who felt that he had had a good training in debating, and, bto quote Empedocles' familiar expression, was

Haunting the lofty heights of wisdom,​2

was asked by Socrates what virtue is; and when he replied impulsively and promptly that there is a virtue appropriate to a child and to an old man, to a grown man and to a woman, to a public official and to a private citizen, to a master and to a servant, Socrates exclaimed, "A fine answer! for when asked for one virtue you have stirred up a whole swarm of virtues,"​3 inferring, not badly, that it was because the man knew not a single virtue that he was naming so many. And might not we also be subject to ridicule cbecause we, who are not yet in secure possession of one friendship, are afraid that we may unwittingly become involved in a multitude of friendships? We hardly differ at all from a man who, being maimed or blind, is afraid that he may become a Briareus of the hundred hands or an Argus all-seeing. And yet we commend above measure  p49 the youth in Menander's play​4 who says that any man counts it a marvellous good thing

If he but have the shadow of a friend.

2 1   [link to original Greek text] One thing which stands out among many others, as particularly antagonistic to our acquisition of friendship, is the craving for numerous friends, which is like that of licentious women,​5 dfor because of our frequent intimacies with many different persons we cannot keep our hold on our earlier associates, who are neglected and drift away. A better comparison, perhaps, is the nursling of Hypsipyle, who seated himself in the meadow, and

One after another caught up

Handfuls of flowers with joyful heart,

But with childhood's yearning unsated.​6

[link to original Greek text] So it is with all of us: because anything new attracts us but soon palls on us, it is always the recent and freshly blooming friend that allures us and makes us change our minds, even while we are busy with many beginnings of friendship and intimacy at the same time, which go but little further, since, in our longing for the person we pursue, we pass over the one already within our grasp.

e [link to original Greek text] In the first place, then, let us begin at the hearth-stone, as the saying is, with the story of men's lives which history​7 has left us regarding steadfast friends, and let us take as witness and counsellor in our discussion the long and distant ages in which are mentioned, as paired in the bond of friendship, Theseus and Peirithoüs, Achilles and Patroclus,  p51 Orestes and Pylades, Phintias and Damon, Epameinondas and Pelopidas. For friendship is a creature that seeks a companion; it is not like cattle and crows that flock and herd together, and to look upon one's friend as another self and to call him "brother" as though to suggest "th'other," is nothing but a way of using duality as a measure of friendship. It is impossible to acquire either many slaves or many friends with little coin. What then is the coin of friendship? fIt is goodwill and graciousness combined with virtue, than which nature has nothing more rare. It follows, then, that a strong mutual friendship with many persons is impossible, but, just as rivers whose waters are divided among branches and channels flow weak and thin, so affection, naturally strong in a soul, if portioned out among many persons become utterly enfeebled. This is the reason why, in the case of animals, love for their young is more strongly implanted by nature in those that give birth to but one at a time; 94and Homer's​8 name for a beloved son is "the only one, child of our eld," that is to say, born to parents who neither have nor can ever have another child.

3 1   [link to original Greek text] We do not maintain that our friend should be "the only one," but along with others let there be some "child of our eld" and "late-begotten," as it were, who has consumed with us in the course of time the proverbial bushel of salt,​9 not as is the fashion nowadays, by which many get the name of friend by drinking a single glass together, or by spending a night under the same roof, and so pick up a friendship from inn, gymnasium, or market-place.

 p53  [link to original Greek text] In the houses of rich men and rulers, the people see a noisy throng of visitors boffering their greetings and shaking hands and playing the part of armed retainers, and they think that those who have so many friends must be happy. Yet they can see a far greater number of flies in those persons' kitchens. But the flies do not stay on after the good food is gone, nor the retainers after their patron's usefulness is gone. But true friendship seeks after three things above all else: virtue as a good thing, intimacy as a pleasant thing, and usefulness as a necessary thing, for a man ought to use judgement before accepting a friend, and to enjoy being with him and to use him when in need of him, and all these things stand in the way of one's having many friends; but most in the way is the first (which is the most important) — the approval through judgement. Therefore we must, in the first place, consider whether it is possible cin a brief period of time to test dancers who are to dance together, or rowers who are to pull together, or servants who are to be guardians of property or attendants of children, let alone the testing of a multitude of friends who are to strip for a general contest with every kind of fortune, each one of whom

Puts his successes with the common store,

And shares in bad luck, too, without distress.​10

[link to original Greek text] For no ship is launched upon the sea to meet so many storms, nor do men, when they erect protecting walls for strongholds, and dams and moles for harbours, anticipate perils so numerous and so great das those from which friendship, rightly and surely tried,  p55 promises a refuge and protection. But when some thrust their friendship upon us without being tried, and are found to be like bad coins when put to the test,

Those who are bereft rejoice,

And those who have them pray for some escape.​11

[link to original Greek text] But here is the difficulty — that it is not easy to escape or to put aside an unsatisfactory friendship; but as harmful and disquieting food can neither be retained without causing pain and injury, nor ejected in the form in which it was taken in, but only as a disgusting and repulsive mess, so an unprincipled friend either causes pain and intense discomfort by his continued association, or else with accompanying enmity and hostility eis forcibly ejected like bile.

4 1   [link to original Greek text] We ought therefore not to accept readily chance acquaintances, or attach ourselves to them, nor ought we to make friends of those who seek after us, but rather we should seek after those who are worthy of friendship. For one should by no means take what can easily be taken. In fact we step over or thrust aside bramble and brier, which seize hold upon us, and make our way onward to the olive and the vine.​12 Thus it is always an excellent thing not to make an intimate acquaintance of the man who is ready with his embraces, but rather, of our own motion, to embrace those of whom we approve fas worthy of our attention and useful to us.

5 1   [link to original Greek text] Just as Zeuxis,​13 when some persons charged him with painting slowly, retorted by saying, "Yes, it takes me a long time, for it is to last long," so it is necessary to preserve friendship and intimacy by  p57 adopting them only after spending a long time in passing judgement upon them. Is it, then, true that while it is not easy to pass judgement on a large number of friends, yet it is easy to associate with a large number at the same time, or is this also impossible? Now it is a fact that the enjoyment of friendship lies in its intimacy, and the pleasantest part of it is found in association and daily companion­ship:

Never in life again shall we take counsel together

Sitting apart from our comrades.​14

95 [link to original Greek text] And in regard to Odysseus, Menelaus says:

Else there were nothing

Which could have parted us twain in the midst of our love and enjoyment;

No, not till Death's dark cloud had wrapped its shadow around us.​15

[link to original Greek text] Now what is commonly called having a multitude of friends apparently produces the opposite result. For friendship draws persons together and unites them and keeps them united in a close fellow­ship by means of continual association and mutual acts of kindness —

Just as the fig-juice fastens the white milk firmly and binds it,

b [link to original Greek text] as Empedocles​16 puts it (for such is the unity and consolidation that true friendship desires to effect); but, on the other hand, having a multitude of friends causes disunion, separation, and divergence, since, by calling one hither and thither, and transferring one's attention now to this person, now to that, it does not permit any blending or close attachment of goodwill to take place in the intimacy which moulds itself about friendship and takes enduring  p59 form. This at once suggests also the inequality there must be and embarrassment about rendering services, since the very useful elements in friendship are rendered practically useless by having many friends. For

In divers men solicitude excites conduct diverse.​17

[link to original Greek text] For neither do our natures tend in the same direction as our impulses, nor do we, day in and day out, meet with the same sort of fortune; and the occasions which prompt our various actions, clike the winds, help some friends on their way, and are adverse to others.

6 1   [link to original Greek text] But if all our friends want the same things at the same time, it is hard to satisfy all, in either their counsels, their public life, their ambitions, or their dispensing of hospitality. And if at one and the same time they chance to be occupied in diverse activities and experiences, and call upon us at the same instant, one to join him on a voyage to foreign parts, another to help him in defending a suit, another to sit with him as judge, another to help him in managing his buying and selling, another to help him celebrate his wedding, another to mourn with him at a funeral,18

The city is with burning incense filled;

Full too of joyous hymns and doleful groans​19

d [link to original Greek text] is the possession of a host of friends. It is impossible to be with them all, and unnatural to be with none, and yet to do a service to one alone, and thus to offend many, is a source of vexation:

For fond affection does not brook neglect.​20

 p61  [link to original Greek text] Yet people are more tolerant of acts of negligence and remissness on the part of their friends, and they accept from them without anger such excuses as "I forgot," "I didn't know." But the man who says, "I did not appear with you when your case was in court, for I was appearing with another friend," and "I did not come and see you when you had fever, for I was busy helping so-and‑so to entertain some friends," thus alleging, as the reason for his inattention, his attention to others, edoes not absolve himself from blame, but only aggravates the trouble by arousing jealousy. But most people, apparently, look at the possession of a host of friends merely from the point of view of what such friendships are able to bestow, and overlook what these demand in return, forgetting that he who accepts the services of many for his needs must in turn render like service to many in their need. Therefore, just as Briareus in purveying for fifty bellies with an hundred hands had no advantage over us who manage one stomach with what two hands provide, so in making use of many friends is involved also serving many, and sharing in their anxieties, preoccupations, and troubles. For no credence is to be given to Euripides​21 when he says:

In the friendship which mortals with each other form

Moderation should rule, and it never should reach

fTo the souls' inmost marrow; and easy to loose

Should the spells ever be that are laid on the mind

So to thrust them aside or to draw them close,

[link to original Greek text] thus easing off one's friendship or hauling it close according to exigencies, like the sheet of a ship's sail. But let us, my dear Euripides, turn the application  p63 of this advice to our enmities, and advise the use of "moderation" in our disagreements, "not reaching the souls' inmost marrow," and that hatred, anger, complainings, and suspicions be "easy to loose," 96and commend rather to us the Pythagorean​22 maxim, "not to clasp hands with many"; that is, not to make many friends nor to welcome a common and indiscriminate friendship, or even a friendship with one person, if the coming of any friendship into one's life brings with it many afflictions, wherein refusal to share the other's anxieties, burdens, toils, and dangers is altogether intolerable for free-born and generous persons.

[link to original Greek text] There is truth in the remark of the wise Chilon,​23 who, in answer to the man who boasted of having no enemy, said, "The chances are that you have no friend either." For enmities follow close upon friendships, and are interwoven with them, inasmuch as 7 bit is impossible for a friend not to share his friend's wrongs or disrepute or disfavour; for a man's enemies at once look with suspicion and hatred upon his friend, and oftentimes his other friends are envious and jealous, and try to get him away. As the oracle given to Timesias​24 about his colony prophesied:

Soon shall your swarms of honey-bees turn out to be hornets,

so, in like manner, men who seek for a swarm of friends unwittingly run afoul of hornet's nests of enemies.

[link to original Greek text] Besides, the resentment of an enemy and the gratitude of a friend do not weigh equally in the  p65 balance. See what treatment Alexander meted out to the friends and family cof Philotas and Parmenio, Dionysius those of Dion, Nero those of Plautus,​25 and Tiberius those of Sejanus,​26 torturing and killing them. For as the golden crown and the robe of Creon's daughter did not help Creon,​27 but, as he suddenly ran to her and clasped her in his arms, the fire, fastening upon him, burned him up and destroyed him as well as his daughter, so some persons without deriving any benefit from their friends' good fortunes, perish with them in their misfortunes. This is the experience especially of men of culture and refinement, as Theseus, for example, shared with Peirithoüs his punishment and imprisonment,

Yoked fast in duty's bonds not forged by man,​28

d [link to original Greek text] and Thucydides​29 asserts that in the pestilence those who had the highest claim to virtue perished with their friends who were ill; for they did not spare themselves in going, as they did, to visit those who had claims on their friendship.

8 1   [link to original Greek text] For these reasons it is not a fit thing to be thus unsparing of our virtue, uniting and intertwining it now with one and now with another, but rather only with those who are qualified to keep up the same participation, that is to say, those who are able, in a like manner, to love and participate. For herein plainly is the greatest obstacle of all to having a multitude of friends, in that friendship comes into  p67 being through likeness. Indeed, if even the brute beasts are made to mate with others unlike themselves only by forcible compulsion, eand crouch aside, and show resentment as they try to escape from each other, while with animals of their own race and kind they consort with mutual satisfaction, and welcome the participation with a ready goodwill, how then is it possible for friendship to be engendered in differing characters, unlike feelings, and lives which hold to other principles? It is true that the harmony produced on harp and lyre gets its consonance through tones of dissonant pitch, a likeness being somehow engendered between the higher and the lower notes; but in our friendship's consonance and harmony there must be no element unlike, uneven, or unequal, fbut all must be alike to engender agreement in words, counsels, opinions, and feelings, and it must be as if one soul were apportioned among two or more bodies.

9 1   [link to original Greek text] What man is there, then, so indefatigable, so changeable, so universally adaptable, that he can assimilate and accommodate himself to many persons, without deriding the advice of Theognis​30 when he says:

Copy this trait of the cuttle-fish, which changes its colour

So as to seem to the eye like to the rock where it clings?

[link to original Greek text] However, the changes in the cuttle-fish have no depth, but are wholly on the surface, which, owing to its closeness or looseness of texture, takes up the emanations from objects which come near to it;  p69 97whereas friendships seek to effect a thorough-going likeness in characters, feelings, language, pursuits, and dispositions. Such varied adaptation were the task of a Proteus,​31 not fortunate and not at all scrupulous, who by magic can change himself often on the very instant from one character to another, reading books with the scholar­ly, rolling in the dust with wrestlers, following the hunt with sportsmen, getting drunk with topers, and taking part in the canvass of politicians, possessing no firmly founded character of his own. And as the natural philosophers say of the formless and colourless substance band material which is the underlying basis of everything and of itself turns into everything, that it is now in a state of combustion, now liquefied, at another time aeriform, and then again solid, so the possession of a multitude of friends will necessarily have, as its underlying basis, a soul that is very impressionable, versatile, pliant, and readily changeable. But friendship seeks for a fixed and steadfast character which does not shift about, but continues in one place and in one intimacy. For this reason a steadfast friend is something rare and hard to find.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Plato, Meno, 71E.

2 From a longer fragment; cf. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p225.

3 Cf. Moralia, 441B

4 The Epiclerus. Kock, Com. Attic. Frag. III, Menander, No. 554. See also Plutarch, Moralia, 479C, where four lines of the play are quoted, and Allinson, Menander (in the L. C. L.), p493.

5 Cf. Lucian, Toxaris, 37.

6 Presumably from the Hypsipyle of Euripides; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, No. 754; Cf. also Plutarch, Moralia, 661F.

7 Plutarch is considering Greek history only.

8 Iliad, IX.482; Odyssey, XVI.19.

9 Cf. Moralia, 482B; Cicero, De amicitia, 19 (67); Aristotle, Eth. Nicom. VIII.3.

10 Author unknown; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Adespota, No. 366.

11 From some play of Sophocles; it is cited again by Plutarch in Moralia, 768E; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Sophocles, No. 779.

12 Cf. Moralia, 709E.

13 Cf. Plutarch, Life of Pericles, chap. xiii (p. 159D).

14 Homer, Il. XXIII.77; the words are spoken by the ghost of Patroclus to Achilles.

15 Homer, Od. IV.178; Plutarch quotes the first two lines in Moralia, 54F.

16 Probably adapted by Empedocles from Homer, Il. V.902; cf. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p239.

17 Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. III p721, Adespota, No. 99.

18 The language here seems to be an amplification of Aristotle, Ethica Nicom. IX.10.

19 Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 4; cited by Plutarch also in Moralia, 169D, 445D, and 623C.

20 A line from Menander, cited also in Moralia, 491C; cf. Kock, Com. Attic. Frag. III p213.

21 Hippolytus, 253.

22 Cf. Moralia, vol. I 12E and the note.

23 Cf.  Moralia, 86C, and Aulus Gellius, I.3.

24 Cf. the story told of Timesias by Plutarch, Moralia, 812A.

25 Rubellius Plautus; cf.  Tacitus, Annals, XIV.57 ff., and Dio Cassius, LXII.14.

26 Cf. Tacitus, Annals, V.7 ff., and Dio Cassius, LVIII.11‑12.

27 Euripides, Medea, 1136 ff.

28 A line of Euripides, probably from the Peirithoüs, cited by Plutarch also in Moralia, 482A, 533A, and 763F. Cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, No. 595.

29 Thucydides, II.51.

30 Verses 215‑6, cited by Plutarch also in Moralia, 916A and 978E.

31 Homer, Od. IV.383 ff.; Virgil, Georgics, IV.387 ff.

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