Plutarch, On Having Many Friends

Translated by W. G. Edition by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878.
Annotation of text copyright ©2007 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

¶ To him who would have many friends, Plutarch addresses the admonition to direct one's actions rather toward finding one true friend. [1] Menon the Thessalian, a person who had no mean opinion of his own parts, who thought himself well accomplished in all the arts of discourse and to have reached (as Empedocles words it) the highest pitch of wisdom, was asked by Socrates, What is virtue? And he answered readily enough, and as impertinently, that there is one virtue belonging to childhood, another to old age; that there are distinct virtues in men and women, magistrates and private persons, masters and servants. Excellently well! replied Socrates in raillery, when you were asked about one virtue, you have raised, as it were, a whole swarm; conjecturing, not without reason, that the man therefore named many because he knew the nature of none. And may not we ourselves expect and deserve as justly to be scoffed and rallied, who having not yet contracted one firm friendship seem nevertheless exceeding cautious of too many? It is almost the same thing as if one maimed and blind should appear solicitous lest like Briareus he may chance to be furnished with a hundred hands, and become all over eyes like Argus. However, we cannot but extol the sense of that young man in Menander the poet, who said that he counted every man wonderfully honest and happy who had found even the shadow of a friend.

¶ And he comments on the difficulty of finding even that one friend. [2] But all the difficulty lies in finding him; and the chiefest reason is that, instead of one choice true friend, nothing under a multitude will content us; like women of the town who admit the embraces of all gallants that come, at the gay appearance of the last which comes we neglect and slight the former, and so are unable to hold them. Or rather, like the foster-child of Hypsipyle, who "in a green meadow sat cropping the flowers one after another, snatching each prize with delighted heart, insatiable in his childish joy,"—so we of riper years, from an inbred affection of novelty and disdain of things already possessed, take up presently with the first promising aspect of every fresh and new-blooming friend, and lay all at once the foundations of several acquaintances; but we leave each unfinished, and when we have scarce fixed on one, our love immediately palls there, while we passionately pursue some other.

¶ Plutarch observes that the famous friendships of history have been those of pairs and that friendship should not be diluted by being shared among too many. Wherefore, in this affair, —to begin at the beginning (at the domestic altar, as the saying is),— let us ask the opinion and counsel of our forefathers, and consider what report the records of antiquity make concerning true friends. They are, we find, always reckoned in pairs; as Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, Phintias and Damon, Epaminondas and Pelopidas. Friendship (so to speak) is a creature sociable, but affects not a herd or a flock; and that we usually esteem a friend another self, and call him ETAIROS (companion) as much as to say ETEROS (the other one), is a convincing argument that the number two is the adequate and complete measure of friendship. And in truth, a great number of friends or servants is not to be purchased at an easy rate. That which procures love and friendship in the world is a sweet and obliging temper of mind, a lively readiness in doing good offices, together with a constant habit of virtue; than which qualifications nothing is more rarely found in nature. Therefore to love and to be beloved much can have no place in a multitude; but the most eager affection, if divided among numerous objects, like a river divided into several channels, must needs flow at length very weak and languid. Upon this score, those animals love their young most which generate but one; and Homer, describing a beloved child, calls it the only-begotten and born in old age, —that is, at such a time when the parents neither have nor hope for another.
¶ Plutarch allows that one may enjoy more than one friend, but that one should be chosen out of them for distinction and be treated as a well-beloved and only son.

¶ As for those who might appear to have many friends, he observes that while rich men attract many hangers-on --as the kitchen attracts flies-- these are not friends.

¶ He holds that we require three things of a friend: virtue, that we associate with a man of excellent qualities; familiarity, that we enjoy his company; and advantage, that we many derive some benefit from the society of the friend.

¶ Now, these qualities wanted in a friend are not to be found in a great number of persons but in a few or one.

¶ He warns that care must be exercised in admitting a man to one's familiarity, for false would-be friends abound and, once fastened on one are gotten rid of only with difficulty.

[3] Yet I do not assert we ought to confine ourselves to one only friend; but among the rest, there should be one eminently so, like a well-beloved and only son, not casually picked up at a tavern or eating-house or in a tennis-court, nor at a game of hazard, nor at an accidental meeting in the wrestling-place or the market, —as is too common nowadays,— but one chosen upon long and mature deliberation, with whom (according to that celebrated proverb) we have eaten a bushel of salt.

The palaces of noble men and princes appear guarded with splendid retinues of diligent obsequious servants, and every room is crowded with a throng of visitors, who caress the great man with all the endearing gestures and expressions that wit and breeding can invent; and it may be thought, I confess, at first sight, that such are very fortunate in having so many cordial, real friends at their command; whereas it is all bare pageantry and show. Change the scene, and you may observe a far greater number of flies as industriously busy in their kitchens; and as these would vanish, were the dishes empty and clean, so neither would that other sort of insect pay any farther respect, were nothing to be got by it.

There are chiefly these requisites to a true friendship: virtue, as a thing lovely and desirable; familiarity, as pleasant; and advantage, as necessary. For we must first choose a friend upon a right judgment made of his excellent qualities; having chosen him, we must perceive a pleasure in his conversation, and upon occasion he must be useful to us in our concerns /1/. All which (especially judgment in our choice, the main point of all) are inconsistent with a numerous acquaintance.

And first of all (to draw a parallel in other matters), if there is no small time required to select a great many persons together who can dance and sing in exact time to the same tune, manage oars with a like strength and vigor, be fit stewards of our estates or tutors of our children, certainly we must acknowledge it much more difficult to meet with a considerable number of friends, ready to enter with us the trial of all manner of fortune, of whom every one will

Of his good fortune yield thy part to thee,
And bear like part of thy calamity.

Even a ship at sea runs not the risk of so many storms, nor are any castles, forts, and havens secured with walls, ramparts, and dams against the apprehension of so many dangers, as are the misfortunes against which a constant approved friendship mutually undertakes to afford a defence and refuge. Whoever without due trial put themselves upon us for friends we examine as bad money; and the cheat being discovered, we are glad if of their own accord they withdraw; or if they persist, at least we wish with great impatience fairly to get rid of them. Yet we must own it is a hard and troublesome task to cast off a disagreeable acquaintance; for as unwholesome meats which nauseate the stomach can neither be retained without hazard of health, nor yet ejected sincere as they were taken, but wholly disguised and defiled with other humors; so a mistaken false friend must either be still entertained, and remain a mere vexation to us as well as uneasy to himself, or else by a kind of convulsion be thrown up like bile, leaving behind the continual torment of private grudgings and hatred.

¶ Plutarch advises one to root out, as weeds, those numerous false friends and to seek out and cultivate true friends. [4] Therefore it highly concerns us not to be too rash in fastening on the next that may accidentally offer, nor presently to affect every one that pretends to be fond of our friendship. Let the search rather begin on our own part, and our choice fix on those who approve themselves really worthy of our respect. What is cheap and with ease obtained is below our notice; and we trample under foot bushes and brambles that readily catch hold of us, while we diligently clear our way to the vine and olive; so it is always best not to admit to our familiarity persons who officiously stick and twist themselves about us, but we ought rather of our own accord to court the friendship of those who are worthy of our regard, and who prove advantageous to ourselves.

¶ Friends, through familiarity and time passed in conversation grow closer in friendship, but a man with a changing variety of social intercourse with many acquaintances is incapable of deep friendship with any. [5] Therefore, as Zeuxis replied to some who blamed the slowness of his pencil, —that he therefore spent a long time in painting, because he designed his work should last for a long eternity,— so he that would secure a lasting friendship and acquaintance must first deliberately judge and thoroughly try its worth, before he settles it. Suppose then it is hard to make a right judgment in choosing many friends together, it may still be asked whether we may not maintain a familiarity with many persons, or whether that too is impossible. Now familiarity and converse are the genuine products and enjoyments of true friendship, and the highest pleasure the best friends aim at is continual intercourse and the daily frequenting one another's company.

No more shall meet Achilles and his friend;
No more our thoughts to those we loved make known,
Or quit the dearest, to converse alone.

And, as Menelaus says of Ulysses:—

There with commutual zeal we both had strove
In acts of dear benevolence and love,—
Brothers in peace, not rivals in command,—
And death alone dissolved the friendly band.

Now much acquaintance has a clear contrary effect; and whereas single friendship by kind discourses and good offices cements, unites, and condenses as it were two parties,—

As when the fig-tree's juice curdles and binds white milk,

as Empedocles says; this on the other hand unties, rends, and breaks the bond, distracts our inclinations with too much variety; and the agreeable just mixture of affection, the very cement of true friends, is wholly lost in so loose and confused a conversation. Hence at once arises great inequality with respect to the services of friendship, and a foolish diffidence in the performance of them. For multiplicity of friends renders those very parts of friendship vain and useless whence advantage was most expected; neither can we hope it should be otherwise, if we consider how "one man is acted upon by his nature and another by his cares and anxieties." Nature hath not bestowed the same inclinations on all, nor are we all born to the same fortune; and the occasions of our actions, like the wind, may often favor one of our acquaintance while they stand cross to another.

¶ Plutarch warns that it is impossible that a multitude of acquaintances will have all the same interest and enterprise, so that in the multiplicity of their demands on one's time they force one to chose one acquaintance over the others.

Furthermore, a man with many close acquaintances, all of them making demands on him, is the slave to many.

Friendship brings a heavy obligation, for he who takes a friend gets with him all the enemies of the friends as his own enemies.

[6] However, suppose by great chance all should agree to crave assistance in the same affair, whether at a consult, exercise of a public trust in the government, canvassing for preferment, entertaining guests, or the like; yet it is exceeding hard to satisfy all. But now if they are engaged in diverse concerns at the very same moment of time, and every one should make his particular request to you, one to take a voyage with him, another to assist in pleading his cause, a third to prosecute a criminal, a fourth to help in managing his trade, another to celebrate his wedding, and another to attend a funeral,—

And the whole city's filled with incense smoke,
And songs of triumph mixt with groans resound;

I say, in this case, it is utterly impossible to answer the requests of all, to gratify none is absurd, and to serve only one and disoblige the rest is a thing grievous and intolerably rude;—"for no one, when he loves a friend, will bear to be neglected." If indeed you could persuade that inadvertency was the cause of the omission, you might more easily hope a pardon; and to plead forgetfulness is a sort of excuse which perhaps might pass without much angering your friend; but to allege "I could not be advocate in your cause, being of counsel for another," or "I could not visit you in a fever, because I was invited to a feast elsewhere," while it is thus confessed that we neglect one friend to pay our respects to another, is so far from extenuating the offence, that it highly aggravates it, and adds all the jealousies of rivalry.

But commonly men overlook these and such like inconveniences of a numerous acquaintance, and take only a prospect of its advantages, not in the least reflecting that whoever employs many assistants in his affairs must in gratitude repay his service to as many when they need it; and as Briareus, who with his hundred hands was daily obliged for his bare subsistence to feed fifty stomachs, could thrive no better than ourselves, who supply a single one with two hands, so a man of many friends cannot boast any other privilege but that of being a slave to many, and of sharing in all the business, cares, and disquiet that may befall them. Nor can Euripides help him by advising that

Best suited to the state
Of mortal life are mutual friendships formed
With moderation, such as take not root
Deep in the soul, affections that with ease
May be relaxed, or closer bound at will,

that is, we may pull in and let out our friendships like a sail, as the wind happens to blow. Let us rather, good Euripides, turn this saying of yours to enmity; for heats and animosities ought to be moderate, and never reach the inmost recesses of the soul; hatred, anger, complaints, and jealousies may with good reason be readily appeased and forgotten. Therefore it is far more advisable, as Pythagoras directs, "not to shake hands with too many," —that is, not to make many friends,—nor to affect that popular kind of easiness which courts and embraces every acquaintance that occurs, but carries with it on the reverse a thousand mischiefs; among which (as was before hinted) to bear part of the same cares, to be affected with the same sorrows, and to be embroiled in the same enterprises and dangers with any great number of friends will be a sort of life hardly tolerable even to the most ingenuous and generous tempers. What Chilon the wise man remarked to one who said he had no enemies, namely, "Thou seemest rather to have no friends," has a great deal of truth; for enmities always keep pace and are interwoven with friendships.

¶ Plutarch observes that history shows that the kindest affections of a friend seldom compensate for the malice of the enemies one acquires through the friend.

¶ And he warns us how that every friendship binds one with chains of obligations to the friend.

[7] And it is impossible any should be friends that resent not mutually the affronts and injuries offered unto either, and that do not hate alike and in common. They also who are enemies to yourself will presently suspect and hate your friend; nay, your other friends too will often envy, calumniate, and undermine him. Wherefore what the oracle foretold Timesias concerning his planting a colony, that an hive of bees should be changed into a nest of wasps, may not impertinently be applied to those who seek after a hive of friends, but light before they know it upon a wasps-nest of enemies.

Besides, we should do well to consider that the kindest affections of friends seldom compensate for the misfortunes that befall us from the malice of enemies. It is well known how Alexander treated the familiars of Philotas and Parmenio /2/; Dionysius, those of Dion; Nero, those of Plautus; and Tiberius, those of Sejanus; all shared the same hard fate of being racked and tortured to death. For as the gold and riches Creon's daughter was adorned with could not secure the good old father from being consumed in her flames, endeavoring too officiously to rescue her; so not a few partake of the calamities and ruin of their friends, before they have reaped the least advantage from their prosperity; a misfortune to which philosophers and the bestnatured men are the most liable. This was the case of Theseus, who for the sake of his dear Pirithous shared his punishment, and was bound with him in the same eternal chains. Thus in the plague of Athens, says Thucydides, the most generous and virtuous citizens, while without regard to their own safety they visited their sick, frequently perished with their friends.

¶ Plutarch, always interested in the character of a man, insists that real friendship exists only between persons of similar character. [8] Such accidents as these ought to admonish us not to be too prodigal of our virtue, nor inconsiderately to prostitute our perfections to the enjoyment of every little thing that pretends to be our humble admirer; rather let us reserve them for the worthy, for those who can love and share another's joys and sorrows like ourselves. And truly, this alone renders it most unlikely that many men should remain friends, that real friendship has always its origin from likeness. For, we may observe, even brute and inanimate beings affect their like, very readily mixing and uniting with those of their own nature; while with great reluctance and a kind of indignation they shrink from and avoid whatever differs from themselves, and force can scarce oblige them to the loathed embraces. By what motive then can we imagine any league of amity can be kept inviolable amidst a multitude, where manners admit of so much variety, where desires and humors will be perpetually jarring, where the several courses of life must needs be almost as unlike as constitutions and faces? A musical concord consists of contrary sounds, and a due composition of flat and sharp notes makes a delightful tune; but as for friendship, that is a sort of harmony all of a piece, and admits not the least inequality, unlikeness, or discords of parts, but here all discourses, opinions, inclinations, and designs serve one common interest, as if several bodies were acted and informed by the same soul.

¶ Plutarch concludes that real friendship is a rare thing and next a miracle to find. [9] Now is there any person living of that industrious, pliant, and universal humor, who can take the pains exactly to imitate all shapes, and will not rather deride the advice of Theognis as absurd and impossible, namely, to learn the craft of the polypus, which puts on the hue of every stone it sticks to? However, the changes of this fish are only superficial, and the colors are produced in the skin, which by its closeness or its laxity receives various impressions from neighboring objects; whereas the resemblance betwixt friends must be far more than skin-deep, must be substantial, such as may be traced in every action of their lives, in all their affections, dispositions, words and purposes, even to their most retired thoughts. To follow the advice of Theognis would be a task worthy of a Proteus, who was neither very fortunate nor very honest, but could by enchantment transform himself in an instant from one shape to another. Even so, he that entertains many friends must be learned and bookish among the learned, go into the arena with wrestlers, drudge cheerfully after a pack of hounds with gentlemen that love hunting, drink with debauchees, and sue for office with politicians; in fine, he must have no proper principles of actions and humors of his own, but those of the present company he converses with. Thus, as the first matter of the philosophers is originally without shape or color, yet being the subject of all natural changes takes by its own inherent forces the forms of fire, water, air, and solid earth; so a person that affects a numerous friendship must possess a mind full of folds and windings, subject to many passions, inconstant as water, and easy to be transformed into an infinite variety of shapes. But real friendship requires a sedate, stable, and unalterable temper; so that it is a rare thing and next a miracle to find a constant and sure friend.

Here Ends Plutarch's On Having Many Friends


/1/ For an example of the "usefulness" of a friend, Plutarch elsewhere (How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, 17) that a friend who frankly tell one the truth about one's faults is ďa great, massy, and substantial weapon" in the struggle to improve oneself by practice of virtue.

/2/ Philotas, the son of one of Alexander's oldest associates Parmenio, trusting in Alexander's friendship toward his father to save him, acted in a haughty manner that attracted the envy and ill-will of men, in particular, the enemies of Alexander. Unable to deflect their envy, he found himself, although innocent, implicated and suspect in their plot against the life of Alexander. Alexander had both Philotas and Parmenio put to death. (See Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 48-49).