Friendship as Supported by the Canon, Physics, and Ethics

  • I have had a private and enjoyable conversation with a member about Epicurean friendship, and I think it has been a while since we specifically discussed friendship here. The member had a question about how "agape", an ancient Greek term for love which has been used for a sort of general charity and well-wishing by Christians, might be able to blend with our philosophy.

    Here is a good example of how, by sticking to the original 3 part philosophic structure of Canon, Physics, and Ethics, and by using original texts, we can take an Epicurean view of friendship. After doing so, it will (I hope) be clear to our members that trying to incorporate incompatible elements of friendship from Christianity would not have the same results.

    The Canon contains the tools by which we interact with reality-- our senses (which we take to include instruments used to extend these), the prolepses, and our feelings of pain or pleasure. Applying the Canon to friendship, it is clear that we must have our senses in order to observe the existence and behaviors of other people-- children may have imaginary friends, but real friendship involves specific, real people. I would say that the role of prolepsis here includes our evolved processes for social interactions, which emerge developmentally and are not learned from scratch by personal experience alone. And our subjective feelings of pain or pleasure upon being with specific others provide us critical information about their intentions towards us.

    From Physics, studied by means of the Canon, we know that we are mortal, that we have only this one life, and that there is no absolute morality in the universe-- no tablet of commandments and no rule about how to treat others. From the observation of nature included in physics, we see that pleasure is the evolved way organisms with nervous systems have developed to recognize what is health-giving and life-sustaining and pain the signal for tissue damage. Our observations teach us that members of the same species will tend to usually have many pains and pleasures in common, but individual variation of genetics and environment means we will also differ. Because of our more advanced cognitive skills, humans are able to consider our net pleasure, not just the pleasure of the moment, and plan our actions even more wisely.

    This information leads to our Ethics, our ways of deciding how to act in various situations, in order to have net pleasure for ourselves. Remember that ethics and virtues are not absolute but are tools to use for the resulting pleasure. Let's look at some of Epicurus' words about friendship, which were based on the Canon and Physics.

    PD 27 "Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship" (Cyril Bailey). These are strong words. Epicurus based this on observation of his life and that of others. I find that for me, he is correct. I advise you to use the Canon to determine if this is true for you.

    Letter to Idomeneus: "On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus" (CB). Epicurus' pleasure in friendship was so strong that even the memory of it provided pleasure during his painful dying process. It was important to his pleasure that he knew he had taken care to provide for his friends even after his own death.

    VS 23 "All friendship is desirable in itself, though it starts from the need of help" (CB). This means that even though friendship is instrumental for other pleasures, the friendship itself is a pleasure. I find this to be very true and would go further in saying the intrinsic pleasure of friendship is the strongest.

    PD 39. "The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life." (this translation is from I do not see the translator).

    VS 28 "We must not approve either those who are always ready for friendship, or those who hang back, but for friendship’s sake we must run risks" (CB). Advice based on observation of what happens in each of those situations.

    Those two quotes, PD 39 and VS 28, remind us that because we are using reality-based processes, not idealistic concepts, we will not have anything to do with virtues that treat all humans the same. We will not use abstract consequentialism. We must use our observations and feelings to find out who is a friend to us and who is not.

    VS 56" The wise man feels no more pain when being tortured himself than when his friend tortured."

    VS 57 "On occasion a man will die for his friend, for if he betrays his friend, his whole life will be confounded by distrust and completely upset." (both of these translations I got from

    , and there is a note that these have been reconstructed).

    These last two quotes are very important, IMO. We are _not_ being advised to feel pain or to die for friends as if to be virtuous-- these are descriptive quotes. They are observations of what true friendship feels like-- that we are so connected to our friends that their pleasures and pains cause us pleasures and pains. Although friendship must be mutual to be real, the feelings themselves are not contractual. There is not a cold calculation that we use, nor logic, minus feelings, when it comes to our friends, because we love them with all our hearts.

    Elli tells me that the Greek word for friendship is "filia", which comes from the word "filo", to love (which she says now also means to kiss).

    In summary, Epicurean friendship is not abstract. It is a real relationship, of deep mutual feeling, between individuals. It is not compatible with the religious or idealistic expressions currently described as "agape". In my life, like Epicurus, I have been more glad for the love between friends than for any other pleasure.

  • Cassius

    Approved the thread.
  • Over the last weekend, with the help of my neighbor and friend, I painted my apartment. It was a tiresome process. We worked for more than 13 hours on Sunday. In order to make the labor more pleasant, we played 80s songs. When the process was nearly over, he reminded me that the amount of work he did over the weekend was proof of how much he loved me. The last time I had a friend this warm was during my college years.

    After the chaos of re-inventing my space completely over the weekend, I feel like we created new memories, and I also feel that the space reflects an inner change in me and in my life. Now, when I look at the new colors of my walls, I am reminded also of my friendship and the warmth, familiarity, and love, which found a token in the act of painting itself. The Havamal attests to the importance of giving friends concrete tokens of our respect and love.


    With presents friends should please each other,
    With a shield or a costly coat:
    Mutual giving makes for friendship
    So long as life goes well.
    Stanza 41, Havamal

    The Havamal also says that when friends do not complain about the distance they travel to see each other, that is also a proof of true friendship, so there are other ways in which friendship can be made concrete, tokenized. And it says that not everyone who smiles at us, or who laughs at our jokes, is a friend.

    The takeaway here is that friendship requires concrete tokens, concrete, direct, unmediated experiences, to grow and to be true friendship. (This can be time spent, favors done, words of advice imparted, etc. not just "gifts"). They act as proof, as evidence, of the friendship that is there, but also cement it and build memories. I've frequently talked about the importance of making philosophy tangible, the same goes for friendship.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words