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Immerse yourself and get lost in friendship, as Montaigne did

by Gabriele Nissim

I would like to recommend students and people closed at home reading two classic texts on the value of friendship that are extremely useful to reflect on our current condition.

First of all, Laelius de amicitia by Cicero, where the author imagines a philosophical dialogue by Gaius Lelius in 129 BC with his brothers-in-law Gaius Fannius Strabo and Quintus Mucius Scaevola, after the death of Scipio Aemilianus. During the meeting, all the main issues on the mechanisms of friendship emerge. Cicero offers a real practical treatise where, starting from the value of gratuity and sincerity coming before any particular interest, he gives actual instructions on how to build a relationship with a friend. Cicero writes: “Those who conceive friendship on the basis of interest destroy its sweetest bond, because we do not enjoy so much the usefulness coming from our friends, but from their own affection; and what comes to us from them is welcome, when it comes to us together with their love”.

The second text is found in a chapter of Essays by Michel de Montaigne, published in Paris in 1588, Of Friendship, dedicated to his young friend Étienne La Boétie, passed away, author of The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude - a great book describing the behaviour of human beings in dictatorships.

Montaigne therefore attaches importance on total involvement in friendship that he believes that it can be fully done only with one person.

Why should we wonder about friendship today?

Because it is today an antidote against loneliness we feel in social distancing we are forced to experience to avoid the spread of the virus. Today each of us can put a stop to sadness and fear by taking care of our friend and using an e-mail or a videocall to look for those we have not heard for a long time or those we sense that are silent because they have lost their courage. The virus not only affects bodies, but also the very character of people because, as social relationships fail, everyone feels their fragility.

In this emergency we suddenly realize (and perhaps it could do us good, because it makes us grasp the limit of our ego and of those who stupidly get carried away by personal vanity) that the power of each one, the conatus Spinoza speaks of, does not only stem from one’s talent, wealth, luck, but from living, rejoicing, working with other people. As we do not have the opportunity of creating communities in stadiums, offices, sports fields, cinemas, theatres, we realize that when we are alone we become little because human beings were born to be social animals.

However, there is an emergency exit that allows us to find strength and hope.

It is rekindling an individual relationship with a friend.

It is a way to take care of somebody close who needs to be supported and relieved. We thus realize that we are crucial for his or her mood, to give a sense to his or her day. Chatting with him or her we will feel we have done him or her good in these difficult circumstances. We will therefore have been the doctor of a restless soul.

But that is not all. It is the taste of rediscovering the pleasure of friendship without an end and a purpose. It is not just a consolation therapy. It is the discovery of enrichment stemming from the symbiosis with our friend.

Thinking with the other is much more productive than thinking alone; having a dialogue, changing one’s mind, mirroring in one’s friend to discover one’s flaws and therefore try to improve oneself is the most important spiritual exercise of which ancients spoke.

Friendship with others gives meaning and strength to our life. Our journey through life remaining faithful to a friend is totally different.

This is how Montaigne recounts the spiritual communion he had with La Boétie.

“In friendship I am talking about, souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: ‘Because it was he; because it was I’. Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union. We sought each other before we met because of the reports we heard of each other, which had more effect on our affection than such reports would reasonably have; we embraced each other by our name. At our first meeting, which by chance came at a great feast and gathering in the city, we found ourselves so taken with each other, so well acquainted, so bound together, that from that time on nothing was so close to us as each other. Our friendship has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself. Not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand: it is I know not what quintessence of all this mixture, which, having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his; which, having seized his whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in mine, with equal hunger and yearning. I say, lose itself, for, in truth, we reserved nothing for ourselves, nothing for him, nothing for me”.

Immerse oneself in the life of a friend, feeling a part of him or her, seeking symbiosis, wondering about all unimaginable questions with him or her allows us finding strength in the ghetto of solitude in which we have found ourselves. It does not replace the power that comes from enjoying collective relationships, but it helps us survive. It is the springboard that will soon allow us diving back into the community.

Friendship at the time of Coronavirus, however, not only has an existential value, but incredibly takes on a political meaning for the whole society. The fear of death and the awareness that our health does not only depend on self-care, but is often entrusted to chance, triggers indeed the worst instincts.

Many look for the enemy to blame for the situation: Chinese laboratories, Europe, Germany, the government, administrations, one or another politician. They react with a spirit of revenge. They prepare the list of enemies to be eliminated and the proscription lists from which reconstruction should start. Others are angry with their neighbours, with those who go for a run on the streets, with a family member who does not prove to be able to stand the situation, with non-EU citizens who do their shopping at the supermarket and do not appear to be sufficiently protected.

On social media we read many evil words of those who love to create their small tribes and launch anathemas against one enemy.
We often find that even our friends sometimes get carried away by these reactions.
They are the tip of the iceberg of serious risks all human beings are facing. There are many, in all corners of the planet, who instead of seeking maximum solidarity against a common enemy are more concerned about looking for opportunities to stir up hatred and opposition at a political and human level. They believe that to save themselves, everyone should first think of themselves, as it happened when Titanic shipwrecked threw even their acquaintances into the sea to get a seat on lifeboats. They want to face the war against the virus with new wars between human beings.

The taste and pleasure of friendship can be a therapy to all this.Cicero reminds us about this when he writes that true friendship spurs us to be good: “I can only exhort you to prefer friendships to all other human goods, for there is nothing so adapted to our nature, so well calculated for prosperity and adversity. But this I think is the first place, that friendship can only subsist between the good”.

With his treatise on friendship, the Roman politician-philosopher tried to teach the value of virtue in human relationships. One can only enjoy the beauty of friendship when looking for mutual good.
“Friendship was given by nature as a helper in virtue, not an accomplice in crime, so that, because virtue cannot reach the greatest heights in solitude, it should reach them when joined and allied with another. If there are any between whom this alliance exists or has existed or will exist in the future, we must believe that theirs is the best and happiest companionship on the road to the highest good”.

We are living in a time when divisions and selfishness in Europe, opposition between Israelis and Palestinians, religious fundamentalisms from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Trump’s arrogance and his stupid ego that led him to design America First policy appear to us as completely ridiculous.

The virus has scaled down every form of hubris, Greek definition that best describes the vanities of human beings who think they can realize their own power without sharing it with others and who delude themselves that they are invulnerable.

The mechanism of friendship the two great masters Cicero and Montaigne, tells us about is first of all an individual therapy we can hang to in this emergency. But if we think about it and live it with great intensity, it makes us understand the beauty not only of being friends with one person, as Montaigne thought, but with all human beings.

This is why this virus could also become an opportunity to break stupid barriers that divide the world.

The amazement felt by Italian astronaut Parmitano, who guided the International Space Station and observed the wonderful colours of our planet and felt a sudden sense of love that gave him immense joy, is a feeling within everyone’s reach.

And here hopes comes into play, which is the only God to whom we can entrust ourselves.

Translated by Valentina Gianoli

Gabriele Nissim, President of Gariwo

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, President of Gariwo

30 March 2020

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