restricted access 7. Plato and Montaigne: Ancient and Modern Ideas of Friendship
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

197 My aim in this essay is to reflect on ancient and modern ideas of friendship by considering Plato’s dialogue on friendship, the Lysis, and Montaigne ’s essay “Of Friendship.” In so doing, I must pass over many other significant reflections on friendship, especially those of Aristotle, that equally should claim our attention. With due apologies to the authors of those works, I reason that the ones I have chosen already offer plentiful food for thought. What I have to say about ancient and modern friendship is well illustrated in these two thinkers. Between them, they should help us become more thoughtful about friendship. At the same time, I find no simple dichotomy between ancients and moderns on this subject. We shall encounter both persistent themes and changes of emphasis. But I believe it to be perfectly plausible that Plato and Montaigne can engage each other in reflective conversation, perhaps in friendship, and try to see them that way in what follows. 7 Plato and Montaigne Ancient and Modern Ideas of Friendship Timothy Fuller 030 pt3 (195-284) 3/20/08 12:51 PM Page 197 What I want to suggest is that friendship may be understood as the discovery of what is most truly human. What this means I hope to make clearer as we proceed. It will also become clear, I hope, that both these thinkers consider friendship as a key to gaining insight into the human situation, yet each has a distinctive way of stating the matter. What puts the Platonic Socrates and Montaigne on a common ground is, first, reflection on the human being as the intersection of the compulsory and the free, of nature and the intellect, or, to put it differently, the human is the dialectic between the unchosen and the chosen. Second, each addresses the question whether friendship is a matter of utility—usefulness—or is an end in itself. These two considerations must be addressed somehow in every worthy reflection on friendship. In these respects, there are neither ancient nor modern, but differing emphases in considered reflection. The idea that friendship is a relationship constituted in mutually acknowledged utility or advantage is inherent to our experience of life and to reflection on the subject. But this idea, even if it is unavoidable, has often seemed inadequate on serious consideration. There is, of course, a good reason for the intrusiveness of the utilitarian view. The realm of the useful, of advantage and disadvantage, is a mixture of compulsion and choice, standing between the unsought and unavoidable on the one hand, and the unexpected and freely chosen without ulterior motive on the other—between iron necessity and the romance of poetic flight. Consider, first, the following observation of Machiavelli in The Prince on the question whether it is better to be feared or loved: [I]t is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two. For one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children . . . when the need for them [to be offered ] is far away; but, when it is close to you, they revolt . . . for friendships that are acquired at a price and not with greatness and nobility of spirit are bought, but they are not owned and when the time comes they cannot be spent . . . men have less hesitation to offend one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men 198 T Timothy Fuller 030 pt3 (195-284) 3/20/08 12:51 PM Page 198 are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you.1 Let us note that Machiavelli’s passing acknowledgment of a possible friendship based on greatness and nobility does not qualify his advice on the iron necessities of the human condition. That there could be a higher friendship is small consolation if the world cannot be transformed by its possibility, and Machiavelli tended to think that the necessities of the world were everything. On the other hand, according to Thomas Merton, love is not a “deal” but a sacrifice of self, “a positive force, a transcendent spiritual power . . . the deepest creative power in human nature . . . love flowers spiritually as freedom . . . a...