Book II
IV
 

I have at another time heard him discourse on the kindred theme of friendship in language well calculated, as it seemed to me, to help a man to choose and also to use his friends aright.

He (Socrates) had often heard the remark made that of all possessions there is none equal to that of a good and sincere friend; but, in spite of this assertion, the mass of people, as far as he could see, concerned themselves about nothing so little as the acquisition of friends. Houses, and fields, and slaves, and cattle, and furniture of all sorts (he said) they were at pains to acquire, and they strove hard to keep what they had got; but to procure for themselves this greatest of all blessings, as they admitted a friend to be, or to keep the friends whom they already possessed, not one man in a hundred ever gave himself a thought. It was noticeable, in the case of a sickness befalling a man's friend and one of his own household simultaneously, the promptness with which the master would fetch the doctor to his domestic, and take every precaution necessary for his recovery, with much expenditure of pains; but meanwhile little account would be taken of the friend in like condition, and if both should die, he will show signs of deep annoyance at the death of his domestic, which, as he reflects, is a positive loss to him; but as regards his friend his position is in no wise materially affected, and thus, though he would never dream of leaving his other possessions disregarded and ill cared for, friendship's mute appeal is met with flat indifference.[1]

Or to take (said he) a crowning instance:[2] with regard to ordinary possessions, however multifarious these may be, most people are at least acquainted with their number, but if you ask a man to enumerate his friends, who are not so very many after all perhaps, he cannot; or if, to oblige the inquirer, he essays to make a list, he will presently retract the names of some whom he had previously included.[3] Such is the amount of thought which people bestow upon their friends.

And yet what thing else may a man call his own is comparable to this one best possession! what rather will not serve by contrast to enhance the value of an honest friend! Think of a horse or a yoke of oxen; they have their worth; but who shall gauge the worth of a worthy friend? Kindlier and more constant than the faithfullest of slaves-- this is that possession best named all-serviceable.[4] Consider what the post is that he assigns himself! to meet and supplement what is lacking to the welfare of his friends, to promote their private and their public interests, is his concern. Is there need of kindly action in any quarter? he will throw in the full weight of his support. Does some terror confound? he is at hand to help and defend by expenditure of money and of energy,[5] by appeals to reason or resort to force. His the privilege alike to gladden the prosperous in the hour of success and to sustain their footing who have well-nigh slipped. All that the hands of a man may minister, all that the eyes of each are swift to see, the ears to hear, and the feet to compass, he with his helpful arts will not fall short of. Nay, not seldom that which a man has failed to accomplish for himself, has missed seeing or hearing or attaining, a friend acting in behalf of friend will achieve vicariously. And yet, albeit to try and tend a tree for the sake of its fruit is not uncommon, this copious mine of wealth--this friend-- attracts only a lazy and listless attention on the part of more than half the world.

[1] Or, "the cry of a friend for careful tending falls on deaf ears."

[2] Or, "Nor had he failed to observe another striking contrast." Cf. Cic. "Lael." 17; Diog. Laert. ii. 30.

[3] i.e. "like a chess-player recalling a move."

[4] "A vessel fit for all work indeed is this friend." Cf. Ar. "Ach." 936, {pagkhreston aggos estai}, like the "leather bottel."

[5] Or, "by dint of his diplomacy."