The following is a review of the Book of Concord, which is just one of the books within the Humanist Bible by AC Grayling. The Humanist Bible is a secular, philosophical alternative to the Abrahamic one which is written in the same editorial style and contains numerous wisdom traditions, such as one on leadership (Lawgiver) and this one, on friendship. There are also chronicles, proverbs, consolations based on secular philosophy, and other content.

Friendship as Virtuous Communion

The book of Concord within the Humanist Bible contains a wisdom tradition related to friendship, which is at first defined as something that can only exist among good people. This is reiterated when it is explained that since virtue originally gives rise to friendship, if there is no virtue then friendship can not last, and that friendship only makes us do good things. A partner in crime is, therefore, not a true friend. A virtue is a means that leads to pleasure. Concord says that it is a friend’s virtue that we love (16:8).

Friendship is the handmaid of virtue, not a partner in guilt. – Concord 13:12, Good Book: a Humanist Bible

By “worthy of friendship” I mean the friendship of those who have in themselves the qualities that attract affection. Such people are rare; and indeed all excellent things are rare. – Concord 12:14-15

True friendship is then separated from Platonic friendship, as true friendship requires that we “concern ourselves with facts, not imaginary or ideal perfections”. The process of true friendship is then described in concrete terms: affection is aroused when we see good in friends (4:22), and ties get stronger with proximity and familiarity.

Friendship Must Pass the Test of Hedonic Calculus: the Trials and Blessings of Friendship

An interesting question is posed in Concord: can we be good and imperturbable? In other words: only the good, the caring, worry about their friends. This is an interesting ethical matter, the answer for which possibly lies elsewhere in the book and is explained in terms of hedonic calculus.

Just as Philodemus explains that, after conducting hedonic calculus, sometimes for the sake of greater long-term pleasures we make sacrifices and suffer through certain pains, similarly sometimes we suffer for the sake of friendship (8:1). This is not only because of the benefits of friendship weighed against the difficulties, but also because of the pain of loss and the “hole in the world” that we experience after our friends leave us.

The advantages or friendship must therefore be kept in mind. Chapter 3 details what those advantages are: friendship makes life worth living, it allows us to open our mind to others, to have people to share our joy and prosperity with, and they also make our misfortunes become easier to bear. Friendship is said to be better than all the other goods: it confers strength in weakness, hope in despair, and finally in a friend we can see another self.

A true friend is, as Aristotle says, a kind of second self.  – Concord 13:3

Be not quick to break the bond of love for your friend; Sorrow will rend the heart if you dare not tell another your whole mind. – Havamal

The Rules of Friendship

One should do for, and ask from, friends only what is good (7:1). In other words, true friends must be a good influence on each other. Parting with friends is also oftentimes a natural part of life. We are given as a rule to let friends flourish and pursue their own interests (12:11). But there are two great taboos in friendship; two tests that a true friend must pass:

And though it is true that the hour of need shows the friend indeed, yet it is in the following two ways that most people betray their untrustworthiness and inconstancy: By disdaining friends when they are themselves prosperous, or by deserting them in their distress. – Concord 10:9-10

Qualities to Seek in a Friend

We are advised against befriending people whom we’ll have as foes later, and told that we should carefully select our friends. Chapter 11 elaborates on the qualities that we should seek in an ideal friend: loyalty, firmness, stability, simplicity, a sociable disposition, and a sympathetic nature, moved by what moves us. Superficial acquaintances with whom we form temporary friendships with a common goal, for instance in sports or studies, are oftentimes temporary and not true, lasting friendships.

This same chapter speaks of how friends must engage in frank speech and never conceal their true sentiments from each other, a subject which is revisited and treated in depth in chapter 15, which specifically calls for mutual correction and warns against flattery.

Speaking of flattery, chapter 9 tackles the possibility that wealth forbids friendship and that “Fortune is blind and makes blind those she favors“. Wealth breeds self-interest in all parties involved. There is, throughout many wisdom traditions, an eternal enmity between wealth and friendship. Although every true friendship brings profitability and advantage, we are warned against the degrading effects of self-interest, which devalue the noble quality of friendship:

But most people not only recognise nothing as good in our life unless it is profitable. But they also look upon friends as so much stock, caring most for those who will bring them most profit. Accordingly they never possess that most beautiful and most spontaneous friendship which exists solely for itself, without any ulterior motive. – Concord 12:16-18

At the closing of the text we see a paraphrase of Epicurus’ words on friendship (16:9): I declare that of all the blesings which either fortune or nature has bestowed upon me, I know none to compare with friendship.

Further Reading:

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Frank Speech, Parts OneTwo and Three

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