Book 9: Friendship or Love—Continued.
Are we to make as many friends as possible? or, as in the case of guest-friendship we approve of the saying, “neither a host of guest-friends nor yet none,” shall we say that in the case of friendship also it is best neither to be friendless nor yet to have too many friends?
With regard to friends who are chosen with a view to being useful, the saying would seem to be perfectly appropriate; for it would be troublesome to repay the services of a large number, and indeed life is not long enough to enable us to do it. Of such friends, therefore, a larger number than is sufficient for one’s own life would be superfluous and a hindrance to noble living; so we do not want more than that number.
Again, of friends chosen with a view to pleasure a small number is enough, as a small proportion of sweets is enough in our diet.
But are we to have as many good men for friends as we can, or is there any limit of numbers in friendship, as there is in a state? for you could not make a state out of ten men, and if you had a hundred thousand your state would cease to be a state. But perhaps the right number of citizens is not one fixed number, but any number within certain limits. And so with friends there is a limit to their number, and that is, we may say, the largest number that one can live with (for living together is, as we saw, one of the most essential characteristics of friendship); but it is quite evident that it is impossible to live with and spread one’s self abroad among a large number.
Moreover, a man’s friends must be friends with one another, if all are to spend their time together; but this is difficult with a large number.
Again, it becomes hard for him to sympathize duly with the joys and sorrows of a large number; for then he is likely to have at the same time to rejoice with one and to grieve with another. Perhaps, then, the best plan is not to try to have as many friends as possible, but so many as are sufficient for a life in common; and indeed it would be impossible to have an ardent friendship with a great number.
And, for the same reason, it is impossible to be in love with many persons at once; for it seems that love is a sort of superlative friendship, and that this is only possible towards one person, and an ardent friendship towards a few only.
And this seems, in fact, to happen: we do not find a number of people bound together by the sort of friendship that exists between comrades, but the friendships that the poets celebrate are friendships of two persons. And the man of many friends, who is hail-fellow-well-met with everybody, seems to be really friends with no one (in any other way than as fellow-citizens are friends)—I mean the man whom we call obsequious.
After the manner of fellow-citizens, indeed, it is possible to be friends with a great number, and yet not to be obsequious, but to be a truly good man; but that kind of friendship which is based on virtue and on regard for the friend’s self one cannot have for many, but must be well satisfied if one can find even a few such persons.