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8 September 2017

Many pastoral care or disciplinary situations at school involve questions of friendship.  Navigating friendships can be a minefield for children and young adults.  Some children, often the introverts, are content with just one best friend and soulmate, others are particularly outgoing and prefer a wide network of friends.  With Prince George starting school today in the UK, the news have reported that his school has a policy of discouraging ‘best friends’, as this might lead to exclusive relationships and hurt other children’s feelings. 

Once again, no matter how noble the intention behind this policy might be, this is a prime example of misguided political correctness and of a ‘shared language’ that will not suit everybody.  Some children thrive on having a ‘bestie’ (and they may well have various different best friends in the course of their school career), and I don’t think a school should intervene when that happens.  Like all teachers of teenagers, I have counselled numerous children in friendship skills when they felt isolated, unhappy, friendless or ostracised.  Navigating friendships is not an easy skill to acquire but whilst we, as teachers, can help children with it, we can’t do it for them.

In my previous blog I have mentioned the confusing pace of change that we are all exposed to these days.  Maybe it is because of this pace that I find so much solace in the classical authors of ancient Greek and Roman times when everything moved so much more slowly.  The wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero and so many others has been respected for centuries, and those who read these authors properly can still learn much from them in our fast-moving times.

The ancient authors had much to say on the topic of friendship.  In a previous blog (On Friendship Part One) I have quoted Seneca’s dictum that you should judge someone before you make them your friend, not afterwards.  Once you have made someone your friend, you should trust them.  I also quoted Horace who pleaded for friends to be tolerant of each other and forgive each other their blemishes.  Both are good, timeless recipes for friendship.

Cicero dedicated a whole essay to the topic of friendship.  A main theme of his little treatise is the difference between a ‘utilitarian’ friendship that is predominantly motivated by career goals or political gain, or at least mutual political usefulness (the modern term for it would be 'networking'), and a personal friendship that goes beyond such utilitarian motives.  While the former can be dissolved, the latter is here to stay.  (Nam si utilitas amicitias conglutinaret, eadem commutata dissolveret; sed quia natura mutari non potest, idcirco verae amicitiae sempiternae sunt.)  The Latin words mean that, if utility/usefulness has glued together the friendship, then it can dissolve once the usefulness is no longer there; true friendships, conversely, are made to last forever.

Things are not always as clear-cut, of course:  considerable pain and sadness can be caused if a friendship was maybe just a utilitarian one for one friend, but meant infinitely more to the other party in the friendship.   With the exception of wisdom, Cicero says, nothing more precious was given to us by the immortal gods than a friendship that allows us to speak to someone else as frankly as to ourselves:  amicitia, qua quidem haud scio an excepta sapientia melius homini a dis immortalibus datum.  Quid dulcius quam habere quicum omnia audeas sic loqui ut tecum?  These words, of course, promote an exclusivity in friendship that Prince George’s school would whole-heartedly disapprove of!

Cicero was a good judge of human character, and he had observed frequently in his career how people changed allegiance and friendships for purely utilitarian reasons.  In the tumultuous final years of the Roman republic, people regularly ended friendships with colleagues who had become ‘persona non grata’ with whoever held the power at the time – Cicero himself was no exception.  But he was clear-sighted enough to realise that people rarely owned up to their true motives (be it career opportunism or cowardice), and that instead they invented false narratives, trying to convince themselves and others that there was a proper reason for ending a friendship, rather than admitting that they acted opportunistically: Imbecilla enim est natura ad contemnendam potentiam; quam etiamsi neglecta amicitia consecuti sint, obscuratum iri arbitrantur, quia non sine magna causa sit neglecta amicitia.

Most languages and cultures have proverbs like the one that dates back to the Roman author Ennius:  Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur.  It means the same as the English proverb A friend in need is a friend indeed.  Cicero goes beyond this thought by saying that a real friend not only proves himself by standing by a friend in their adversity, but also by rejoicing with them in their good times.  Both can prove challenging at times.

What can we learn from all these thoughts for teaching friendship skills to our pupils?  Well:  as my readers know from my previous blogs, I am a strong believer in modelling to pupils the behaviours we want them to adopt.  It is important that as teachers we are good and supportive colleagues to each other, that we have the integrity to stay loyal in particular to those friends who have become more than just work colleagues and that we do not betray a true friendship for utilitarian motives.

If we want our pupils to be inclusive of others and to protect each other from bullying, we need to discourage them from choosing their friends based on their popularity, clique and usefulness.  We need to encourage them to be loyal to the friends they have chosen, even if they fall out with the popular crowd of which they so desperately want to be a part.  If we are not principled enough to model such behaviour, if we, too, like Cicero’s political opportunists, hide behind a false narrative, we need to question our moral right to educate our young people.

Friendship and love are two different concepts in the English language, but nobody denies that in the best friendships there always lies an element of love.  The Latin language reflects this etymologically:  love (amor) and friendship (amicitia) are closely related.  Where Cicero talks about utilitarian motives, he very rightly says that in friendships of the highest order the friendship comes first, even though utilitarian benefits may well follow from it.  In merely utilitarian friendships (and there is a legitimate place for those, too), the friendship is sought purely for its political or career benefits and ends when they cease.


I dedicate this blog to those who have been, and continue to be, amici certi, steadfast friends, during my time in Sydney and elsewhere.  I also dedicate it to those whom I see less these days and who continue to mean much to me, far beyond utilitarian motives:  because we share the same values, because I miss our conversations, our laughs and our walks, and because I will always love them, quia verae amicitiae sempiternae sunt. 

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