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Loyalty: the missing virtue in classical thought.

Loyalty was not treated as an independent virtue by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of reasons for its absence. First, loyalty, as an absolute requirement, is problematic as a virtue because it may come into conflict with other moral demands (should one commit murder out of loyalty to a friend?). Second, duty and affection were regarded as sufficient motives for constancy, and so there was no need to invoke a separate virtue of loyalty. This article offers three case studies of loyalty, involving family relations, friendship, and loyalty to the state.


Loyalty is not among the virtues celebrated and analyzed in our classical sources; indeed, it is not even entirely clear what ancient term corresponds to this idea (some candidates are pistis in Greek and fides in Latin, which will be explained below). In this article, I ask why loyalty was not deemed a virtue in its own right, and I offer two reasons. The first has to do with something in the nature of loyalty itself, which might have prevented its being recognized as a virtue, at least as the ancients understood the term. The second reason looks to other ideas or values that might have taken the place of loyalty or fulfilled the role that we assign to it, thus making loyalty unnecessary as a distinct virtue of its own. In the absence of philosophical treatments, I examine some literary texts where loyalty, or what we would consider loyalty, is on display, and suggest that the relevant motivations are not so much loyalty as duty or love; in these cases, loyalty is not singled out as a distinct quality.

Problems with Loyalty

Before entering upon the classical examples, it is worth considering for a moment what we mean by loyalty, for, on reflection, its apparent omission from the ancient catalogue of virtues is perhaps not entirely surprising. "Loyalty" today has a range of meanings, embracing such ideas as allegiance, attachment, commitment, constancy, devotion, faith, and steadfastness, and there are plainly equivalents to some of these ideas in the classical Greek and Roman vocabularies. In what follows, I may seem to be narrowing the concept of loyalty to the point at which it is unusual enough even in modern English, in which case the absence of a corresponding notion in classical thought would scarcely be surprising. Studies on loyalty today, however, do appeal to certain intuitions about its nature that seem to me to be foreign to classical ways of thinking, and it will be enough to show that this conception of loyalty, at least, did not play a comparable role in ancient ethics.

Loyalty is problematic as a virtue in a variety of ways. First, there is the question of loyalty to what: Ought one to be loyal, for example, to an oppressive political regime, to a friend who has become a criminal, to a spouse who has cheated? Unlike virtues such as wisdom or justice or courage, which are presumably admirable in all situations, loyalty does not have a comparable universality but is conditional upon the nature of its object. In this respect, loyalty resembles love or friendship, but these are more like emotions than virtues; and, in fact, some of the issues that pertain to loyalty do come up in classical discussions of love or friendship in Greek (philia), and of love (amor) and friendship (.amicitia) in Latin. Another problem with loyalty is that loyalties may be divided. What if loyalty to one's country, for example, comes into conflict with loyalty to one's family or friends, or if loyalty to one friend results in disloyalty to another? If we are supposed to be consistent in practicing the virtues, it is odd that one of them should inevitably put us in the position of having to violate it in the very act of respecting it, compromising loyalty to one party precisely for the sake of another. Thus Eric Felten affirms: "The Greeks were sticklers for the loyalties that make family and friendship flourish. Maybe it was this very emphasis on loyalty as a core virtue that gave them such a heightened understanding of the moral catastrophes that can come from trying to navigate conflicting obligations" (55). The point is well taken, save that loyalty was not identified as a specific virtue by the Greeks. The same may happen with friendships, of course, which is why Aristotle and others insisted that one could only have a very limited number of friends. But loving another person does not necessarily entail going along with every action on their part, whereas loyalty seems to make a rather stronger claim on our behavior--or does it?

Finally, loyalty, by virtue of being absolute, would seem to be indifferent to reasons or justifications; it is an end in itself, and once you start defending it and explaining why you are loyal, you run the risk of providing excuses for disloyalty, when the other party fails to live up to the conditions you have set. This is why George Fletcher states:

   Loyalties invariably entail commitments that cannot be
   grounded in reasons others share. There comes a point at
   which logic runs dry and one must plant one's loyalty in
   the simple fact that it is my friend, my club, my alma
   mater, my nation. I could try to explain why I love her,
   why I adhere to this tradition rather than to that, but all
   these reasons will be partial.... In loyalty, as in love,
   there is not even an illusion of scientific neutrality and
   intellectual impartiality. (61)

Fletcher goes on to remark: "This nonrational component of loyalty induces deep emotional attachments. The minimum condition of non-betrayal slides readily into devotion, and the devotion comes to be demanded as a requirement of the relationship" (61).

The ancient Greeks and Romans were in the habit of providing reasons for their behavior and even for their emotional responses (see Konstan, The Emotions). This was in part due to the importance of rhetoric in classical society: Emotions were not simply automatic reflexes but were subject to being aroused, or else assuaged, by argument. When it came to love, for example, classical thinkers indicated the grounds for loving another person: Aristotle and Cicero were in agreement that the other person's virtue was the most secure and legitimate basis for affection. But this entailed the consequence that if a friend began to behave badly, or else did not make adequate progress on the road to virtue, one might--and even should--let the friendship cool. Aristotle makes the point explicitly with respect to childhood friends, who may not keep pace with us as we ourselves mature (Nicomachean Ethics 9.3, 1165b13-22; cf. Cicero, On Friendship 21). Felten puts the question pointedly: "What happens to loyal friendship if the qualities that inspire loyalty in the first place prove to be fugitive?" (7) The danger of basing affection or commitment on specific attributes is clear, at least in regard to the ideal of unconditional loyalty. Perhaps to forestall such a threat to loyalty, Montaigne wrote concerning his devotion to his friend La Boetie: "If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I" (192). But no classical philosopher spoke this way, and that is, I think, the first reason why loyalty may not have been raised to the level of a virtue in antiquity.

To be sure, the Greeks and Romans prized consistency (in Latin constantia): One ought not lightly alter one's convictions or habits. But consistency required that one judge others according to a rigorous standard and not be influenced by personal favor. Reliability or trustworthiness too was highly regarded, needless to say: One wanted a friend to be pistos (in Greek) or fidelis (in Latin), to be there in the lurch. This comes closer to loyalty in the modern sense, but I think it is still not the same notion. Trustworthiness (pistis, fides) describes the behavior of those who live up to their word: It applies to an ally you can count on when need arises, to a friend who will lend you money when you are down and out, to workers who meet their responsibilities to the job. Trustworthiness is analogous to dutifulness, to respect for rules and commitments. But loyalty has an emotional dimension that distinguishes it from pure, disinterested obligation: We are loyal to someone or, in the case of one's country, to a kind of personified entity that can inspire love; we are not simply obedient, as with filial piety or military discipline. But if loyalty is founded on personal attachment, how does it differ from love as such? Is loyalty to a friend a virtue distinct from friendship itself, somehow superadded onto the commitment that the mere fact of friendship would seem to entail? If the unconditional nature of loyalty seems to run counter to the notion of a virtue, which involves a capacity to explain the grounds of one's behavior, the quality of personal attachment would seem to render loyalty otiose, serving no function in addition to what friendship itself demands. Of course, we speak of loyal and disloyal friends, and it is possible to treat loyalty as one of the characteristics that a friendship ideally possesses, without deeming it constitutive in itself of friendship. But the classical conception of friendship was, I suggest, more exigent, and did not leave room for such a lukewarm commitment. This, then, is the second reason, it seems to me, why loyalty may not have been singled out as a special virtue.

The Greeks and Romans, then, may have been wise not to make a virtue out of loyalty, insofar as it represents an essentially non-rational commitment "that cannot be grounded in reasons others share," as Fletcher puts it (61). Where reasons and justifications are expected, loyalty becomes conditional; and where a relationship is regarded as so intense as to collapse the two parties into a single self, loyalty is otiose. Philosophers, of course, are professionally prone to offering explanations, so perhaps it is not surprising that they should have omitted discussion of so irrational a commitment. But what of literature, which often provides a more faithful reflection of life as it is lived? In what follows, I examine two cases of what looks like exemplary loyalty, as recorded in classical texts. The first, which concerns a marital relationship, offers an opportunity to consider to what extent loyalty requires justification as opposed to an unreasoning commitment to the other, come what may. The second involves an example of extreme loyalty to friends, and how it plays out in a tense and difficult situation. I thus treat in some detail two of the three major types of loyalty, as the term is commonly employed today, that is, loyalty to one's spouse and that to a friend. I offer a brief discussion as well of the third kind, that is, loyalty to country, which has a particular inflection of its own, especially under conditions of constitutional crisis. I begin, then, with an instance of exceptional devotion in marriage.

Loyalty to Spouses

In Menander's comedy Epitrepontes, Pamphile has been abandoned by her husband Charisios. The cause of the separation is that Pamphile gave birth to a child that was conceived prior to her marriage to Charisios, as a result of her having been raped during a festival. Charisios is deeply torn, since he loves his wife, but he moves in with a friend next door, who hires a courtesan to distract the forlorn husband; Charisios, however, refuses to touch her. It eventually emerges, thanks in part to the sleuthing of the courtesan, that Charisios is the very man who violated Pamphile, and so the child is his; thus all ends well, by the lights of the genre. But when Charisios leaves home, his wife is naturally distraught, and to add to her confusion, her father, Smicrines, pressures her to divorce him. Pamphile, however, resists, and defends her decision to stand by her man in a speech that is, according to Antonis Petrides, "one of the most astonishing in the whole of the New Comedy" known to us, and constitutes "a veritable revolt on her part against paternal authority" (29). Her father, after all, has good reasons on his side: Charisios's profligacy is ruining him, which is a legitimate concern on the part of the man who provided the dowry (Menander 702-03; 720; 750); Charisios has in effect acquired a second household, which is to all intents and purposes bigamy (752-55); and, finally, as he points out, the freeborn Pamphile does not stand a chance against the wiles and shamelessness of a seasoned whore (793-96).

The text of Pamphile's reply is sadly lacunose, and I rely here on the recent edition by William Furley, trimming away, however, the supplements introduced by modern scholars, however plausible they seem. I hope the reader will bear with me in what is of necessity a rather philological exercise. Pamphile begins: "I [can] state my view [of] everything, molded {pepla[smenen} (1) [to] whatever you think is useful" (801-02); she then offers to speak frankly, or so it seems (this is Furley's view, but the supplement is uncertain). She speaks next of her father being persuaded, then there is a reference to something painful, and Chance or Fortune is said to have wronged women who have erred (the word in question is hamartousas, 808; but there is a hanging negative [meden, 807] that is not easy to explain). Pamphile then mentions a man who has previously suffered misfortune (atukhon, 813), and asks whether she ought now to abandon him (phugein de dei touton [me, 814); the reference is clearly to Charisios. Then she inquires whether, "having shared the good fortune [suneutukhesousa]" of her husband, she is now to betray him, and says that she came to him as his partner (koinonos, 820; cf. 920), though he (that is, Charisios) has stumbled (eptaiken, 821; cf. 915, where Charisios confesses that he stumbled). But she will put up with his having two households, she affirms, and, after some further argument, difficult to reconstruct, she appears to conclude that Charisios will not expel (ekbalei, 829) her from her home.

Scrappy though it is, Pamphile's speech has impressed critics. Furley comments: "The virtue which Menander gives Pamphile is her loyalty in adversity" (218), quoting Geoffrey Arnott: "By making her so fluent and polished, Menander has abandoned the crudity of realism in order to create one of the finest defences of marital loyalty in ancient Greek" (218; Arnott 277). Petrides suggests that her emotional response "burns all bridges with social verisimilitude. Pamphile apparently ... even vows to accept the social ignominy and the psychological aggravation of putting up with Charisios' supposed double life" (31). Petrides adds that "Pamphile's stance is nothing short of self-excommunication from the ranks of respectable women; it is again exactly the kind of unrealistic, magical event that commonly saves the day in the comedy of Menander" (31-32). Pamphile is certainly different from her tragic antecedents, such as Medea, who did not submit passively to such ill treatment on the part of Jason; even Deianira, who refrained from an open expression of anger when her husband Heracles installed a captive princess in their home in Sophocles's play, Women of Trachis, sought remedy in a love potion, which ended up killing the brute. These women, moreover, had no father to stand up for them. Pamphile, despite the backing of Smicrines, refuses to leave her wayward husband.

This is comedy, of course, and a more idealistic representation of marriage is perhaps to be expected. Nevertheless, a woman whose husband took up with a courtesan might well object to his behavior and seek to flee the marriage, even in this more liberal genre. An example is the wife of Menaechmus in Plautus's comedy Menaechmi, who summons her father and petitions for divorce when she discovers that her husband has been stealing her fine clothing and bestowing it upon his mistress next door. Although her father initially takes Menaechmus's side and seeks to excuse his philandering, when he learns that the fellow is squandering his patrimony, he changes his view (as he says, male facit, si istuc facit [he's doing wrong if he's doing this], 805). This matrona, at all events, is not content to put up with her husband's misbehavior. Pamphile's reaction, by contrast, looks like the kind of unconditional devotion that we think of as pure loyalty.

John Porter has shown elegantly how Menander exploited various tragic models in composing this act. Porter notes how unusual it is for Pamphile to have a speaking part at all, not to mention her declaration of independence in a direct confrontation with her father: "Unmarried and newly-wed married citizen daughters do not appear on stage often; still less frequently are they assigned formal speeches" (160). Porter adds: "The obvious models for Pamphile belong not to the world of comedy but to that of tragedy--more particularly, Euripidean tragedy" (160-61), and more especially, the lost play, Melanippe the Wise. Porter also remarks of Pamphile's speech: "Its most notable feature is not its artifice but the long-suffering fidelity the speaker displays toward her errant husband, her determination to stand by Kharisios come what may" (165). But Porter betrays a certain uneasiness with Pamphile's abject submission to her husband's behavior:

   Modern critics might cite her forgiving stance--particularly
   her reference to Kharisios' plight as an atukhema
   [misfortune]--as evidence of the degree to which
   Pamphile has assimilated the values of the patriarchy,
   which ranked unquestioning fidelity as one of the cardinal
   virtues of a wife. (165)

But that discomfort is our problem, according to Porter, who continues:

   Menander's viewers were more likely to have been struck,
   however, by the emotional depth and complexity accorded
   Pamphile's character in contrast to the stereotypical and rather
   two-dimensional roles that seem to have been associated with
   free-born women in fourth-century comedy. The struggle of
   Pamphile to balance loyalty to her husband and her own
   remorse (however irrational the latter might be, on the modern
   view) against her duties toward her father is a serious one
   and contains within it the seeds of tragedy. This being
   Menander, these seeds are never allowed to sprout. (165)

Given the lamentable state of the text, it is impossible to be certain about just what the mention of a misfortune or atukhema (implicit in the participle atukhon, 813) refers to, and similarly for the mention of "stumbling" some lines further on (eptaiken, 821). Later, Charisios himself will use these same terms in his own great speech, in which he imagines some daimon or spirit reproaching him for casting out his innocent wife: "You do not bear your wife's involuntary misfortune [akousion gunaikos atukhem'], but I will show that you stumbled [eptaikota] into the same situation" (914-15), and he recalls his wife's words, which he overheard, about how "it was wrong for her to flee some accidental misfortune [ou dein t'atukhema auten phugein to sumbebekosY (921-22). Critics have been harsh on Charisios, noting that while his wife might well regard having been raped as a matter of bad luck, his own act in raping a woman can scarcely be characterized in this way. Now, Charisios has just learned that the woman he raped bore a child (he does not yet know that this woman was his wife), and I have argued elsewhere that the mention of his wife's "involuntary misfortune" refers to her having borne a nothos or illegitimate child, not to her having been violated as such; in this respect, then, the consequences of his own assault, which have just been brought home to him--that is, that the woman he violated gave birth to a baby--strike him as accidental, a misfortune rather than a crime (See Konstan, Greek Comedy 145-48; Menander 234). (2)

But whatever the case with Charisios, this cannot, I think, be Pamphile's point. First of all, it is not clear that she knows that Charisios has fathered a child, though it seems her father may have got wind of it (cf. 646: paidari[on] ek pornes). Furley remarks that "we must assume that Smikrines had told his daughter about her husband's sins either in lost lines (756-86) or inside, before they come out at the beginning of act IV to continue the argument" (222, commenting on verse 821). This is possible, I suppose, but in defending the propriety of sticking with her husband in good times and bad (cf. suneutukhesousa) and sharing his fate (cf. koinonos) even though he has stumbled {eptaiken, 821), Pamphile is affirming her determination to stay with him even though he has moved out of the house and taken up with a courtesan, who may even, if we follow Furley, have borne his child; she is not making a statement about his having raped a courtesan prior to the marriage, or the fact--if she knows it--that a child resulted from the rape. Pamphile is excusing his entire behavior toward her as mere accident or bad luck. And this is just what sticks in the craw of the modern reader, as Porter observes, when he treats "her forgiving stance" as a sign of her submission to a patriarchal ideology and her "remorse" as "irrational ... on the modern view." Pamphile seems to think that Charisios is unfortunate because she herself was violated and gave birth to an illegitimate child, and so he understandably--poor chap--left the house and took up with another woman. This is hard for us to swallow, but my point here is that Pamphile is not simply insisting that she will "stand by Kharisios come what may," as Porter puts it, but is justifying her decision by casting Charisios as innocent of any offense, a victim of misfortune like herself who has merely slipped up or stumbled. She has other arguments to offer as well, though these are hard to decipher in the patchy papyrus. But whatever the details, Pamphile is defending her stance on the grounds that Charisios's treatment of her is not culpable but a result of accident; if she sticks it out, then, it is not because she is loyal "come what may," but because she has effectively exonerated him. Her fidelity is not unconditional, as we imagine that loyalty must be, but, contrary to what Fletcher stipulates, is "grounded in reasons others share," and which Pamphile hopes will convince her father that she is acting appropriately. Indeed, that is the whole point of her delivering a speech at all: She reasons like a lawyer, as comic and tragic characters alike did in the agon (that is, set speeches opposing one another) that were characteristic of Greek drama.

Pamphile's case is not precisely one of conflicting loyalties, since what she owes her father is obedience, and to go contrary to his wishes is a sign not of disloyalty so much as willfulness; hence her desire to persuade him, and to insist that she has good reasons for her attitude toward her husband. In Plautus's comedy, Stichus, two sisters again find themselves in conflict with their father, who wants them to terminate their marriage with husbands who had been profligate with their resources and have now been away for three years, seeking to recoup their losses by means of a merchant venture; there has been no word of them in all this time, but the daughters prefer to stick with them, and so defy their father's wishes. They make their case by pleading duty (officium), but, by a neat rhetorical twist, they claim it is precisely their responsibility to their father that obliges them to stay in their marriages, since it was he who gave them to their husbands originally; thus, they are obeying his earlier injunction (141-42; see Krauss 30-31; 35). There is a certain sleight of hand here, and critics have been divided over whether the girls are indeed sincere in proffering this argument. Clearly, they are trying to avoid direct defiance of their father; but they are also appealing to the idea that duty is a sufficient motive for remaining in a marriage, whether the obligation is to the father who bestowed them or the husbands who received them.

One of the sisters, indeed, comes close to defending the kind of absolute dedication that is characteristic of modern loyalty, as she affirms:

   In my opinion, it is just [aequom] for all wise people to
   respect and perform their proper duty [officium]. That is why,
   my sister, even though you are the older, I advise that you be
   mindful of your duty [tuom memineris officium]. Even if they
   are bad [improbi] and treat us unjustly [aliter nobis faciant
   quam aequomst], nevertheless so that we not be still more so
   ..., it is right that we, with all our strength, be mindful of our
   duty [nostrum officium meminisse]. (39-46)

The language is that of duty or obligation (officium), which has not, as we have noted, quite the same emotional quality that we associate with loyalty. What is more, this same sister had earlier affirmed that their father is the one who is behaving badly, or more exactly, "is performing the function of a bad man" (eum nunc improbi viri officio uti, 14) in doing such great harm to their absent husbands, unfairly (immerito, 16), by trying to break up the marriage. But the deeper value to which the younger sister appeals as the motive for doing their duty to their husbands is pietas (8a), a form of respect that operates not only between parents and children but in all social relations, as Richard Sailer has shown (see Sailer; cf. Krauss 38-39). As the younger sister puts it: "it is just [aequom] for us to do our duty [officium], nor are we doing it more than pietas dictates" (7-8a). It may be that the peculiarly Roman notion of pietas comes closer than anything else to loyalty, and informs the younger sister's idealistic exclamation of fealty to the husbands, do what they might.

Loyalty to Friends

I turn now to my second example, a case of trustworthiness between friends. Among the legendary friendships of Greek mythology, perhaps none was so celebrated as that between Orestes and Pylades. Their solidarity is dramatized most vividly in Euripides's tragedy, the Orestes. The setting is in Argos, where Orestes has been condemned to death for having murdered his mother. In the nick of time, his uncle, Menelaus, arrives on the scene, on his way home from Troy. Orestes reminds Menelaus that Agamemnon gave his life for his sake, "as philoi [friends] should for philoi" (652), and he adds: "philoi should aid philoi in trouble; when fortune is generous, what need is there of philoi?" (665-67). But Menelaus refuses to intervene on Orestes's behalf, even though he has an army at his disposal. At this critical juncture, Pylades arrives, having been banished from his home in Phocis. Upon seeing him, Orestes exclaims: "Dearest of men ..., trusty [pistos] amid troubles" (725 and 727). In a musical duet, Pylades greets Orestes in turn: "dearest to me of age-mates and philoi and kin; for you are all of these to me" (732-33); as well as being friends, Pylades and Orestes are cousins, and had been raised together as children (hence, "age-mates") after Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra. Pylades replies: "friends share everything" (735). But Menelaus, who fails to help his philoi (719), is exposed as a false friend (740); his caution is an example, according to Orestes, of "what bad friends do for friends" (748). For Pylades, "trepidation among philoi is a great evil" (794); "where else shall I show myself a friend," he asks, "if I do not defend you in dire misfortune?" (802-03) Orestes concludes by declaring: "This proves the proverb: 'Have comrades [hetairoi], not just kin [to sungenes]!' For a man, though an outsider, who is conjoined by character is a better philos [friend] for a man to have than ten thousand of his own blood" (804-06). The two friends will go on to try to force Menelaus's hand by attempting to kill Helen, taking Hermione, Menelaus and Helen's daughter, hostage with a sword at her throat, and threatening to burn down the palace of Argos. Only the intervention of Apollo in the epilogue prevents the execution of their scheme.

The fierce and violent finale has led some critics to interpret the Orestes not as a celebration of true friendship so much as a demonstration of its perversion, when people are willing to do absolutely anything, however outrageous, for friends: a sign more of the distorted bond that gives rise to factions than of honest solidarity. Scholars have quoted in this connection a famous passage from Thucydides in which he describes the moral deterioration that resulted from the civil conflict in Corcyra:

   The customary significance of words in relation to deeds
   changed by each one's justification. Irrational daring was
   considered to be comradely courage [andreia philetairos],
   and farsighted hesitation to be veiled cowardice.... Even
   kinship became more foreign than comradeship [ton hetairikou]
   because it was readier to dare anything without
   excuse.... They confirmed their trust [pisteis] in one
   another not by divine law so much as by committing some
   crime in common. (3.82.4-6)

Along these lines, Orestes's mention of hetairoi has been interpreted as an allusion to the hetaireiai, that is, primarily aristocratic political factions that emerged in Athens in the latter part of the Peloponnesian War, and were active, it would appear, in promoting the oppressive oligarchy that came to power in 411. The Orestes was produced in 408, in the immediate aftermath of this coup and the subsequent restoration of the democracy. Read this way, Euripides would seem to be condemning the kind of partisanship that arises when personal bonds take precedence over all other values.

In my book on Friendship in the Classical World, I observed that a philos is not the same thing as a hetairos, and that there is no evidence that Euripides was thinking specifically of conspiratorial clubs in this play, although I did allow that "the struggle between the young aristocrats and the demos manipulated by cynical demagogues may well be Euripides' comment on the contemporary political climate at Athens" (61). What I would like to note here, however, is the different way in which family and friends are represented in relation to loyalty. Orestes at first simply assumes that his uncle will take his side, since it is what one expects of a close relative. When he fails to do so, Orestes must resort to arguments and persuasion, reminding Menelaus of Agamemnon's sacrifices on his behalf. This is no longer the expected solidarity of kin but requital for a debt. As for friends, there is not a pool of comrades who can either respond to one's needs or show themselves to be unreliable, as in the case of relatives. Rather, Pylades proves that he is a friend precisely by his willingness to share in everything with Orestes, despite Orestes's attempts to dissuade him. Selfless, unhesitating support is the criterion of friendship: Failing that, one is simply not a friend at all.

The Greeks and Romans were intensely conscious of what we call fair-weather friends, that is, those who appear to be friends until a crisis strikes. As Orestes says: "philoi should aid philoi in trouble; when fortune is generous, what need is there of philoiV A skolion or drinking song of the type sung at Athenian symposia affirms: "He who does not betray a man who is his friend has great honor among mortals and gods, in my judgment" (Page #908). Another runs: "If only it were possible to know without being deceived about each man who is a friend what he is like, cutting open his chest, looking into his heart, and locking it up again" (#889). In a fictional contest between Menander and a comic playwright called Philistion, the section subtitled "On a Friend" records the aphorism: "Gold can be put to the proof by fire, but good will among friends is tested by circumstances" (Jaekel 11. 83-84; cf. Diels and Kranz Democritus fragments 101, 106). Among the sentences attributed to the Pythagorean Clitarchus we find: "reversals test friends." The unspoken premise of these apophthegms is that people are inclined to put their own interests ahead of others', and so become scarce when they are called upon to make sacrifices. As Felten puts it: "when your money runs out, your friends go with it. Which is to say they were never really friends to begin with" (4). This latter qualification is, I think, characteristic of the way the Greeks and Romans thought about friends. Since friends were presumed to stand by you, if one failed to do so, it was not a case of friendship betrayed so much as evidence that it never really was a friendship at all. As Orestes says in Euripides's tragedy, "friends who are not friends in a crisis are so in name, not in reality" (454-55). In his Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle quotes the saying "a friendship that is not stable is not a friendship" (7.5, 1239b15-16; cf. Fiirst 119). It was not necessary to stipulate loyalty as an attribute of friendship, since a willingness to help and share at all costs was just what friendship was, and the person who would do this for you was eo ipso a friend.

But such unwavering dependability or steadfastness, admirable as it may seem, begs the question of whether it is in fact due or appropriate in a given instance, that is, whether the objective of common action is legitimate. Of course, letting a friend or one's country down out of sheer greed or cowardice is blameworthy, but this tells us nothing about cases of conflicting loyalties, or the possibility that solidarity with a friend may clash with what is right. At this point, reasons and justifications enter the picture, and loyalty is in danger of seeming provisional. We may argue that saving Orestes's life when he has been condemned to death at a highly charged meeting of the Argive assembly, dominated by demagogues, puts Pylades in the right, since this is the proper thing to do. Nevertheless, the sheer violence of the finale, including the attempt to assassinate Helen, which replays, though without divine authorization, Orestes's matricide, together with the attack on the innocent Hermione, seem to call their enterprise into question, and to raise the issue of where loyalty to a friend might reach its moral limit. The Orestes is tantalizing because it seems to offer no guidance on how to judge Pylades's behavior: His total support is laudable in itself, but ought he to have collaborated in so brutal an action? The play leaves one uncertain, generating that moral tension that is the stock in trade of tragedy. But later writers would take up in earnest the question of what to do when a friend demands something of us that contravenes moral principle.

Loyalty and Legitimacy

In his essay On Friendship, Cicero raises the question of a possible conflict between loyalty to a friend and one's responsibility to the state, or, at all events, to the dictates of common morality. He notes that one of the motives for ending a friendship is "disagreement over sides [partes] in respect to the republic" (21.77). He affirms categorically that friendship can never justify rebelling against the state: "Coriolanus had friends; should they have borne arms along with him against their country?" (11.36; cf. Lundgreen) A much cited case in point concerns the Stoic Gaius Blossius Cumanus who maintained that, if his friend Tiberius Gracchus had asked it of him, he would have set fire to the Capitol (11.37); to this, Laelius, Cicero's spokesman in the dialogue, replies: "it does not excuse a crime that you committed it for the sake of a friend" (11.37). Aristotle had already affirmed that one must not demand that a friend do something bad (Nicomachean Ethics 8.8, 1159b5), a requirement that Cicero too endorsed (13.44). According to Aulus Gellius, Theophrastus, in the first book of his essay On Friendship, treated in detail the question of "whether one ought to assist a friend contrary to what is just and to what extent and in what ways," and he allowed that it was acceptable in certain contexts (1.3.9); Cicero too, Gellius points out, allowed that one may support even an unjust ambition on the part of a friend in a life and death matter, so long as it does not lead to acute disgrace (17.61; cited by Gellius 1.3.13). This counsel is too vague to be helpful in practice, according to Gellius, save in so extreme a case as bearing arms against one's country (contra patriam: Cicero, On Friendship 11.36; cited by Gellius 1.3.19) for a friend's sake, which is manifestly illegitimate. If a friend is precisely one who comes to one's aid, come what may, there was also a growing recognition in classical antiquity of the potential dangers inhering in unconditional solidarity with friends, irrespective of the justice of their cause. Commitment must "be grounded in reasons others share," that is, in common morality.

Cicero regarded the Gracchus brothers as revolutionaries who put their own interests ahead of those of the Republic. In his view, their machinations against the state were the precursor to the great civil wars that beset Rome, from the struggle between Marius and Sulla at the beginning of the first century to the great war between Caesar and Pompey (Cicero did not live to see the conflict between Octavian, later called Augustus, and Marc Antony and Cleopatra). Cicero's position was not merely theoretical: He was consul in the year 63, when he marshaled the Senate to authorize war against Catiline and his supporters, a battle that Cicero regarded as waged for the very salvation of the Republic. But, we must ask, whose Republic? When there is a crisis of legitimacy, and two sides are contending for control of the state, who has the right or the authority to adopt the voice of the Republic and label those who dissent as disloyal?

Catiline was a senator, and what is more, a scion of a patrician family that far outclassed Cicero's own ancestry, in which no one before Cicero had risen to the status of Senator, not to say consul (he was what was called a "new man" or novus homo). Thus, even as he is urging the Senate to condemn Catiline, he must deal with the fact that his arch enemy is inside the sacred sanctum, asserting by his very presence his participation in the organs of power. Cicero's ploy is to urge Catiline to depart, and thus to draw a geographical boundary between the two parties which will leave Cicero in control of the symbolic center of the state: "The consul orders a public enemy to leave the city" (Catilinarians 1.5.13). When Catiline interrupts, Cicero denies that he is ordering him into exile, since he in fact had not the authority to condemn a citizen without a formal trial: "But if you ask my opinion," Cicero says, "I urge it" (1.5.13). There is a drama here being played out as a struggle for the control of symbols. Indeed, a few days later, when Cicero is defending himself against the charge of having put to death some of those who were, he alleges, conspiring with Catiline, he declares: "anyone who is an enemy of the Republic cannot be a citizen" (4.5.10). Very well: But who is qualified, in times of crisis, to make this distinction? Cicero's rhetorical strategy is to identify his voice with that of the Republic. The Republic, as ventriloquized by Cicero, confirms Cicero's view: "Those who have defected from the Republic have never had the rights of citizens in this city" (1.11.28). There is no arguing with the Republic itself over who its enemies are, provided of course that we accept Cicero's mimicry. The contemporary historian Sallust tells us that after Cicero took his seat, Catiline, in a modest and humble manner, begged the Senate not to imagine that he, a patrician and distinguished like his ancestors for service to Rome, had the least desire or need to overturn the Republic, while someone like Cicero, a "naturalized immigrant" in the city of Rome, was the man to save it (31; for further discussion, see Konstan "Rhetoric"; Correa). Loyalty to the state is a fine slogan, but in the crunch its content is inevitably contested, and may seem to be reduced to mere partisanship. For this reason too, political loyalty as an abstract virtue may have come under a certain suspicion, or at least have defied--and perhaps continues to defy--the kind of rigorous definition that philosophers favor.


Friendship engages the issue of loyalty in a way that other relations do not, precisely because it is elective and not simply a matter of duty. When it comes to complying with the wishes of a parent, for example, as in the comedies by Menander and Plautus that I discussed earlier, or of one's master in the case of a slave or serf, or the commander during a war, we typically speak of obedience or discipline rather than loyalty. Thus, the scenes in the Iliad in which comrades risk their lives to assist fellow warriors, or the fealty of the swineherd Eumaeus to Odysseus in the Odyssey, while they can be read as loyalty, smack rather of obligation (for an interpretation as loyalty, see Roisman). Friendship is not based on rules or requirements: It is not contractual in nature, but is an expression of personal attachment. Menelaus, as Orestes's uncle, is bound to come to his aid, and when he does not, he is roundly abused--but he remains Orestes's kin. A friend who fails to help does not so much cease to be a friend as to manifest that she or he was not a friend at all. Thus, while one may be gratified by the support of family, one takes it as given, whereas with friends one feels grateful, since it was in no way enjoined upon them. But if a willingness to share and dare in everything is constitutive of friendship, and proves who is a friend and who is not, then the possibility of joining in an immoral action becomes particularly salient: One automatically stands accused of being no friend at all if one fails to provide support. Thus, even as friendship is predicated on the kind of total commitment that we associate with loyalty, and hence obviates the need for a separate concept of loyalty to complement it, as it would if friendship were a status, like kinship, rather than defined by behavior, this very unconditional quality raises the problem of justifying actions undertaken on behalf of a friend when there are countervailing moral demands. In other words, we are back with the problem of giving reasons, which is just what loyalty was supposed to transcend. The limits of what one would do for a friend are implicitly clear, if friendship is predicated on virtue: One could always affirm, as indeed Gaius Blossius Cumanus did, that one's friend would never make a demand that was contrary to justice (On Friendship 11.37), though Cicero's Laelius is not willing to let him off the hook and insists on pressing him with the question: "But what if he did?" (11.37) But loyalty, abstracted from the conditions for friendship, can take no such refuge in the precondition of virtue: It stands nakedly exposed to the question that Cicero poses. Perhaps this is why loyalty was never elevated to the rank of a virtue.

David Konstan *


* wish to thank the editor and two anonymous readers of the journal for their detailed and immensely helpful comments. They have without question improved the argument of this article.

(1) The bracket indicates that what comes after it is not in the papyrus itself, but has been supplied by modern editors.

(2) The Greeks, and especially the Athenians at this period, were particularly anxious about illegitimacy, so that the birth of a baby as a result of rape might overshadow the issue of lost virginity.

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Author:Konstan, David
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Case study
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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