What is the coin of friendship?

Plutarch had many friends.  Many of the subjects of his biographies did too.  Eumenes of Kardia had friends in the enemy’s camp.  They advocated for Eumenes to be spared after Antigonus captured him.  

Unsuccessfully, sure.

But Eumenes, Alexander’s secretary, was a stranger and an outsider to Macedonian politics.

He never would have made it as far as he did – gotten people to promote him, follow him, negotiate with him – if he weren’t good at making friends. 

His friends told good stories about him after he died.

A funny looking drawing of Eumenes of Kardia

Plutarch wrote an essay On Having Many Friends – “On Polyphilia.”  

In it, he observes,

“It is impossible to acquire either many servants or many friends with little coin.  What then is the coin of friendship?”

Servants – we might say, employees, followers, business contacts, voters – these you can buy with money.

But friendship, he notes, is bought with a different currency.  It is not so easily fungible into the other kind.  No ready liquidity pool for that.

So, what is the currency of friendship? According to Plutarch,

“It is goodwill, and the combination of favorability and virtue.”

Goodwill (eunoia) is the feeling of wanting someone else to have what is good.

And “favorability” – χάρις (charis), is that slippery and difficult to translate concept in Greek. It’s often rendered as “grace” or “charm.”  In its essence, it is the quality that makes people want to do you favors.

Sure, you can have “favorability” without true virtue.  Everybody wants to do the rich and powerful guy a favor.  The cool guy, the charismatic guy. 

But they don’t really want to be his (real) friend.  It’s just a transaction.

Virtue, however, makes people stick around.  It binds them to you.  Makes them want to match your goodness.

This coin, however, is “mined” only with difficulty.  It is smelted in the forge of experience and habit.