A Treatise on Virtue and Friendship

Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584)

Virtue: we love it even in a foe and in strangers. Why? What does virtue consist of?

First, it consists of wisdom which knows what should be sought and what avoided; second, of justice which gives everyone his due; third, of the loftiness of mind which disregards temporary things; fourth, of modesty in speech and action.

Out of these four elements many others derive, and they in turn make men into civilized beings.

In contrast, intelligence breeds learning which is manifold. The first among the branches of learning is the knowledge of knightly rights and duties, then the laws of the kingdom, and then the liberal arts.

Thus two things ennoble man: his habits and his mind. The habits originate in virtue, and a good mind originates in learning. Both are important to have. But if you can acquire only one of them, take virtue over intelligence; for intelligence without virtue is like a sword held by a madman, whereas virtue, even deprived of intelligence, is useful and laudable.

People love both virtue and learning, but they also cherish material goods and advantages. Simple people in particular are easily attracted by generosity and gifts. However, friendship made from generosity does not last because the gift is cherished more than you, and when you have nothing to give such a friendship dissolves as well. Those who remember a good deed are very few.

Thus if you give, remember two things. First, give in such a way as not to bring yourself into dire poverty. Second, give to those who are worthy: doing good to them, you do good to yourself.

There is also verbal giving. You can be useful to another person if you give him good advice, or a timely warning: you can earn gratitude this way also.

You can also be useful to your neighbor by doing things that are of use to him. Here, however, you must be careful not to transgress against virtue and decency for the sake of doing him a favor. You can praise him, however, and best of all not in his presence but behind his back. This you can do for a friend.

However, it is impossible to be liked by all (for what one cherishes, another loathes). Thus the best policy for those who seek prestige and friendship is to behave in a virtuous way at all times, for anyone will respect that. If such a person does not win friendship and respect, it is not his fault but the fault of those who do not love virtue.

It is not good to have too many friends, for if love is divided into too many parts, it is not as strong as one that is not, and who loves but little is also loved little.

My advice then is to have few trustworthy friends. Aspire to enter a friendship such as that between Pylades and Orestes, Piritous and Theseus, Damon and Phinthias, Scipio and Scaevola.

To acquire such friends, you can use the advice given above, but you also need other qualities of mind, and you need to be patient. Remember to be loyal and generous yourself, as long as this does not impinge on virtue.

Remember also that like attracts like, and people of the same habits and professions feel attracted to each other. Thus soldiers like soldiers, and hunters find much in common with other hunters.

As gold in a fire, so a friend is proven in need. Remember then that if your friend is in need, you have an opportunity to prove yourself and to show him that you are truly a friend of his. In contrast, flatterers will follow you like a shadow on a bright day as long as you are successful and prosperous; but when the wheel of fortune turns the other way, they become like the shadow on a cloudy day: they disappear. It is fit for a righteous man to stand firmly with his friend against fortune, which is fickle.

And because the foundation of friendship is virtue, you have first of all to become good yourself, and then, being righteous yourself, look for friends among the righteous.

Slothful, spendthrift, greedy and quarrelsome people make poor friends. Good deeds, hope, love, learning, patience and flattery - all that gains us love of others.

Do you remember what Hercules did to be loved?

Remember, two causes awaken love in men. One is being worthy of love, or being virtuous. The other is the self-love of the person who loves you.

Jan Kochanowski was the greatest poet of the Polish Renaissance. "Wyklad cnoty" can be found in Jan Kochanowski, Dziela polskie, vol. 2 (Warsaw: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy 1969).

Translated by Cedric Spak who graduated from Rice University in Spring 1993.

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