Damon and Pythias: the path to friendship



Beyond the cloud of abstract theory, principles of justice, and ideals of morality, there is a condition of existence that actually matters. There is something about reality, where real people fight, love, rejoice, and despair, that is completely and utterly remote from the world of artificial theory. It’s as if theorizing about our world merely serves as a tool to capture a better image of this distinct thing that is so arduous to articulate rightly in words.

I want to ward off the worldview of idealists, who become so lost in the pursuit of certain ideas like wealth, success, status, and ideology, that their feet lose grounding in the reality of the world of experience. In our greedy swipes at the grand tree of wisdom, we sometimes fail to capture any fruit at all, but if our swipes were measured in accordance with our abilities, not letting our idealism carry us too far adrift, we might have a few pieces of wisdom already.

I find such pieces of wisdom about action grounded in reality in numerous Greek myths, which explains my fascination. While idealism alone is empty and unsatisfying, passionate action grounded in an undying friendly ember is its opposite. In particular, there is a myth about Damon and Pythias, and this is a call to the world to produce more characters like these.

In the myth, the tyrant Dionysius sentences Pythias to death for allegedly plotting against him. Pythias asks to return home to say farewell before serving the sentence, but since he is not trusted, he is only permitted to do so on the condition that his friend Damon will be executed if Pythias fails to return. Damon of course agrees to this arrangement. After some delays, Dionysius is prepared to execute Damon, until Pythias arrives, exasperated and with excuses ready.

Pythias pleads with the tyrant, claiming that he was thrown overboard by pirates on his voyage back, causing him to swim vigorously to the shore. He did everything he could to return and save his friend. Upon hearing this Dionysius strokes his beard and cracks a mesmerized smile. He is so impressed by the caliber of their friendship that he pardons them both.

The friendship driving this series of events isn’t in any way far removed from reality, but rooted in an intense, beautiful feeling. Our affection for ideas fluctuates, waxing and waning from one crescent to the other, but meaning in life that arises out of genuine friendship can have lasting impressions on our minds. Of course, it is not necessary to have the degree of loyalty and affection tested only by near-death circumstances, but this world needs more Damons and Pythiases who recognize where the highest kind of value is found, and how best to realize that value. In the words of the great orator Cicero, “friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief; a friend is, as it were, a second self.”

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