"Ancient Friendship for Modern Men" Chapter 3: Damon & Pythias

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Dionysius was a tyrant who ruled Syracuse on the island of Sicily. He was ruthless and unkind. Dionysius had gained the throne through scheming and bribery and once he ascended as ruler, he was cruel to the people of Syracuse and to strangers. He was irrational and unpredictable, and no one wanted to cross his path.

One evening the ruler had a dream in which a local townsman named Pythias attempted to take his life and his throne. When Dionysius awoke, he had Pythias arrested and sentenced to death for treason believing if he dreamed it, it must be true.

Pythias had no way to prove his innocence against the kings’ false claims, but he did make a request of Dionysius. Pythias asked to be released to travel to see his family in order he may tell them goodbye, and he promised to return in seven days in order to face his execution. Dionysius had no belief the youth would return and was unwilling to permit the short-term release. However, a close friend of Pythias named Damon was willing to take his place in prison and said he would also face death in Pythias’ place if he did not return in time. Damon told the king, “I am not afraid to take place of my friend for he is noble and trustworthy and will return to face his death. Even if he is held by weather or captured by evil men, I am willing to die for a true friend as Pythias.”

With this, Dionysius permitted Pythias to leave and say goodbye to his family and Damon was imprisoned.

The week passed and the guards and king told Damon his friend was not going to return and surely, he would die in his place. But Damon restated his faith in his friend and his willingness to die if he was killed in route or held by circumstances.

Even the hardhearted king was impressed with Damon and his faith a commitment to his friend.

On the seventh day Damon was prepared for execution and was taken to the prison entrance. As his eyes hit the harsh light from outside the prison, and in the harsh light stood the silhouette of his friend Pythias. A storm at sea had held his return. Pythias apologized to his friend for his late return and for nearly costing Damon his life. Damon was release and Pythias bound by the guards.

The crowds had gathered at the place of execution and the king saw the guards pulling their prisoner, but soon he saw it was Pythias and not Damon. Dionysius was amazed the youth would return as he was convinced, he would have fled and left Damon to die.

The example of faith and love shown by the two men once again softened the heart of the tyrant and he offered Pythias a pardon. Even more, the king asked to Damon and Pythias for their friendship so he might learn from them.

This is my version of the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias, a story retold by Aristoxenus of Tarentum and Marcus Tullius Cicero and used even in modern art to provide a story of true friendship.

The ancients had a philosophy of friendship and dwelt upon it in their literary works. From the works of Homer, Aristotle, and later Cicero we have examples of faith and trust in others and pragmatic steps to identify a true friend. Jesus had a philosophy of friendship as well, however, many Christians are uncomfortable with the term philosophy being applied to Christian ideas. Philosophy is an appropriate term as it is a matter of thought. A Philosophy may or may not be divorced from the truth. The work of the individual is to discover and digest philosophical ideas to determine if it aligns with the truth.

If not for a friend, I may have never engaged with the ancients. I had read a little of the works of Homer and I was only familiar in name with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca, but I had not dug deep into their writings or considered their value in the modern world. Then I met Dr. David Bertch and his friendship would open countless doors to the past.

I met Dr. Bertch in 2006 and he was an answer to prayer in my life after the loss of a mentor and friend, Don Staton.

Don and Helene Staton taught the young married Sunday school class at our church, Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth. This small group of couples would be a building ground for several lifelong friendships.

Don was in his late sixties when I met him at Southcliff. He was a good teacher and leader and put all his efforts into the men and women of our group. He was retired after years of managing his own business.

Don made time for the men in our class. He would meet with us for a weekly book club and connect with us individually at breakfast. He introduced us to books he loved which were designed to support or amplify lessons from the Bible. All the books were modern books reflecting on biblical ideas and theology. In my late twenties it was the first time I read for pleasure.

Don pursued us by creating environments for learning and debate and by setting aside time to grow individual connections with each of us. He was a friend, but more importantly, a mentor. Over ten years he was responsible for pushing me deeper into reading and thought as well as cultivating my friendships with others through introductions he made.

He was like a father to many young men. In November of 2004 Don passed away. He was at a hospital in south Fort Worth for several days and we were unable to see him, but through his family he sent us a message before he passed. He told us, “Carry on!”

For the next two years the thought of him would bring me to tears. I and others had lost a trusted mentor, an old man who had succeeded in life through his relationships and who gave us so much wisdom. I was desperate for another friend who had experienced more of life and could help me on my journey as Don had.

By 2006 Danae and I were teaching our own class on Sunday mornings at a different church, Wedgwood Baptist. We were given a great example over the past decade by Don and Helen Staton and took on the responsibility ourselves somewhat reluctantly. During our time teaching at Wedgwood, we would meet more lifelong friends.

Our class included couples in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. I was disappointed to not have older folks in the class. I felt those in their 60s and 70s had the most to share. I had not lost a job, a child, been through a divorce, put a kid through college, built investment income, failed in a dramatic way, been married for 30 years, etc. All the things in life only someone who has lived can share and counsel you through.

I put an ad in our weekly church publication which read, “Dear Old People, we are in desperate need of your experience and wisdom. Our class has no one from 60 – 80 years old and we would like to invite you to join us in fellowship so we might learn from you.”

Two weeks later David and Barbara Bertch, in their mid 60s, walked into our class in response to the posting. After class Dr. Bertch came up to me and asked, “Do you like to read?” I affirmed I had an interest in books and he asked me what I was reading. He was not impressed with my list or the authors. He said, “I like to meet with men and talk about old books. If I suggested a book, would you take the time to read it and then you and I get together each week to discuss it?”

I accepted immediately. He then said, “If you are not going to take the time to read, I won’t take the time to discuss it. So be prepared for there is no need for us to waste time.”

This man was serious.

“Have you read the Pensées by Blaise Pascal, “Dr. Bertch asked.

“No sir that is unfamiliar to me.”

“Let’s read a book which talks about the Pensées then called, ‘Christianity for Modern Pagans’ and you buy a copy this week,” he said.

And so, we began reading our first book together in the spring of 2006. He would introduce me to Pascal, Aristotle, Boethius, Plato, Dante, Seneca, Xenophon, Cicero, and more.

I had found another friend and mentor. Mentors as friends can enrich our lives and I want to focus on this type of friendship later. Don Staton and David Bertch provide us a simple pattern for building friendship through an investment in seekers. Let’s dive deeper in a later chapter.

I never would have heard the story of Damon and Pythias if not for my friend Dr. Bertch. The great examples and outlines of friendship from the past would have been lost to me without his influence, and there is so much we miss about life and friendship without the ancients.

The ancient writers and philosophers are now relegated to micro introductions in middle-school, poorly taught Philosophy 101 college courses and only truly appreciated by a select few who study the Humanities, which is a shrinking number. Even beyond the ancients little time is spent with writings from medieval monks, the reformer, the French and American revolutionist, and modern philosophers. The modern world doesn’t waste time on authors who don’t teach us to conform to job function or show us how to make money. Yet, if we read those of the past we would learn how to live well, how to find meaning, and how to live with others.

The modern philosopher tells us, "L'enfer, c'est les autres" or "Hell is other people". The famous phrase of Jean-Paul Satre. But the ancients tell us, “A friend is a second self, so that our consciousness of a friend's existence...makes us more fully conscious of our own existence.” The words of Aristotle which would be restated by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The ancients thought deeply upon the idea of friendship. For them it did not begin and end with someone you could talk with about sports and have a beer. However, this may be an activity within a friendship. The ancients found purpose and meaning in the development of friendships. The ancients defined the different types of friendships and they identified what they called, a “true friend”.

Would you take the place of one of your friends if you knew it might mean your death if they did not return? Would you be willing to die even if their intentions were good, but there was the possibility of their ship being destroyed at sea? The example of Damon and Pythias might be extreme, but do you think this deeply about the friendships in your life? Have you pondered what you learn from your friends? Have you thought about what they are learning from you? Have you dwelt upon your example to them and theirs to you? Have you reflected on the life event, simple or dramatic, you’ve been through together?

The ancients can help us develop a philosophy of friendship. You should have a philosophy of friendship to guide you in your relationships with others. Your constructed view of friendship will help you identify who you can serve, where you are lacking and what you can learn from others, and who has the makings of a true friend. The ancients can help us understand where we are in the growth of friendship and what steps we should take to move forward or even retreat from a relationship.

I don’t find many men thinking deeply about friendship, but if we will take the time to understand our philosophy of friendship, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of those around us and our own.

I am grateful you are taking some time to read my thoughts on friendship and my examples, but the success in this process comes when you go back to the old books and reflect on the well outlined thoughts of the men and women of the past.

Some of my friends are dead. They are men of the ancient past whose words were saved in print and as I read them, I commune with them. I discover how much we have in common, and I gain wisdom from their contemplations. The world of the ancients was different than our own, but there are enough similarities in our lives to find usefulness in their teachings.

Let’s examine the thoughts of friendship from one, ancient individual, Marcus Tullius Cicero. His life story and his writings can help us identify a true friend.

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