Reconsidering Cicero’s De Amicitia
as a Search for Realism
Adviser: Robert A. Kaster
Phillip X. Braun
“It’s really a nice achievement, I think, to come out of Princeton knowing that one has not only learned from leading scholars, but also grappled with and challenged their ideas, and perhaps made significant original contributions to a particular field of study.”
My thesis-writing process began in May of my junior year, while I was studying abroad. I really wanted Professor Robert Kaster to advise my thesis, and so I asked him even before I had a very clear idea of my topic (although I knew that my topic would fall within his considerable range of expertise). I would definitely recommend securing an adviser as early as possible—I know of others in the department who did not get their first-choice adviser because they did not seek one early enough. Most Princeton professors are, I think, pretty flexible and capable of advising diverse thesis topics within their department; so while a great approach to finding an adviser is matching your topic to an adviser’s particular area of expertise, another great approach, especially if you are not yet fixed on a topic, is to choose an adviser whom you have found to be excellent or who has an excellent reputation for advising. I chose Professor Kaster primarily because, though I had not interacted with him directly up to that point, he had been singled out as an experienced and brilliant mentor by several friends in the department. He also had a reputation for being orderly and schedule-oriented—something that seemed to be a good fit for my own work ethic and for completing thesis work in a timely manner.
I eventually committed (mid-September), upon Professor Kaster’s suggestion, to writing my thesis on Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De Amicitia. I had brought several potential topics to our first thesis meeting, and he quickly singled out De Amicitia among all other suggestions, perhaps because it seemed to be the most viable option. I did not realize it at the time, but as my final year at Princeton drew to its conclusion and I began to reflect on my undergraduate career (and become nostalgic!), his suggestion proved uncannily appropriate—though I had never worked on this topic before (my two junior papers [JPs] and thesis were all basically unrelated), nor had I even seriously read Cicero—because I came to understand that my time at Princeton was best characterized by a great interest in the idea and practice of friendship. I cannot imagine a more satisfying manner in which to conclude one’s Princeton career than by encapsulating it, or some aspect of it, in one’s thesis. In such a case, “quintessentially Princeton” means “quintessentially Princeton” in a much richer sense—for me, the thesis was in some way concerned with the essence of my Princeton experience.
I think my thesis is an example of a reasonably successful “simple execution” project. I admit, early on, it made me slightly uneasy hearing from all the seniors who were writing theses as extensions of their JPs, or who had spent their summers in strange lands researching their topics. By contrast, I began working very seriously only in December, and obtained nearly all of my research from the familiar (but extraordinary) confines of Firestone Library, or through the library’s online resources. Nonetheless, I wrote a relatively stress-free thesis that was very well received. In my opinion, the absolute key to writing a successful thesis is forming a schedule and sticking to it. If you can do this, the thesis ceases to be intimidating. If you can’t, I suspect it will be brutal. Fortunately, Professor Kaster kept me on task! I would highly recommend setting up at least bi-weekly face-to-face meetings with your adviser; these tend to keep you accountable for your work. The schedule that he and I worked out was as follows: Each month a chapter would be due, with each chapter being roughly equivalent to a JP in length and approach. Midway through each month, I would turn in an outline of sources—meaning I would have read nearly all source material for that month’s chapter. In the latter half of the month I’d use the notes I’d taken to write up a polished draft of the chapter. After I’d written all three chapters, I used the final two or three weeks remaining until the final due date to revise my draft chapters, according to Professor Kaster’s comments. So writing a thesis was certainly an intense and challenging experience, but because I kept to a schedule and handled the thesis in smaller chunks, it proved very manageable and not at all overwhelming.
I suppose most of this advice is easier said than performed—I certainly would have thought so if you’d presented it to me in mid-January, explaining to Professor Kaster that I didn’t really have an argument to make about the text I was investigating, and knowing it was clearly too late to switch topics. He was fully confident that I would find an argument, that there was always a novel insight to be made, because no two people read a text in quite the same way. I left his office reassured—not because I had found an argument, but because I trusted Professor Kaster on this; I knew that, in his considerable experience as a thesis adviser, he had seen students in similar positions, and had seen everything come together.
He was right, of course. By mid-morning of April 15, 2010, the thesis was finished and, more importantly, I was satisfied with my work. I’d found what I considered to be a strong argument: a novel interpretation of Cicero’s treatise that challenged the scholarly consensus on the work. Specifically, the scholarship tended to explain that the contradictions, apparent lack of original thought, and philosophical tensions within the treatise were due to Cicero’s hurried, offhanded compositional technique during a time when he sought to distract himself from a turbulent and threatening political situation (the fall of the Roman Republic). I acknowledged that Cicero might have been in a distracted state while writing De Amicitia, but I also invited the reader to consider other circumstances of composition, especially Cicero’s intensely valued friendship with Titus Pomponius Atticus; I argued that Cicero certainly would have wanted to write a work worthy of this friendship. In this light, the tensions and contradictions characteristic of the work seem less the product of careless philosophical amalgamation than an attempt to measure different and sometimes conflicting theories of friendship against its reality as experienced. At some points, through philosophical tension, Cicero finds that theorizing and its reductionist tendencies fail altogether in trying to capture the true essence of friendship. A thorough study of the text further supports Cicero’s strong preoccupation with accuracy in regard to his account of the nature of friendship; for instance, he anchors many of his arguments about the nature of friendship in historical facts and examines friendship in a specifically Roman context. The form and content of the treatise also are consciously designed to engage with the reader emotionally, a process that reflects the emotion involved in experiential friendship.
My analysis thus concluded that De Amicitia presents a highly realistic account of friendship, as might be expected from an author who cared deeply about the subject. While the thesis does not “disprove” the scholarly consensus, it proposes an alternative and apparently more critical interpretation—implicitly highlighting the risks of “dismissing” a text (e.g., after making certain assumptions about its composition), which may leave many of its riches untapped. It’s really a nice achievement, I think, to come out of Princeton knowing that one has not only learned from leading scholars, but also grappled with and challenged their ideas, and perhaps made significant original contributions to a particular field of study. In this respect, thesis writers have acquired a certain intellectual audacity and confidence that will serve them well after Princeton, in both academic and nonacademic environments. I suppose I did not really consider this while writing my thesis, but it’s also rather satisfying to know that a thesis writer truly becomes an expert on his or her subject, e.g., probably only a handful of modern scholars have thought and written about De Amicitia as much as or more than I have (and having performed many hours of research on the topic, I can probably name most of them!). The archiving of theses indeed reflects their legitimacy as works of serious scholarship, available for use by the scholarly community.
To conclude: The senior thesis does not have to be intimidating; select a meaningful topic, set up a schedule, meet frequently with your adviser, and work hard. A good thesis is well worth the effort required to produce it. From its completion onward, it serves as a tangible reference point for the achievement of an extraordinarily high level of scholarly maturity. I suppose the fact that you’ve written a small, well-crafted book is pretty neat, too.
Reconsidering Cicero’s De Amicitia
as a Search for Realism
Phillip X. Braun
Robert A. Kaster
Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature;
Professor of Classics
“I’m there to help out along the way, to question and probe and make suggestions, but the student is the leader, the person on whom the enterprise really depends.”
I’ve been involved in university teaching for 35 years now, the last 13 at Princeton, and working with a student on a senior thesis is, beyond question, among the most satisfying kinds of teaching I’ve done. Granted, the process is probably going to find the student, come the spring, writing into the wee hours of the morning in the face of a looming deadline: There’s nonetheless a leisurely quality to it all at the same time. The thesis develops over the course of months, from the student’s initial idea or hunch, and there’s more opportunity for reflection and second thoughts than is usual in the kinds of teaching and learning that occur in the three-hours-a-week-over-a-twelve-week-semester format. The reflection and second thoughts, moreover, sometime lead to the realization that a certain amount of time has been spent following a false trail down a dead-end street: Though not exactly pleasant, the realization has a certain real-life quality about it—real life is full of false trails and dead ends—that tests a student’s skills and resilience in ways that, again, aren’t customary in other forms of teaching.
Most satisfying, though, is the partial reversal of the usual roles of teacher and student. The student has the idea, or the hunch, to start with, has to think through the ways of articulating its skeleton, and finally has to put flesh on the bones during those late-night/early-morning sessions at the keyboard. I’m there to help out along the way, to question and probe and make suggestions, but the student is the leader, the person on whom the enterprise really depends. There is nothing more gratifying than to see a student take on that responsibility and make the thing work; it has a feeling of resolution and culmination, and that is just the sort of feeling that should come at the end of a student’s four years.
Phil Braun had all the traits I hope to see in the thesis writers I work with, beyond the intelligence that’s typical of Princeton students. He started thinking about the project far in advance—before going off for the summer between junior and senior years—and he had settled on his topic—the theory and practice of friendship in Cicero’s writings and his life—well before it was time to “defend” it before our department’s Undergraduate Committee. He thought deeply about the issues that his topic raised and the best methods to use in addressing them. He was eager to meet regularly, to talk about his ideas as he began to develop them and, later, to go over drafts of chapters or parts of chapters. He responded productively to suggestions and criticism. And he met every single deadline that was set.
But there were two traits that Phil had to set him apart from other seniors I’ve advised. The first of these—his way of taking notes—was disconcerting at first, because it was utterly unlike my own approach, or any that I’ve seen. In fact, I recall that the first time he handed me a sheaf of his notes to look over, I blinked several times and thought, “Uh-oh—this does not look good.” I had this reaction because it seemed that Phil had tossed everything into his file except the kitchen sink (though I suspect that I would have found that there too if I’d looked a bit harder), with an overall effect that was completely chaotic. But as I soon learned, this was just a matter of different strokes for different folks, because by some alchemical process of winnowing and shaping, he invariably turned the shapeless mass of thoughts and references into shapely prose.
Phil’s other distinctive trait was what I can only describe as a burning desire for excellence. Not that other students I’ve advised haven’t wanted to produce excellent work, and certainly none would have rejected it as an option. But in Phil’s case the desire was explicit: On more than one occasion he told me in so many words that he wanted what he produced to be excellent, and he absolutely insisted that I be as tough on his work as I needed to be to spur him on. And it must have worked, because in the end the thesis he produced was excellent indeed, and, in fact, would have been excellent for someone working at the master’s level. It was a result that I know made us both proud.