Alter egos and friends

In one of his letters to his good friend Atticus, Cicero wrote: ‘I am reproaching myself far more than you, and if I do reproach you it is as my alter ego’. By that, Cicero meant that Atticus was like a second self to him, a close and trusted friend.

Before Franz Mesmer and Freud buried the ‘alter ego’ in the folds of the human self, the ‘alterity’ of the alter ego lay outside of the individual in intersubjective exchange. In calling Atticus his alter ego, Cicero saw his friend as his double, a projection of himself unto the other, but also, potentially, a source for self coming from outside of self. In perfect alignment with Cicero’s theory of friendship, the alter ego explains how friends shape one another, how one becomes a voice for the other but also a source of criticism and self-examination. Friendship, according to this reading, is about giving and receiving and about exposing one’s porous self to the presence of the other. It is no surprise that modernity’s focus on the individual – and on relationships as erotically irrational, socially reasonable and politically contractual – would turn Cicero’s coinage into a solipsistic tool: the double lies within us, and is subject only to the mechanisms of our own conscious and unconscious selves. Whatever the modern theories of friendship are, one thing they are not: my friend is not an extension of myself inasmuch as I am an extension of theirs. Perhaps we might want to give Cicero another chance.


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