Who's need, anyway?
September 27, 2012 7:27 PM   Subscribe

"A friend in need is a friend indeed."

Ben Franklin penned that aphorism in Good Richard's Almanac, back before the Revolution. I've always interpreted it to mean that if someone is there to help you when you're in trouble, it demonstrates that they are a true friend. So you are the one "in need".

But recently it occurred to me that there's an entirely different, and far more cynical, way to interpret that: when someone else is in trouble, and wants something from you, then they will be very friendly to you, at least until they get it. So they are the one "in need".

What I'm asking is whether there's any definitive evidence of which meaning ol' Ben intended? Or did he mean both?
posted by Chocolate Pickle to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i always took it to mean your first interpretation.
posted by violetk at 7:28 PM on September 27, 2012

Before I clicked on the "more inside," and when I only saw the quote, it occurred to me that it could mean your second interpretation.

But take out the need and indeed and you've still got a friend.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:37 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, the internet has four ways of interpreting it, none of them your latter one. And here it is on the Straight Dope message board.

Though I have no evidence to back this up, just based on the fact that Ben Franklin was a bright guy with a sense of humor, I can't imagine he'd put this down without realizing the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from it. So I bet he meant both.
posted by phunniemee at 7:37 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I always took it to mean the second. When someone is "in need" of something from you, they are very nice and friendly... but them again I am cynical.
posted by katypickle at 7:39 PM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

It doesn't address what Ben Franklin meant, but the phrase is ancient and the meaning is that a person who actually does something for you (a deed) when you need it is a friend. Well-cited etymology that also covers the "in deed" vs "indeed" angle: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-friend-in-need.html

phunniemee, I'm baffled. "Jeff Goldblum is watching you poop" vs. "Jeff Goldblum is watching, you poop"?
posted by michaelh at 7:41 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have only ever thought of it in the second of your interpretations. The first seems... reaching.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:12 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm with phunniemee. Ben Franklin was a pretty prolific satirist. He probably meant it both ways. On the surface the first meaning, and then with a sly wink to those among us that see the mirth in all humanity, the second.
posted by katyggls at 8:12 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ben Franklin probably intended many interpretations.
It doesn't surprise me that this is some old ancient adage that he heard and rewrote.

I understand your cynicism, looking on a needy person as a parasite or whatever.

But, here's another way of reading it:
Giving to someone in need is beneficial for both parties. One party benefits from receiving material goods or a lack of hunger or whatever, and the other party achieves some personal fulfillment or gratification or the pleasure of being helpful. So, where ethics are concerned, contributing to the friend in need yields something more valuable than the original contribution. A friend indeed.
posted by at the crossroads at 9:05 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

...I always interpreted it as if you help someone, you are a friend indeed. So a less cynical take on the second? If they ask for help and you supply it, they are likely to consider you a true friend?
posted by geek anachronism at 9:18 PM on September 27, 2012

I can see how you could parse it the second way, but not without a stretch. "A friend indeed" is a friend in truth, or a friend in deed--in their acts. Not "friendly indeed" but "a friend indeed."

"A friend in [one's time of] need is a friend indeed" is how I've always read it, and I've always thought of myself as a card-carrying cynic.
posted by bricoleur at 9:38 PM on September 27, 2012

I'm with 'at the crossroads' -- if you have a friend who needs you, then it's your chance to really experience the best benefits of friendship by being supportive. I have no idea what Mr. Franklin really meant, but I have the sense that, however cynical he may have been, his writing was often aimed at encouraging virtue.

One of my favorite sayings is a little similar: "Ask a favor, make a friend". I've found it to be true. If you give someone a chance to help you in some small way (small is important - "hold the door" rather than "pay my rent"), this breaks down social inhibitions generally and makes it easier to, for example, ask them about themselves.
posted by amtho at 10:17 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

The band Placebo uses the line in Pure Morning...I've always thought they went with the second "needy/selfish" interpretation, but sort of going in both directions.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:42 AM on September 28, 2012

I've always understood both meanings and used them both. I am a cynic and a great admirer of Ben. He knew EXACTLY what he was saying.
posted by pentagoet at 6:48 AM on September 28, 2012

I also agree with phunniemee. I'm sure he realized that it could be interpreted multiple ways, and if he wanted to be specific he could have changed the wording slightly to reflect that.

Personally, I've always taken the cynical route. When I hear it, I think what it means is that when someone is in need, they suddenly become bestest best buddies to everyone and anyone who can get them out of whatever trouble they're in.
posted by Urban Winter at 8:11 AM on September 28, 2012

I too lean towards the more cynical interpretation. To be "in need" is to be a parasite, a burden on others; then when aid is given, there's no guarantee the person who was previously "in need" will show gratitude and/or compensate if you yourself should be in that position.

I think it explains the "Fuck you, I've got mine" mentality that's so prevalent today.
posted by Anima Mundi at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2012

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