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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2015

Tamer Nawar
University of Oxford / Groningen


The philosophers of antiquity had much to say about the place of friendship in the good life and its role in helping us live virtuously. Augustine is unusual in giving substantial attention to the dangers of friendship and its potential to serve as an obstacle (rather than an aid) to virtue. Despite the originality of Augustine's thought on this topic, this area of his thinking has received little attention. This paper will show how Augustine, especially in the early books of the Confessiones, carefully examines the potential of friendship to lead us astray. In particular, friendships may prove an impediment to virtue by: derailing our practical reasoning (rather than aiding it); fostering vices (rather than virtues); and misdirecting our love. Augustine's investigation of the murky depths of friendship shows an original philosopher and keen observer of the human condition at work.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2015 

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1 The pseudo-Platonic Definitions define φιλία as ‘agreeing about what is admirable and just; deciding on the same way of life; having the same views about moral decision and moral conduct; agreeing on a way of life; sharing on the basis of benevolence; sharing in rendering and accepting favours’ (413a10-b2). Plato himself raises many of the questions which would become staples of later philosophical reflection. He explores: the relation between ἔρως and φιλία (especially throughout the Lysis and the Phaedrus); friendship and frankness (throughout the Phaedrus, though also touching upon it elsewhere, e.g. Grg. 486e6–487a3); and the tension between the putative self-sufficiency of the good person and the necessity of friendship for a good life (e.g. Lysis 214e2–215c2).

2 This theme seems to have attained greatest prominence among writers of the Hellenistic age concerned with the potential for kings to be misled by flattery. See D. Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World (Cambridge, 1997), 98–103; J.T. Fitzgerald (ed.), Friendship, Flattery, & Frankness of Speech: Studies on Friendship in the New Testament World (Leiden, 1996).

3 In a brief aside Aristotle does say that friendship among the bad is a vice (Eth. Nic. 1172a8-10) but does not give the matter much attention. Further, to some influential commentators (e.g. Cooper, J., ‘Friendship and the good in Aristotle’, PhR 86 [1977], 290315 Google Scholar) it has seemed that friendship among those who are less than good makes the friends better.

4 Epicurus stressed the necessity of friendship (e.g. Cic. Fin. 1.65-70; Lucr. 5.1011-27 = LS 23K) and saw it as a virtue (e.g. Sent. Vat. 23 = LS 22F1). The Stoics thought friendship existed only among the virtuous (Diog. Laert. 7.124); how the friend might be said by the Stoics to be choice-worthy for his own sake is briefly discussed by Sextus Empiricus (Math. 11.22-6 = LS 60G). ‘LS’ refers to A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1987).

5 In a nod to Roman practice, Cicero gives substantial attention to the possible tension between the demands of friendship and the common weal (Amic. 36–44). Thus he notes that sometimes a friend's desires may not be just through and through but that amicitia admits (and indeed may demand) minor peccadilloes in defence of a friend's life or reputation. Such acts are permissible so long as they do not distance us too greatly from the virtuous path (Amic. 61).

6 One struggles to find examples of friendship in the Old Testament beyond that of Jonathan and David in the Books of Samuel. Similarly, friendship does not appear to be a prominent theme in the New Testament. While the term φίλος (amicus) does appear a number of times, sometimes with positive connotations (most notably at John 15:13–14), φιλία (amicitia) in fact only appears explicitly once and does so in a negative context, where what it spoken of is friendship of this world which is hostile to God: amicitia huius mundi inimica est Dei (James 4:4). Where those attributes associated closely by the classical tradition with friendship are sometimes invoked in scripture, they are not typically couched in the language of friendship. Thus, for instance, it is the multitude of believers (multitudo credentium) who are said to share one heart and one soul and who hold all things in common (Acts 4:32; cf. Acts 2:44). The believers are not there described as friends, nor is the relation that obtains between them described as one of friendship. For further discussion, see the essays in Fitzgerald (n. 2).

7 For discussion of the broader historical context, see Konstan, D., ‘Problems in the history of Christian friendship’, JECS 4 (1996), 87113 Google Scholar.

8 In the final chapter of his De Officiis, Ambrose closely follows Cicero's De Amicitia. While his ability to supply biblical examples of amicitia is curtailed by the relative absence of the theme in scripture, he can muster a considerable number of biblical examples when called to (e.g. Off. 2.36-7, 3.80). Ambrose praises the faithful friend as a medicamentum uitae (Off. 3.129) and thinks friendship acts as a remedy against arrogance (Off. 3.138).

9 Paulinus says that God's call has separated him from ‘friendship of flesh and blood’ (amicitia carnis et sanguinis, Ep. 4.4; cf. Ep. 11.3) and seems to reserve the term amicitia primarily (though not exclusively) for worldly friendships, which he criticizes as being deficient and characterized by flattery (e.g. Ep. 40.2). Whereas Ambrose most often uses caritas and amicitia interchangeably, for Paulinus it is caritas (and not amicitia) that joins the members of the body of Christ together (e.g. Ep. 4.1, 11.2). Unlike amicitia, caritas does not seem to arise so much out of spontaneous human sympathy, or similitude in character, or regard for virtue, but rather by means of divine will (Ep. 13). For Paulinus’ denigration of amicitia see P. Fabre, Saint Paulin de Nole et l'amitié chrétienne (Paris, 1949), 142–52. C. White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge, 1992), 158–9 observes that Fabre overstates the case somewhat; however, Fabre's general analysis is, I think, sound. For agreement, see Konstan (n. 2), 157–60; id. (n. 7), 97–101.

10 The most substantial study on friendship in Augustine is M. McNamara, Friends and Friendship for Saint Augustine (New York, 1958). However, a better guide to current views on the subject is J.T. Lienhard, ‘Friendship, friends’, in A. Fitzgerald (ed.), Augustine through the Ages (Michigan, 1999), 372–3. The helpful entry of Lienhard lists the significant passages discussing amicitia as follows: Sol. 1.2.7–1.12.22; Div. Qu. 71.5-7; F. Invis. 2.3–5.8; Cat. Rud. passim; Trin. 9.6.11; Ep. Jo. 8.5; C. Ep. Pel. 1.1; Civ. Dei 19.8; Ep. 73, 130.4.13-14, 192, 258. To these one might add the following: Vera Rel. 47.91; S. 336.2; and Div. Qu. 31. Abbreviations follow the conventions of Fitzgerald (n. 10).

11 Like Cicero, Augustine notes that goodwill (gratia), seemingly an aspect or element of justice, requires keeping in mind friendships and a desire to repay good deeds rendered (Div. Qu. 31.1). Friendship (amicitia) is then named among a number of things that might be sought as much on account of their value or standing (dignitas) as because of their enjoyment (fructus) (Div. Qu. 31.3).

12 For the date, see A. Mandouze, Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Empire I: Afrique (303–533) (Paris, 1982), 691-2. P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography – New Edition with an Epilogue (Berkeley, 2000), 60 identifies this Marcianus as the future prefect of Rome. Both the date and the identity of Augustine's correspondent (beyond his name) are not entirely certain.

13 As demonstrated by H. Hagendahl, Augustine and the Latin Classics (Goteborg, 1967), Augustine's citation of the Latin classics and his view of their worth diminished sharply after his Pauline turn and his ordination as a bishop. See also M. Testard, Saint Augustin et Cicéron (Paris, 1958).

14 Lucan (7.62-3), Cicero (Amic. 20), Terence (An. 189) and Virgil (Ecl. 4.13-14) are all cited in this short letter.

15 The relationship that Augustine sees as obtaining between himself and Marcianus is one that does not seem to go beyond the bounds of germanitas and caritas shared by all Christians in virtue of their being Christian. Tellingly, in a crucial part of the letter Augustine appeals to one of the great commandments, diliges proximum tuum tamquam te ipsum (Ep. 258.4), invoking not the friend (to whom perhaps preferential duties are owed) but the neighbour. He also signs off the letter by referring to Marcianus no longer as his friend but as his frater (Ep. 258.5).

16 In his correspondence, Augustine deploys the language of amicitia to a number of ends, from asking favours of imperial authorities (e.g. Ep. 133.3) to rebuking and correcting acquaintances (e.g. Ep. 259.3). J. Ebbeler, Disciplining Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine's Letters (Oxford and New York, 2012) proposes some unifying themes: that Augustine developed a view of Christian amicitia as being characterized by mutual correction and rebuke; that this was similar to Paulinus’ conception of amicitia Christiana; and that (public) rebuke and correction, interwoven with the language of amicitia, were distinctive elements of Augustine's letters. Ebbeler's insights are valuable; however, some caution must be exercised here. The Christian scriptures say little positive about friendship (see n. 6 above); they speak, above all, of fraternal correction and the relation that obtains among all Christians in virtue of their being Christian (amor or caritas, not amicitia). Paulinus follows suit in that he does not seem to conceive of the relation that obtains (or should obtain) between Christians (and which involves the mutual correction Ebbeler correctly draws attention to) as amicitia but rather as societas or germanitas (see n. 9 above). Matters are more difficult with regard to Augustine but a substantial number of the letters that Ebbeler draws attention to involving correction and rebuke (e.g. Ep. 23, 25, 28, 44, 109, 110) most often invoke the language of germanitas rather than that of amicitia. As scholars have observed, Augustine's employment of the language of amicitia seems to recede after the Confessiones (see, for instance, Lienhard [n. 10], 373; Konstan [n. 2], 161; id. [n. 7], 103), and Augustine seems to move away from talk of amicitia and towards talk of caritas, amor, germanitas, societas and the like.

17 See O'Donovan, O., ‘ Usus and fruitio in Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana I’, JThS 33 (1982), 361–97Google Scholar; White (n. 9), 196–217; R. Canning, The Unity of Love for God and Neighbour in St. Augustine (Heverlee-Leuven, 1993).

18 Much writing about amicitia in this period was conducted by means of letters and was even often about friendships cultivated purely through letters. Friends were often separated by significant distances, delays in communication, lost correspondence, misunderstandings and deep uncertainty. See R. Morello and A. Morrison (edd.), Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (Oxford, 2007); J. Ebbeler, ‘Tradition, innovation, and epistolary mores in Late Antiquity’, in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009), 270–84. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for emphasizing that the epistolary context merited discussion.

19 On this broken friendship, see J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies (London, 1975). For Jerome's ‘bitter, suspicious attitude towards friendship’, see White (n. 9), 140–5. For a clear discussion of Jerome's correspondence, with special attention to the language of amicitia, see B. Conring, Hieronymus als Briefschreiber: ein Beitrag zur spätantiken Epistolographie (Tübingen, 2001), 5–36, 71–82.

20 In Ep. 259, Augustine writes to Cornelius (whom he addresses as his frater). Cornelius had asked Augustine for consolation upon the death of his wife (Ep. 259.1) but Augustine instead harangues him, adverting to his earlier history (Ep. 259.2-3) and warning him to stay away from other women. While Augustine advertises his friendly intent (e.g. Ep. 259.2), the tone is anything but and is testament to a friendship of his youth which had turned less than friendly. I thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing this letter to my attention.

21 One should reject the (old) notion that the first nine books are autobiographical and the latter four philosophical or theological. The two genres are intertwined throughout and autobiography is not pursued for its own sake. Augustine's own fall and redemption are a microcosm for that of humanity and he discusses his own life primarily with an eye towards pursuing his theological aims. For further (recent) discussion of the structure and genre of the Confessiones by an authority, see J.J. O'Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York, 2005), 63–86.

22 The noun amicitia appears seventeen times in the thirteen books of the Confessiones, eleven of these occurrences being in the first four books. The occurrences are at Conf. 1.13.21, 1.20.31, 2.2.2, 2.5.10, 2.9.17, 3.1.1, 3.2.3, 3.3.6, 4.4.7 (twice), 4.6.11, 5.10.19, 6.7.11, 6.14.24, 8.3.8, 8.6.13, 9.3.6. These results come from a word search of an electronic version of the text and were checked against results from the Library of Latin Texts (, henceforth the LLT).

23 The first use of the term amicitia in the Confessiones is also telling: amicitia enim mundi huius fornicatio est abs te (Conf. 1.13.21; cf. James 4:4; Psalms 72:27).

24 For discussion of this phrase, see G. O'Daly, ‘Friendship and transgression: luminosus limes amicitiae (Augustine, Confessions 2.2.2) and the themes of Confessions 2’, in S. Stern-Gillet (ed.), Reading Ancient Texts Volume II: Aristotle and Neoplatonism (Leiden and Boston, 2007), 211–23.

25 In speaking of reasons and desires for action, Augustine often couches his discussion in terms of pulchritudo, delectatio, decorum and species. Thus, for instance: quid ego miser in te amaui, o furtum meum[?][…] quaero quid me in furto delectauerit, et ecce species nulla est (Conf. 2.6.12).

26 Sometimes Augustine is attracted to the thought that sins like those of Adam or Lucifer have no cause (Lib. Arb. 2.54; Civ. Dei 12.6-9). However, this does not seem to be his considered view. He thinks that all events, including sins, have causes (e.g. Ord. 1.11-15) and that is precisely why he seeks to explain the sins of (e.g.) Adam and Lucifer (if the events had no cause, no explanation would be possible and searching for one would be pointless).

27 The emphasis on this point is sustained: at ego illud solus non facerem, non facerem omnino solus (Conf. 2.9.17).

28 A similar treatment of the sin of Adam (and of Solomon) occurs in Augustine's more sustained exegesis of Genesis in De Genesi ad Litteram. There Adam's sin is credited to amicali quadam beneuolentia: a fear that he might lose his amicitia with Eve (Gen. Litt. 11.42.59).

29 With regard to the theft, Augustine considers a number of possible vices from which the sinful act might have arisen (Conf. 2.6.13). These include: superbia, ambitio, saeuitia, curiositas, ignorantia, ignauia, luxuria, auaritia, inuidentia and ira. He favours that vice which would later preoccupy his attention the most: a perverse desire to imitate God, which is (in turn) an essential component of superbia (Conf. 2.6.14; cf. Civ. Dei 12.1). Augustine often takes the primal sin to be pride (e.g. Conf. 2.6.14) and sometimes even claims, echoing Sir 10:13, that the beginning of every sin is pride (e.g. Civ. Dei 12.6; Trin. 12.14).

30 Many of the activities that friends regularly engage in, such as paying each other compliments, might be seen (from Augustine's perspective) to exacerbate pride. Even in Ep. 258, which does not dwell upon the ills of friendship, Augustine had drawn attention to how friendships inflated his pride (Ep. 258.1).

31 For recent discussion of the anti-Manichaean context with attention to how it shapes the Confessiones, see J.D. BeDuhn, Augustine's Manichaean Dilemma; Volume 1: Conversion and Apostasy, 373–388 (Philadelphia, 2010).

32 That many of the celebrated friendships of antiquity had an erotic aspect is fairly clear. For judicious remarks on Augustine's friendship in this regard, see J.J. O'Donnell, Augustine Confessions Volume 2: Commentary Books 1–7 (Oxford, 1992), 108–10. It should be emphasized, as an anonymous reviewer pointed out, that it is the erotic (rather than the homoerotic or homosexual) aspect of the friendship that Augustine finds problematic.

33 The phrase ‘another self’ finds its origin, at least in philosophical discourse, in Aristotle (e.g. Eth. Nic. 1166a31-2; cf. Mag. mor. 1213a12).

34 Augustine does use the phrase alter ego on one occasion (Ep. 38.1) but the phrase is in fact rare both in Augustine and in Classical Latin literature. The one significant instance I have found through a search of the LLT is in Ovid (Am. 1.7.31). The closest one can find in Cicero's writings are the following: quicum ego cum loquor nihil fingam (Att. 1.18.1); me enim ipsum multo magis accuso, deinde te quasi me alterum et simul meae culpae socium quaero (Att. 3.15.4); ego tecum tamquam mecum loquor (Att. 8.14.2). However, Cicero does use alter idem (e.g. Amic. 80).

35 Notice that ‘other self’ is often used in English translations here. Thus, ‘for he was my “other self”’ (H. Chadwick, Augustine: The Confessions [Oxford, 1991], 59), ‘I his other self living still’ (F. Sheed, Augustine: The Confessions, Second Edition [Indianapolis and Cambridge, 2006], 61), ‘for I was his second self’ (R.S. Pine-Coffin, Augustine: The Confessions [London, 1961], 77).

36 These expressions echo Horace (Carm. 1.3.8, 1.17.5) and Ovid (Tr. 4.4.72). However, the most relevant treatment is Cic. Amic. 80–1, which makes clearest how such talk of other selves, one soul in two bodies, and the like is to be connected to loving another for their own sake.

37 In other works, whether things are to be enjoyed or loved for their own sake is discussed in terms of whether fruitio or usus is appropriate to the object of one's love (e.g. Doc. Chr. 1.22.20). However, such terms seem to be absent from the Confessiones and for this reason my account does not invoke them. For discussion, see O'Donovan (n. 17); Canning (n. 17), 79–115.

38 While the eudaemonist tradition at large took it as a given of human psychology that we all aim at happiness (e.g. Euthydemus 278e3-6, 280b5-6, 282a1-2; Symp. 204e1–205d9; Arist. Rh. 1360b4-7), that we seek to possess eternal happiness might seem distinctively Platonic (e.g. Symp. 206a). That humans seek eternal happiness is most often made by Augustine as a psychological claim addressing what agents do—rather than a normative claim addressing what agents should do—and is a perpetual theme in Augustine from early works, such as De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae (e.g. 1.3.4–11.19) and De Beata Vita (e.g. 2.11), to later works, such as De Civitate Dei (e.g. 14.4) and De Trinitate (e.g. 13.7.10).

39 Augustine perceives even in one who commits suicide a desire for continued existence albeit by means of fame and renown (Lib. Arb. 3.8.22-3).

40 In this way it serves as a better distraction from God than the Manichaean religion which, it is clear, never entirely satisfied Augustine.

41 See also Conf. 10.6.9-8.12. Augustine's remarks on this issue seem to parallel the discussion of the scala amoris that we find in the Symposium (210a6-c6). Note however that Augustine explicitly remarks that we should not become too attached to mortal things, as this seems to impede our ascent (Conf. 4.10.15).

42 The death of Augustine's father in the previous book was used only as a chronological marker and received a mere five words (iam defuncto patre ante biennium, Conf. 3.4.7).

43 Aristotle notes that ‘wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed, and anticipate others like them, when they are by themselves, but when they are with others they forget’ (Eth. Nic. 1166b13-17). The translation here (and below) is that of W.D. Ross, revised by J.O. Urmson, found in J. Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Volume Two (Princeton, 1984).

44 In Augustine's remarks on the nature of beauty and its value (Conf. 4.13.20), A. Solignac, Les Confessions (Livres I-VII) (Bibliothèque Augustinienne 13) (Paris, 1962), 671 finds parallels to Plotinus (Enn. 1.6) but also to passages in Plato: Symp. 211d, Phdr. 249d, 264c and Hp. mai. 290a-296e. However, as far as I am aware, the parallels I draw attention to between Augustine's discussion and what we find in the Symposium have not been discussed.

45 For reasons I shall not discuss here, Plato seems to take this lack of qualitative identity to threaten an individual's diachronic (numerical) identity.

46 Translations of the Symposium passages are those of A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, found in J.M. Cooper (ed.), Plato: The Complete Works (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1997).

47 The Laws (721b6-d6) discusses how desire for immortality fuels love of honour and procreation and the Phaedrus (276e4–277a4) finds immortality in the sowing of seeds that is the planting of ideas in another's mind. Both offer partial reflections of the thoughts in the Symposium.

48 Aristotle remarks that parents ‘love their children as themselves (for their issue are by virtue of their separate existence a sort of other selves)’ (Eth. Nic. 1161b28-9; cf. Pol. 1252a26-30). One's child is, as it were, a part of oneself (1134b8-11, 1161b18) in a manner not dissimilar from how one's hair or teeth are a part of oneself (1161b22-4). The parent loves his child as himself, for his child is another self (1161b27-9) in the same way that a friend is another self (1166a31-2, 1170b11-12), and Aristotle remarks upon fathers begetting children and poets begetting poems as follows: ‘existence is to all men a thing to be chosen and loved, and that we exist by virtue of activity (i.e. by living and acting), and that the handiwork is, in a sense, the producer in activity; he loves his handiwork, therefore, because he loves his own existence’ (1168a5-8). For discussion, see A.W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford), 1990.

49 D. Konstan, ‘The grieving self: reflections on Lucian's On mourning and the consolatory tradition’, in H. Baltussen (ed.), Greek and Roman Consolations: Eight Studies of a Tradition and its Afterlife (Swansea, 2013), 139–51, at 143-4 usefully draws attention to this notion of extended self in Lucian and Quintilian.

50 Cicero says that the friend is a copy (exemplar) of oneself (Cic. Amic. 23).

51 The relation between the desire for unity and that for continued existence is not entirely perspicuous but the two might be connected in so far as unity of one's parts is a necessary condition for one's continued existence.

52 ‘Everyone chooses his love after his own fashion from among those who are beautiful, and then treats the boy like his very own god, building him up and adorning him as an image to honour and worship’ (τόν τε οὖν Ἔρωτα τῶν καλῶν πρὸς τρόπου ἐκλέγεται ἕκαστος, καὶ ὡς θεὸν αὐτὸν ἐκεῖνον ὄντα ἑαυτῷ οἷον ἄγαλμα τεκταίνεταί τε καὶ κατακοσμεῖ, ὡς τιμήσων τε καὶ ὀργιάσων, Phdr. 252d5-e1; cf. Arist. Eth. Nic. 1172a11-14).

53 In the later part of the Confessiones, Augustine discusses his friendship with Alypius and offers a vignette of some of the benefits friendship may bring. For instance, the role of mutual correction in friendship—noted by other readers (see n. 16 above)—is evident and through Augustine's intervention Alypius gives up his damaging addiction to the games (Conf. 6.7.12). However, Augustine points out that even once set upon the right path, the dangers of friendship are none the less present. Alypius was still often led astray by his friendships, in particular by being drawn to the degrading spectacles of the circus by his friends (Conf. 6.7.11). Like Augustine, Alypius would not have committed the sin had it not been for his friends (Conf. 6.8.13). Further, Augustine emphasizes that even when he did bring some moral benefit to Alypius, this occurred fortuitously through God's intervention (the well-being of Alypius was not even at the forefront of Augustine's mind when he uttered those words which Alypius would take as a rebuke, Conf. 6.7.12). For discussion of these aspects, see my ‘Adiutrix virtutum: Augustine on friendship and virtue’, in S. Stern-Gillet and G.M. Gurtler (edd.), Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship (Albany, forthcoming).

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