Famous Sayings: #28 — ‘Keep Your Friends Close…’

September 18, 2016

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

If you are familiar with The Godfather movies, you know this quote.

I believe I first heard this quote in high school. It might have been during an English class. That day, the teacher asked us to talk about famous sayings we were familiar with and to talk about our favorites.

One classmate said that she loved “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. That sounded strange to me. Wouldn’t one need to keep their friends closer if they are in fact friends?

Of course, I began to understand the meaning on my own with time. Also, by researching this famous saying, I gained an even greater understanding of it.

Who is Responsible for this Famous Saying?

From my research, I found that “keep your enemies close…” has often been misattributed to the ancient Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu. He is widely known for authoring The Art of War, from which many great quotes are mined and used.

What I Found on Quora

One of the first places I went to in researching this quote was Quora. A question about the quote was presumably asked in 2010. It had 5 answers as of the time of publishing this post and a few of the members at the website shared a few links.

The top-voted answer gave a link to Wikiquote. However, I knew what to look for after reading the quote with the second-highest number of upvotes.

Of course, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone was mentioned as saying the quote in The Godfather Part II.

My father taught me many things here — he taught me in this room. He taught me — keep your friends close by your enemies closer.

One user quoted Kabirdas, who was a famous Indian poet during the 14th century.


“निंदक नियरेे राखिए, आँगन कुटी छवाई।
बिन साबुन पाणी बिना, निरमल करे सुभाइ।”
(“nindak near rakhiye, aangan kuti chavai.
Bin sabun pani bina, nirmal karr subhai”)”

Which roughly translates into:-

You should always keep the person, who always criticizes you, near you.

Since his/her job is to criticize you, they will point out every minute flaws inside you.

This way, you can improve yourself and you become more clean and pure, than you would with soap and water.

This is not the origin, but it comes close to the meaning.

Other sources listed were from Discover Zoom and The Quotations Page. Both of these sites were of little help for this purpose. The latter link also misattributed Sun Tzu.

What I Found on Wikiquote

Once on the Wikigquote page, I looked for the phrase “know your enemy.” It appears that Quote is found in Chapter III of The Art of War:

Chapter III · Strategic Attack

  • 知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆
    • It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
    • Variant translations
    • If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
    • Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear for 100 battles. Know yourself but not your enemy, find level of loss and victory. Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.
    • Literal translation: Know [the] other, know [the] self, hundred battles without danger; not knowing [the] other but know [the] self, one win one loss; not knowing [the] other, not knowing [the] self, every battle must [be] lost.

What I Found on Other Sites

There other translations for Sun Tzu’s quote, as well. Here’s one from on MIT webpage:

18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

No matter the translation, this bit of advice seems a bit similar to “Keep your enemies closer,” and that it outright gives the meaning for the famous saying in its current form. But admittedly, the phrasing means that Sun Tzu is not responsible for the famous saying. He may have hit on similar ideas, but this is not the phrase.

Since this was understood that Sun Tzu was not the originator of the quote, I looked at other sources listed on the Quora thread. This led me to The Prince, which was written by Italian diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). The Prince has been described as a handbook for unscrupulous rulers.

While searching the text of The Prince, I did not find the phrase “Keep your friends close…” or either clause. I did find this in Chapter XVII after consulting with an article on Biography.com:

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

This text can be found on the Project Gutenberg website.

It seems like there is no dated source for the famous saying other than the clear quote from The Godfather Part II.

Now, What Does “Keep Your Friends Close…” Mean?

When you take some of the above quotes into account, I think it is pretty clear. Basically, while you should cherish your friends, your enemies hold value as well. You learn from both. You enjoy the company of your friends and observing your enemy can lead you to the tools of their undoing.

That last part was pretty much the spirit of The Art of War, which one caveat. Sun Tzu was interested in the phycological aspects of war, as opposed to the use of force. In fact, her argued that force should be conserved until it was absolutely necessary.

The approach of the Chinese military at the time differs from what those in the West favor. Instead of focusing on force, Sun Tzu talked about the importance of psychology of solders. The Chinese character li (which means force) was only found nine times in the thirteen chapters of The Art of War.

To Sun Tzu, victory and defeat were “fundamentally psychological states.” As such, he wanted to take the enemy from the state of harmony to “one of chaos (luan), which is tantamount to defeat.”

The Sun Tzu’s philosophy, in terms of military action, is Taoist in nature; but overall, his focus is on the psychological aspect of warfare. Success lies in how one dominates and exploits his opponents mentally. And this is based on a superior knowledge of the enemy [than the enemy has on its opponent]. Force may be necessary, but it often should be used with great caution and sparingly.

Does This Saying Still Apply Today?

In a way, yes. This can apply in terms of war, athletic competition, and in terms of debate. Also, as pointed out in the blog post on Discover Zoom, this can definitely apply to business.

Entrepreneurs first learn that they need to know about their competition. They need to know what people in their chosen industry are doing, surmise how they’re doing it, and found out how successful competitor’s strategies are. This will always be true for anyone running a business, no matter how experienced they are.

I’m not sure this works on a personal level, though.

Works Cited

Biography.com Editors. “Niccolò Machiavelli Biography.” Biography.com. Last Updated 2 Apr 2014. Web. Retrived 18 Sep 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/niccol%C3%B2-machiavelli-9392446>.

Giles, Lionel (translator). “The Art of War By Sun Tzu.” The Internet Classics Archive. Web. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html>.

History.com Staff. “Sun Tzu.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2009. Web. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/sun-tzu>.

“Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer.” Discover Zoom. Web. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. <http://www.discoverzoom.com/keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer/>.

Marriott, W.K. (translator). “The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli.” Project Gutenberg. 11 Feb 2006; Last Updated 26 Aug 2016. eBook. <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm>.

Various. “Sun Tzu.” Wikiquote. Last Modified 26 Aug 2016. Web. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War>.

“Who said, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?’” Quora. 2010; Last Updated 24 Aug 2016. Web. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. <https://www.quora.com/Who-said-Keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer>.


2 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #28 — ‘Keep Your Friends Close…’

  1. I see this concept as relevant only if you can clearly distinguish your friend from foe. Amidst all the lies and deceptions in today’s U.S. political climate, how can one even recognize the difference?


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