September 22, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Friendship and Self-Sufficiency
Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.
- The wise are self-sufficient and don’t need friends. But they want friends.
- The wise don’t make friends for their personal benefit but for the benefit of those they befriend.
- Even if their friends do not help them, the wise are not bothered, because they are self-sufficient, and their goods cannot be taken away.
Does a wise person need friends?
You are eager to know whether Epicurus was right when, in one of his letters, he criticized those who believe that a wise person is self-sufficient and, therefore, doesn’t need a friend. He made this charge against Stilpo and others who believed that the supreme good is an unemotional mind.
If we translate the Greek word apathea into Latin as impateintia, we are likely to face ambiguity: The word impatientia could also mean the opposite of what we meant. We meant to say ‘a person who refuses to feel any misfortune’. But the [Latin] expression could also mean ‘a person who cannot tolerate any misfortune’.
Wouldn’t it be then better to call it ‘an invincible mind’ or ‘a mind that is beyond suffering’? This is the difference between us and their school. We believe the wise feel their troubles but overcome them; they say the wise don’t even feel them. Both of us hold that the wise person is self-sufficient. Yet, no matter how self-sufficient they are, the wise still desire friends, neighbours, and associates.
Self-sufficiency of the wise person
To understand how self-sufficient the wise are, consider this: At times, they are content with a part of themselves. Should they lose their hands because of a disease or a war, or lose one or both of their eyes, they will be satisfied with what is left. They will take as much pleasure in their damaged or wounded bodies as they did with their sound bodies. While they do not pine for the missing parts of their bodies, they prefer not to lose them. In this way the wise are self-sufficient – they can do without friends but do not want to do so. When I say, “they can”, I mean they are able to endure the loss of a friend with equanimity.
But the wise never lack friends. How quickly they may gain friends for those they have lost is under their control. Just as Phidias can carve another statue if he loses one, even so the wise – artists of friend-making – will find another friend to take the place of the lost one. If you ask me how one can make a friend so quickly, I will tell you – provided you agree that my debt is paid in full and our accounts are balanced as far as this letter is concerned.
Old vs. new friendships
I can show you a love charm, without drugs, herbs, or without witch's incantation: 'If you would be loved, love.'
There is great pleasure not only in maintaining old and proven friendships, but also in beginning and developing new ones. The difference between winning a new friend and already having friend is the same as between a farmer who sows and a farmer who reaps. The philosopher Attalus used to say,
It is more pleasant to make than to keep a friend, as it is more pleasant to the artist to paint than to have finished painting.
When you are busy and engaged in your work, the very engagement brings great delight. But once the masterpiece is finished, the pleasure is not so great. From now on what you enjoy is the fruits of your art but, while painting, it was the art that was enjoyable. Children are more fulfilling when grown, but sweeter in infancy.
Do the wise want friends?
Let’s get back to our discussion. I say that the wise, even though they are self-sufficient, want friends, if only to practice the noble quality of friendship. But not for the reason mentioned by Epicurus in the above-mentioned letter that there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want, but that they [the wise] may have someone by whose sick bed they may attend, someone who is a prisoner in hostile hands whom they may set free. Those who enter a friendship thinking of themselves only are mistaken. It will end like it started. If a person becomes a friend with someone to gain his help, he himself will be gone at the first sign of trouble. These are called fair weather friendships. Anyone chosen as a friend because of their use to you will be satisfactory only as long as he is useful. That’s why prosperous people are surrounded by a crowd of friends while those who fail are deserted. Their friends run away from the very crisis that is an opportunity for them to show their worth. That’s why we have so many shameful stories of people who, because of fear, desert their friends and even betray them.
Why do the wise want friends?
Why make a friend? To have someone to die for, someone I can follow into exile, someone whose life I can save laying down my own. What you describe is a bargain and not a friendship. It looks out only for itself and is results-oriented. Without a doubt, the feelings between lovers bear a resemblance to friendship. One may call it friendship running mad. This is true, but does anyone fall in love to make a profit? Or for gaining something or for fame? Pure love does not care for other things – it just inflames the mind with the desire for the other person’s beauty, hoping that the love will be returned.
What then? Do we conclude that an honorable emotion gives birth to a base one?
You may respond, "We are now discussing the question whether friendship should be formed for its own sake.”
On the contrary, this needs to decided right now. If it is friendship for its own sake, a self-sufficient person can pursue it.
“How, then,” you ask, “does one pursue it?”
Exactly as one pursues an object of beauty – not attracted by profit and not afraid of uncertainties. The majesty of friendship is lost when you seek it to profit from it.
Many people have misinterpreted the saying “The wise are self-sufficient”. They make the wise withdraw from this world and force them to live in their own skin. But we must understand what this saying means and how far it extends. The wise are self-sufficient for living the good life, but not for living life in general. For the latter, they need many things; for the former, only a sound and upright mind, the one that despises the whims of fortune.
Let me also tell you about the distinction that Chrysippus made. He said that the wise lack nothing but can use many things. By contrast, fools lack everything but can use nothing, because they don’t know how to use anything. The wise need hands, eyes, and many things necessary for their everyday use and they lack nothing. ‘Lack’ implies ‘need’ and the wise don’t need anything.
Therefore, although the wise are self-sufficient, they can use friends. They want to have as many friends as possible, but not for the purpose of having a happy life. The wise can live happily even with no friends. The highest good does not look for practical aids from outside itself. It is developed at home and complete in itself. If you look for any part of it from outside, then what you are dealing with is the play of fortune.
What happens if the wise are friendless?
“But what sort of life will the wise have, if they are left friendless when thrown into prison, when stranded in a foreign country, when delayed on a long trip, or cast away on a desert island?"
Their life will be like that of Jupiter. When the world is dissolved, when the gods are confounded together, and when nature stops operating for a while, Jupiter will retire into himself and live with himself.
As long as they have the option to order their affairs according to their judgment, they are self-sufficient: Self-sufficient and yet married, self-sufficient and yet raises children, self-sufficient and yet would not live at all if it meant living without others.
Natural inclinations – not selfishness – draw them to friendship. It is like other things we find inherently attractive. Just as we avoid loneliness and seek companionship, and just as nature creates bonds among human beings, so there is an innate drive in us to seek friends.
The goods of the wise cannot be taken away
The wise love their friends deeply, treating them on par with themselves or even putting them ahead of themselves. Yet, they still consider all good to be within themselves and would say the same as Stilpo did – the very Stilpo whom Epicurus criticized in his letter. After Stilpo’s homeland was captured and he lost his wife and children, he emerged happy from his isolation. When Demetrius, who was called ‘city-sacker’ because he destroyed so many cities, asked him if he had lost anything, he replied “I’ve all my goods with me!” There is a brave and tough one for you! He conquered the conqueror. “I’ve lost nothing!” Yes, he made Demetrius wonder whether he had conquered at all.
“I’ve all my goods with me!” In other words, nothing good – wisdom, justice, moderation, courage, and the ability to think – can be taken away.
We are amazed that some animals can pass through fire undamaged. How much more amazing is this man who has marched through fire, sword, and devastation, not only unhurt, but without losing anything! Do you see how much easier it is to conquer an entire people than a single man? This saying of Stilpo shares common ground with Stoicism. The Stoics also carry their goods undamaged through cities that have been burned to ashes. They are self-sufficient. It is by these the limits that the Stoics define their happiness.
No one who thinks he is poor has enough
But don’t think that we are the only ones to speak such noble words. For all his criticism of Stilpo, Epicurus himself said something remarkably similar. Give me credit for it, although I am free of debt for today. He says,
Anyone who does not think that what they have is plenty, is miserable, even if they are master of the world.
Or, if you think it is a better way of saying it (because we must be concerned with meaning not just words),
You may rule the world and still be miserable, if you don’t think that you are supremely happy.
To show you that these sentiments are universal and dictated by nature, here is something that a comic poet wrote:
No one is happy if she does not believe herself to be.
What does it matter what condition you are in, if it is bad in your own eyes?
You may say “What about this person with tainted money and that person who has power over the lives of many? If they call themselves happy, do their opinions make them so?”
It doesn’t matter what they say, it is what they think that really counts – not what they think on any particular day, but what they think over time. But there is no reason for you to worry about that privilege being awarded to those who are unworthy. Only the wise are satisfied with what they have. The foolish are troubled and suffer as a result.
Think about this
Anyone who does not think that what they have is plenty, is miserable, even if they are master of the world.