September 1, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Seneca ||

Know Your Friends

Chuck Chakrapani

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.

Key ideas
  1. You should be careful when making friends. But once you have made someone a friend, you should trust them completely.
  2. Your trust itself will make your friends trustworthy.
  3. Even though we should not have any thoughts that are dishonourable, not everything should be shared with everyone.
A friend is someone you trust 

You have sent me a letter through your “friend”, as you call him. In the very next sentence, you warn me not to discuss your affairs with him, as you don’t do this yourself. In other words, in the same letter, you have said both that he is your friend and that he is not your friend.

If you have used the word in the customary sense – as when we call political candidates “honourable gentlemen”, or, when we address someone as “sir” when we forget his name – then let it go.

But if you consider anyone a friend who you do not trust as much as you trust yourself, then you are seriously mistaken, and you don’t understand the true meaning of friendship.

First judge, then trust

I would recommend that you discuss everything with a friend. But first consider the friend. Once you make friends with someone, it is all settled. But before making friends, you must judge the person. People who develop friendship first and then judge are confused about how they should go about it. They should judge first and develop friendship later, as Theophrastus [a Perpatetic philosopher] advises us. Take time to consider whether you’d like that person to be your friend. But once you have decided that you would, welcome that person with all your heart. Talk to that person as candidly as you would talk to yourself.

As far as you are concerned, live in such a way that what you would admit to yourself, you would admit even to an enemy.

Even so, there are certain things that should be kept private. You should share all your concerns and thoughts with your friend. If you trust a friend to be loyal, you make that friend loyal. If you are suspicious, you give the friend the right to betray your confidence. Why should I hold back my words in front of my friend? Why should I consider it private when in my friend’s company?

Moderate the extreme tendencies

There are those who talk to anyone they meet about their concerns that should be divulged only to their friends. Others hesitate to confide in their closest friends. If it was possible, they would not even tell themselves. It’s equally wrong to trust everyone as to trust no one. I would call the former an innocent fault and the latter a safer one.

Similarly, you should criticize those who are always moving around and those who never do. Love of hustle and bustle does not mean that one is working hard. It is just the restlessness of the agitated mind. True relaxation is not avoiding all activity as bothersome; it is inertia and idleness. So, let’s keep the following saying from Pomponius in mind:

Some men shrink into dark corners to such an extent that they see darkness during the day.

No, we should combine the two tendencies. The lazy should act and the busy should rest. Discuss this with nature. It will tell you it made both day and night.


Think about this

If you consider anyone a friend who you do not trust as much as you trust yourself, then you are seriously mistaken, and you don’t understand the true meaning of friendship.