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From Vol. 2, Issue 9, September 2020

Friendships in hard times


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Living in challenging times

We are living in challenging times. As Covid-19 continues to ravage wide sections of the globe, many of us are experiencing social isolation, and much worse.

Large numbers are confronted with illness, loss, and financial strain. I’ve recently spoken to a range of friends who are in the midst of illness- or jobrelated crises, and I often think about how best to help.

Responding to our fellow humans

When times get tough, as Stoics, how should we respond to our fellow humans, and especially our friends? I want to examine one aspect of this question here—Stoic friendship—and will turn to Roman Stoic Seneca as a guide.

Do we need friends?

In Seneca’s 9th letter to his friend Lucilius, he delves into the topic of what friendship means from a Stoic perspective. Seneca asks:

Do we need friends? He makes the point that if we are wise, we can be content all on our own. Having friends is not the basis of our happiness.

Not necessary, but good to have

However, he quotes Chrysippus, who said, ‘the wise man needs nothing, yet he has use for many things.” One of these many things, he says, is friendship. Seneca goes on to tell us:

So although [the wise person] is contented with himself, he has use for friends: he wants to have as many as possible, not to live happily, since he will live happily even without  friends… It is no personal advantage that takes him to friendship but a natural stimulus. For just as we feel an innate sweetness in other things, so there is in friendship. Just as we feel a distaste for isolation and question for companionship, as Nature brings man close to man, so there is a stimulus in this too that makes us desirous of friendship.

He also writes:

If friendship is desirable on its own account, a man who is contented with himself can still seek it.

So although our friends aren’t necessary to our moral virtue or contentedness, they are clearly a good thing and a natural one, too— something we should cultivate.

Transactional friendships

Seneca expresses a distaste for what we might call “transactional” friendship. Did you ever have a friend who only called you when she needed something or was in trouble? Those kinds of transactional relationships don’t last: These are what people call friendships of convenience; a man adopted from self-interest will only please as long as he is useful.

Seneca describes how one can be surrounded by so-called “friends” when successful, and deserted when times are tough. This is “a business agreement, not friendship.”

Instead, Seneca emphasizes what friendship can do to develop our own personal virtues: We can be a supportive presence; we can sacrifice our own comfort to aid a friend; we can help our friends in illness or persecution; we even can follow our friends into exile, or die for them.

Though this sounds extreme, Seneca is pointing to the perils of his own times: In Rome, one of the most powerful punishments the government could impose (apart from death) was banishment. It meant losing your friends, your family, your home.

Let our friends lean on us

The kind of isolation and loss that many are feeling today as the lockdowns and limitations extend due to Covid-19 are, for some, an echo of the experience of banishment. And many are dying, too. Let’s nourish our friendships—not just to lean on our friends, but to ask them to lean on us.

Meredith Kunz is a Silicon valley-based writer @thestoicwoman on Twitter