Stoic Serenity 5.6: True & False Friendship

Today we’re heading back to good ol’ Seneca. Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be exploring what Seneca had to say regarding friendship. We begin with Letter 3, “On True and False Friendship.”

You have sent a letter to me, delivered through the hand of a “friend” of yours, as you call him. And yet in the very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, admitting that even you yourself are not accustomed to doing this. In other words, in the very same letter, you have both affirmed and denied that he is your friend. Now, if you simply used the word “friend” as we tend to use it in the popular sense, that is, to call him a “friend” in the same way in which we speak of all political candidates as “honorable gentlemen,” and as we greet all men whom we meet casually when their names slip our mind, and we revert to the salutation “my dear sir,” then so be it. But if you consider any person whom you do not trust as much as you trust yourself, to be a “friend,” then you are severely mistaken, and you do not understand what true friendship means. Indeed, I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all, discuss the man himself. Judgement is required before friendship, and friendship is required for trust. But these people indeed have it backwards. They violate the rules of Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastus. They judge a person after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Take all the time you need to ponder whether you will admit a specific person to your friendship; but when you have finally decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. Although you should live in such a way that you trust yourself with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard your friend as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearful of being deceived, have thus taught people to deceive; by their suspicions that they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why should I need to hold back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I speak differently when I am alone than when I am in the company of my friend?

Some people communicate, to any person they meet on the street, the matters which should be revealed only to friends. They unload whatever irks them upon the chance listener. And then there are others who are afraid to confide in their closest intimates. If it were possible, they would not even trust themselves!, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet to trust everyone is more naïve, while to trust no one is the safer option. But you should rebuke both types of people in the same manner, —both those who cannot relax around others, and those who are always relaxed around others. But being busy does not equal being productive, —it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true rest does not come from condemning all activity as an annoyance; that kind of rest is idleness and inertia. Therefore, take note of the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius:


“Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day.” — Don’t shut everyone out, because you end up shutting out even the good people, too.

“Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day.”

No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who rests should act, and he who acts should take rest. Discuss the problem with Nature, and she will tell you that she has created both day and night. Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 3 “On True and False Friendship”)

Pop quiz!

What does Seneca say friends are for? —> Hover your mouse here for the answer.

Lucilius has a real problem. He doesn’t know what “friends” are. He allows people that he doesn’t even trust into his inner circle. When you call such people your “friends,” aren’t you undermining the very concept of friendship? Seneca tries to show him the light. He says:

  1. You need to judge people before you decide that you want to call them a “friend.”
  2. If you’ve deemed the person worthy to be a friend, then you need to trust them.
  3. Don’t trust everyone, and don’t trust no one. You need to find the balance and use your judgement to discern who you will trust. Just as Nature is creator of both day and night, so it is part of human nature to find people you should trust and people you shouldn’t trust.

Don’t let the whole neighborhood inside of your house, but don’t shut everyone out either. You might miss out on some pretty awesome friendships and experiences.

I like Seneca’s speech here. He’s advocating for the true meaning of friendship. I myself am the type that unless I fully trust someone, I have absolutely no business calling them a “close friend.” No, that doesn’t mean we’re enemies or that I hate everyone who’s not “inside my circle.” It just means’ that I really guard myself. But I’m not perfect. My own pitfall is pointed out when Seneca talks about throwing your whole self in, opening up to your friends as if you were speaking to yourself. No, I’m too guarded. My friends either respond by tiptoeing around my guard and allowing me to stay in my shell, or they tug and pull to extract me from it. I could learn a thing or two from Seneca’s words.

Then, as Seneca mentions, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the people who are eager to tell their business to anyone and everyone. The person that starts talking to you in line at the grocery store about how they accidentally ran over their neighbor’s cat last week and their wife is cheating on them.

Seneca makes it clear that a balance is needed. It’s naïve to trust everyone, obviously. But it’s also unhealthy to shut the entire world out, because when we shut out the whole world, we end up shutting out both the bad and the good.

How do you open up to others?


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