Stoic Serenity 5.7: Fair-weather Friends

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Today’s lesson is Seneca’s Letter 9, “On Philosophy and Friendship”

So you’re wondering if Epicurus was right when he wrote in his letter, rebuking those who maintained that the wise man is self-sufficient and therefore has no need for friendships. This objection is still maintained by Epicrurus against Stilbo and those who believe that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling.

We’re bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatient. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the ideas as that of a soul which can endure no no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul beyond the realm of suffering.” There lies the difference between ourselves and the other school: our own sage feels his troubles but overcomes them. Their sage does not even feel them. But we our schools agree on this: —that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbors, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. And consider how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he loses a hand through disease or war, or if an accident takes one of both of his eyes, he will still be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not languish for these parts if they are missing, he does indeed prefer not to lose them. In this sense, the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, but not that he desires to do without them. When I say that he “can do without friends,” I mean that he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.

Just as we prefer to keep our hands, but could learn to live without them, so should our view of friends be.

But there’s no need for him to ever lack friends, for the control lies within his own soul to determine just how soon he shall make good a loss. Just as the sculptor Phidias, if he loses a statue, can immediately carve another one, so our master in the art of making friendships can fill the place of a friend he has lost. If you ask how one can make a friend quickly, let me tell you, provided that we are agreed that I may pay my debt at once and balance the account, so far as this letter is concerned. Our own philosopher Hecato says, “I can show you a love potion which is compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation:

Here’s a magic friendship potion for you: —“If you want to be loved, then love.”

‘If you want to be loved, then love.'”

Now there is great pleasure, not only maintaining old and established friendships, but also in beginning and acquiring new ones. There is the same difference between winning a new friend and already having won him, as there is between the farmer who sows and the farmer who reaps. The philosopher Attalus used to say: “It is more pleasant to make a friend than to keep a friend, as it is more pleasant to the artist to paint than to have finished painting.” When one is busy and absorbed in one’s own work, the very absorption provides great delight. But when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen. Thereafter, it is the fruits of his art that he enjoys; it was the art itself that he enjoyed while he was painting. In the case of our children, their young manhood yields more abundant fruits, but their infancy was sweeter.

Let’s return to the question. Although the wise man is self-sufficient, he nevertheless desires friends, if only for the purpose of practicing friendship, so that his noble qualities will not grow rusty. Epicurus was wrong in his letter when he wrote, “[The wise man desires friends] so that there will be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in need.” No. The wise man desires friends so that he will have someone by whose sickbed he may sit, or a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free. A person who thinks only about himself and enters into friendships for self-gain has been mistaken. The end will be just like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might help free him out of bondage; at the first rattle of a chain this friend will desert him. These are “fair-weather” friendships; a friend who is chosen for how useful he is will only be a friend as long as he is useful. This is exactly why prosperous individuals are surrounded by mobs of friends; but as soon as they fail, they stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which tests their worth as friends. We also notice the many shameful cases of people who desert and betray out of fear. The beginning and the end have no choice but to harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A person will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship if he is the type of person who is attracted by anything in friendship besides the friendship itself.

Go after true friendships, not “fair-weather” friendships. You need friends of good character, who are as noble as you yourself are.

So why do I bother making any friends? I make friends so that I may have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge too. The friendship which you portray is not a friendship, but a bargain. It is simply for the sake of convenience, and it focuses on the results. Without a doubt, the feeling of being in love is something related to friendship. You might even call it “friendship gone crazy.” Despite this truth, however, does anyone love for the sake of gain, or promotion, or fame? Pure love, careless of all other things, kindles the soul with desire for the beautiful object, along with the hope of a return of the affection. So then what? Can a more honorable cause produce a passion that is base? You might counter: “But now we’re discussing the question of whether friendship is to be cultivated for its own sake.” On the contrary, nothing more urgently requires demonstration. For if friendship is to be sought for its own sake, a person who is self-sufficient may then seek it. “Then how does he seek it?” you ask. Precisely as he seeks an object of great beauty, not attracted to it by desire for gain, nor yet frightened by the instability of Fortune. One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all its nobility.

A “friendship” based on the interest of self-gain is not a friendship, but a bargain. Stop stripping friendship of its nobility.

“The wise man is self-sufficient.”

This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is self-sufficient for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps towards mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only his own sound and upright soul, one that despises Fortune.

I would also like to mention one of the distinctions of Chrysippus, who declares that the wise man searches for nothing yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is searching for everything.” The wise man needs hands, eyes, and many things that are necessary for his daily use; but he searches for nothing. To search implies a necessity, and nothing is necessary to the wise man. Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible; not, however, so he may live happily; he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from externals, it begins to be subject to the whims of Fortune.

People might say: “But what sort of existence will a wise man have if he is left friendless when he’s thrown into prison, or when he’s stranded in a foreign country, or when delayed on a long voyage, or when out upon a lonely shore?” Then his life will be like that of Jupiter, who, amid the dissolution of the world, when the gods are amazed together and Nature rests from her work, can retire into himself and give himself over to his thoughts. The sage will act in a similar manner; he will retreat into himself, and live with himself. As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient — and brings up children; he is self-sufficient — and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man. Natural promptings, not his own selfish needs, draw him into Friendships. For just as other things are inherently attractive to us, so is friendship. We hate solitude and crave society; nature draws men to each other; and there is also an attraction which causes us to desire friendship.

Nevertheless, a sage loves his friends dearly, even putting them above himself; but despite this love, the wise man knows that the only things that are good are limited to within himself. He will speak the same words spoken by the philosopher Stilpo. For Stilpo, after his country was captured and his children and wife died, he survived the terrible event and emerged from the desolation alone, yet he was happy. When terrible Demetrius, “Sacker of Cities” asked Stilpo if he had lost anything, Stilpo replied: “I have all my goods with me!” Now that is a courageous and solid man! The enemy had physically conquered Stilpo’s country, but Stilpo had conquered his conqueror. “I have lost nothing!” He forced Demetrius to question if he had accomplished anything at all by conquering the country. “My goods are all with me!” In other words, for Stilpo, anything that could possibly be taken from him was not considered a good to him.

“Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man?”

We marvel at some animals because they can pass through fire without injury; but how much more amazing is a man who has marched forward unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilpo resonates with Stoicism; the Stoic also is able to carry all of his goods unharmed through cities that have been burned to the ground; for the Stoic is self-sufficient. He creates boundaries for his own happiness.

But don’t think that only our school can say noble things; Epicurus, who hated Stilpo, spoke similarly. He says: “Whoever does not consider that which he has to be ample wealth, is unhappy, even if he is master of the whole world.” Or to put it simply, “A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy.” This is a universal sentiment suggested by Nature, as we find in one of the comic poets this quote;

Unblessed is he who thinks himself unblessed.

or, what does your condition matter if you consider it bad in your own eyes? You might ask, “What about that man who is rich,  and that other man who is master of many? They consider themselves happy. Won’t their own opinion make them happy?” But I tell you, it doesn’t matter what one says, but what one feels; and not how one feels on one particular day, but how one feels at all times. But don’t worry if you think foolish people are happy; only the wise man is truly pleased with his own. Foolishness always gets tired of itself. Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 9 “On Philosophy and Friendship”)


If you’ve been following along with this posts from the beginning, you’ll recognize the last portion of this letter from the lesson on Virtue in chapter 1, on how Virtue is the only true Good.

Some points from Seneca’s letter:

  •  But while he does not languish for these parts if they are missing, he does indeed prefer not to lose them. In this sense, the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, but not that he desires to do without them.
    • Seneca’s main idea here with friendship is that the Stoic sage certainly enjoys friends and deep friendships, but he realizes that if something were to happen, perhaps he was mistaken about his friends’ qualities and they turned against him, or perhaps a disaster struck and all his friends were killed; the Stoic sage would realize that while he enjoys friendships and loves his friends, and he never wishes for them to go away, he realizes that he can make do without them.
  • These are “fair-weather” friendships; a friend who is chosen for how useful he is will only be a friend as long as he is useful.
    • Don’t be foolish. Make sure you make friends for the right reasons. If you befriend someone because they can help advance your career for example, don’t be surprised when he abandons you as soon as his own wishes have been fulfilled, or when things start to go downhill. For what you both have agreed upon is not a friendship, but a bargain under the disguise of friendship. See next point below:
  • The friendship which you portray is not a friendship, but a bargain.
  • I make friends so that I may have someone for whom I may die.
    • Does this seem silly at first glance? What kind of a friendship is that, if it doesn’t benefit me at all, and might end up costing me my life? Dear reader, this is a true friendship. We need to stop looking for self-gain and see the concept of friendship for what it truly is. Didn’t Seneca mention in the last post that friendships are an opportunity for us to practice our Virtue?
  • Pure love, careless of all other things, kindles the soul with desire for the beautiful object.
  • One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all its nobility.
    • Damn.
  • He craves as many friends as possible; not, however, so he may live happily; he will live happily even without friends.
    • Seneca’s main point, again.
  • A sage loves his friends dearly, even putting them above himself; but despite this love, the wise man knows that the only things that are good are limited to within himself.
    • Once again, Stoics desire friends, as we acknowledge that humans are social creatures and we have a duty to society. But we also recognize that true value does not come from from friendships themselves. And if everything were to be taken away in the blink of an eye, we realize that we are never harmed.
  • Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man?
    • I just threw this one in because it gives me goosebumps every time.

Just make sure you make friends for the right reasons, and keep everything in perspective.

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