To procure friendship only for better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity.Seneca, Letter IX
Seneca is a giant of stoicism, seen by many as a secular saint.
Stoicism is often misunderstood as a frigid philosophy of unfeelingness, of resisting and rejecting the world of emotion, love and friendship. As stoicism says a person should be ‘self-contented’, which is true, then any foray into the emotional realm of relationships is unsuited to a stoney-faced stoic.
In one of his letters to his friend Lucilius, Seneca addresses this misunderstanding of ‘self-contentment’ with regard to friendship.
Self-contentment, in the way Seneca means it, does not mean one does not desire friendship.
A self-content person, says Seneca, is content with a partial self. Even if they lose a hand or an eye, they are satisfied with what remains, no less pleased with their maimed body than when it was whole.
“But while they do not hanker after what they have lost,” Seneca says, “they do prefer not to lose them. And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
Here Seneca corrects the caricature of stoicism I mentioned above. He does not reject friendship. Rather, he is interested in building a character that is sufficiently robust “to bear the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (The whole ‘prepared for worse times to better enjoy the nicer times’ schtick I discussed in this article.)
What is Seneca’s suggestion to those who have lost a friend, through desertion or betrayal?
Make new friends.
Seneca quotes one of his stoic predecessors, Hecato: “If you wish to be loved, love.”
Let’s say you suffer betrayal. In the instance you are betrayed, or learn of your betrayal, two paths present themselves to you.
In one direction, you can choose a path blooming with the natural offshoots of betrayal; bitterness, depression, anger, vengefulness. Though natural and flourishing, cheaply fertilised by resentful thinking, they are neither preferable nor sustainable. Allowing these shoots growth will poison your nature, and inevitably that of those around you. It is the easy path, down which the weak wander.
In the opposite direction, you can choose the path Seneca suggests. Though not beautifully flowered, barren even, you bring the beauty with you. Namely, “the qualities of a good and an enlightened character,” one which does not allow the evil expressed by betrayal to take root within their own nature.
Is that not preferable satisfaction to revenge? Shame on you who say otherwise!
The paths are clear-cut.
If you wish to be resented, resent.
If you would prefer to be loved, love.
Seneca reckons that it is “more of a pleasure to make a friend than to have one,” in the same way that “an artist derives more pleasure from painting than from having completed a picture.”
Indeed, it becomes a more precious pleasure and delicate art the older one gets. The artist must be more refined, being many years removed from the innocent openness with which formative friendships are forged, on playdates, up the park, in the playground.
If anything, making friends in adulthood is more exciting and meaningful. Growing up, one realises that some friends were made through pure happenstance, or are friends of friends, or were in fact fair-weather friends. The friendships you forge consciously as a grown-up mean more.
Seneca’s attitude might appear harsh. Economical, even, as if he hardly values friendship. “What is the loss of one friend, just make another!”
This is a misunderstanding. Seneca deeply values friendship. I think his point here is more like: “The milk is spilt. Do not cry over the spilt milk. Mop it up, forget about it, concentrate on pouring yourself another glass, and enjoy it.”
As I said, Seneca deeply values friendship. He quotes Epicurus, who wanted friends “for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when he is ill or come to his rescue when hard up or thrown into chains.”
Seneca flips Epicurus, saying friends should not be made for our own benefit, “but so that on the contrary we may have someone by whose sickbed we ourselves may sit or whom we may ourselves release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands.”
Seneca warns against Epicurus’ business-like view of friendship. “Anyone thinking of their own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake.” Friends such as these do not stick around for anything but their own expedience, and “at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear… a person who starts being friends with you because it pays them to do so will similarly cease to be friends because it pays them to do so.”
Seneca, who was born before and died after Jesus Christ, held the Christian ideal of selfless love, without knowing it – before it was cool.
Seneca actually analogises friendship – true friendship – to falling in love, which he thinks is like “friendship gone mad… does anyone ever fall in love with a view to a profit, or advancement, or celebrity?” I guess it is a kind of natural and beautiful madness, isn’t it? It happens spontaneously, naturally, without calculation or any thought of gain.
This leads us roundly back to self-contentment. As we do not forge friendships in the expectation of any gain, there is nothing to be lost.
If you lose a friend through betrayal or desertion, you lose nothing, for that is not a friend, and you still possess the qualities which retain true friends and make new friends.
That is the sort of stoic self-contentment Seneca means.
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