LETTER III

In this letter Seneca talks about the nature of friendship. To start with he tells the recipient that the person that he calls his friend is not really his friend at all, because he avoids discussing certain topics with him. For Seneca this type of relationship is more of an associate or acquaintance. If you can’t trust your friend as you trust yourself you have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.

He then introduces the idea of first judging a potential friend and, upon forming the friendship, trusting the person completely. I think that in my case I regularly do neither.

When I read this letter I could not help but think of the friend chart in one of the episodes of Flight of the Concords. In case you don’t remember, the manager has a chart that indicates where the two guys in the band are and what they need to do to achieve friend status. The show culminates with them meeting the manager’s only friend who predictably turns out to be a social retard. The episode is hilarious because it draws on the awkwardness of discussing what a friend is and how you make one. As with falling in love - we are not supposed to analyse it’s just supposed to happen as a gift from heaven. It’s not really the stoic way of looking at things...

The term friend used by Seneca is certainly not friends in the social sense of the word. He is talking about deep connections with people that are both rewarding and productive over long periods of time. It sounds a bit calculating to think about friends in that way, but - as we discussed with operation “loads of friends” - friendships both affect and shape our lives a lot more then we think. This is particularly true of our individualistic age. Everything that I do is down to me and my own motivations: to quote the ever popular statement on reality TV shows - I’m here to win not to make friends! This delusion is a powerful one as it’s strongly embraced by our culture. It overlooks the real influence of the people that we hang out with and trust.

One thing I thought out was that in Seneca’s time, the difference between a good friend and a bad one would mean life and death. He was sentenced to death by three different emperors before being forced to commit suicide. What he thought and the way he wrote was a dangerous occupation - he gives this advice as a man keenly aware of the consequences of getting friendship wrong.

I am not so sure if all of this letter is applicable to me but several elements are quite interesting. He says that if you treat a friend as loyal he will be loyal, and if you are suspicious then he will be suspicious. This is something that I have observed myself.

Judge a new person fairly as to their character and then, when you decide to form a friendship, trust them completely. This is definitely a quality over quantity equation and it relegates the social friend to a mere acquaintance. I find this idea interesting. Trust is a powerful thing, and it should only be given to those who deserve it. Personally, I think that by drawing a stronger line between friend and acquaintance. I could focus my trust and connect with that small group and withdraw it from the acquaintances.

This is very congruent with the stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and withdrawing from what you cannot. Taking the burden of friendship away from acquaintances makes it easier to socialise and hang out with people. People like ourselves know the true meaning of friendship, and the thought of sharing that with a wide group of people can be tiring. Seneca reminds us that friendship should only be shared with a small group and that good judgement needs to be followed up with complete trust.

He recommends a double headed approach that is so common in Stoic thought. Firstly, select your friends carefully and then trust them completely, and, secondly, make your own life simpler and easier to talk about. He recommends having nothing in your life that you could not tell your enemies. If my mind is full of manipulative and exploitative thoughts, it’s hard to share them with others - regardless of how much I trust them. Seneca contrasts the person who shares everything with strangers - the classic American exchange student after one litre of Bavarian beer - and the person who never talks about what they think at all - the morose Finn. He sees both as missing out - wearing your thoughts on the outside with a small group of selected friends is not only good in the moment, it also develops your internal thoughts into something that easier and easier to talk about.

I definitely have problems sharing my thoughts with my friends - I found it hard to allow you to read my daily writing! I think that half the problem was that I had not ordered my own mind and life to the point that I could talk about it. The big outcome from the daily writing project for me was the improved ability to articulate myself in a clear and entertaining way.

The things that I will take away from this letter are as follows:

1) Friendships are hugely important and very rewarding. They require good judgement and then complete trust. You cannot have a lot of these types of friends. That’s just the way it works.

2) I used to think that being superficial with acquaintances was not genuine. Seneca does not agree - you cannot treat acquaintances as friends it does not work like that as they do not deserve the trust. Opening up about life stoned to a group of strangers does not get you anywhere over time.