Reflections on Letters From A Stoic. By Seneca.
You have sent me the letter by the hand of a ‘friend’ of yours, as you call him. And in the next sentence you warn me to avoid discussing your affairs freely with him, since you are not even in the habit of doing so yourself; in other words you have described him as being a friend and then denied this in one and the same letter. Now if you were using that word in a kind of popular sense and not according to its strict meaning, and calling him a ‘friend’ in much the same way as we refer to candidates as ‘gentleman’ or hail someone with the greeting, ‘my dear fellow’ if when we meet him his name slips our memory, we can let this pass. But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.
Certainly you should discuss everything with a friend; but before you do so, discuss in your mind the man himself. After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge. Those people who, contrary to Theophrastus’ advice, judge a man after they have made him their friend instead of the other way round, certainly put the cart before the horse. Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly as you would with yourself. You should, I need hardly say, live in such a way that there is nothing that you could not as easily tell your enemy as keep to yourself; but seeing that certain matters do arise on which convention decrees silence, the things you should share with your friend are all your worries and deliberations. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some men’s fear of being deceived has taught people to deceive them; by their suspiciousness they give them the right to do the wrong thing by them. Why should I keep back anything when I’m with a friend? Why shouldn’t I imagine I’m alone when I’m in his company?
There are certain people who tell any person they meet things that should only be confided to friends, unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please. Others again are shy of confiding in their closest friends, and would not even let themselves, if they could help it, into the secrets they keep hidden deep down inside themselves. We should do neither. Trust everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behavior).
Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval – the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia. This prompts me to memorize something which I cam across in Pomponius. ‘Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.’ A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action. Ask nature: she will tell you hat she made both day and night.
The way in which Seneca describes friendship is inspiring. We should all be so lucky to have such friends. My sense is that this type of friendship, which in my view is the only legitimate friendship, is a rare and uncommon thing these days. The price of admission to one’s friendship is decreasing rapidly as the social media era expands. 1 or 2 clicks is all it takes now. Continue reading