Stoic Reflections | Letter III | On Friendship & Relaxation

Reflections on Letters From A Stoic. By Seneca.

Letter III

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.

Reflections.

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.

This leads to a lot of reflection on how good of a friend one actually is. Usually measured by a combination of factors such as communication frequency, total time spent in each others physical company, mutual affinity, and then much further down the list come things like loyalty, reliability, determination. This is backwards.

In general I dislike the entire concept of measuring the level of a friend. It should either be a yes or a no. A yes, a true friend, which confers all of the benefits of friendship, full stop, with no further qualification needed. With no, not a true friend, which is then subject to however you want to manage relationships with people that are not true friends.

It’s important to note, “not true friends” is not a condemnation of the person in question. You wouldn’t say to them, “you’re not my real friend,” if you are friendly with them. This is socially awkward and unnecessarily rude. Considering someone to be not a true friend simply suggests that you haven’t taken your relationship to a level of real friendship.

Here is a short list of the “benefits list” that come with my friendship. I do openly discuss this with my friends. There isn’t a single point negotiation where a friendship is decided. It is usually born and grows up over a few months of regular interaction.

  • Permanency.

A friend is a friend for life. I make this explicit with my friends. I say, “I plan on having a relationship with you for the rest of my life.” I think saying this out loud matters. It inspires a mutual confidence in the friendship. Bumps in the road, periods of not seeing one another, fights, etc are all simply chapters in the book. The end never arrives.

  • Confidence

My friends have my full confidence. Meaning, I have taken them into my confidence. I confide in them. There really isn’t anything that I would not share with one of my friends. Be it my deepest darkest secrets, or my time, energy, and resources. This does not mean that everything IS shared. It just means that nothing is withheld.

  • Loyalty

Loyalty must be acknowledged and reciprocated. I am loyal to myself first. I’ve never had a situation come up where there was a conflict in loyalty. Where being loyal to a friend would have meant being disloyal to myself, or vice versa. In most cases the most loyal and selfish thing I can do for myself is to be fiercely loyal to my friends. The reciprocity thing works both ways.

Also under loyalty comes a general having of one another’s backs. I could call my friends from anywhere on the planet and say, “Hey, I’m down and out. Can you help?” And providing they have the available means to do so, they’d buy me a plane ticket to wherever they are, and give me a place to stay til I get back on my feet. As would I for them. There wouldn’t even be a second thought.

A few thoughts on the repose vs busy person example Seneca closed with.

I see myself committing both infractions at different times. I’ll go through a period of time of constant, unrelaxing activity, every day. Then I will crash and go into complete down mode, for a few weeks or months, then go back to high gear. This boom and bust cycle kind of sucks. I’d like to change it.

I think I’m improving upon it. I’m recognizing what things, when done properly, cause a day to be judged as excellent. And also what things, when out of line, cause stress/anxiety. I’ve dialed it in pretty well at some points and really enjoyed the sense of balance. The past 2 months while I’ve been in Thailand a lot of it has been out of whack, and I feel it. I blame fear.

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