The Internet Vagabond

Letter 3: On True and False Friendship

Original Text

1. You have sent a letter to me through the hand of a "friend" of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in other words, you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. 2. Now if you used this word of ours in the popular sense, and called him "friend" in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as "honourable gentlemen," and as we greet all men whom we meet casually, if their names slip us for the moment, with the salutation "my dear sir," – so be it. But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. Indeed, I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself. When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who, violating the rules of Theophrastus, judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. 3. As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?

4. There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe. 5. In like manner you should rebuke these two kinds of men, – both those who always lack repose, and those who are always in repose. For love of bustle is not industry, – it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia. 6. Therefore, you should note the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius: "Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day." No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose. Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night. Farewell.


In this letter I take away two themes: one of friendship, and one of discussions. Of friendship, I think Seneca's definition sets a high bar, though rightfully so. A friend (perhaps a "true friend", considering Facebook et al) is one you can confide in without restriction, except for the most tightly held of secrets. I can personally count the number of people I could call this type of friend on one hand. To Seneca, as with me, friend is an honorable position.

In today's social-media-fueled world, I find that the term "friend" resonates much closer to Seneca's sick burn: "friend" in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as "honorable gentlemen." Perhaps, though, there's a bit of syntactic significance here. To the Stoics, the importance of community and brotherhood is found throughout. Marcus Aurelius has a famous quote about it, as masterfully illustrated by the great Gavin at Zen Pencils: [ Link ]. I think it safe to say we should be friendly and helpful to all we meet, whereas to welcome one as a friend is a significant event, and one which requires careful consideration.

The second theme, discussion, is only touched on but I think is significant enough to warrant attention. Seneca mentions the importance of moderation in trust and discussion with others. Do not share freely and constantly, and also do not withdraw within yourself too far. I think here we see a blueprint for discussion with others. To borrow from Marcus, we are all brothers, and in that sense we should be comfortable discussing common matters. However, it is only with friends that we should be comfortable discussing more personal matters, and even then we must be considerate. Once again, our social-media-centric world finds many of us sharing freely into a void we do not recognize as a crowd. Many would do well to remember: social media is not empty! There are those who greedily capture every word you give freely, like a stray animal to a buffet. Judge well what you decide to share, for likely it is not with "true friends" that the message solely goes.

Reflecting on this letter made me carefully evaluate my friendships. I rarely have difficulty with people, though admittedly I take time to "warm up" to them. In terms of discussions, I don't find much to be beyond common topics. In that sense, I think I am a bit too loose-lipped, though perhaps not as much as I think. However, I do know that it is a small group with which I confide the most personal challenges or achievements I have made. And, as Seneca does suggest, I do not allow entry into this group lightly!


Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 3 on Wikisource

Bill Niblock 2018-01-20
[ philosophy ]