On Friendship: Letters From A Stoic by Seneca
This post is about one of the most thoughtful and down-to-earth books I’ve ever read. It’s a non-fiction book of short essays. It’s insightful, contemplative, and meaningful.
It's not realistic to compress the entire literary vocabulary of this book into a single post. But the rock I will be looking under is Friendship.
I feel that friendship has its own intent and language. And, in the way Seneca writes of it, much of the definitions and purposes of friendship are weakened by judgment and indulgence.
There are many forms of judgment that we are privy to when we meet others. How we judge ourselves in relation to them, how we judge them in relation to us, and how we judge the relationship that forms the foundation between us and them.
Indulgence, Seneca writes, is also a feeling; a sort of selfish reward that we seek in a friendship. That is the underlying factor that motivates humans to pursue friendships and cultivate them. So what we’re perhaps consciously relying on is the value and usefulness of the friendship. This immediately implies that once a friendship stops being useful, it is guaranteed to fail.
Now, Seneca pleads us not to confuse the word “useful” and the word “meaningful” in relation to friendship. They aren’t synonymous. Nor are they interlinked in some intrinsic manner. This excerpt from the book Letters From A Stoic inquires most lucidly about the anatomy of finding meaning, and not usefulness, in friendship:
“But when 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.”
I’d like to elaborate on this passage a bit more by saying that what Seneca has done here, quite intelligently, is dissect the essence of being yourself and the essence of being a friend. And how both worlds, both faculties, draw from each other, and so they are deeply interlinked.
It’s a simple thought. And yet it’s so easily forgotten or misplaced in modern life. Because we’re driven to material surfaces - when we see something, we automatically start to figure out its practicality and advantages. While this can help, at times even strengthen our resolve. It is the one thing that also quantifies how much we want to bring to the table when we’re friends with someone.
Psychologically, this has many roots. We guard ourselves in the way we express ourselves and in the way we act around others because of many underlying reasons.
Fear, according to both Seneca and Khalil Gibran, dominates much of the architecture of friendships. We fear having questions that nobody has answers to. We fear being left behind. We resist speaking about ourselves because we fear not being understood. We fear empty promises and unfulfilled expectations.
Instead, in our truest thoughts, desires, intentions, we remain silent around others. We feel abundant, fulfilled, and satisfied in keeping those thoughts to ourselves. A passage from Khalil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, that echoes the invisible and stoic bond of friendship accurately:
“And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.”
These fragments philosophically reawaken the mystery and magnitude of friendship. And how, over the years, it has fallen between the cracks of social media culture. The immediate gratification that a screen offers - the instant messaging, the endless scrolling, and the most harrowing of all, the positive feedback that social media provides.
All these factors, I strongly believe, have simply validated our need to escape in things that are more readily available to us and perhaps are in fact easier than doing the inner work of building and caring for a truly meaningful friendship.
It’s refreshing to read Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic and Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet when you want to acknowledge that pattern of thought within yourself to break that cycle.