Seneca to Lucilius: on friendship

Friendship[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]

The ninth letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius is about friendship, and it begins with an example of what could fairly — if superficially — be considered a Stoic paradox: “the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.”

But of course there is no contradiction in this. One is self-sufficient in the sense that, if need be, one can be happy even without externals such as friends, neighbors and associates. Indeed, remember that for the Stoics the Sage can be “happy” (meaning eudaimon) even on the rack. But that doesn’t mean that’s the preferred way to live, even for a Sage, let alone for the rest of us.

Indeed, Seneca immediately clarifies: “In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.”

At #8, Seneca makes the almost obligatory contrast between Stoicism and Epicureanism, despite his well known admiration for Epicurus. It’s an interesting contrast:

“The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus in the letter quoted above: ‘That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;’ but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free.”

So while the Epicurean — at the least in Seneca’s rendering — seeks friendships because they are pleasurable and useful, the Stoic seeks them as a way to be helpful and exercise her virtue. The actual practice may not always reflect this, but the theory does make for a rather stark contrast.

Seneca then considers what Aristotle called “friendship of utility,” i.e., a relationship initiated because of reciprocal advantage, and finds it wanting. At #9 he clearly states: “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.”

At #13 he returns once more to the self-sufficiency of the wise man, further clarifying the idea: “the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps towards mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises Fortune.” I very much like this concept of being self-sufficient for my own happiness while at the same time recognizing that I am not self-sufficient for the needs of my mere existence. Seneca also quotes Chrysippus, who said that “the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things.”


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