Seneca part 9: Self-sufficiency and Friendship

This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday.

Seneca’s ninth Moral letter to Lucilius is extremely rich with ideas. In this article, let me share a few of them. First, it is interesting to see him comparing the Stoics and the Cynics. Their notion of apatheia (freedom from passions) is different, because:

our [Stoic] ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their [Cynic] wise man does not even feel them.

Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism does not advocate a complete lack of emotions: it proposes a way to overcome negative emotions. But there are also many similarities between Stoicism and Cynicism. Both belief, for instance, that the ideal sage is self-sufficient: to be happy, he only needs what is already his own. A sage can be perfectly happy in nothing but his own company. Yet while Cynics draw the conclusion from this self-sufficiency that a sage does not need friends, Stoics argue otherwise. According to Seneca, we naturally desire friends. Not so they can help us in our hour of need, but so we can help them.

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.

Friendship based on utility is not real friendship at all. If we want to engage in real friendship, the only valid reason for it is friendship itself: the state of mind in which we want to help another person even at our own expense. In this sense, it is much like love (which Seneca describes as “friendship run mad”). Utility-based friendships, however, are false:

These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. Hence prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those who have failed stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth. Hence, also, we notice those many shameful cases of persons who, through fear, desert or betray. The beginning and the end cannot but harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.

The sage is self-sufficient. He can “retreat into himself, and live with himself”. Yet if he has the ability to make friends and have friends, he will do so. Because unlike the Cynics, Stoics do not despise the nicer things in life. Besides that, devoting (part of) your life to someone else can be noble and virtuous, indeed.

Personally, however, I think Seneca is surely very flexible in his way of life. He says friendship is caused by “natural promptings” and is “desired”. It almost seems like we have no choice but to be drawn towards other people. While a high-class citizen like Seneca might experience it that way, others may experience that a life in solitude can be fulfilling as well. We only have to think about the monks of different beliefs to support this statement. Friendship, thus, is a luxury. If we have the pleasure to experience friendship, we should embrace it. If we have the opportunity to make new friends, we should use it. But if we don’t, then we can live a happy life just the same, as a self-sufficient and content Stoic. And so we see that the Cynics and Stoics have their differences, but are similar in many ways.


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