Letter III. On True and False Friendship

 

Source: The Stoic Letters

The third letter is about friendship. Here Seneca advises us to tread carefully and make important distinctions: We cannot decouple friendship from trust: if we don’t trust another person, we cannot say that he is a friend. So, first, get to know the person enough to be able to make a judgment about his character. If we arrive at a positive conclusion, we can think of him as a friend. Once this is done, trust becomes implicit, and should never be revoked:

When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. … 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.” (III.2)

The next section of the letter resumes things off and contains some great metaphors. Like this:

“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 more safe.” (III.4)

Seneca claims that it is a more innocent mistake to trust everyone. He believes that neither extreme should be embraced, and that one should choose a path somewhere in between, not trusting everyone, but not doubting all. The essay ends with the stoic advice “follow nature”, i.e., to apply reason to human problems:

“Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night.” (III.5)

Conclusions:

  1. Choose your friends carefully, and then commit entirely.
  2. A friend whom you do not trust completely will become someone untrustworthy. Someone already untrustworthy should not be called a friend.
  3. Be careful not to trust everyone, and not to trust no one. It is important to find a balance.

III. On True and False Friendship

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[1] 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:[2] “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.

Summary

Seneca on Friendship

Based on Letter 3

 

We cannot decouple friendship from trust: if we don’t trust another person, we cannot say that he is a friend. So, first, get to know the person enough to be able to make a judgment about his character. If we arrive at a positive conclusion, we can think of him as a friend. Once this is done, trust becomes implicit, and should never be revoked.

 

Seneca claims that it is a more innocent mistake to trust everyone. He believes that neither extreme should be embraced and that one should choose a path somewhere in between, not trusting everyone, but not doubting all. 

 

The 3 types of friends:

 

  1. The untrustworthy friend – This is someone who you call a friend but do not actually trust. Seneca advises not to call someone a friend unless you can trust them like yourself. Don’t reveal private matters to them.
  2. The friend you trust too much – This person shares private matters with everyone. Seneca says this is too trusting. The too-trusting friend is someone you trust too much and tell private things without discretion. Think “over sharing” with someone you just met. Who knows who they will turn around and tell. 
  3. The friend you trust completely – Once you have judged someone to be worthy of friendship, welcome them fully and speak to them as boldly as you would yourself. Hold nothing back from a true friend. The true friend is selective and discerning about confidences. You have determined their character. 

 

For advice on being a better friend and treating friends:

  • Choose friends carefully based on their character. Don’t rush into friendships.
  • Once you have a true friend, trust them completely and be as open with them as you are with yourself.
  • Don’t share personal matters with casual acquaintances. Reserve your full trust only for proven friends.
  • Rebuke friends who share private matters too freely. Remind them true friends are trusted confidants.
  • Don’t completely withdraw from friends out of fear of betrayal. Have faith in friends you have judged trustworthy.
  • Balance trust with caution. Don’t trust blindly, but don’t refuse to trust at all. Use reason to determine who is worthy of friendship.
  • Treat all friendships, even those that fail, as opportunities to learn about trust, judgment, and human nature.

Discussion Questions

  1. Seneca emphasizes the importance of trust in friendship. How do you define trust in the context of friendship, and what actions or behaviors do you believe demonstrate trustworthiness?
  2. Seneca suggests that one should pass judgment on a person before forming a friendship with them. How do you reconcile the idea of passing judgment with the notion of openness and acceptance in forming new relationships?
  3. What criteria do you think are essential for determining whether someone is worthy of being called a friend, according to Seneca’s letter?
  4. Seneca warns against both trusting everyone and trusting no one. How do you find the balance between being cautious and open in forming friendships?
  5. The letter mentions the danger of confiding in those who may not be true friends. How do you distinguish between acquaintances and genuine friends in your own life?
  6. Seneca advises against sharing every concern with a friend but encourages sharing worries and reflections. How do you navigate the boundaries of openness and discretion in your friendships?
  7. How does the concept of friendship discussed by Seneca relate to modern-day notions of friendship, especially in the context of social media and digital interactions?
  8. Seneca mentions the danger of being overly suspicious, which can lead to deception. How do you cultivate a healthy level of trust in your friendships while being mindful of potential risks?
  9. Seneca discusses the importance of balancing action and repose in life. How do you integrate periods of activity and rest in your own life, and how does this balance affect your relationships, including friendships?
  10. The letter concludes with the advice to consult nature when facing life’s problems. How do you interpret this advice in the context of navigating friendships and other relationships?