To continue with our series on friendship as the foundation for genuine conversation, friendship that engulfs utility and pleasure into a larger, and more enduring, whole: the friendship of virtue. This letter of Seneca to Lucilius unveils the heart of geniune friendship: it involves trust, disclosure, and most of all judgment. I’ll be interested in your response to Seneca’s letter, and I’d also be interested in whether or not you consider this to be the sort of thing Paul would call “fellowship.”
Here is a powerful letter from Seneca, and it illustrates what genuine frienship is all about:
“Seneca to Lucilius; greetings.
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
Friendship, according to Seneca, involves disclosure. Seneca continues to explore what Lucilius means when he uses the term “friend.”
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 ‘honorable gentlemen,’ and as we greet all men whom we meet casually, if their names slip us for a 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.
Friendship, Seneca continues, involves trust. It seems he has little use for using the term “friend” in a casual sense. And here Seneca gets to the heart of a trusting, disclosing relationship of friendship: it comes after considered, deliberate judgment. Judgment, that is, careful consideration and rendering a decision if a given person is also committed to virtue as you might be. Notice these haunting but influential words of Seneca:
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… judge a man after they 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.
And once one has rendered the judgment that “so and so will be my friend,” that person deserves your whole heart and soul. The last element of friendship, in fact, the element that keeps it all together, is commitment to one another.
Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. 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?
Some are too open; some lack judgment; some lack discernment. Some are fearful, and hold back.
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 every one and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter more safe.”
Here it is then, a letter that expounds the meaning and significance of friendship.
Essayists are keen on writing on friendship, and Joseph Epstein, my favorite essayist, is said to be writing a book now on friendship. It will be a masterful study of texts like this from Seneca.