Friendship According to Cicero and Seneca

I’d placed a library hold for Cicero’s How to Be a Friend months ago, when I joined Cleo’s dual readalong for that book and The Art of Loving. The slow wait turned out for the best, since its availability coincided with my current reading of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, which covers some of the same topics.

As for Seneca, he’d been sitting on my shelf for ages. I started reading him during a sad mood because he was the only thing around that didn’t feel unbearably detached from what I was going through: disillusionment with an old “friend” and fear of losing a new one. I don’t know if it’s Seneca himself or the translator Robin Campbell who’s more to be credited, but Letters really does feel like listening to a kindly mentor who manages to impart wisdom in an approachable way (his sense of humor helps). I’m only about 1/4th through but enjoying it very much.

This will not be a terribly in-depth review—will probably save that for a podcast episode—but I wanted to muse over a few things that jumped out at me.

Amicitia, Redefined

Seneca the Younger (born ca. 4 BC) was a contemporary of Jesus, while Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC. It seems possible Seneca was influenced by Cicero, who had been a prestigious Roman orator. Either way, they both viewed friendship or amicitia in a more serious light than either we or their contemporaries did.

To get an idea of how amiticia was popularly perceived back in the day, check out the first preview-page here of a 1965 article from the Cambridge Philosophical Society. In short, “friends” were essentially considered to be just allies, political or social, who could help you be successful in life, as long as you were willing and/or able to return the favor.

This is not unlike what society often considers friendship to mean today, especially in the context of social media where mere quantity and support (in the form of likes and comments) can be misused as a kind of friendship currency. There is no particular sense of commitment and, in some cases, even closeness. If anything goes awry, we can ignore, hide, or even block that person as if they don’t exist anymore.

By contrast, Seneca explains his perception of friendship strongly and succinctly in his 9th letter:

What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goal . . . How then can the nobler stimulus of friendship be associated with any ignoble desire?

Seneca, Letter IX

This brought immediately to mind the famous verse, spoken by Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” What I never thought about before—and which reading Seneca prompted in me—was the very implication that a friend, by definition, would be someone to die for. How many people that we call friends would we willingly, happily give up our lives for?

No more so than in the present era, the term “friend” is used so flippantly. I can’t even think of a word to represent the relationship Seneca describes. That’s pretty sad.

How Do We Choose Friends?

How to Be a Friend is written in the form of an elder, Laelius, imparting wisdom to two young men. Laelius has recently lost his dear friend, Scipio Africanus, and his listeners wish to learn about friendship and also how Laelius is handling the loss.

The underlying premise is that a friend is someone you choose, not someone you find. In fact—consistent with the devotion and sacrifice you will put into the relationship—a friend is someone you should choose very carefully (more carefully than many people choose their significant others!).

There were many great pieces of advice here. I will just share a sampling:

  • Friendship is an impulse of love, so take care not to love too quickly. Cicero recommends waiting till adulthood to form long-lasting friendships, because at that point, you have (hopefully) established some degree of stability in your own life and views.
  • Virtue must be the basis for friendship. “Real friendship cannot be the child of poverty and need,” and if, at core, you’re simply looking to get something out of the person (or vice-versa) the friendship cannot be virtuous or sincere. This can occur, Cicero warns, when one person wants to take the relationship in a romantic or sexual direction, seeing the friendship as only a means to that end.
  • In relation to the previous point: “Never ask a friend to do anything shameful, and don’t do anything shameful if asked.”
  • A friend is “someone you can talk to about everything as if you were speaking to yourself.” Choose one who is honest and sympathetic, doesn’t value rank or money over your relationship, has the same values and interests, won’t spread rumors about you, and isn’t a mere flatterer.
  • “Love after you have judged” rather than “judge after you have loved.”

If you can manage to make a true friendship, that friend will be with you even when they are not present (or even dead). This comforts Laelius in his mourning.

A Place for Hope

There is a lot of truth in both of these writings, and they left me somewhat encouraged. I do feel there is a missing element: the “rainy day” scenario, when a dear friendship seems threatened or already lost. For that, I would just add a quote from the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard:

…he who was your friend, it is still possible that he can again become your friend; it is possible that he who was sunk the deepest, alas, because he stood so high, it is still possible that he can be raised up again; it is still possible that the love which has turned cold can burn again – therefore never give up any man, not even at the last moment; do not despair. No, hope all things!

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

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  1. Mudpuddle Avatar

    i haven’t thought about this. or read either figure. i suppose i should, because your post made me realize i don’t have any friends. except on the net, and mrs. m, of course… it’s not that i miss having them, tho, i just never seem to make any; don’t know why, really… well, yes i do: i’m probably too stuck up to put up with most people, but it’s not my fault op’s seem so boring in person… and scary, also… so my bloggies are my friends, i guess; whether they like it or not, haha… i should add: when you get old and retired, associations sort of drift away, and unless one actively pursues them, aloneness happens. but that’s not the same as being lonely i don’t think… i don’t feel deprived in any way, just content in our little woods, doing our routine things… don’t forget dogs: they take up a lot of time… (we have two)


    1. Marian Avatar

      That sounds like a good place to be at in life. 🙂 I wish I could forgo friendships (if I find a life partner, maybe I will then). As it stands, I think most people find me utterly boring “In Real Life,” so it is hard to find people I have things in common with, let alone any of the other meaningful criteria Cicero talks about… I do consider all my online friendships to be real ones – they also tend to last much longer!


  2. Cleo @ Classical Carousel Avatar
    Cleo @ Classical Carousel

    Mudpuddle, I agree that as we get older, our circle of friends shrink. I think it’s because people get busier but I also think we realize that we have less time left and are more particular with how we spend it. Dogs are the best companions, aren’t they? 🙂 And nature’s not so bad either!

    I’m glad to have you as my friend! 😊


  3. Cleo @ Classical Carousel Avatar
    Cleo @ Classical Carousel

    A great review, Marian! I’m ashamed to say that I’m not finished Amicita yet or the last chapter of the Art of Loving. I will though. However, I am keeping up with The House of MIrth.

    I love your connections with Cicero, Seneca and Kierkegaard. This reading time (The Four Loves, The Art of Loving, and Amicita) have really made me consider what true friendship is. I’ve discovered that it’s rare. And that one needs to put lots of work into it, no matter how easy it seems. And it’s made me appreciate my true friends more. Time well spent ….


    1. Marian Avatar

      Absolutely agreed! Reading those three works together, I felt I learned even more, being able to compare them. It was one of my favorite reading experiences this year. 🙂

      Oh, and if it’s any consolation… I’m terribly behind Brona’s Moby-Dick Readalong. 😳


  4. smellincoffee Avatar

    Thank you for your comparison post. I think we moderns in general have far shallower appreciations of most human relationships, both friendship and love. What many people call love, for instance, is usually just lust or momentary infatuation.

    From your prelude, it sounds like you’ve encountered the Stoics at a good time — just I did, as I was suffering through the sudden death of a friendship and a lot of anxiety/anger/depression related to it.


    1. Marian Avatar

      True…I did read Marcus Aurelius years ago, but it wasn’t quite the same reading experience. There are some books that just have to be read at a certain time of life, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. smellincoffee Avatar

        Absolutely. For instance, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” had an enormous effect on me — it had utterly transformed me thinking before I’d even finished a third of it. But I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened if other books hadn’t tilled the soil, so to speak.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. MARI Avatar

    Hi Marian, I really like how personally engaged with the books you are in your reviews and this one is no exception.

    I’ve come to know now that the Romans are good to read for life wisdom. I found some friendships I made earlier in my 20s to be too transactional – measured by usefulness, might be a better phrase – and after some of them collapsed (how would they not?), I found myself using the same transactional approach in turn – sigh. I think that for most of us being able to form long-lasting friendships is, as Cicero points out, more likely in adulthood. I always thought that people who had long-lasting friendships formed in childhood or adolescence are special souls 🙂


    1. Marian Avatar

      It’s something we are all guilty of at some point… I feel I could’ve saved some of my old friendships if I’d known and applied some of this advice. (On the other hand, I was probably too immature to realize my mistakes at the time.)

      Thanks for the kind words! 🙂


  6. Reading Highlights of 2019 – Classics Considered Avatar
    Reading Highlights of 2019 – Classics Considered

    […] but not least, I’m currently reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, which so far is proving to be an excellent bookend (pardon the pun) to 2019’s […]


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