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)

Knee-Jerk Reaction to The House of Mirth

So…I did a bad thing. I was supposed to be following Cleo’s readalong schedule for The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Unfortunately, curiosity and momentum got the better of me. I read the entire second half in day…which was probably a huge mistake.

I’m not going to do a complete review in this post, because I’m still holding out hope that further discussion will change my mind about the book. But what follows are my irreverent, completely uncensored insta-reactions.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW THE CUT. And I mean MAJOR!!!!!

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Call of the Wild, Little Women, and Emma – New Movie Adaptations

I’m always interested in screen adaptations of classic literature—at least, the ones which promise a modicum of “trueness” to the story. We have at least three (!!!) coming up in the next three months:

Little Women (Dec 2019) – Link to trailer on YouTube

Emma (Feb 2020) – Link to trailer

Call of the Wild (Feb 2020) – Link to trailer

Ok, my thoughts…

The feminist take on Little Women is somewhat misleading since the trailer doesn’t even show Jo’s love interest Professor Bhaer (who is going to be in the film, albeit as a Very Young and Suspiciously Handsome Guy). However, the plot looks fairly close to the book, so I may go see it. If I’m disappointed, at least we’ll still have the amazing 2017 PBS version, which has become my new gold standard. (I still like the Winona Ryder film, too).

Emma—wow. I’m curious about this one, but it looks potentially horrible. (For one thing, Mr. Woodhouse is completely out-of-character.) Again, I’m really happy with the 2009 Masterpiece Classic series, which managed to be hilarious and classy, so I’m not itching to see this.

I haven’t read Call of the Wild, so I can’t comment on the trailer as it pertains to adaptation. It looks like a traditional, feel-good, Disney live-action film for families, which is not a bad thing. The CGI is a bit unfortunate, but other than that, it looks like it might be the best of this bunch.

I’d like to take this moment to observe the dearth of adaptations of other, equally worthy classics. I posted a list of suggestions earlier this year, but there’s so many, many more.

Reading Goals for 2020

Yes… it’s early, and I haven’t done a recap of my 2019 reading yet, because we still have over a month to go! Still, I thought I’d go ahead and share this while it’s on the brain.

Read What I (Already) Own

That’s right… I have a large number of books (20+), both fic and non-fic, which I haven’t read or only partially read. I’ve made so little progress with the Mount TBR Challenge in the last few years, it’s clear I need to focus on this mountain far more strictly. 😉 Happily, the ones I own are pretty diverse in genre and topic, so if I go about it in the right order, I won’t get bored!

Read More Poetry

I’ve been writing poetry on-and-off for ten years—nowadays, I write a poem nearly every day. But I don’t read it as often as I used to or should.

If you have any suggestions of poets to read, do share! I am pretty well-versed (no pun intended) in Dickinson, Wordsworth, and Longfellow, and am looking to branch out.

Keep Reading with Others

This year I’ve participated in not one but FIVE readalongs. It was one of the best decisions of 2019.

  1. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Ruth
  2. The Four Loves – Cleo
  3. Moby-Dick – Brona
  4. The Art of Loving – Cleo
  5. The House of Mirth – Cleo

I’m considering hosting two readalongs in 2020: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad + An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe (criticism of Conrad’s novella). They are all short books under 200 pages. Let me know if you have any interest…

Keep Reading Non-Fiction

As of today, I’ve read more nonfiction this year than fiction, which is terrifically unusual. Though I want to maintain a focus on classic literature, I plan to continue reading plenty of non-fic, because I’ve learned so much from it.

And—that’s all. You know I’m bad at challenges, so a sort of unspoken rule for me at this point is not to sign up for challenges. 😳 That said, I’m hoping to make a dent in my Classics Club list (which should happen organically if I stick to these goals).

If Victorians Surfed the Web: 50 Pseudonyms from the 1880s

In the spirit of the last post, I rediscovered another gem from long ago which I’d always intended to blog about: Victorian pseudonyms!

Back in 1880–1885, Lewis Carroll—author of the Alice books and real-life mathematician—wrote a series of math story problems for magazine readers to try to solve. Some participants mailed their answers to him using their real names or initials, but others were more creative. After giving them a chance to solve each puzzle, Carroll published the correct answer, calling out certain lucky (or unlucky) individuals by their pseudonyms. The collection of stories and solutions was later published under the title A Tangled Tale.

Below, in order of appearance, are some of the names readers chose for themselves. You can just picture them wielding those usernames on blogs or forums today… Bonus points if you can identify which ones come from classic stories!

Victorian Pseudonyms

  1. A Nihilist
  2. A Mother’s Son
  3. A Redruthian
  4. A Socialist
  5. Spear Maiden
  6. Vis Inertiæ
  7. Yak
  8. A Marlborough Boy
  9. Sea Breeze
  10. Simple Susan
  11. Money Spinner
  12. Galanthus Nivalis Major
  13. Bog-Oak
  14. Bradshaw of the Future
  15. Alphabetical Phantom
  16. Dinah Mite
  17. H.M.S. Pinafore
  18. Old Cat
  19. Rags and Tatters
  20. Mad Hatter
  21. Scrutator
  22. The Red Queen
  23. Cheeky Bob
  24. Bo-Peep
  25. Financier
  26. Sea-Gull
  27. Thistledown
  28. Cheshire Cat
  29. Waiting for the Train
  30. Common Sense
  31. Veritas
  32. A Ready Reckoner
  33. Three-Fifths Asleep
  34. Dublin Boy
  35. Yahoo
  36. Duckwing
  37. Euroclydon
  38. Land Lubber
  39. Polichinelle
  40. Old Hen
  41. Mrs. Sairey Gamp
  42. An Ancient Fish
  43. Froggy
  44. Turtle Pyate (Lewis: “what is a Turtle Pyate, please?”)
  45. Old Crow
  46. The Shetland Snark
  47. A Christmas Carol
  48. Old King Cole
  49. Theseus
  50. An Old Fogey