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)

The Art of Loving – A Ramble on Chapters 1–2.1

This month, Cleo is hosting a readalong of The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm and On Friendship by Cicero. It’s a sequel to the Four Loves Readalong – which feels recent but was actually back in June(!!).  Fromm and C. S. Lewis were contemporaries (and Lewis’s book was published just four years later), so it adds interest to see how their perspectives correspond or differ.  I’m also looking forward to Cicero, as I haven’t read many ancient classics.

You can find the full schedule on Cleo’s post.  I felt the need to break down my check-ins a little more, so this one will cover the first 1 1/3 chapters.

Chapter 1, “Is Love an Art?”

Fromm opens with his short but pithy thesis – that love is not just a flurry of feelings, but an actual scientific art, like music or medicine, which must be learned and practiced.

He posits three interrelated societal problems.  First, culture is overly focused on the state of “being loved,” particularly for superficial reasons, instead of giving love.  Second, people are misguided in thinking they need only to find the right person to love, rather than determine how best to love someone.  This quote from J. R. R. Tolkien comes to mind:

Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to.  – Tolkien, Letters, 51-52

(I do not know if I agree with this…but, it’s memorable.)

Fromm’s third point is that people will not put in the work – or do not understand how – to sustain a state of love, being obsessed instead with the romanticized concept of falling in love.  Of such a couple, he adds, rather cynically:

…they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being “crazy” about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.

There is much truth in this first chapter; in spite of that, my gut reaction was not positive.   Fromm is right in that love is sacrificial and requires effort and even strategy.  He is right in that people often let their heady feelings carry them away without any logic or wisdom. On the other hand, I would regret for someone to read this and then conclude they could simply “self-help” their way to a good relationship.  I think it takes more than that.

Fromm describes the action of love as polar in the next chapter, but I see the state of love as being polar as well.  To paraphrase my comment on Cleo’s post – I believe a relationship needs both the “infatuation” and the “art,” just as a country needs both heart/culture and good laws/policy.  In some cases, I think this can sustain a relationship, especially where love is not reciprocated.  More on that in the next section…

Chapter 2.1, “Love, the Answer to the Problem of Human Existence”

Here we get into Jordan Peterson-esque territory.  Fromm examines the issue of human isolation, which is directly contrary to our innate desire for unity with others.  Humans will do anything to escape the feeling of separation, from allowing themselves to be dominated by an aggressor to sadistically forcing others into submission to themselves.  Sometimes this takes a purely voluntary form:

…the democratic societies show an overwhelming degree of conformity.  The reason lies in the fact that there has to be an answer to the quest for union, and if there is no other or better way, then the union of herd conformity becomes the predominant one.

The tragedy is that we believe we are individualistic.  But as Fromm so relevantly observes, we are so eager to identify ourselves by group labels, such as our political party, our handbag designers, and our charitable organizations. 

On the same note, he addresses the concepts of mental/metaphysical masculinity and femininity and his belief that certain “masculine” or “feminine” traits, while present in both genders, exist in higher ratios in one or the other.  I can’t remember if it was Lewis, Wollstonecraft, or Peterson (or someone else) who said something similar, but I’ve read that elsewhere and do not find it very convincing.  He suggests this polarity is necessary in love, and where we lose our differences, we lose individuality and the kind of connection that is established by attraction rather than force or conformity.

But back to the “problem” of human existence.  Fromm sees love as the only healthy option to solve the issue of loneliness (the non-healthy option being sadism).  Here I do agree with him.  From a Christian perspective, mankind needs God’s Love and nothing else will fill our emptiness.

Need-Love was a theme in Lewis’s book, and I am not sure Fromm recognizes it here.  Rather, he seems to be focused on what Lewis called Gift-Love.  Fromm breaks gift-love down into four common elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.

Love as a Means or an End?

There is a lot I could say about this chapter, but I want to zoom in on this statement, where Fromm qualifies gift-love by its reception and mirroring:

If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune.

To me this is an understandable perspective, but problematic.

Several years ago I read Works of Love by Kierkegaard, which was a life-changing experience – I actually didn’t blog about it because I didn’t quite know how.  Anyways, this one thought of his has always lived with me since then:

Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle again.

In the spirit of “love your enemies,” what Kierkegaard is saying is that even unrequited love has value.  If his love is not returned, he would not call his love “impotent” or a “misfortune,” because the love itself has an inherent, inseparable value that is not altered by the response of the recipient.  It may change the relationship, but it will not undermine your sacrifice.

There are times the relationship must change or even end, for the wellbeing of one person or both.  But if the relationship can reasonably stay intact, continuing to love the other person could be the one link to bring the two people back together on the other side.