In his second letter to Lucilius (discussed here), Seneca encourages him to linger over the texts of “master-thinkers” and “select one [thought] to be thoroughly digested that day.” (Letter 2). We are to befriend thought rather than be merely an acquaintance of thought. Yet the question arose as to how best to determine which thoughts to befriend. How do we select our thought for the day? In Letter 3 we begin to get an answer to this question when Seneca challenges Lucilius for his use of the term “friend.” When Lucillius had a friend – “as you call him” Seneca adds – deliver a letter to Seneca, Lucilius goes on in the next sentence to warn Seneca “not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this.” Seneca’s conclusion: “in the same letter [you have] affirmed and denied that he is your friend.” A true friend is one with whom we share everything. As Seneca puts it, “I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man [friend; jb] himself” (ipso prius).
What does it mean to discuss the friend him/herself? Is this a topic for discussion that is over and above “the matters that concern” you and the friend? On the one hand, this does seem to be the case for Seneca since he claims that friendship should be preceded by judgment. We should “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” and once we have decided and judged a person shall be our friend we then welcome them with all our “heart and soul” and “speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” In other words, once we have judged that the person shall become a friend, it is the friendship itself then that precedes the multiplicity of issues about which the friends then openly discuss. But how do we come to this judgment? Is this not simply another version of our earlier problem of determining which texts and thoughts to befriend? Just as it was unclear how the established canon came to be the set of acceptable texts from which to choose, and how one is to choose their thought for the day from among these texts, so too the judgment regarding who makes the cut of friendship is also left unexplained.
We can perhaps gain some insight into Seneca’s thoughts if we consider our Facebook friends. From Seneca’s perspective, a Facebook friend would not seem to be a true friend since (1) I would not discuss everything with my facebook friends and even if I would I wouldn’t do so on Facebook; (2) I do not trust them as I would trust myself (or, as Seneca puts it, on Facebook I do feel the need to “keep back any words in the presence of my friend…[and I do not] regard myself as alone when in his company,” which is the opposite of how we are to be with true friends; and (3) in my case at least friend requests are usually confirmed without judgment. Occasionally I may later judge that this was a bad call. The conclusion seems inevitable: Facebook friends are “friends,” used in the “popular sense” rather than the true friends Seneca encourages Lucilius to pursue. Even worse, most of my Facebook friends are people I have never met in person, and thus it would seem that they are a peg lower than acquaintances.
Despite these obvious difficulties regarding Facebook friends, we would be too hasty if we concluded that it is impossible to have a Facebook friend in the proper sense of the word (for Seneca at least). For one, Seneca recognizes that there are limits even with respect to true friends, and he admits that “since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections,” if not, presumably, all the details that may have prompted these worries. What is necessary for true friendship, then, is that we say all that can be said in the context of an active, thoughtful engagement with our friends. Seneca notes, for instance, that there are some who speak of “matters which should be revealed to friends alone” and there are others who “fear to confide in their closest intimates.” “It is equally faulty,” Seneca argues, “to trust every one and to trust no one.” In short, we should avoid realizing a thoughtless “love of bustle” and speak our mind to any and all. Some things, to carry the example forward, should be left off Facebook. We should also avoid withdrawing out of fear of becoming wrapped up in superficial interactions. A consequence of this is a “slackness and inertia” that is contrary to an active, thoughtful engagement with friends. To avoid Facebook altogether, therefore, is equally faulty if Facebook can become a place where one can engage in thoughtful encounters with friends. What we are to shoot for instead, Seneca argues, is to “combine these tendencies” and become thoughtful despite our active engagement, and active and engaged despite our thoughtfulness; or, as Seneca puts it, “he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose.”
When Seneca criticized Lucilius’s use of the term “friend” when referring to someone with whom he would not share “all the matters that concerned” him, Seneca is not encouraging Lucilius to remove the filters and say anything and everything. Rather, it is the active, thoughtful engagement with the nature of their friendship itself that ought to concern them and be what guides their discussion. By shying away from matters that concerned their friendship, Seneca concludes that Lucilius does not have an active, thoughtful friendship with this person but rather the person is a mere acquaintance, someone with whom he can interact while simultaneously withdrawing from the interaction into a rote formalism of manners and etiquette (Seneca offers the example of “my dear sir” as one such formalism; or, we can talk about the weather). It is hard to maintain the proper balance of thought and withdrawal, repose and action, but such balance is what is essential, Seneca argues, to true friendship. It is this balance that is equally important to our engagement with the texts of “master-thinkers.” If one simply reads a text because it is part of the canon of master-works, then one is falling too far on the side of formal, rote interaction with a text; however, if the text is engaged with actively and thoughtfully – in short, if one makes it one’s own (as I discuss this theme in my reading of Letters 1 and 2) – then one becomes a friend of the text. In subsequent letters we will begin to gain clarity on the limits of friendship, such as when a text or person is not worth befriending, or when a friendship should be brought to an end. This begins with that which more clearly than anything else brings an end to friendship – namely, death – and this becomes the subject of the next letter.