The Stoic guide to friendship

If you’re wondering who am I to comment on the topic of friendship, I’ll have you know I have a grand total of 5 friends, so you’re in pretty good hands. But you don’t have to take my word for it, for this wisdom comes from the ancient Stoics themselves. And if you’re wondering what the Stoics have to say about friendship, the answer is well, quite a bit actually.

Contrary to the common misconception of Stoics being unfeeling and cold, the Stoics actually share the belief that humans are social beings and acknowledge the importance and power of friendship. Here’s what Seneca has to say about the joys of new and old friendships:

Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Seeing the true value of friendships, the Stoic approach was strict but very intentional. Seneca cautioned against a flimsy understanding of friendship and advises us to think hard about who we consider our friends.

But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship… Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca also wrote about “red flags” in friendships. We should look out for these not only in our friends, but also in ourselves and how we have been treating our friends.

There’s nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs. If you are good, straightforward, and well meaning it should show in your eyes and not escape notice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Though I’ve shared many quotes, this is really just a sneak peek into the wealth of wisdom that the Stoics have to offer on the seemingly fundamental concept of friendship. Perhaps most of these sound like common sense to you, but as Voltaire succinctly puts it, “common sense is not so common”.