Day #866: What Are Friends For?

For what purpose do I make a man my friend?” asks Seneca (c. 4 BCE – 65 CE), the Roman philosopher and statesman. His answer is, “in order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too” (Lucilius IX.10). This is Seneca’s reasoning: if the purpose of friendship is not self-sacrificial, it is only a bargain of convenience — a contract destined to be severed as soon as it is more convenient or lucrative for one party to leave than to stay.

Let’s suppose that I am stuck in a terrible situation. If I see that you have the means to help me escape, I might be inclined to win you over. However, if my sole agenda for our friendship is to achieve my own ends, then what becomes of you when my situation has stabilized? In Seneca’s words, “at the first rattle of the chain” my escape from bondage signals the end of my need for a liberator (IX.8). A person befriended for a purpose loses their usefulness as soon as the purpose is achieved.

Therefore, in Seneca’s view, you have two kinds of friends: people who are close to you for their own advantage, and those that are close for yours (XLVIII.4). People who befriend you for the sake of their own wellbeing will drop you like a expired asset, a liability, the moment there is greater advantage in disassociation. In other words, “he who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays” (IX.9).

What, then, is the point of friendship? We become friends so that we can wade through the disasters of life together; to visit one another in prison; to suffer for the sake of another; to stand by each other at personal cost and disadvantage. This is friendship. Everything else is a bargain of convenience.

If friendship does not lead to at least some degree of suffering, then what is it, exactly?

Taken from Caesura Letters

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