A really good thing about studying Seneca’s Letters to learn about Stoicism, is his emphasis on friendship. The ancient roman philosopher makes it clear he thinks friendship is one of the great joys of a good human life. This is a boon for us because friendship is so important for two key virtues we prize in the 2020’s – authenticity and ecological intelligence.
On one of her Oprah appearances the author of Eat Pray Love, like many text orientated people, dismissed the essential inter-connectedness of our selves. A young woman asked her whether there is a danger in becoming overly focused on the self by going for it and doing the things you want to do, to live your life. In this age of authenticity this is an important question that many of us wrestle with. We need to do the things that matter to us, there is only one shot at our life, miss it and no-one else can ever live that life. Elizabeth Gilbert’s answer was a wrong. She dismissed the concern, as if it was a mistake to even think this might be an issue. Gilbert missed the opportunity to talk about how important it can be to share the things you need to do to live your life with your friends and loved ones.
Going for what you want at the expense of connection to others is inherently dangerous. If you ever do that be thoughtful about what sort of person you are becoming by doing your things. Sometimes it is a gamble that the connections we make on the other side of that self-defining action will be more authentic. Connection, friendship these are too important to simply gamble with. somewhere we can create and exercise ecological intelligence, as maintaining good relationships demands ecological intelligence, something we need more than ever on the precipice of a natural catastrophe.
Seneca’s 6th Letter
Seneca broaches this way of living in only the sixth letter to Lucilius. It is titled Sharing Knowledge. He says it is important to share to deepen our learning, and to promote good character. To Seneca, an act of sharing is an important part of friendships. The letter finishes with a quote about the importance of becoming your own friend. A person who has achieved friendship with themselves is a person good for everyone.
- Someone who is a good friend to their self is not the sort of person who puts an obstacle between their self and their friends by hoarding knowledge.
- Someone who is a friend to their self is not the sort of person whose friends would ignore them when they attempt to share what they have learned.
- And, someone who is a friend to their self is not going to remain in denial about the things they learn about their self.
The pursuit of a comprehensive philosophy to use to navigate the chaos of life, is something that can be learned through books and their moral theory. Although, that is not the best way to learn. More effective is conversing or even residing with a like-minded person or teacher. Witnessing patterns or habits of mind and action give the best examples for learning a philosophy. It is rare to find a situation where learning in this way is possible, so turning to books of moral philosophy and other texts remains important.
Letters maintain friendship
Seneca himself, no longer able to share an abode with Lucilius resorted to letters which he found a passible medium of conversation for the purpose of philosophy. It enabled him to share with Lucilius what he had discovered in his studies and his application of that learning in his life. Sharing information gleaned from reading letters and biographies, where the pattern that connects philosophy with life can so often be found, is a valuable endeavour for any reader and their friend.
To seek the self-transformation by absorbing and practicing a philosophy provides an honourable desire according to Seneca. Sharing these desires with friends along with the inevitable setbacks deepens friendship and the meaning and satisfaction in life. It is also a bulwark against selfishness: being able to share our self, with its limitations and triumphs with another. It maybe that we have a list of things that must be done, to live our life, but it would be a funny sort of authenticity if it didn’t contain things that we wanted to do with our friends and loved ones, or if doing those things led us away from those people who in so many ways are our life.
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