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What is a friend?

It seems harder to discern who is these days.

I have written previously on friendship here and here, focusing on their necessity, importance, value and in regards to quality and quantity. Today, I will discuss something different…

From reading Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic” and a recent discussion with a friend, I’ve been thinking more about what a friend is, what a friend does and why so many people are having trouble with so-called friends. I say so-called friends, because as it turns out these people are more like fair-weather friends, disposing of you once their need is fulfilled. Yes, the consumer-product “friend” seems to be a regular occurrence in our current world and it is downright fucking sad.

“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.” – Seneca

For Seneca, after friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge. The critique being that too many people become friends and then judge the person afterwards rather than the other way around, which Seneca believes is putting the cart before the horse, and I tend to I agree. That’s not to say you don’t judge them after you’ve become friends, but you don’t become friends before judging them appropriately.

A true friend you welcome with your heart and soul, someone, who in their company, you can share all your worries and deliberations. However, some of us fear being deceived (and sometimes not wrongfully so), but according to Seneca this fear of deception has taught others to deceive and “by their suspiciousness they gave them the right to do the wrong thing by them.” He further goes on to state that “trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one”, though he deems the former, worthier and the latter, safer. I think it is a little too naïve to be going around trusting everyone, but trusting no one is a very lonely and apprehensive life.

“Regard a person as loyal and you will make them loyal.” - Seneca

I understand people use friend in the layman’s sense more often than not and that for actual friends they tend to utilise true friend. However, this ambiguity allows for shallow and fickle friends to manifest themselves. Anyone seeking out friendship for (purely) their own interest is making a great mistake, and I agree with Seneca on this point, but people still do it.

“A person adopted as a friend for the sake of usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.” – Seneca

The shallow and fickle nature of these human beings has contributed to the conditional or transactional nature of a significant number of modern friendships. This is illustrated not only on an individual level, but in groups and communities (both real and virtual) as well. There have been a number of groups or communities that I have been a part of over the years and when my involvement ceased (or at least reduced substantially), it was like I no longer existed to these people i.e. our friendship was conditional to my involvement in the group/community.

People are very good at acting like you mean something to them, but privately behaving otherwise. I find this to be a sign of a person with weak character and integrity, lacking in maturity. I find that people often conflate friends for acquaintances, and that we mostly have acquaintances in our lives and few actual friends.

A true friend is someone who you can confide in, someone of high moral character, someone who is going to improve your life (and character), someone who is going to be there for you, not because they should, but because they want to and know it is the right thing to do. A true friend is few and far between, but they won’t leave you second guessing. A true friend will understand the reciprocal nature of the relationship; it is good for both you and I. A true friend is an elixir for the heart and soul. A true friend is for eternity.

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Martyn Foster
Martyn Foster
Feb 05, 2021

Thank you, I admit to getting a little choked up writing it! :-)


Unknown member
Feb 05, 2021

A lovely article Martyn, especially the last paragraph. :-)

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