Skip to main content

How many friends should a wise person have?

It's interesting to compare the following quotes from Aristotle and Seneca regarding the number of friends the wise man should have:

"No one can have complete friendship for many people, just as no one can have an erotic passion for many at the same time; for [complete friendship, like erotic passion] is like an excess, and excess is naturally directed at a single individual. And just as it is difficult for many people to please the same person intensely at the same time, it is also difficult, presumably, for many to be good. [To find out whether someone is really good], one must both have experience of him and be on familiar terms with him, which is extremely difficult. If, however, the friendship is for utility or pleasure, it is possible for many people to please, for there are many people of the right sort, and the services take little time."

- Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, Book VIII, chap. 6 §2


"I should like also to state to you one of the distinctions of Chrysippus, who declares that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. "On the other hand," he says, "nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything." The wise man needs hands, eyes, and many things that are necessary for his daily use; but he is in want of nothing. For want implies a necessity, and nothing is necessary to the wise man. Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune."

- Seneca, Letters 9 (emphasis added)

Of course, you could argue that "as many friends as possible" could easily mean exactly as many as Aristotle think is possible - but it seems tempting to hear Stoicism as being reluctant to commit as much to another person as Aristotle seems to encourage. Or to put all your eggs in one or a few baskets, if you will.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Aristotle on happiness and external goods

According to popular opinion both in ancient Greece and today, happiness requires things such as wealth, good health, good looks, friends, family and good reputation. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus Socrates challenges those beliefs by claiming that none of those things are good, if they are not used wisely. In fact, Socrates claims that a person who has wisdom doesn't need any of those things at all since he or she can turn any situation into something beneficial for him- or herself.

"If wisdom is present, the one for whom it is present has no need of good fortune".

- Socrates in Euthydemus, 279E

In other words, Socrates claims that wisdom is a sufficient requirement for happiness (and a necessary requirement too, of course). Aristotle famously challenges that claim. But what exactly does he say? Let's have a look.

"we suppose happiness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person’s fortunes often turn to and fro. For clearly, if we t…

Stoicism and Evil Governments

This article claims that a Stoic has no reason to get depressed by bad political conditions since an evil government is not really a bad thing for a Stoic - since nothing can be bad for a Stoic except his own bad choices. Even so, the article claims, a Stoic acknowledges that an evil government is capable of doing "terrible things" to people.

To make this line of thinking work we have to think of ourselves as Stoics who can't be harmed by an evil government - since nothing can be bad for us as Stoics except our own bad choices - and other people as non-Stoics who will suffer terribly if they are oppressed by the evil government.
In my opinion, this interpretation of Stoicism is flat out wrong.
First of all, an evil government is indeed a bad thing. The Stoics distinguish between internal good/bad things such as our own good or bad choices and external good/bad things such as other people's happiness or unhappiness:
"some bad things are in the soul, i.e., vices a…

A documentary about the relationship between Seneca and Nero

A few years ago PBS did a series in four episodes called "The Roman Empire in the First Century"

Episode 3 is about Nero's reign but they tell the story by focusing on the relationship between Seneca and Nero. They do a fairly decent job and mostly present Seneca as a Stoic who tries to play the part assigned to him by fate as well as possible. The text is very pompous, though (to say nothing about the music!). Sigourney Weaver is narrating and sounds like she's quite uncomfortable about the whole thing. Every time a person is mentioned or quoted they show a bust of that person - if one is available - and every single time Seneca is mentioned, they show the "pseudo-Seneca" bust from Herculaneum even though everyone now agree that it is not a representation of Seneca.

All in all a pretty strange experience. It's incredibly rare that anyone mentions Seneca in anything about Rome produced for television so they deserve lots of credit for that - and also fo…