PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – ACQUAINTANCES – PART III

“A crowd is not company.” – Francis Bacon

 

 

 

In the last section, I introduced the Stoic approach to acquaintance noting its strong psychological features and ended with Cicero who proposed that society and interpersonal interactions are vital to the ideal life while moral duty, honor, and decorum inform our purpose with acquaintances in the harmonious participation therein. Our second Stoic philosopher is Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE). Seneca seems to agree that society is necessary to human flourishing and even says, “You must live for your neighbor if you would live for yourself,” but overall his writings emphasize the dangers of others and of society to one’s virtue and tranquility. He is particularly cautious with respect to premature friendship recommending against considering a person a friend whom one has just met or whom one cannot trust as fully as oneself.  He advises long deliberation on a potential friend after a sufficient discretionary period warning, “Some people give casual acquaintances full accounts of what ought to be confided only to friends.”1

In the quest for tranquility and ethical perfection, Seneca cautions us to limit our contacts with certain types of people. “A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness, a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust of upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.”2 Frequent contact with unworthy acquaintances is a dead end; “Inevitably you either imitate or loathe. But both alternatives must be avoided. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different.”3

He has similar concerns about large groups. “Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it.”4 He also warns of the danger of seeking public approval which has little value for the Stoic and is inevitably suspect; “The many admire you, but have you grounds for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand?”5

Seneca’s guidance is a recurring Stoic theme: “Retire into yourself as far as you can.”6 With regard to the desire of publicity or fame, he counsels “Your merits should face inwards.”7 Purpose with regards to acquaintance for Seneca is perhaps best reflected in one line “Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.”8 In summary, where Cicero sees acquaintance as a forum for manifesting honor and virtue, Seneca is more concerned about its pitfalls and with its threats to one’s virtue.

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1Hadas, Moses (editor/translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 168.

2Ibid., page 173.

3Ibid.

4Ibid. page 172.

5Ibid. page 174.

6Ibid. page 173.

7Ibid. page 174.

8Ibid. page 173.

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