Thoughts on Moral Letters to Lucilius: Letter 3 - On True and False Friendship


The structure of the following post will be a series of quotes from the letter followed by my notes. The letter can be found here for reference (Credits to Tim Ferriss). An audiobook version of the letters can be found here. The citations are in the format (Letter.Paragraph.Sentence).

I hope you find my notes useful!


“But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means.” (III.2.2)

A friend is someone you trust as much as you trust yourself. A person who you do not trust as much as yourself is not a friend.

“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who, violating the rules of Theophrastus, judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him.” (III.2.4-5)

One must judge before giving someone friend status, but after someone has become a friend, one must trust and not judge. A trusted person is a friend.

Similar to Jordan Peterson's idea that trust is the key to a successful relationship

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (III.2.6-7)

To trust someone is to talk to them as if you were talking to yourself. In other words, to talk without any reservations.

“As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy…” (III.3.1)

Question: Is the meaning of the quote - You trust your enemy with nothing, you don't trust yourself with?

Question: What is the contrapositive? You trust yourself with anything which you do not trust to your enemy?

“…yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections.” (III.3.1)

Another way to define what it means to trust someone.

Question: Seneca states that "you should share with a friend at least all your worries, reflections" and secrets. Why?

“Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.” (III.3.2)

Your honesty and commitment as a friend to someone will make them committed to you.

Question: Is that true always? There exists some people who exploit others.

“Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong.” (III.3.4)

Being afraid to trust others will cause others not to trust you.

“Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?” (III.3.5-6)

When sharing one's worries and reflections on a friend, one should regard themselves as if they were talking to oneself alone. In other words, one should not hide anything from a friend.

“It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.” (III.4.4)

To trust everyone is a sign of innocence, but trusting no one is safer than trusting everyone. One should not be on either extremes; it's important to judge who to trust before granting a person friend status.

Question: How would Seneca judge someone for friend status? How does one judge a person for friend status? In order to judge, one must be distrustful in the beginning, but that is counter to what should be done when such person is elevated to friend status.

“For love of bustle is not industry—it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind.” (III.5.2)

The love for excitement is a sign of restlessness. According to The Psychology of Behaviour at Work: The Individual in the Organization by Adrian Furnham, "extroverts seek excitement and stimulation whereas introverts try to avoid it" (pg. 383). Since extroverts seek excitement, extroverts are more likely to be restless.

Question: How does Seneca define restlessness? Why is restlessness bad? Does restlessness, however defined, prevent one from introspection?

“And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia.” (III.5.3)

True tranquility of mind is somewhere inbetween restlessness and inertia (taking part in no motion at all). True tranquility cannot be achieved by through no motion (laziness). Inertia captures laziness well since it accounts for the force needed to start moving and in order to continue moving forward, one must continue to apply force (to keep the momentum).

Question: Can true tranquility be achieved with the mindset of always improving oneself? or can true tranquility be only achieved through contentness (the feeling one has enough)?

“…Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day.” (III.6.1)

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are” - Stephen R. Covey

Describes an aspect of depression: The lack of motion and inertia to start motion results in staying in one place physically and metaphorically (dark corner), which results in a negative outlook on the world around them (see darkly by day).

Another interpretation: Some people think the world is dark place (shrinking into dark corners) that they see only negative things (see darkly by day), because of that.

“…men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose.”

Don't work too hard such that you cannot rest and do not work so little such that you become depressed.

If one is taking action, one should plan for rest. If one is resting, one should plan to take action. The quote, "there is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.", by Alan Cohen reaffirms Seneca's statement.

“Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night.”

Question: How does Seneca define Nature?

Question: One should rest because there exists a night time for resting and a day time for working?


Topics covered

  1. What is true friendship?
  2. How to separate friends from people?
  3. Mentality while selecting friends
  4. Balancing taking action and resting

One should judge a person before calling them a friend. Once one calls someone a friend, one should trust them as one would trust oneself. How loyal your friend is to you is dependent on how much you trust them with.

Too much action causes restlessness. Too little action causes depression and a negative outlook on life. One should plan for rest while taking action and plan for action while resting.