Last year, one of humanity’s oldest enemies—pandemic illness—returned to cloud our individual and collective horizons. But like reconnecting with an old friend who always knows the right thing to say at just the right time, so too has one of our oldest philosophies come back into sight to offer some clarity, comfort, and sage advice. The philosophy of Stoicism provides practicable guidance for cutting through a cacophony of stressors that can not only dampen our hope for wellbeing but deafen us to our own say in the matter of how our lives fare.
Recent articles in The Guardian (Stoicism in a Time of Pandemic: How Marcus Aurelius Can Help) and The Washington Post (The Lessons Two Ancient Philosophers Have for Us During the Pandemic) have explored the topical perspectives of famous Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, who themselves grappled with questions about anxiety in the face of suffering as well as personal responsibility and efficacy amid widespread tumult. Meanwhile, a number of blogs (5 Ancient Stoic Practices for Modern Times, Daily Stoic Practice: How to Be a Stoic, The Stoic Art of Journaling) have homed in on actual practices utilized by Stoics to help build personal resilience in any challenging situation. In particular, they have discussed the profound importance that Stoicism places on writing for philosophy as a way of life.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for instance, wrote his Meditations during the Antonine Plague that killed between five and ten million people. Apparently, he may never have intended it to be published and wrote the reflections for himself. In Seneca’s case, some of his most enduring writing comes to us in the form of reflective letters to his friend and fellow Roman official Lucilius after a less-than-tranquil career working under the reign of Emperor Nero. Despite their ostensibly small target audiences, readers will not miss in these works a distinctively instructive and inviting style. Perhaps this is no accident. Stoicism advocated that all rational beings attune themselves to a greater cosmic community of human friendship.
Aside from this grand cosmopolitan ideal, the Stoics also presented a theory of personal friendship. This aspect of Stoicism is sometimes overlooked in favor of focusing on lessons about individual fortitude. Nevertheless, our understanding of Stoicism as a practical philosophy for everyday life can be enriched by looking at what the Stoics have to say about the importance of others and especially the value of friendship. Adapting lessons from Stoic friendship theory—and in particular the practice of writing for friends in the manner of a Stoic—can enhance our Stoic writing practices and improve the quality of our lives.
Ancient perspectives on the importance of friendship for a good life
A hallmark of ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy was the concept of eudaimonia, and all of the famous thinkers and schools from this period contributed something to the discussion of what it takes to achieve this blessedly fulfilling sort of life for a human creature. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of them mention friendship as a key ingredient. Aristotle–whose philosophy closely rivaled Stoicism–not only thought friendship “necessary” but asserted that “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1155a5). If you are looking to cut straight to the core tenets of many ancient western philosophical systems, one less often travelled but reliable road is through their teachings about friendship.
To demonstrate, we can illustrate features about the Stoic approach to eudaimonia via a comparison with Aristotle on their respective views about friendship. For one thing, they both distinguish between initial forms of friendship and its complete form. Aristotle observes that we initially make friends on the basis of shared pleasures or mutual utility. That is to say we tend to click with people we perceive as fun to be around and who enjoy the same things as us, or people on whom we know we can rely, or both. For example, suppose you are a fiction writer. At the initial level a friend of yours might be someone who is always happy to read over and give comments on that latest draft you’ve written and does so in part because they too share your unique love of high-fantasy cyberpunk flash fiction.
Even our friendships at this stage represent and teach us something about the pursuit of what is worthwhile in life. We all variously desire pleasure, ranging from simple creature comforts to more complex states of satisfaction. Friends magnify and enhance life’s pleasures but are themselves a source of pleasure too. Likewise, we desire to be well-stocked with the practical necessities in life, seeking out whatever are the reliable means for “getting ahead” and accomplishing our ends. Again, friends offer us tremendous support and aid in whatever we seek to do. Nevertheless, pleasure and utility are not all we want in a happy life, and neither do they fully explain all there is to friendship. In fact, the Stoics warn that limiting our friendships to this stage equates to placing limits on our own potential as both rational and caring beings.
Aristotle and the Stoics acknowledge that as we develop so too do our relationships. And as friendship evolves into its most complete form, we come to find in our friend the allos autos, our “other self.” This isn’t the simplistic notion that friends are “twinsies” or maybe that they occupy the same social echo chambers. Rather, it is the stronger notion that friends help each other figure out what really matters in life and mutually shape each other’s personal development with those core beliefs in mind. Returning to my example, what makes your friend a true friend isn’t just that they are a dependable commenter on your drafts but instead someone who understands the centrality of writing to your identity and wishes to help you, for your own sake, manifest a life promoting that value.
Again, this more mature or advanced form of friendship mirrors a more complex picture of happiness itself. Each of us are not just pleasure- or utility-seekers. We also want to grow as persons. To do this we seek to learn more about ourselves and the world around us, but also to become involved in the world in self-reflective and meaningful ways. As it turns out, then, eudaimonia and full friendship exhibit a vital correlation. That is because our best friends, at least according to Aristotle and the Stoics, are those who help us identify, cultivate, and nourish those personal traits and strengths that will contribute to a firm and stable character.
Character is the ultimate basis for the strongest sort of friendship, but it is also essential to the Stoic view of eudaimonia. It represents the summation of our beliefs, feelings, and knowledge about what in the world we care about and predicts how we will conduct ourselves in various situations in light of our deepest concerns. Stoicism teaches that insofar as friends share with each other the project of crafting and perfecting character, they are most in touch with one another’s true selves. What’s more, through observing our friend as an other self and seeing the virtues of our own character reflected back to us through the friendship, we gain a different perspective and another means of examining our own life. Therefore, friends are vital because they help us engage in self-reflection and achieve self-knowledge.
Cultivating the self by writing for friends
Others have already elaborated on how Stoicism advises us as individuals to cultivate our character strengths through self-examination. They prescribe Stoic writing practices like journaling as practical, accessible tools for self-knowledge. As Tobias Weaver puts it, “The practice of journaling…gives us the opportunity to articulate our thoughts, reflect on how we handle different situations, and clarify the way in which we wish to approach life. We lay bare our thoughts and mental chatter, and in doing so we are able to more clearly see how we think, behave, and perceive.” But we’ve also just seen how the Stoics viewed friends as essential to better developing and knowing the self. Is there a way to combine these two things—Stoic writing practices and friendship—in order to further enhance our self-knowledge?
In fact, modern day friendship theorists (drawing not only on philosophy but also psychology and sociology) are also concerned with the way that written communication, from the exchange of long letters to simple text messages, affects the quality of our friendships. Some have argued that certain writing practices are not only beneficial but can promote stronger friendships through improved disclosure of the self.
Philosopher Adam Briggle, for instance, has argued that mediating our friendships through writing can promote a healthy cognitive distancing by freeing us from the face-to-face pressures of interpersonal and social expectations. “Mediation,” he writes, “loosens the links of daily life and softens the gaze of a physically co-present person with whom we are caught in the immediate moment at hand. It thus can encourage greater honesty and increase confidence in disclosing more about one’s self” (p. 73). Likewise, the “deliberateness” of writing for friends means that we have a greater chance to think before we compose our ideas as well as reflect upon and review the language we have chosen to present ourselves.
These features of writing have such profound effects in the context of friendship because of the exchange of what Briggle calls “interpretive processes” between friends as both writers and readers of each other’s words. Seeing the way that a friend in response to you interprets your take on something can enrich and influence your own understanding of what you were originally trying to express. The self that you seek to examine in your own writing thus comes to involve this relational aspect of your character.
Applications for our Stoic writing practices
- Friends as more accurate mirrors of the self. Stoic journaling is intended to help us externalize our experiences, emotions, and beliefs. It brings into focus the way in which outward events may be clouding our view of our inner character, giving us the opportunity to reflect on and correct our behavior. Its limitation, though, is that we may not yet have the clarity of character to avoid self-deception in how we present this information to ourselves. On the other hand, when we recount and express ourselves to friends in writing, we are less likely to fall prey to this mistake. Friends may already know the ways in which we misperceive and misinterpret happenings and can help redirect us. Reciprocating such advice can further teach us about the ways that others mislead themselves.
- Shared memories to remind us of who we are. One common way that we misperceive events in our life is by misremembering where we have been in the past and any wisdom or skills we have already gathered. Preserving and reviewing past correspondences with friends (such as a box of old letters, saved emails, or even the Memories feature if you have Facebook) lets us see how our core self has remained while evolving throughout various changes in our circumstances.
- Friends as sounding boards and springboards. Perhaps you cannot wrap your head around a problem you’ve been overthinking. Maybe you’re suffering writer’s block, such as for a term paper or a project proposal. Workshopping your writing with friends might directly pull you out of your rut if they happen to have feedback, but could nevertheless provide the indirect benefit of further involving your friend in something of importance in your life. Otherwise, you can put this source of stress aside entirely and just write to your friend instead. After all, one common piece of advice given about writer’s block is to simply write something else! Think of this like working out a cramp in one muscle by activating nearby muscles.
- Making writing routines easier and more rewarding. Writing certainly is a skill that needs regular training and upkeep. Like everything else involving Stoic discipline, Stoic writing practices benefit from being integrated into regular routines. Involving friends as partners in our reflective writing routines will make them easier to stick with. Of course, this also becomes one more way of interacting with and appreciating our friends. On that final note, it is important to mention that the Stoics viewed friendship itself as a virtue of character. Insofar as we involve our friends as partners in Stoic writing practices, we not only help ourselves navigate and overcome stressors and challenges in life but enlarge the scope of this good for the benefit of other selves as well.