Stoic Letters
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Stoic Letters

The untapped power of friends and the Golden Rule — Letter 48

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

Seneca’s letters translated into modern English. In letter 48 he talks about what it means to be a real friend, along with the importance of the Golden Rule.

I recommend you foster a sense of obligation to your fellow human. Always try to help a friend in trouble. A misconception is that Stoics are passive individuals. On the contrary, one of the central tenets of Stoicism doctrine is that we are social animals. As such our main function, other than to use our reason, is that we look out for the welfare of other people. In my experience, people (generally) want to be friends with other people who follow these general guidelines:

  • Be positive, not negative. While it’s acceptable to share your struggles with people (I recommend it), if you’re complaining all the time, and are generally negative about other people and life in general, then people get tired of the complaining and negativity. We have enough trouble in life without having friends who are negative all the time. That said, a good friend will always listen when you’re in need, so don’t take this as “never complain.” Instead, just generally try to be a positive person, and if you have struggles, also try to show how you’re tackling those struggles with a positive outlook.
  • Be interested & a good listener. Be interested in other people! Don’t make the mistake of only wanting to talk about your stuff, and being bored and unimpressed with what other people are doing. I try to find the interesting in everyone, even if they lead a relatively uneventful life, there’s something fascinating about them. When someone wants to talk, listen. If they only talk about themselves all day and don’t want to hear your stuff, then they probably aren’t going to be a great friend, but still give them a chance and be interested for as long as you can.
  • Be excited about life, have energy. We generally don’t want a friend who is bored all the time. Someone who is excited about life, interested in things, has good energy … that’s someone you’d by hyped to be around. Not super hyper, necessarily, but just containing a positive energy.
  • Be calm, not overly dramatic. While it’s great to have a lot of energy, people who are overly dramatic about little things can be a turn-off. So learn to react to most problems as if they’re not a big deal (because they usually aren’t), and handle them with calmness instead of overreacting.
  • Be authentic, don’t try to show off. All of the above recommendations might seem like I’m recommending that you be someone you’re not. I’m not recommending that at all. Instead, I want you to be an authentic version of yourself (there are lots of versions of ourselves) — but choose the version that is more in the directions recommended above, in general. If there is a positive and negative version of you, generally choose the positive version. But most importantly, don’t try to impress people all the time — if you’re confident in yourself, you don’t need to impress. Instead, be a genuine person, not just the “best you.” When this recommendation is in conflict with any of the above recommendations, choose this one.
  • Be happy with yourself & confident. This is just something that’s good to do for yourself. Be happy with who you are, even the flaws. If you are, you can be confident that you’re good enough when you meet someone else. People generally don’t respect someone who is constantly harsh on themselves. How can you learn to be happy with yourself? That’s a whole other post, but in general, become aware of any tendency to be harsh and critical of yourself, and don’t let yourself stew in those kinds of thoughts. Start to see the good in yourself, the genuine heart and caring nature, and let that be the story you tell yourself about yourself.

Finally, consider how individualism promotes indulgence and vice. In fact, to avoid this I suggest you follow The Golden Rule.

The simplicity of the Golden Rule

One of the few rules I try to live my life by, and fail every day trying, is the Golden Rule.

I love the simplicity of the Golden Rule, its tendency to make I interact with happier … and its tendency to make me happier as well.

It’s true: the rule of treating others as you would want to be treated in their place will ultimately lead to your own happiness.

Let’s say that you apply the Golden Rule in all of your interactions with other people, and you help your neighbours, you treat your family with kindness, you go the extra mile for your co-workers, you help a stranger in need.

Now, those actions will undoubtedly be good for the people you help and are kind to … but you’ll also notice a strange thing. People will treat you better too, certainly. Beyond that, though, you will find a growing satisfaction in yourself, a belief in yourself, a knowledge that you are a good person and a trust in yourself.

Those are not small dividends. They are huge. And for that reason — not even considering that our world will be a better place if more people live by this rule — I recommend you make the Golden Rule a focus of your actions, and try to live by it to the extent that you can.

Practical tips for living the Golden Rule

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some practical tips for living the Golden Rule in your daily life:

Practice empathy. Make it a habit to try to place yourself in the shoes of another person. Any person. Loved ones, co-workers, people you meet on the street. Really try to understand, to the extent that you can, what it is like to be them, what they are going through, and why they do what they do.

Practice compassion. Once you can understand another person, and feel what they’re going through, learn to want to end their suffering. And when you can, take even a small action to somehow ease their suffering in some way.
How would you want to be treated? The Golden Rule doesn’t really mean that you should treat someone else exactly as you’d want them to treat you … it means that you should try to imagine how they want to be treated, and do that. So when you put yourself in their shoes, ask yourself how you think they want to be treated. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated if you were in their situation.

An exercise in sophistry

Next I want to comment on the purpose of philosophy. I can tell you that it is not merely an exercise in sophistry.

For the sophists, the science of eloquence is a method to earn money. To teach their students the art of persuasion and demonstrate their thoughts, they focus on two techniques: dialectics and rhetoric.

The sophists teach their students two main techniques: the usage of sophisms and contradictions. These means distinguishes the speeches of the sophists from the other speakers. Contradictions are important to the Sophists because they believed that a good rhetorician should be able to defend both his own opinion and the exact opposite one. In this way, they develop the ability to find clear, convincing arguments for any thesis. For the sophists, the primary purpose is to win the dispute to prove their excellence in word usage.

So, I hope all my advice helps, and if you find yourself lacking in any of these areas, see it not as confirmation that you have failed, but as an exciting new areas for you to explore.

Take care.

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In this publication I interpret Letters From a Stoic by Seneca into modern English.

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Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson

Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.

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