Four friends embraced looking at the sunset.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

True friendship is a connection that is pure and based on Virtue. But there are different forms of friendship. We need to examine them all to discover what types we should avoid or which ones to see as preferred indifferent ones. If we wish to live a peaceful and virtuous life, then we must be mindful of the company we keep. Oftentimes people with great influence corrupt even the best of souls have been. They managed to keep them off their path and change their perception of a good life. Then there are those friends who serve a certain purpose, either mutual or beneficial only to one side.

Throughout our lives, the people around us encourage us to make friends. And that makes sense since we are a social species. We live best when in a society and when surrounded by people. But the extent of those connections is important to keep in mind. The pressure of making friends isn’t always good. It can lead to bad decisions and even to the destruction of a soul. We thus look at what friendships to pursue, or to wait and let them find us. What it means to be alone and how that differs from being lonely. How we should deal with saying goodbye to some and welcoming others. There is a lot to unfold here, moreover because we are entering an age where making true friends has never been so difficult. And yet making connections is more available to us.

Our good friend, Epictetus

Our good friend, Epictetus, gives us some good insights into how to test a friendship. In his Discourse, On Friendship, he proposes to place something between friends, family members, or any kind of relationship. Before doing so he tells us where the interests of an individual lie.

“For universally (and you should not be deceived on this) every living creature is attached to nothing so strongly as it is to its own interest.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book Two, Chapter 22.12

He then asks us to picture a scale to see what happens. On one side we set our interests and on the other the rest. If we place sanctity, virtue, country, parents, and friends on the side of our interest, then they are all safe. Whatever is placed on the other side, loses out to our interests. He gives us an example of two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. They were seen as brothers who loved each other by all who knew them. But when a kingdom was thrown in the middle, the conversation they had didn’t seem so friendly.

“Eteocles: ‘Where will you stand before the walls?’

Polyneices: ‘For what reason do you ask me?’

Eteocles: ‘I mean to face you and slay you.’

Polyneices: ‘And so is my desire too.’

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book Two, Chapter 22.12

Our first question about true friendship is to look at the bond and how close it is. If something can come between them that surpasses the interest they have in each other, then it is lost. Now we don’t talk much about kingdoms anymore, but we have enough to throw in the middle. Think of money, love, power, status, or success. The closest of relationships can be broken by the smallest of wedges unless they are of the pure and true kind.

Three types of friendship

But we need friendships, all kinds of friendships. And if we learn to identify them, then we can keep our good life and be part of society. To determine what kinds of friendships there are, I’d like to venture out and call on our buddy, Aristotle. He described three types of friendships.

  • Friendship of Virtue
  • Friendship of Utility
  • Friendship of Pleasure

“…the determination was that friendship is said in three ways. For one of them is determined based on virtue, one on that of the useful, and one of the pleasant. Among these, the one based on the useful is that between most people, for they love each other because and insofar as they are useful, as the proverb has it: “Glaucus, an ally’s friends, so long he fight,” and “Athenians no longer acknowledge Megarians.” The friendship of the young is the one based on pleasure, for that is what they have perception of. Hence the friendship of the young is unstable, for as their characters change with their ages so does the pleasant. But the friendship based on virtue is that of the best men.”

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, Book VII, Chapter 2, 1236a30

Friendship of Pleasure

Pleasure as a base for friendship can’t seem to be a lasting one. As Aristotle mentions, once people change, so do their pleasures. That would be the end of a relationship based on this unstable factor. Should we then prevent ourselves from having friendships like these? I don’t think that it is necessary to stay away from them, as long as we can remain true to ourselves and keep our Virtues and values on the right path. We must take great caution here, though. When we deal with other people who are not pure in their thoughts and actions, it can rub off on us. This can happen faster than we realize, starting with small details.

Friendship of Utility

Looking at the utility aspect of a friendship, we are talking about transactions. We associate with these people because there is some benefit in it for us. This benefit might be monetary, business-related, or emotional. There are many ways in which we can benefit from a friendship. Sometimes we need these types of connections, as we deal in a society where we work with other people. We need to be mindful here at what price we sell ourselves. Because a transaction has two parts. Nothing comes for free unless we talk about the highest kind of friendship. But here we need to keep a watchful eye. Once the utility is gone, this friendship will also leave with it. Again our dear pal, Epictetus, gives us a great example of what price to pay or not.

“…you have not been invited to such a person’s banquet, because you have not paid him the price for which a meal is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attention. Make up the price, then, if that is to your advantage. But if you would at the same time not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are greedy and stupid. Have you nothing, then, in place of the meal? Yes, indeed, you have: that of not praising someone you did not want to praise, and of not putting up with the people around his door.”

Epictetus, The Handbook, 25

Friendship of Virtue

A true friendship is based on Virtue, on the good. There is nothing we ask in return, our interest lies in the friendship. A connection made with someone based on mutual love and respect. These are also the rarest of connections to be found. Someone who will be there no matter what. Who listens to us without judgment, but gives us sincere advice or warnings. A person we can entrust with our every thought, without a veil of shame or fear. A friend we don’t even need to speak to that often, but who will answer the call and be there for us.

This isn’t based on pleasure, because oftentimes we call on our friends in extreme moments. More often than not when they are bad. They are also not based on utility because we ask for nothing in return. We don’t keep track of who helped who more. And are there for our friends because of the connection. We can cheer for their success because we mean it. There is no sense of jealousy or spite. We are willing to give up on something because it means more to them. The friendship itself is what is good and in our interest.

We seek true friendship

What we therefore seek is a true friendship, but they are difficult to find. They can come from family or out of the blue from the least expected place. The lack of it might lead us to despair or bring us to connect with people out of fear. What we need to sort out first is to be comfortable with being in our own company. Learning how to be alone is an important first step. It can buy us time and patience to encounter that true friendship, if it shows up at all.

And being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. We can feel lonely when in a group of people, or fine when we are alone. If we know who we are and what matters to us, then we can be more comfortable being by ourselves. It will also give us a better indication of where like-minded souls can be found.

Here is what Aristotle said about this topic, according to Diogenes Laertius:

“To the query, “What is a friend?” his reply was, “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Aristotle, according to Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 5, Chapter 1.20

Friends are preferred indifferences

It is important to remember what friends are. They are externals and fall out of our sphere of control. So it is neither good nor bad, the Stoics would call this a preferred indifference. We can’t let the lack or existence of it keep us from being peaceful and living a Virtuous life. A part of life is change, which means friendships also change. Saying goodbye is a big part of it. And the more you change in your life, the more often you’ll have to say goodbye. As someone who travels a lot and who doesn’t stay in one place very much, I’ve had to say goodbye many times. However, it does teach you something else.

Stoicism teaches us to be mindful of the now. To be grateful for what we have in the moment and appreciate it. I’ve learned to get better at this. To remind me that when there is a good connection with someone, to experience it. And when it is time to move on, to be grateful for the time we had together. Most people tend to remain a part of my life and then there is genuine interest in how the other is doing. No need for things in return, just valuable connections. They enrich my life and make me a better person. Even more so now that I have a better idea of who I am and what is important in my life. 

Learn to say goodbye

The saying goodbye part sounds difficult and it sometimes really is. But it is necessary to remind yourself that that moment can come. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go deep into a connection, but it helps you stay your course when things happen that are out of your control. When there are two people involved, things can change very fast. Either one can change, move away, or even leave us, among other options. That’s why it’s a preferred indifference. We must be ready to let them go and continue on our path.

When you start on this journey of philosophy and self-improvement, you’ll notice that not everyone around you will understand it. That’s a moment for you to let some people go. With some, you can do that actively, while others will fade out. This is no tragedy, it is in some way essential for your personal growth. And as you get a clearer picture of who you are, you will find people who walk more or less on the same path. Then your interests will align more and the connections will be even stronger. That doesn’t mean that a true friendship needs to be based on that. They need to be based on unconditional understanding, respect, and love. Even if you might disagree on certain things, that will not change the friendship.

Be your own true friend

What is true friendship: A Stoic View
"What is a friend?" "A single soul dwelling in two bodies." - Aristotle
Photo by Mohammad Mardani on Unsplash

The most important friendship we have in life is the one with ourselves. Only from that base can we allow others in. In a good relationship, we need trust, honesty, and openness. Start by applying those to the relationship you have with yourself. We tend to lie more to ourselves than we realize or come up with excuses to protect ourselves. If you manage to improve that primal relationship, you’ll see that being alone isn’t such a horrifying ordeal.

Our true friend will sense this sincerity and will naturally gravitate towards us as we will to them. It’s like celestial bodies in an orbital dance of perfect equilibrium. We must, however, keep in mind that the music might stop at one point. And then we need to be able to continue on our orbit. Not alone, but with the beautiful memory of a true friendship we were fortunate enough to have experienced.

What is True Friendship: A Stoic View
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7 thoughts on “What is True Friendship: A Stoic View

  • 16 January 2023 at 13:32

    Saying goodbye is not so easy. Honestly, I didn’t the types of friendships. At least not the actual terms. Thank you fo sharing!

    • 16 January 2023 at 15:51

      Thank you, Fransic, for your comment. Saying goodbye isn’t easy, I agree. But it is necessary to learn, at least from my experience. I appreciate the kind words.

  • 16 January 2023 at 16:38

    Benny, another thought provoking Stoic Exercise ; thank you, my dear, virtuously connected friend!
    Many friendships surprise me. I have been devastated by the changes I often never anticipated.
    Being more Stoic has enabled friendship change to be ok. Not on my control. Loving what was anyway.
    Being aware of the types of friendship, help us to let go or hold steady. May stoic indifference or neutrality serve you well!

  • 16 January 2023 at 22:12

    The friendship of pleasure is the one that stood out most for me, because a lot of the people I know comes from going out drink and clubbing, or in my even younger years, drugs. I was only interested in a lot of the when it was about the activities of going out or getting wasted.

    So when my interests changed, I lost a lot of the people I would have once called friends, but more accurately they were just people I knew.

    Friendships are so important to our wellbeing, that you can explain why men have a higher suicide rate by looking at their support network. Men tend to have less friends the older they get than woman, and less people they can talk to in general.

    But it’s never too late to make new friends, just make the right kinds of friendships when you do

    • 7 February 2023 at 22:10

      Thank you for your lovely comment as always. The friendship of pleasure is probably the most common one, because it is the easiest to find. But also the most fragile and you explained that excellently. Once you interests change then these friendships either changes as well or they crumble and most of them do the latter.

      And you are very right about mentioning the friendships men have. It is crucial to maintaing real lasting friendships as a person. Men tend to struggle with this. And it is never to late to make new friends, as you said.

  • 17 January 2023 at 17:16

    I love this article, and it immediately made me think of Seneca:

    “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”
    ― Seneca, Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium: Latin Text

    True friendships should be treasured more than diamonds, power, or reputation as they are far more rare than any of these!

    • 7 February 2023 at 22:17

      Thank you for your great comment and for sharing that quote by Seneca. Being a friend to oneself is very important.

      And friendships are more important than any things of the externals we value.


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