We make a daily effort to choose friends consciously and unconsciously because the human psyche needs that kind of grouping sensitivity to exist. We are not an island that stands alone in the middle of the sea without any other support. However must be expressly vigilant in selecting and deciding if they are worthy of our investment of time and energy. Even the offering of aspect of our lives and whether the giving of our space in time add meaning or make any difference to their welfare. Some people are givers for our services to them even before we make an investment in them.
Athenodorus of Soli a Stoic philosopher and disciple of Zeno of Citium, claim that he ‘would not even go to dinner with a man who did not thereby feel indebted to him.’ I suppose you realise how much less inclined he was to visit those who repay their friends’ services with a meal, and count the courses as largesses, as if they were overdoing the honour paid to another. Take away their witnesses and spectators and there is no fun in private gormandising. You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you. Isocrates forcibly pulled Ephorus away from the forum, thinking he would be better employed in writing history.
Inborn dispositions do not respond well to compulsion, and we labour in vain against nature’s opposition. However, nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whose advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up! To be sure, we shall choose those who are as far as possible free from strong desires; for vices spread insidiously, and those nearest to hand are assailed and damaged by contact with them.
It follows that, just as at a time of an epidemic disease we must take care not to sit beside people whose bodies are infected with feverish disease because we shall risk ourselves and suffer from their breathing upon us, so in choosing our friends for their characters we shall take care to find those who are the least corrupted: mixing the sound with the sick is how disease starts. But I am not enjoining upon you to follow and associate with none but a wise man. For where will you find him whom we have been seeking for ages? In place of the ideal we must put up with the least bad. You would scarcely have the opportunity of a happier choice if you were hunting for good men among the Platos and Xenophons and all that offspring of the Socratic breed; or if you had access to the age of Cato, which produced many men worthy to be born in Cato’s time. (It also produced many who were worse than at any other time and who committed appalling crimes: for both groups were necessary for Cato to be appreciated – he needed the good to win their approval and the bad to prove his strength.) But in the current dearth of good men you must be less particular in your choice. Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind”
– Seneca, On Tranquility, Book VII