“Above all, keep a close watch on this – that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t you’ll be ruined . . . you must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends . . . if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.2.1;4-5
9.25 The Master said, “Take doing your utmost (zhong) and making good on your word (xin) as your mainstay. Do not befriend anyone who is not as good as you are. And where you have gone astray, do not hesitate to mend your ways.”
Understanding the Chinese words will benefit this meditation. Zhong can be understood as loyalty in one’s duties. In this context, it’s doing the best in whatever one does, not one’s best in a specific task. Xin can only be achieved through proper relationships. For us to be trustworthy there must be someone who trusts us. It speaks directly to the value of friendship.
It is debatable what Confucius is asking of us when he tells us who to befriend. Considering his emphasis on defining the self through relationships I do not see him asking us to disassociate from those beneath us. Friendship, in this instance, is the pinnacle relationships in the hierarchy of relationships. Friendship should be understood apart from acquaintances or colleagues. Does this sound harsh? Maybe, but is it lacking truth? If our friendships are predicated on mutually improving each other then those friendships will not be lost. Acquaintances may come and go, and we shouldn’t treat them with any less respect, but friendships are those relationships which are lasting.
Another truth: Change is inevitable. We will either change for the better, or for the worse. If our friends become bothered by positive changes (with the reciprocal being as true) we will find ourselves with the decision to remain as they want us or to move on.
In the same section Epictetus also writes:
4.3: Choose, then, which you prefer: to be held in the same affection as before by your former friends by remaining as you used to be, or else become better than you were and no longer meet with the same affection.
We must be aware of who we are letting into our lives, and what their influence is on us. Equally, we must be aware of how we are influencing others.