Stoics believe that things don’t have any inherent value within themselves, and that our senses bestow upon them varying qualities. These qualities can be good (virtue) or bad (vice). And when things are neither good nor bad, they’re called indifferent.
Indifference or adiaphora (in Greek) can have many interpretations, and this can lead to an incorrect conclusion about Stoic philosophy.
In this article, I’ll try to explain the main points that revolve around how one should think about indifference from a Stoic point of view. I would like to note that the concept in question is not an easy one, because it differs from our general understanding and definition of indifference.
Epictetus states in the first lines of his Enchiridion, as well as in the first chapter in his Discourses, that some things deserve our attention while others don’t. The things that deserve our attention are the ones we can directly influence, but the ones that don’t tend to be beyond our personal control.
In this short text, one can come to the conclusion that it’s best to remain indifferent to things that are beyond our control. So looking closer at indifference, we can identify two main categories:
The first deals with “preferred” indifference and the other deals with “non-preferred” indifference. Right, so you may now ask about what’s the main difference between the two?
To start off, preferred indifference is that which is admirable. This kind of indifference actually helps us build our character and strengthen our virtues. It helps us determine if some actions are worth taking, and if others aren’t. For example, alcohol is neither good nor bad, it is indifferent in itself.
Stoics certainly knew that the consumption of alcohol can lead to the deterioration of virtue, especially when it is over-consumed. This is why they concluded that it would be better if the substance was avoided.
In addition to alcohol, there are other events like death which can be seen as indifferent as well. This is true, though we generally perceive death in a negative light. Therefore, it’s best if we look at death as a natural phenomenon, rather than some sort of accident that happens occasionally.
In summary, preferred indifference is closely related to our character development. This is why Stoics encouraged its practice, as it led to the strengthening of our virtues and character.
On the other hand, non-preferred indifference is not commendable. It is a kind of passive indifference that leads one into nihilism and meaninglessness. This type generally stems from realizing that there is a lot we have no control over, which ends up leading people to believe that there’s no point in striving for a better life.
In general indifference doesn’t mean not caring. People often think that Stoics were emotionless and cold, which is not true. Seneca, for example, wrote vulnerable letters to his friends in need. Epictetus held lectures where he exposed his weaknesses. And finally Marcus Aurelius’ meditations are filled with his feelings about the loneliness that plagued him at the time.
The fact that we don’t have absolute control over events outside of our minds, does not mean that we should remain passive towards the world. Our minds are not some kind of boxes separated from the world, instead we must perceive our minds as parts of the world.
We are an essential part of the whole, and virtue does not mean anything if one is excluded from everything. And in our connection we find out about what truly matters.
Marcus Aurelius said it best:
Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference – Marcus Aurelius