What Does Stoic Indifference Mean?

In this article, we will see what indifference means from a Stoic perspective and how it is connected to value and virtue.

When the word indifference comes to our minds, we usually think its meaning is synonymous with not caring. In these terms, indifference is a passive view towards the world; we are usually indifferent to something when we are not interested, or if we are far away from it (e.g. a news story relating to the other side of the world). However, in Stoic philosophy, the notion of indifference is vastly different from our common impression. 

Virtue, Vice and Indifference

In Stoic philosophy, only virtue is good in the full sense of the word. Alternatively, vices are the only bad. Everything that isn’t a virtue or vice, consequently, is neither good nor evil – it is indifferent. Being virtuous is the main goal of Stoic practice. Virtue is the state of being good for the sake of itself, and not for any hope of reward or fear of punishment. Stoics recognized four cardinal virtues as the most important: moral prudence, courage, restraint, and moderation. 

Indifference exists between good and bad. Stoics claimed that virtues are desirable, while vices should be casted away. Therefore, indifference appears to be the gray area between these two categories. It is important to note that both vices and virtues are within our control, because we can control our mind and will, and therefore we have power over our actions. Things that are indifferent lie completely out of our control, and this is very important to remember for Stoics. In the Enchiridion, Epictetus further explains the difference between the things we can control and the things we cannot.

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.”

Epictetus, the Enchiridion

The Value of Things

In our everyday life we come across many things that we call good or bad or indifferent. However, these are simply the values we ascribe to the external events around us, but their true nature is neutral.

To a Stoic, all external phenomena appear to be indifferent. However, this does not mean that indifferent things are unimportant; rather, they appear in the form of equanimity. Equanimity consists of a suspension of judgement, which we should practice when we can’t decide if an event is good or bad. To better understand the difference between these options, Stoics divided all things into three categories: 

  1. those that are in harmony with nature and to which some value can be ascribed
  2. those that are contrary to nature and therefore unworthy
  3. those things that possess neither value nor worthlessness

If you can’t decide if something is good or bad, the best way of dealing with that event is to mark it as indifferent. This conduct will preserve your inner-peace and make you more able to live virtuously in Stoic terms. That being said, there are still many misinterpretations about indifference. One of these is the opinion that everything is indifferent (of no importance) to Stoics. That is simply not true, because Stoics strongly emphasize living in accordance to nature, which means following your reason. 

Leading a life according to virtue is easier than you think, all you need to do is learn to control your actions, thoughts, and feelings when you face an obstacle. A virtuous life starts when you understand what is in your control and what is outside your control. Furthermore, if you utilise your ability for reason, then you have the power to apply the correct values to the events and objects around you. Learning the true difference between good, bad, and indifferent things can improve your well-being and help you along the path to virtue.