A common misconception about Stoicism is the idea of indifference. To many, they think that Stoics are cold, emotionless people who don’t care about anything; a Spock-like figure. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When the Stoics talk about indifference there are two elements to it.
- The concept of an “indifferent”
- The concept of apatheia
We’ll tackle both of these in the course of this article. Firstly, let’s look at the word, indifference itself.
1. lack of interest, concern, or sympathy: she shrugged, feigning indifference.
unimportance: it cannot be regarded as a matter of indifference.
2. mediocrity:the indifference of Chelsea’s midfield.
Our modern definition emphasises the lack of interest and brings to mind connotations of “I don’t care”, but this isn’t what the Stoics meant when they used it.
If you look at the origin of the word it comes from late Middle English meaning in the sense of being neither good nor bad. This is much closer to the Stoic definition. There’s less implication of ”lacking”. It is neither good nor bad. Indifferent. It’s the difference between saying lack of concern versus unconcerned. The former implies a recklessness that’s less present than the latter.
It’s this nature of being unconcerned that grasps at the essence of what the Stoics are telling us. As the Daily Stoic put it, they’re good either way.
This is where we get to the concept of an “indifferent”. In Stoicism, there’s good — which is basically virtue (again the definitions of both these words for this context needs to be better defined but that’s for another post). And there’s bad, which are vices. Everything else between is an “indifferent”. These are things like money, health, pain, pleasure. The important thing that they all have in common is that they’re morally neutral. They have no intrinsic moral value. Take money; it’s not inherently good or bad. It can be used for good or bad, but in itself, it has no moral value. Further, these indifferents can be sub-divided into preferred or dispreferred indifferents.
As you might guess, some things are more preferred than others when we are weighing up our options. For example, food is an indifferent. But if we’re choosing between eating versus starvation then food would be a preferred indifferent since eating is naturally better for our longer-term health. (This is a simplified example of the Stoic definition of living according to nature).
Hopefully, you’re now beginning to see some of the nuances here. We’re not saying don’t enjoy life. We are saying don’t get so caught up in the hedonistic treadmill that you are only chasing preferred indifferents. Similarly, when we come to an indifferent like pain, you choose how you react to it. If you are trying to live a virtuous life then it follows that you should not want to give in to that pain and let it control you. You can choose to accept it and bear it well to move beyond it.
If we are indifferent to all these things that are outside our circle of control then we’ll naturally be strong and calm. The Stoics called this state of mind apatheia, a passionless, peace of mind or, to put it another way, tranquillity. Much of Stoicism is aimed at achieving this state. If we cultivate indifference it is one of the most powerful weapons we can add to our arsenal as we live our life.