Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1
15. The indifferents
Perhaps the most characteristic doctrine of Stoic ethics is that virtue alone is good, vice alone bad. Everything else traditionally assigned a positive or negative value – health or illness, wealth or poverty, sight or blindness, even life or death – is ‘indifferent’. By making this move, the Stoics authorized the use of the word ‘good’ in a distinctly moral sense – a usage which is still with us, although they themselves bought it at the high price of simply denying that the word, properly understood, has any other sense.
The inspiration of this doctrine is undoubtedly Socratic. In various Platonic dialogues (see especially Euthydemus 278–81, Meno 86–9), Socrates argued that most things traditionally called good – typified with largely the same examples as the Stoic ‘indifferents’ – are in their own nature intermediate between good and bad. If used wisely, they become good, if unwisely, bad. Hence wisdom is the only intrinsically or underivatively good thing (see Socrates §§4–6).
This Socratic argument encouraged the Cynic idea that only wisdom – or more generally, virtue – is good, and that such coveted possessions as reputation, health and physical comfort are literally irrelevant to the goodness, and hence the happiness, of one’s life (see Cynics). The Cynics acted on this by adopting a bohemian lifestyle, disdaining the values of society. And Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had his first philosophical training from a Cynic. Zeno’s independent-minded colleague Ariston stuck close to the Cynic thesis (see Ariston of Chios §2). Zeno, on the other hand, modified it in a way which does more than anything else to account for the widespread success of Stoicism; Zeno’s subtly revised position leaves wealth, fame, and so on morally indifferent, while explaining why we are nevertheless fully justified in pursuing them.
Although being healthy does not make you happy, Zeno maintains, the natural thing to do in ordinary circumstances is nevertheless to stay healthy and avoid illness. We should not try to suppress this natural instinct, because to be happy – the ultimate goal to which we all aspire – is to be totally in tune with nature. Therefore the proper way to start out is to respect the preferences which nature dictates, opting where possible for affluence, high civic status, family values and other ‘natural’ desiderata. As you progress, you will learn when to vary the formula. It may be that in special circumstance the right way for you to fit in with nature’s plan is to be poor, or sick, or even to die. If you understand why one of these is the rational and natural thing for you, you will embrace it willingly, and thus further rather than hinder your project of perfect conformity with nature. But barring such special circumstances, the natural values to adopt coincide on the whole with the ordinary values of society.
This leads, in typical Stoic fashion, to a terminological jungle of epithets for the ‘indifferents’. The ‘things which accord with nature’ (ta kata physin), such as health, have a positive, albeit non-moral, ‘value’ (axia), and are therefore labelled ‘preferred’ (proēgmena), which means that in normal circumstances we should opt for them, they are ‘to be taken’ (lēpta). The ‘things which are contrary to nature’ (ta para physin), such as illness, earn a contrary set of technical terms: ‘disvalue’ (apaxia), ‘dispreferred’ (apoproēgmena), ‘not to be taken’ (alēpta).
The linchpin of Stoic ethics is the way in which it legitimizes a familiar scale of personal and social values, while denying them any intrinsic worth. Their value is purely instrumental, because they are the subject matter of the choices by means of which we progress towards true moral understanding. We might compare the relative ‘values’ of, say, illness, fame and eyesight, in Stoic eyes to the relative values of cards in a card game. Learning how to choose between these, and even to sacrifice cards of higher value when the circumstances dictate, is an essential part of becoming a skilled player. But these choices matter only instrumentally: It would be absurd to compare the value of an ace to the value of being a good card-player. In Stoic eyes it is an equally grave error – although unfortunately one of which most people are guilty – to rank wealth or power along with moral goodness on one and the same scale.
The things which are naturally ‘preferred’ can be encapsulated in rules: honour your parents, take care of your health, cultivate friends, and so on. From the start – although again with the dissent of Ariston of Chios – the Stoics attached importance to rules or ‘precepts’ as the basis of moral progress. What a precept prescribes is a kathēkon (plural kathēkonta), a ‘proper function’ or ‘duty’, and many Stoic treatises were devoted to working out detailed lists of kathēkonta. A kathēkon is defined as ‘that which, when done, has a reasonable justification’: for a rational adult, what is reasonable and what is natural should coincide.
There are two main types of kathēkonta: circumstantial and non-circumstantial. Circumstantial kathēkonta, that is, those prescribed only in very special circumstances, include such abnormal acts as self-mutilation, giving away your property, and even suicide (something of a Stoic obsession, inspired by Socrates’ willing death). Non-circumstantial kathēkonta are, despite their name, not prescribed in literally all circumstances, since to each non-circumstantial kathēkon (for example, looking after one’s health), there is opposed a circumstantial one, (for example, in very unusual circumstances, getting ill). Rather, they are ‘non-circumstantial’ because they are what, other things being equal, you should do as a matter of course, and not as a response to your present circumstances.
Sedley, David. The indifferents. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/the-indifferents.
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