Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Truth about Stoic Indifference

I wanted to offer a brief explanation of the concept of Indifference in Stoicism, as there seems to be a lack of clarity around the issue. First of all, Stoics (as in people who practice Stoicism) are NOT called to be 'indifferent'. We are not asked to adopt an indifferent (uncaring) attitude towards anything. 

There are a couple of concepts that seem to be rolled into the common use of the word 'indifference', neither of which are correct. First there is the concept of an 'indifferent', which include things like money, life, health, death, family etc. Unfortunately, many have taken the wrong meaning from this, and believe that we should not concern ourselves with these things (the ancient Stoics taught that we should be responsible, even grateful, for the conditions and people in our lives.) What the ancient Stoics meant by a thing being 'indifferent' is that it had no intrinsic moral value. Money is neither good nor bad, it is not inherently virtuous or vicious, but rather completely neutral. It can be used either virtuously or viciously, but in itself it has no moral value. In my Stoic classes, I use the term 'morally neutral' instead of 'indifferent' to avoid this confusion.

The second is the Stoic concept of 'apatheia' which is also often confused with 'indifference'. Stoic apatheia isn't about apathy. Apatheia means 'no irrational emotional states', with the emphasis on 'irrational.' Stoics encourage the experience of rational emotions, such as joy, serenity, caution, love etc. as these are born of a rational understanding of the events around them.

The key is to remember that Stoics DO involve themselves with externals. We use them, gain them, let them go, develop relationships and even care for and cherish them. What we DON'T do is allow their presence or absence determine whether or not we are virtuous. They are morally neutral, and therefore do not cause us to behave well or badly, or force us to succumb to irrational passions, lust, anger, jealousy, etc. It is our beliefs about them that lead to irrational passions.