For the Stoics, external things like money and fame are considered to be ta adiaphora, which is usually translated as ‘indifferents’ or ‘indifferent things’. It is easy to infer from the translation that we are meant, as Stoics, to therefore ourselves be ‘indifferent’ towards these things. But this causes deep issues for Stoicism. Other human beings are ‘external’ to our volition, our capacities to choose and avoid. So, Stoics seem to be committed to treating others with indifference. But most of us think that treating others indifferently, without care or concern, is problematic. What about our aging parents, approaching the end of their lives, and in need of assistance? What of the very young, wholly dependent for survival on us as parents? What kind of a person would suggest that ‘indifference’ in any sense is a good or virtuous approach to the vulnerable, the sick, or the frail? What kind of a philosophy could do that?
These are good questions, it seems to me. If Stoicism promoted the kind of moral indifference of a character like Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Outsider, who senselessly kills a man, because he sees no reason not to, then Stoicism would seem to be an unsympathetic philosophy indeed. And of course, many of Stoicism’s critics, going right back to Saint Augustine, have suggested just this. Are not the Stoics also committed to apatheia, translated as ‘apathy’? And wouldn’t this absence of passions, including love or pity, confirm the idea that the Stoics want to promote indifference, not only towards external things, but also towards other people, in the name of a statuesque, robot-like ideal of human perfection?
I don’t think these interpretations of Stoicism stack up, when the full range of available ancient sources on the philosophy is consulted. To make this case, I will argue three things, and people can assess whether they think these positions hold up for themselves:
- First, that the idea of ‘indifference’ as an ethical standpoint is not evident in the Stoic texts. It reflects an imprecise translation of ta adiaphora, and an extrapolation from there, to a purported attitude that is deeply unStoic, and far closer to the attitude of the ancient Cynics.
- Second, that when we understand why the Stoics devalue external things like money and fame, we can see that their philosophy aims to cultivate not interpersonal indifference, but a detachment from the things over which human beings compete and fight.
- Third, therefore, Stoicism should be read as trying to open up the space for forms of generosity, by reducing our attachments to those things which come between human beings, motivating forms of hatred and conflict.
- Undifferentiated things, not indifferent people
As we’ve said, the term for external things (ta ekta) which the Stoics use in Greek is ta adiaphora (or in the singular nominative, to adiaphoron). The meaning of the term, as the texts make clear, is that such external things are neither good nor evil, by themselves. It is how we evaluate them which will make them so, for us. We don’t need any particular external thing or things to be happy. For the Stoics, we just need the virtues. A poor or a rich man, an unknown or a famous woman, a powerless individual or a potentate—all equally are capable of virtue, and capable thereby of being fulfilled human beings.
This means that external things are ‘beneath good and evil’, or ‘between’ them, if you like: they are ‘undifferentiated’ with respect to being good or bad for humans. For a person with wisdom, all things can be put to good uses. For a person without the virtues, being as rich as Croesus will only multiply opportunities for bad conduct to others, and forming bad habits. We can describe externals well enough in English, therefore, as ‘indifferent’ from the perspective of Stoic ethics: they don’t ‘make the difference’ between a good and a bad life. It is the content of a person’s character that alone can do that.
How should we therefore comport ourselves towards these ‘indifferents’? For the Cynics, certainly, there is the idea that we should be equally detached from all of them, and this attitude can be called one of universal ‘indifference’. So, since money is unnecessary to live well, we should simply scorn all attempts to pursue it, and embrace poverty. Diogenes lived in a barrel.
But the Stoics were not Cynics. Zeno was familiar with Cynic teaching, and the dissident Stoic Aristo broke from the Stoa to embrace Cynical ideas. Interestingly, it is in an account of Aristo alone, as far as I am aware, that we see the term ‘indifference’ being used to describe the best kind of life, as against in any Stoics:
Aristo of Chios . . . said that the end [goal of life] is to live with a disposition of indifference (to adiaphorōs zēn) towards what is intermediate between vice and virtue, not retaining any difference within that class of things [indifferents], but being equally disposed towards them all. The wise person is like a good actor who, when he puts on the mask of Thersites or Agamemnon, plays either part in the proper way. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII, 160)
But the Stoics themselves, following Zeno himself, argued that we still need to distinguish, ethically, between different ‘indifferents’. As Chris Gill has recently highlighted, in response to this challenge:
Chrysippus claimed that adopting Aristo’s view would mean that ‘no function or task for wisdom [or virtue] could be found, since there would be no difference at all between the things that concern the living of life, and no choice between them would have to be made.’
Many of these adiaphora, like money, health, and good standing with others, should be selected, chosen, and pursued, unless there are good reasons not to so select them. They are to be ‘preferred’ (they are ta proêgmena). Others, like illness, poverty, and ostracism or exile, should usually be avoided, unless there are compelling reasons to choose them (for instance, if we are living under a tyranny, exile might then be well chosen). They are ‘dispreferred things’ (ta aproêgmena).
The reason why we should choose preferable things is vital: they accord with human nature. They assist us in pursuing virtue. They enable us (usually) to be able to fulfil our potentials. Dispreferred things usually, not always, detract from people’s abilities to live well and fulfil their natural potentials. And Zeno tells us that the goal of Stoicism is living in accordance or harmony (homologoumenos) with nature.
So, making a difference—ie. not being ‘indifferent’—between external things, which are nevertheless ta adiaphora, is about as central as it gets to Stoic ethics. Without the philosophy making this difference, Stoicism becomes Cynicism. Without a person making this difference in their practical lives, they cannot live according to their own nature.
This especially matters when we recognise that for the Stoics, good relationships with other human beings are always to be preferred, always to be selected, absent compelling reasons. Being antisocial, hostile or indifferent to others, is unStoic: for the Stoics, indeed, it is ‘unnatural’ for the kinds of social creatures who we are. If Seneca for instance opposes anger in De ira, one reason is because it tends to destroy the fabric of human relationships. If he proposes clemency towards those who offend against us in De clementia¸ it is because, far from promoting indifference towards others:
no school of philosophy is more gentle and beneficent (benignior), none is more full of love towards man or more anxious to promote the happiness of all (communis boni), seeing that its maxims are, to be of service and assistance to others, and to consult the interests of each and all, not of itself alone. (De clem. II, 6)
So, if we are stuck with the translation of ta adiaphora as ‘indifferents’, as it seems we are, we need to really underscore that promoting anything like ‘indifference’ towards all externals, and all other human beings, is really not what the Stoics were about—at all.
The Stoic teaching of oikeiôsis, or human development, indeed, stresses that we are social, from the moment of our birth, and even before that. Parental affection for children, philostorgia, is placed in us by nature. The notion of the kathêkonta, those appropriate actions which it befalls each of us to undertake, similarly reflects a deep Stoic emphasis on our ongoing relationships with others. Hence, it is appropriate for a friend to behave as friends ought, for a brother, to act in a filial way, as a parent, to uphold care for the young, and so on.
There’s no sullen or callous indifference towards others here, but a robust philosophical recognition of all of the different bonds and obligations we are born into, and develop, as human beings.
- Stoicism, detachment from externals, and the bases of generosity
Where then does the Stoic emphasis on the striking idea that external things like money or power are ‘undifferentiated’ or ‘indifferent’ leave us? How can it promote the kind of benevolent warmth that Seneca seems so sure it is meant to? Isn’t Stoicism about becoming as little dependent on fortune as possible, and also, as free from the emotions that beset—but also give colour to—the lives of ordinary people as we can?
I think we can and should importantly ‘flip’ things here, to use a contemporary expression. The idea behind such criticisms is that the Stoic aim is to minimise and even ‘extirpate’ emotions like grief, pity, anger, and anxiety, and that this moral psychology shows its true colours as an inhumane philosophy. Our emotions reflect our attachments to things we consider we need to be happy. We desire things we take to be good, and we fear and lament things we take to be bad, or the losses of things we cherish. The Stoics must want us to cut ourselves off from everything that gives life colour, by proposing that apatheia in regard to such emotions is a worthy goal.
In the Stoics’ defence, it has to be said firstly that most people who make this criticism will also agree that anxiety, envy, jealousy, distress, depression, anxiety and fear are not pleasant or desirable affects to experience. Most of us, just as the Stoics suggest, would probably greatly prefer to live without these affects in our lives, if we could—which is of course the key Stoic promise, behind their idea of the apatheia of the wise person.
Most of us would thus agree that envy, which is an emotion which shows our connectedness to others, is nevertheless a bad thing to experience. It ruins friendships, motivates spiteful behaviours, etc. As for jealousy, another emotion which we can form regarding others’ real or imagined actions? Czech novelist Milan Kundera was surely onto something, when he commented that this is the worst emotion any person can feel.
So, here’s the argument I want to present:
- Everyone agrees that emotions like envy, jealousy, and resentment are bad, causing rivalry, disharmony, distrust and conflict between people;
- Generosity to others is only possible in conditions wherein we are not caught up in rivalrous, mistrustful, and potentially conflictual relationships with others;
- The preconditions of envy, jealousy, and resentments, is people forming more or less unconditional attachments to external things, like money, power, status, fame, office, popularity;
- Stoicism aims to remove people’s unconditional attachment to these ‘externals’;
- Stoicism hence aims to reduce the preconditions for envy, jealousy, and resentment;
- Stoicism in this way aims to create the psychological and ethical conditions in which human beings can be genuinely generous to each other.
Let’s now present the argument more discursively, to see whether it is convincing.
When we consider the forms of distress (as Stoicism categorises them) involved in envy, jealousy, and hatred, we can all agree that these are passions are all about other people. But they are distressing passions that are also mediated by external things like money, status, sex, or power which people ordinarily desire, more or less unconditionally. We are just brought up, mostly, to accept that ‘everyone wants these things, and to disagree would be crazy’.
Nevertheless, it is the unreserved desire for such externals that often makes us rivals to others, rather than sharing warmer, friendlier forms of association. It is the force of our perceived need for these often scarce, or contested externals that fuels our envy or even our hatred, when another gets (or we imagine that they get) the things we desired.
There’s a sequence of humorous passages in Epictetus, Discourses, that illustrate the type of conflict I mean, with reference (no less) to the great war in Troy which was Homer’s theme in the Iliad:
It appeared to Paris to carry off the wife of Menelaus: it appeared to Helen to follow him. If then it had appeared to Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have happened? Not only would the Iliad have been lost, but the Odyssey also. (Disc. I, 28: ie. since there would have been no Trojan war)
It was through this ignorance [about what is truly good or desirable] that the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians quarrelled, and the Thebans with both; and the great king quarrelled with Hellas, and the Macedonians with both; and the Romans with the Getae. And still earlier the Trojan war happened for these reasons. Alexander was the guest of Menelaus; and if any man had seen their friendly disposition, he would not have believed anyone who said that they were not friends. But there was cast between them a bit of meat, a handsome woman, and about her war arose … (Disc. II, 22)
Why did Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel with one another? Was it not through not knowing what things are profitable and not profitable? Does not the one say it is profitable to restore Chryseis [a captive Trojan woman] to her father, and does not the other say that it is not profitable? Does not the one say that he ought to take the prize of another, and does not the other say that he ought not? Did they not for these reasons forget both who they were and for what purpose they had come there? Oh, man, for what purpose did you come? To gain mistresses or to fight [the Trojans]? (Disc. II, 24)
What Epictetus is highlighting here is that it is such desires for attractive externals, to competitively have more than others, that reduce a person’s capacity for what the Stoics consider to be the other-directed good passions (eupatheiai), such as eunoia (generosity or beneficence) and kresthiotês (roughly, kindness), or what Seneca celebrates as liberalitas. Competition makes cooperation conditional, and when some contested prize comes between us, it can all-too-readily degrade into open or concealed forms of conflict.
If we spend our lives only ever considering others as competitors for scarce resources we crave, we can hardly ever be genuinely sociable with them:
- We can’t celebrate their successes, which will seem instead to us to be comparative losses to ourselves, and causes of envy—and thereby, the itch to try to bring them down a notch ‘as they deserve’ can readily be born.
- If they win something—or the free affections of someone—which we feel entitled to, there will be jealousy, which can lead to rage, or even to the launching of a thousand ships.
- If they show us generosity, we can’t ever be really grateful to them, either. Instead, the peevish suspicion will be there, that they are only giving to, or helping us, in order to be seen to be so giving by others. This seeming generosity’s all (we imagine) to show off, and to make us sense our inferiority or indebtedness. We may therefore even resent others’ generosity to us. For it makes us look worse, including in our own eyes.
- As for our own generosity to any rivals: to the extent that we consider the other as our competitor, we become to that extent incapable of genuine generosity as well. Any ‘benefit’ we offer them, we will do so more or less grudgingly, with an eye to the return, or on placing them beneath us in the pecking order, or in any case, on not advancing them in a way which could harm our ‘interests’.
In other words, genuine generosity and gratitude are not opposed by Stoic philosophy, and its stand on ta adiaphora. Nor are these virtuous orientations to others in any way devalued. On the contrary, what Stoicism can be read as responding to is a discerning psychological insight: that, if genuine generosity and gratitude are to be possible in social exchanges, then the ‘externals’ in play need as it were to be annulled as tokens of prestige or power licensing hostile, other-directed emotions like envy, ingratitude, and jealousy, which can lead over time to bitter hatred.
The withdrawal of unconditional value (goodness or badness) from externals which Stoicism asks of us—seeing them, per part 1, as ta adiaphora, and not ta agatha or ta kaka, wholly good or bad things—is thus not code for a miserly withdrawal from other people. On the contrary, it allows for a clearing away of the interference of those externals which so often come between (inter-esse) people, so that genuine fellowship, generosity, gratitude, and joy in others and their conduct can emerge.
- Stoic generosity
These claims I am making here are not exotic or unsupported, in terms of the Stoic texts. Seneca in fact has an entire, quite long book, De beneficiis, on just these subjects: in particular, on the giving and receiving of gifts. (And let’s just say right out, that if the view of Stoicism as cultivating indifference to others were correct, this entire book would look like a pretty strange subject for Seneca to have tackled.)
Seneca is quite harsh about the characters of people who do not know how to give except in a calculative, cunning way, without any genuine concern or well-wishing for the other: “the man who while he gives thinks of what he will get in return, deserves to be deceived” (De ben. I, 1). De beneficiis itself opens by directly and strongly stating, that:
Among the numerous faults of those who pass their lives recklessly and without due reflexion, my good friend Liberalis, I should say that there is hardly any one so hurtful to society as this, that we neither know how to bestow or how to receive a benefit (De ben. 1.1).
Comparably, Seneca is also clear about the answer, if we ask why people as a rule are so ungrateful when they do receive gifts, both to their human benefactors, and to the gods or nature. In his view, ingratitude “is caused by excessive self-esteem, by that fault innate in all mortals, of taking a partial view of ourselves and our own acts, by greed, or by jealousy” (De ben. II, 26).
Stoic eumenia, beneficence, liberality, or generosity, by contrast—the gift-giving virtue—is not calculative. According to Seneca, it requires no third party to warrant its excellence. In some cases, Seneca makes it a condition of a gift that it be given secretly. A genuine gift, he proposes, cannot be given as repayment on a perceived debt. Nor can it serve to rectify any egoistic disadvantage at which our envy or jealousy positions us, vis-à-vis those whom we conceive as our rivals:
As it is, virtue consists in bestowing benefits for which we are not certain of meeting with any return, but whose fruit is at once enjoyed by noble minds. So little influence ought this to have in restraining us from doing good actions, that even though I were denied the hope of meeting with a grateful man, yet the fear of not having my benefits returned would not prevent my bestowing them … (De ben. I, 1)
This is not to recommend blind lavishness: giving to each and all, independent of need or worth. The good gift, on the contrary, requires a consideration of others’ genuine needs. However, what primarily matters in the gift-giving for Seneca, as a Stoic, is the intentionality or “leading principle” of the giver, that it is aimed at the good of the other; and when we are in receipt of generosity, the intentionality of the receiver, whose gratitude is its own reward for the benefactor.
What would be ‘bad’ on this Stoic model therefore is not that someone should not return our gift, an external thing, with another external thing of equal or greater value. What is bad is the subjective stance of ingratitude—Seneca in fact calls this the worst of all vices. Despite the continuing criticisms the philosophy will receive, the Stoics hence propose again and again that we should not be indifferent to others, and least of all those to whom we owe debts of gratitude.
 Christopher Gill, Learning to Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023), 55.
Associate Professor Matt Sharpe teaches and researches philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He’s the author of Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond (2022) and The Other Enlightenment: Self-estrangement, Race, and Gender (2023), coauthor of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions (2021), and cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Writings: Philosophy as Practice (2020). He’s published academic and popular articles on Stoicism in venues such as Stoic Gym, Stoicare, Stoicism Today, and The Conversation.