Don’t Leave Out the Neutral Indifferents

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: In the background burns the flame that represents the Logos. In front of it, several letters from the Greek alphabet fill the air - and near the floor is a book labeled "A Stoic Dictionary". This image is for articles in this blog (virtualstoa.org) pertaining to Stoic terminology.
Every time someone writes that the “indifferents” in Stoicism are either “preferred” or “dispreferred”, they underestimate how problematic it is that they neglect to mention a third category of indifferents – those that I would call “neutral”.
In Stoic philosophy, only those things that are in our locus of control are seen as being truly our own. It is for this reason that only those things are seen in the philosophy as being inherently good or inherently bad. External things, on the other hand, not really being in our locus of control, are seen as indifferents.

Some people, for this reason, underestimate the power of Stoicism as a philosophy to deal with key issues that we, as a society, face today. This is because they make the mistake of conflating the meaning of the term “indifferent” when Stoics use it with the lay-speak meaning of the term. They think that just because we refer to things outside of our will as “indifferents” that we have no regard at all for those things. It is perfectly understandable that this impression about the attitude of Stoicism leads them to dismiss Stoicism as a sound philosophy for effecting societal change – or for going through life at all for that matter.

However, while that conclusion does properly flow from the premise (the premise that Stoics have no regard at all for anything external) it is the premise itself that is flawed. You see, if I refer to something as an “indifferent”, that doesn’t mean that I have no regard for it. Rather, what I mean is that I should not be miserable or upset on account of having it or not-having it.

However, that indifferent can still be preferred or dispreferred. If I refer to it as “preferred”, I mean to say that I shouldn’t be upset if I don’t end up having it – but to whatever extent reasonably possible, I will attempt to have it. What extent I would see as “reasonable”, in turn, would depend on the degree of this preference. Likewise, if I refer to an indifferent as “dispreferred”, I mean that I ought not be upset if I end up having it, but to whatever extent reasonably possible, I will attempt to avoid it.

Therefore, the notion that Stoics have no regard for these externals is wrong because, though we see these externals as “indifferent”, these indifferents can still be “preferred” or “dispreferred”. However – while I will say that indifferents can be preferred or dispreferred – many Stoic writers make the mistake of saying that indifferents are preferred and dispreferred. This is problematic because it makes it sound as though all indifferents are in one of those two categories. In reality, however, there is a third category of indifferents – those which are neutral.

I use the term “neutral” to refer to a third category of indifferents which are not very frequently mentioned in Stoic texts – neither the ancient texts nor the modern ones. When I refer to an indifferent as “neutral”, I mean that not only I ought-not be upset at having it or not-having it – but that, furthermore, it isn’t worth even attempting to incur or to avoid it. Strictly, it applies only to those indifferents with regards to which I don’t even have the slightest preference for or against. In practice, however, it can extend to indifferents tht are technically preferred or dispreferred, but for which the degree of preferredness or dispreferredness is so slight as to be negligible.

But what’s so problematic about the tendency to omit neutral indifferents from the discussion? After all, there is a very obvious reason why they are so rarely discussed. If I am chronically mistreated by my peers on account of a superficial difference – I need the help of philosophy to deal with it. This is just one example of how dispreferred indifferents present a problem to which philosophy is needed as a solution. There are plenty of other examples as well – and this is why dispreferred indifferents tend to be mentioned in philosophical texts.

Likewise, if I have a job that I love, becoming too attached to it can put me at risk of being devastated should I ever lose that job. Even without that happening, it can cause me to be fearful of losing it. This is just one example of how preferred indifferents also present a problem to which philosophy is needed as a solution. As with dispreferred indifferents, there are plenty of examples of this as well – and this is why preferred indifferents tend to be mentioned in philosophical texts.

Neutral indifferents, on the other hand, are the wheel that doesn’t get oiled because it doesn’t sequeak loud enough. I have no discernible preference as to whether someone who lives half a mile away chooses to get a metal-and-glass coffee-table or to get one made out of oak instead. No matter how untrained my mind is, neither of that stranger’s decisions on that matter risks ruining my day. I don’t need philosophy to help me cope with it.

Unlike preferred and dispreferred indifferents – neutral indifferents don’t present a problem for philosophy to solve. So why bother mentioning them at all? After all, when I first started mentioning neutral indifferents very early on in my Stoic training – at the time, as far as I was consciously aware, it was little more than some OCD obsession with making my descriptions of things as complete as possible. While this may have been a good enough reason for me to mention neutral indifferents myself – it certainly was no reason to urge other writers to stop omitting them from the discussion.

But recently, I have realized that there is actual reason why the omission of neutral indifferents from the discussion is problematic. This omission contributes to a confusion that we ought to be working against. People think that we have no regard to certain issues facing society simply because we refer to them as “indifferents”. We, in turn, respond by explaining that “indifferent” doesn’t mean to us what they think it means. But this can be more effectively done if we don’t neglect to mention in our discourse the category that someone who lacks familiarity with Stoic terminology would think “indifferents” refers to – and that category is neutral indifferents.

Granted – our practice of Stoicism is about improving ourselves, not about getting others to embrace it. For that reason, getting others to embrace it is not an inherent good, but an indifferent. But I have made a case in the past why we must not treat that as a neutral indifferent – but as an extremely preferred one.

While I agree that we must not water down the philosophy just to increase the chance of more people embracing it, it is our duty to set the record in order – to do what we can to reduce the chance of people rejecting the noble philosophy over mere misunderstanding. Including neutral indifferents in our articulation of the philosophy is in no way a watering down of the philosophy – but an improvement in the clarity of our articulation of the philosophy.

Also – improvements in our articulation of the philosophy will not only help against people rejecting it out of misunderstanding. It will also help those who do embrace the philosophy better avoid mis-application of the philosophy.

Granted, there are issues other than the meaning of “indifferents” that we, as the Stoic community, could do a better job at articulating. Furthermore, there are probably things we can do to improve our articulation of what “indifferents” mean in addition to bringing neutral indifferents into our articulations — but those would be things to do in addition to this, not instead.

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