One of the most common misinterpretations of Stoicism is the notion that Stoics believe all external things are totally indifferent. That’s arguably closer to the philosophy of the Cynics, or possibly of the Skeptics or even the renegade Stoic, Aristo of Chios, as we’ll see. For these philosophers, everything except virtue and vice is classed as indifferent. That includes things like health, wealth, property, reputation, and so on, which philosophers called “externals” because they’re external to the mind, or more specifically external to our volition or faculty of moral choice. As Epictetus put it, only our actions are good or evil, and everything else is indifferent.
However, when Zeno founded the Stoic school he distinguished it from earlier philosophies precisely by asserting that although externals were, in one sense, indifferent, in another sense they were not.
“Indifferent” has two meanings. In one sense [used by the Stoics] it signifies the things that contribute neither to happiness [eudaimonia] nor unhappiness, like wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy even without these things, though depending on how they are used they contribute to happiness or unhappiness. But in another [non-Stoic] sense “indifferent” signifies things that excite neither attraction nor aversion, as is the case with having an odd or even number of hairs on one’s head, or with extending or bending one’s finger. But it was not in this sense that the things mentioned above [such as health] are called “indifferent” [by the Stoics], since they are able to excite attraction and aversion. This is why some of the indifferent things are selected and others rejected, whereas indifference in the other sense provides no grounds for choosing or avoiding. (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno)
For Stoics, external things are not good or bad in the strongest sense. They don’t make our souls better or worse, or affect our fulfilment (eudaimonia) in life. What matters ultimately is the use we make of them, good or bad, virtuous or vicious. However, Zeno said that they do have another sort of value (axia), which allows us to choose between them. Indeed, it’s perfectly natural and rational to prefer some externals over others. We’re quite right to prefer life over death, health over sickness, and friends over enemies, generally speaking, as long as we do so “lightly”, to borrow a phrase from Epictetus. Put simply, we shouldn’t place so much value on these external things that we become upset if we get what we don’t want, or don’t get what we do want. The Stoics talk about “preferring” or “dispreferring” externals, as opposed to strongly desiring them. We choose between them, without becoming attached to them, or strongly averse to them.
More than this, however, Zeno and the Stoics argued that wisdom, and the other virtues, consist precisely in our ability to distinguish rationally between the value of different external things. Ironically, someone who discounts all externals as totally indifferent, or equally indifferent, would therefore be foolish according to the Stoics. They would lack prudence. They’d also lack the ability to exercise justice by knowing what it’s fair and benevolent to give other people or to do for them. They’d also lack the virtues of courage and moderation because they wouldn’t be able to distinguish rationally between things worth enduring or renouncing and things not.
In De Finibus, Cicero portrays a conversation between himself and Cato, representing the “complete Stoic”. He begins by tackling precisely this misconception of Stoicism. After Cato asserts the Stoic principle that virtue (moral worth) is the only true good, Cicero replies:
“What you have said so far, Cato,” I answered, “might equally well be said by a follower of Pyrrho or of Aristo. They, as you are aware, think as you do, that this Moral Worth you speak of is not merely the chief but the only Good […] Do you then,” I asked, “commend these philosophers, and think that we ought to adopt this view of theirs?” “I certainly would not have you adopt their view,” he said; “for it is of the essence of virtue to exercise choice among the things in accordance with nature; so that philosophers who make all things absolutely equal, rendering them indistinguishable either as better or worse, and leaving no room for selection among them, have abolished virtue itself.” (De Finibus)
Notice that he says very clearly that virtue itself is effectively destroyed if we treat all externals as equal. In Discourse 2.23, Epictetus discusses in depth the importance of assigning value to externals.
Man, be neither ungrateful for these gifts nor yet forget the things which are superior to them. But indeed for the power of seeing and hearing, and indeed for life itself, and for the things which contribute to support it, for the fruits which are dry, and for wine and oil give thanks to God: but remember that he has given you something else better than all these, I mean the power of using them, proving them and estimating the value of each.
He emphasizes that reason is supremely important because it assigns value to everything else.
What then? does any man despise the other faculties? I hope not. Does any man say that there is no use or excellence in the speaking faculty? I hope not. That would be foolish, impious, ungrateful towards God. But a man renders to each thing its due value. For there is some use even in an ass, but not so much as in an ox: there is also use in a dog, but not so much as in a slave: there is also some use in a slave, but not so much as in citizens: there is also some use in citizens, but not so much as in magistrates. Not indeed because some things are superior, must we undervalue the use which other things have.
Despite the fact he’s speaking of externals, Epictetus actually tells his students that those who fail to make any distinction between the value of speaking well and speaking badly or between beauty and ugliness are not only fools but cowards.
But this is the great matter […] to learn what is the most excellent of all things, and to pursue this always, to be diligent about this, considering all other things of secondary value compared with this, but yet, as far as we can, not neglecting all those other things. For we must take care of the eyes also, not as if they were the most excellent thing, but we must take care of them on account of the most excellent thing, because it will not be in its true natural condition, if it does not rightly use the other faculties, and prefer some things to others.
Virtue, in other words, consists precisely in our ability to apply reason by weighing-up the value of different external things. Cato returns to this point later:
“Next follows an exposition of the difference between things; for if we maintained that all things were absolutely indifferent, the whole of life would be thrown into confusion, as it is by Aristo, and no function or task could be found for wisdom, since there would be absolutely no distinction between the things that pertain to the conduct of life, and no choice need be exercised among them. Accordingly after conclusively proving that morality alone is good and baseness alone evil, the Stoics went on to affirm that among those things which were of no importance for happiness or misery, there was nevertheless an element of difference, making some of them of positive and others of negative value, and others neutral. (De Finibus)
For instance, some Cynics believed it was courageous to endure self-immolation, burning themselves alive to protest. The Stoics, however, would say that if the protest is futile then this isn’t courage but rather folly. Marcus Aurelius says that although Stoics believe suicide can be a reasonable decision it’s only appropriate to prefer one’s death to life when based on sound judgement, given certain circumstances such as euthanasia in extreme old age and sickness, or self-sacrifice in warfare for the greater good. By contrast, the Christians, he says, endure death (martyrdom) out of foolish obstinacy and a desire to make a tragic spectacle of themselves (11.3).
Marcus Aurelius elsewhere defines social virtue as treating our fellow man “kindly and justly, according to the natural law of companionship, though aiming at the same time at what he deserves with regard to things that are morally indifferent” (3.11). He means that justice requires helping others to obtain things that are morally indifferent, though reasonably preferred. What those things are will vary depending on the individual and their circumstances, although the Stoics typically say it’s rational to prefer health to disease, wealth to poverty, and having friends to having enemies, within certain bounds.
Epictetus actually spells this out to his students very clearly:
“But my mother grieves when she does not see me.” So why has she not learnt these doctrines? I am not saying that it is wrong to take care that she should not lament; but that we are not to wish absolutely what is not in our own power. Now, the grief of another is not in my power; but my own grief is. I will, therefore, absolutely oppose my own grief, for that is in my power; and I will endeavour to prevent another’s grief as far as I am able: but not absolutely […] (Discourses, 3.24.22–23)