Chapter 2 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
This post continues my series on Christopher Gill’s recent scholarly book, Learning to Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and Its Modern Significance.
What is it that sets Stoicism apart from other philosophies? As we saw in Chapter 1 of Learning to Live Naturally, first and foremost it’s the principle that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness. In the previous post we examined three separate rationales the ancient Stoics offered for this counterintuitive principle. But how does virtue relate to all the stuff of life—money, fame, health, relationships, all the things that give us pleasure or keep us alive or motivate us to show up for work every day?
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In Stoic terms, all this stuff is simply indifferent, but there is more to this term than meets the eye. Throughout Chapter 2 Gill leads us on an exploration of the preferred and dispreferred indifferents, explaining how they are related to virtue and how they help us make practical decisions in life. I know this isn’t the most entertaining topic, but it’s incredibly important for our understanding and practice of Stoicism. When we understand indifferents, we make better choices. So let’s spend a few moments thinking about how the Stoic doctrine of indifferents is rooted in virtue and, ultimately, the quest to live in agreement with nature.
Defining Indifferents, Preferred and Dispreferred
The ancient Stoics considered indifferents to be all those things in life that do not impact a person’s virtue or vice. This category include externals (material possessions, family members, reputation), physical qualities (health, sense perception), and psychological qualities (intelligence and natural talents). These things provide the “framework” for our lives, but do not actually contribute to our happiness. Only virtue does that. As Gill (p. 56) puts it, “The virtues make the difference between happiness and its opposite, whereas the preferred indifferents do not; hence, their characterization as ‘indifferents’.”
This point is, admittedly, paradoxical, and has been confusing people and drawing criticism ever since antiquity. The important thing to remember is that some indifferents, such as good health and positive relationships with other people, align with nature. Humans are designed to naturally want these things because they “promote our nature as rational and social animals” and “enable us to realize our nature as human beings” (p. 57). For this reason, preferred indifferents are said to be “things according to nature” or “natural things.” They do objectively have value and provide the basis for virtuous (or vicious) action.
However, preferred indifferents are simply the material for virtue—they are not good or bad in themselves. That’s because indifferents do not always confer benefit. For example, money is not an unmitigated good because it can be used for nefarious purposes. Even something as naturally preferable as good health may not always be beneficial. The ancient Stoic Aristo (cited on p. 60) asked us to imagine a scenario in which a tyrant demands that all healthy people serve in his army. In this case, poor health would be beneficial because it would allow us to escape from serving an evil tyrant. Therefore health is simply an indifferent, not an unalloyed good.
Likewise, dispreferred indifferents, while not naturally preferable, can confer benefit when used properly. The trials and tribulations of life—illness, injury, social exclusion, bereavement—can actually strengthen our character, and in this way they ultimately benefit us. Epictetus refers to this disposition of the wise as a magical “wand of Hermes”:
And yet you say that if someone trains me in abstaining from anger, he brings me no benefit? It is simply that you don't know how to draw advantage from other people. My neighbor is a bad man? Bad to himself, but good to me. This is the magic wand of Hermes: 'Touch what you want,' so the saying goes, 'and it will turn to gold.' Bring me whatever you wish, and I'll turn it into something good. Bring illness, bring death, bring destitution, bring abuse or a trial for one's life, and under the touch of the magic wand of Hermes, all of that will become a source of benefit. (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.20, 10-12)
As practicing Stoics know, this paradoxical doctrine is actually one of the great strengths of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Gill points out that Aristotelianism, which was one of the primary competitors to Stoicism in ancient times, held the supposedly more common-sense position that happiness requires external goods in addition to virtue. But anyone who has ever experienced difficulties in life—which is to say, everyone—realizes that at some point we will lack some of these externals, whether money, good health, good relationships, or something else. In Aristotle’s line of thinking, this would simply result in unhappiness. But in Stoicism, we have the power to turn difficulties into gold. We can transform disaster into opportunity and derive (internal) benefit even from (external) misfortune.
The Stoic doctrine of indifferents is crucial in explaining just how this works. I love Chris Gill’s very clear explanation in this passage, from p. 61:
The virtues are crucial expressions of human agency; they determine our judgements, character, motivation, our actions, and relationships to other people. More precisely, they constitute forms of knowledge or expertise and thus shape our agency in a way that constitutes ‘right use’ of indifferents and leads towards happiness, conceived as the life according to nature. Analogously, the vices harm us by preventing us from doing so. The indifferents, as a category, do not have this central role in our agency, in shaping our life and happiness or its opposite. The preferred indifferents constitute, one may say, the basic conditions or framework of a good human life: having life, good health, material goods and a certain kind of social context. Even the psychological ones, such as natural ability or good memory, only provide the basis for constructing a happy life.
To sum up: the virtues are crucial expressions of our agency, while indifferents are simply the framework on which we build.
Appropriate Actions in Cicero’s On Duties
For much of the remainder of Chapter 2, Gill draws on passages from Cicero’s On Duties to see how practical ethical deliberation might play out in real life. Since we have no complete remaining works from the original Greek Stoics, Cicero (a Roman statesman) is an important source of knowledge on early Stoicism. Even though he was officially a Skeptic, Cicero drew heavily on Stoic thought in his philosophical writings, particularly On Duties. Writing to his son who was away studying philosophy in Athens, he spells out his advice for living a virtuous life and explains how to choose between competing ethical obligations.
Cicero’s discussion begins with “appropriate actions,” which are actions that have “a reasonable justification” (Stobaeus, 2.85.14-15). An appropriate action is only truly virtuous when performed by a virtuous person, since only a sage has a complete grasp of truth and excellence. But for the rest of us, appropriate actions are the closest we can come to doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Appropriate actions often center on selecting between indifferents. Remember, indifferents are the material for virtue, and much of life involves picking the right option—do I choose this career or that one? do I provide aid to this person or that one? do I respond to challenges in one way or another? Citing as an example Cicero’s discussion of generosity, Gill (p. 85) notes:
Appropriate actions are presented, in effect, as those which are typical of someone who exercises the virtues and thus has expertise in leading a life according to nature. It is also implied, as the discussion of generosity illustrates, that this expertise in leading a happy (natural) life shapes selection between indifferents. The generous person allocates preferable indifferents in a manner that matches her desire to confer material or social favours on another person or persons in a way that is just to all those affected by the gift. In a broader sense, doing so enables her to express the underlying desire to lead the best possible human life (the happy life), which is marked by a combination of rationality and sociability, structure, order, and wholeness, and care for oneself and others of one’s kind.
In other words, it all goes back to the “natural” basis of virtue that we explored in Chapter 1. Our practical deliberations in life—our selection between different courses of action—is based on our understanding of virtue as living in agreement with nature. When we act as nature designed us to, we want to promote a good life not just for ourselves, but for our family, friends, and community. Rational deliberation leads us to reject the prospect of maximizing our own advantages at the expense of other people. Instead, we choose to benefit ourselves by benefiting others.
Cicero describes this deliberative approach as a rule of procedure (Latin: regula), a term taken from Roman legal practice. This “rule” very explicitly appeals to nature as the foundation for appropriate action:
Of justice, the first duty [appropriate action] is that no one should harm another unless he has been provoked by injustice... we ought to follow nature as our leader, to contribute to the common stock the things that benefit everyone together, and by the exchange of dutiful services, by giving and receiving expertise and effort and means, to bind fast the fellowship of human beings with each other. (Cicero, On Duties 1, 1.20-22, cited in Gill, p. 93)
Once again, we see the importance of human nature as a guide not just to theory, but to practical action. Cicero is invoking classic Stoic ideas of common humanity, which we also see crop up repeatedly in the later Roman Stoics (Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Hierocles, Marcus Aurelius). The general pattern throughout Stoic thought is that in order to properly choose between indifferents, we must start our deliberation with “natural” virtue.
Cicero then fleshes out this idea with several examples of practical decision-making. The most memorable is that of Regulus, the Roman general who was taken prisoner by Carthage during the First Punic War. Regulus promised the Carthaginians that he would return to Rome, arrange for an exchange of prisoners, then return to Carthage to endure his imprisonment. He actually did so, returning voluntarily to face certain torture and death.
Most people hearing this story would think Regulus was, if not crazy, then practicing some misguided form of heroic masochism. But Cicero argues that he acted appropriately, given the circumstances. He was simply choosing between indifferents at an extreme level (a pleasant but deceitful life in Rome or an honorable return to Carthage accompanied by certain death). By electing to benefit his country at his own expense, Regulus made an appropriate choice and became an exemplar of selfless virtue.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey through Chapter 2 of Chris Gill’s magnificent book Learning to Live Naturally. Although the doctrine of indifferents is, perhaps, not the most exciting subject in Stoicism, it is one of the most important since we deal with indifferents all day, every day. Knowing how to handle them appropriately is crucial for success as Stoics.
Next time we’ll jump into the controversial and exciting topic of cosmic nature and theology. It will definitely be interesting! I hope to see you there.
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My copy just arrived the other day. It's a pretty daunting book to sit down and start reading, so I appreciate your summary