On the Stoic Philosophy of Preferred and Indifferent Things

In my study of Stoic philosophy, it’s important to me to only take from it for my own life the parts which make sense to me. I don’t want to take it dogmatically, or accept everything the Stoics taught as the absolute truth. I think it’s more useful to be a “buffet Stoic,” finding and applying the parts of Stoic philosophy that in my own mind seem to resonate with me. By resonate, I mean the parts that make sense to me, or seem to “true” and congruent with reality as I perceive it.

The Stoic concept of ‘Preferred’ vs. ‘Indifferent’ things resonates with me. Here’s a quote from Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, by Donald Robinson:

Although ‘indifferent’ things are not intrinsically ‘good’, Zeno suggested that some are nevertheless more ‘valuable’ than others and ‘preferable’ to them. The Stoics reputedly quipped that the Sage would prefer to have toiletries to clean himself, when appropriate, than not. Yet such things do not make a virtuous life one iota better or more fulfilled.

To me it seems like the Stoics classifieds things that are out of our direct control as ‘indifferent.’ That really resonates with me. If something isn’t under our control (and most things aren’t), then it’s not helpful to consider it necessary to be happy or fulfilled. So it makes sense to me that things like health, money, or reputation can’t be expected, by themselves, to make us happy or fulfilled.

I like what Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, that we should be “indifferent towards indifferent things.”

Some of the things that the Stoics considered indifferent include:

  • Life and death
  • Our reputation, or what others think of us
  • Pleasure and pain
  • Wealth and poverty
  • Health and disease.

I think I can accept all of those as ‘indifferent’ things – or things I would like to be indifferent about. They are for the most part not under my control. The parts that are under my control I obviously should do something about. But the parts of those that aren’t under my control should then not worry me.

The Stoics had the idea of “preferred” indifferents. From the list above, I would classify life, a good reputation, pleasure, wealth, and health as “preferred” because they can be helpful.

The takeaway for me is that I will strive to control those things that I have the power to control, and ignore the things that are not in my control. So for example, if I have good health, I will acknowledge it and express gratitude for it. But if I have ill health, I will ignore it. There’s simply no reason to worry or fret about things you can’t control. Sickness is part of nature – simply the way things are. So it’s best to accept it when it comes (after doing all you can do to maintain good health) and ignore it, and continue to do whatever is still in your power to the best of your ability.

What about you? What’s your takeaway from this concept of Preferred and Indifferent things? If you’ve applied some aspect of this in your life, I’d love to hear about it, and I’m sure others would as well!