One of the things I truly enjoy about Stoicism is its alleged “paradoxes.” Cicero wrote a whole book to explain them, and they still puzzle people when they first (and second, and third) encounter them. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the Stoics perversely enjoyed to present their doctrines in the form of short phrases that would appear puzzling, and which therefore invited further discussion and clarification — thus avoiding the reduction of their philosophy to a “bumper sticker” version. If you wanted to understand Stoicism, you needed to slow down and wrap your mind around it, no shortcuts allowed.
One such puzzling Stoic concept is certainly that of the so-called preferred indifferents. The very phrase sounds oxymoronic (how can the same thing be both preferred and indifferent?), and even such an acute thinker as Cicero accuses the Stoics (in book IV of De Finibus) of just playing with words. But I don’t think they did, so let me give you the best explanation I’ve come up with of what it means to talk of preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, and why the Stoics did so to begin with.
First, let me put the issue in the proper historical-philosophical context. As elegantly shown by John-Stewart Gordon in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see my commentary here), Stoicism is derived from the thinking of Socrates, just so as two of the several rival schools: Aristotelianism and Cynicism (indeed, properly speaking, Stoicism is a derivation of Cynicism). This is important for the matter at hand. Socrates taught that the eudaimonic life, the life that is worth living, is a life of self-examination (know thyself, as the inscription at Delphi famously said) and of practicing virtue. The fundamental virtue is wisdom, which is the highest good — as Socrates explains in Plato’s Euthydemus — because it is the only thing that is useful under all circumstances, indeed, the very thing that allow us to make proper use of everything else.
Aristotle, a student of Plato (who was in turn a student of Socrates) figured out that this is all well and good, but virtue by itself isn’t sufficient for a eudaimonic life. Certain other conditions need to be present as well, in some measure. Among these conditions, Aristotle listed health, wealth, education, and even good looks. You can see why his philosophy is often accused of being somewhat elitist. If you are a poor person, or sick, or uneducated, or not handsome, you are out of luck. You can be as virtuous as you like, but your life ain’t gonna be eudaimonic.
Nonsense, responded Antisthenes, also a student of Socrates, and founder of the sect of the Cynics, whose most famous exponent was Diogenes of Sinope. According to the Cynics, the only thing that was needed to be eudaimon is virtue. Moreover, the pursuit of externalities, such as health, wealth, education and so forth, actually gets in the way of the practice of virtue. Hence their famously, shall we say, minimalist life style (which their contemporaries termed “dog-like,” from which the word Cynic comes).
Enter the Stoics, who rather shrewdly saw a conceptual niche in between these two extreme positions: how can everyone pursue a eudaimonic existence (contra Aristotle), while at the same time not having to renounce all earthly possessions (contra the Cynics)? By way of distinguishing between the thing that is truly important — virtue — and the things that may be pursued (preferred) or avoided (dispreferred), so long as they don’t get in the way of a virtuous life. And you guessed it: the preferred indifferents include health, wealth, education, and so forth; while the dispreferred ones include sickness, poverty, ignorance, and so on.
So here is what the Aristotelian <> Stoic <> Cynic spectrum looks like:
Fine, you say, but isn’t that either a copout (as Cicero accuses the Stoics of doing, in De Finibus), or an inherently contradictory notion? What does it really mean that, say, health is a “preferred indifferent”?
I have to thank one of my readers, “timbartik,” for having made the connection between the notion under examination and the idea, useful in mathematics and economics, of lexicographical ordering.
Economists have began to realize that — contra to standard economic theory — people don’t consider all goods or desiderata to be fungible, that is interchangeable for a given good or desideratum of equal value. Rather, people group the things they want or care for into separate sets, and order the sets according to their importance. While members of the same set can be traded against each other, members of different sets usually aren’t.
Let me give you a concrete example. In the realm of ordinary life, my “A-set” includes, for instance, my daughter. I care for her welfare, her future, and so forth. My “B-set” includes an orange Lamborghini, my ideal car. Now, I would be perfectly willing — if I could afford it — to trade a lot of cash (which also belongs to the B-set) for a Lamborghini. But trading my daughter’s welfare or future for the car is simply completely out of the question. So the situation looks like this:
I think you see where this is going: for the Stoics, virtue is in the uber A-set, and it is non-negotiable: it is the chief good and the only thing that really matters. But other things, the above mentioned health, wealth, education, etc., fall under the B-set (or other sets down the lexicographical scale) and are “preferred” in a similar sense to my predilection for Lamborghinis. But they are “indifferent” in the sense that no way in hell they can be traded with the A-set, i.e., with virtue.
One more note about this: some Stoics (arguably Epictetus, for instance) thought that something is a preferred indifferent in a stricter sense than the one implied above: health, wealth, education and so forth are preferred insofar they facilitate the pursuit of virtue, but not otherwise. This means that a certain number of things (like Lamborghinis) don’t even make that cut. Other Stoics (certainly Seneca, for example) were a bit more relaxed and allowed into the B-set things that are entirely neutral from the standpoint of virtue, so long, of course, as they don’t get in the way of virtue. You can think of this further subdivision along the same continuum as above: the stricter version leans a bit toward Cynicism, because it yields a more minimalist version of Stoicism, while the relaxed version is more mainstream and easier to practice.
Whichever version of Stoicism (or even of Cynicism or Aristotelianism!) you prefer, remember the immortal words of comedian Michael Connell (aka, “Marcus Aurelius”): you know what’s good? Virtue!