Stoic advice column: do externals make life better?

Would you trade your daughter for one of these?

Would you trade your daughter for one of these?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

B. writes: “I have an ongoing struggle with preferred indifferents and how Stoics put ‘value’ on something that cannot be totally controlled. Let’s say I have a day where I have the chance to really utilize the four stoic virtues and I do so very well. Additionally, I end up seeing a great movie, have a fantastic dinner and stay overnight in a very comfortable hotel. Entertainment, a good meal and a comfortable bed are all preferred indifferents. I was able to enjoy them with no detriment to the four cardinal virtues. Is it not fair to say that that day was a little bit ‘better’ because of those preferred indifferents? While the ‘value’ of the day was not dependent on them — it tuns out that it was a slightly better day because of them. Given that is the case, consider my next day. Again, I was able to utilize the Stoic virtues in exactly the same degree. However, on this day there is no entertaining movie, no delicious meal, and no comfortable bed. If the other day was, to some degree, better because of the preferred indifferents, this day has to be not as good. It would seem to follow that life is ‘better’ with preferred indifferents (not at the cost of the cardinal virtues). Is it consistent in the Stoic doctrine to pursue preferred indifferents (again, not at the cost of the cardinal virtues)? How is it then, that a guy with better food and a more comfortable bed is not better off than the guy without it? It seems if you put a little weight — no matter how small — to having a preferred indifferent (something you cannot control — or at least can’t totally control) it leads to putting potentially considerable weight to having things you can’t control. Can you help with my struggle.”

This is an excellent question, as the doctrine of the preferred and dispreferred indifferents is one of those that trip up both the Stoic practitioner and, especially, people who are looking at Stoicism from the outside, without a sufficiently good appreciation of what is going on.

The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with concerning this issue hinges on economists’ concept of lexicographical indexing (see this essay). Basically, behavioral economists have discovered that we don’t treat all goods as fungible, i.e., as interchangeable by way of a common underlying currency. (This is a big deal in economics, since fungibility is a fundamental assumption of classical economic theory.) Rather, we recognize that certain things belong to distinct sets and are not to be traded for members of other sets.

For example, I love my daughter, and I really like Lamborghini cars. I would trade a significant amount of money (if I had it) to get a Lamborghini. But I would not even think about trading my daughter for it. They are simply incommensurable “goods.”

Similarly, in Stoicism, between preferred indifferents and virtue. Yes, a good movie or a good dinner, comfortable clothes and a bed to sleep at night are preferred to the alternatives and the prokopton may freely seek them. But, as you say, B., not at the cost of any tradeoff whatsoever with virtue, because virtue is in an altogether different set, or lexicographic category.

Here is Seneca on this:

“Place me among magnificent furniture and all the appliances of luxury: I shall not think myself any happier because my cloak is soft, because my guests rest upon purple. Change the scene: I shall be no more miserable if my weary head rests upon a bundle of hay, if I lie upon a cushion from the circus, with all the stuffing on the point of coming out through its patches of threadbare cloth. Well, then? I prefer, as far as my feelings go, to show myself in public dressed in woollen and in robes of office, rather than with naked or half-covered shoulders: I should like every day’s business to turn out just as I wish it to do, and new congratulations to be constantly following upon the former ones: yet I will not pride myself upon this: change all this good fortune for its opposite, let my spirit be distracted by losses, grief, various kinds of attacks: let no hour pass without some dispute: I shall not on this account, though beset by the greatest miseries, call myself the most miserable of beings, nor shall I curse any particular day, for I have taken care to have no unlucky days. What, then, is the upshot of all this? It is that I prefer to have to regulate joys than to stifle sorrows.” (On the Happy Life, XXV)

That said, however, Seneca also notes that dwelling too much on the preferred indifferents does make it more difficult to practice our virtue, because we are constantly exposed to the temptation of acquiring more comforts and luxuries, which means you are right, B., in being worried about balancing things out.

In his 16th letter to Lucilius, On Philosophy, the Guide of Life, Seneca quotes Epicurus as saying: “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.” (XVI.7) He then goes on to comment: “Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater. Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits.” (XVI.8-9)

This is why Epictetus, famously, takes a different approach:

“People to whom such things [luxuries, power] are still denied come to imagine that everything good will be theirs if only they could acquire them. Then they get them: and their longing is unchanged, their anxiety is unchanged, their disgust is no less, and they still long for whatever is lacking. Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” (Discourses IV, 1.174-175)

And also:

“Do you not know what the thirst of a man in a fever is like, how different from the thirst of a man in health? The healthy man drinks and his thirst is gone: the other is delighted for a moment and then grows giddy, the water turns to gall, and he vomits and has colic, and is more thirsty. Such is the condition of the man who is haunted by desire in wealth or in office, and in wedlock with a lovely woman: jealousy clings to him, fear of loss, shameful words, shameful thoughts, unseemly deeds.” (Discourses IV, 9)

You can see some tension here, right? In the essay linked to above I suggest that Stoicism can be located along a continuum of Hellenistic philosophies with respect to its treatment of the contrast between externals and virtue: at one extreme we have Aristotelianism, which basically says that while virtue is the chief good, it is insufficient by itself. One needs externals to live the eudaimonic life. At the other extreme we have Cynicism, for which not only virtue is the only true good, but externals positively get in the way of its practice. Stoicism is somewhere in the middle, with Seneca closer to the Aristotelians and Epictetus more sympathetic to the Cynics (indeed, the long Discourses III.22 is entirely dedicated to the Cynics, about whom Epictetus writes with admiration).

Let me also point you to two modern essays taking different positions about what the relationship between preferred indifferents and virtue ought to be for the Stoic: on the one hand, Piotr Stankiewicz, taking Seneca’s position, argued that nothing in Stoicism requires an ascetic life. On the other hand, Kevin Patrick, defending Epictetus’ viewpoint, argues that there is such a requirement.

In a sense, this debate may be seen as the Stoic version of the difference between a Buddhist practitioner and a Buddhist monk: the practitioner can honestly say that she is a Buddhist even though she doesn’t go so far in her practice as the monk does. (Similarly with Christianity, or Judaism, of course.) My take is that different life styles will suit some people better than others, and if one wishes to be a Senecan Stoic that’s good enough. If one pushes into Epictetan territory, good too, maybe even better, but only maybe.

Finally, let me comment on a specific question from your letter: “How is it then, that a guy with better food and a more comfortable bed is not better off than the guy without it?” I think this should be clear by now: the question hinges on an ambiguity in the word “better.” The ambiguity disappears if one adopts the above mentioned lexicographic characterization of Stoicism: yes, the guy with better food and a more comfortable bed is “better” off in terms of the set of preferred indifferents. That is why, after all, they are preferred. But he is not “better” off at all in terms of virtue. Indeed, and here Seneca and Epictetus agree, he may be more at peril of compromising his virtue because of the temptations of luxury.

15 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: do externals make life better?

  1. Albert Kim

    I think the criticism towards consumerism is stronger if it focuses more on a certain state of mind and attitude being part of your way of life rather than the simple idea that yeah, owning certain things might add something of value/pleasure to someone’s life.

    Personally if I was rich, I wouldn’t care for having a lot of personal property, such as fancy cars, houses, or any of that stuff. I don’t dig luxuries, except maybe some tech once in a while. I would buy as much books as I want and eat whatever I want, whenever I want, maybe I could hire a personal chef for my daily life. I think I would be happy with THAT. Food > Showing off.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Albert Kim

    For my more serious comment, I think we should really challenge ourselves to be more virtuous in the way we live rather than serving our material interests. Like I can sacrifice a lot of time doing things that I enjoy so I can dedicate all my time to political activism. If there are people who find that deeply gratifying and worth doing just throwing themselves into that, then okay they can do that. But most people aren’t like that, they aren’t saints. People have other interests and temptations, people want to go to the beach once in a while and listen to their music collection. And I’m not sure one can be productive in living a virtuous life if they don’t satisfy themselves with daily comforts. So in pondering these types of questions, we should acknowledge that in practice, there’s always going to be maintaining a balance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    Yes, and in fact at several point Seneca says so. He advises Lucilius to take a break, go for a walk, drink some wine, and so forth. As you say, rest and relaxation — just like simply a good sleep at night — facilitate a virtuous life, and those things would therefore be preferred indifferents even in the strict sense of the term.


  4. Robin Luethe

    A favorite phrase on mine is the ‘sacrament of enough’, and it generally rings true to others when I have used it. Several years ago Lonely Planet suggested that hotels that charged less than $5 a night often have bedbugs. So we spent $10 a night, even included a noisy AC, sometimes the water was almost hot. No bedbugs may be a preferred indifferent, but if you can manage it to be preferred. (?)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. synred

    If the questioners bigst problem is coping with his attitude toward ‘indifferents’ he should just stop.

    Maybe he could think about somebody else…


  6. Woolsey Biggins

    Very helpful piece. Thanks again, Massimo.

    Talking with my son about the preferred indifferents, he came up with an interesting (perhaps) analogy. He said preferred indfferents were like ‘skins’ in his video game. “Skins” are cosmetic trappings that you can purchase or achieve for your avatar ( your game character). They can be hats, shields, robes, crowns, etc. They are cool to look at but in no way help the character the way ‘real’ gear can. Real gear makes your character more powerful and able to succeed in the game. So ‘skins’ are cool and fun to collect but in no way do they really make a character ‘better’. They don’t help you achieve your ultimate goal. I thought this was interesting and might pertain to Massimo’s project ( I think he has this project) – writing a stoic book for kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    Nice idea from your son! Yes, I’m pursuing a possible project of a book on Stoicism for kids, and the artist and I are making some progress, we’ll see.


  8. timbartik

    I think the lexicographic ordering between the virtues and other goods is a very defensible position, compared to Aristotle’s position.

    However, I wonder whether the Stoics sufficiently appreciated the possible causal links between other goods and virtue. To take just one example: exposure to the stresses of childhood poverty is associated statistically with a person who in adulthood may be more likely to be involved in crime, or in other ways be less virtuous. This is not an inevitability in any one person’s case, yet it would be naive to deny that on average in a large sample of people this is likely to be true.

    I don’t think these two positions are inconsistent, although they might appear to be so. There is a distinction between putting a great value on these “other goods” in and of themselves, versus putting a value on these goods because we know that a society in which there is less childhood poverty is likely to provide more opportunities for virtue to flourish.

    What one values in terms of different human goods is different from one’s analysis of causal linkages among various human goods.

    Or, to take another example, it may be the case that the true Sage can be fully virtuous even under torture. Yet it would be naive to deny that for the average all-too-human person, being tortured is likely to lead away from virtue rather than towards virtue.

    We might want to keep in mind the somewhat jaded yet hopeful poem of Simonides that is quoted in Plato’s Protagoras dialogue:

    “For a man it’s certainly hard to be truly good—perfect in hands, feet, and mind, built without a single flaw; only a god could have that prize; but a mere man, there’s just no way he can help being bad when some overwhelming disaster knocks him down. Any man’s good when life treats him well, and bad when it treats him badly, and the best of us are the ones the gods love most.

    But for me that saying of Pittacus doesn’t ring true either (even if he was a smart man): he says “being good is hard.” For me, a man’s good enough as long as he’s not lawless, and if he has the common sense of right and wrong that does a city good—a decent guy. I certainly won’t find fault with a man like that. After all, there’s an endless supply of stupid fools. The way I see it, if there’s no great shame in it, it’s all right.

    So I’m not going to throw away my short allotment of life on a futile, silly hope, searching for something there simply cannot be, a completely blameless man—not among us mortals who must win our bread from the broad earth. (Of course, If I do happen to come across one, I’ll be sure to let you know.) So long as he doesn’t willfully do wrong, I give my praise and love to any man. But not even the gods can resist necessity.”

    I sometimes wonder whether at least SOMETIMES the Stoics are in fact, searching for “a completely blameless man”. And while the Stoics may be right that a person can be good even when life treats him or her badly, a realistic view of human nature and society suggests that on average, when life treats us badly, we are less likely to be good. It may not be “necessity”, but I think it is likely to be a “high probability”.


  9. Massimo Post author


    These are all very good observations. I do think the Stoics realized that it is going to be much more difficult to be virtuous under adverse circumstances, which, indeed, is why the strict definition of “preferred indifferents” includes things that aid virtue, and of “dispreferred indifferents” things that get in the way of virtue.

    But I think your compromise reading is exactly right: the difference with the Aristotelians is best understood in the Stoic claim that no matter what, virtue by itself is sufficient to make one’s life worth living, even under very difficult circumstances. For Aristotle that was not the case.

    In other words, I think both the Aristotelians and the Stoics were aware of at least some of the causal links between circumstances and well being that you mention, and they interpreted differently not their consequences, but their value.


  10. Woolsey Biggins


    Your mentioning of a Sage during torture makes me consider a nuanced position on some preferred indifferents. Stoicism suggests that a Sage should be virtuous and still have eudamonia when being tortured. However, I think t would be consistent with Stoic doctrine to propose that there can be a circumstance when a normally preferred indifferent is a vital component to being virtuous and having eudamonia. The tenants of stoicism are built on reason. If someone has so much pain, illness, or hunger that it physiologically is impossible to reason, then that person can’t really practice any stoic virtues. So I think food, shelter and abscence of pain to the extent your ability to reason is not impaired are fundamentals and not just preferred indifferents.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo Post author


    I agree, except for a qualification: minimal food and not extreme pain are necessary. More food is a preferred indifferent, and so is shelter (look at the Cynics). And one can get through life and be virtuous with occasional sharp pains as well as with low level chronic pain. Not preferred, but not fundamental either.


  12. synred

    I don’t think my wife would agree about chronic pain. Chronic pain makes it very difficult to function.

    I doubt many people with sever chronic pain would agree that it not fundamental. Doctors tend to vastly under treat it and politicians is are even worse.


  13. Massimo Post author


    Yes, severe chronic pain can definitely get in the way of a virtuous life. But a lot of chronic pain is not severe and can be managed. It’s not a good thing, but not crippling.


  14. synred

    SG, there a degrees in all things, but unless very mild I object to chronic pain being classified an ‘indifferent’.

    NO BS about meditation…

    Not that Margaret would care what ;stoics’ with existential angst call it…she knows…


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