[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)
“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.