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What Is Good? What Is Bad? What Is Indifferent?

This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what Stoic philosophy considers to be good, what it considers to be bad, and what it considers to be indifferent.

Definitions of Good and Bad

The Stoic view is that the only true good in life is virtue. Virtue comes in four forms: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance. The virtuous person will therefore act according to all of these.

The only true bad in life, therefore, is the corruption of virtue, otherwise known as vice. The contrasting vices for each virtue then are Foolishness, Cowardice, Injustice, and Intemperance.

Definition of Indifferents

Virtue being good and vice being bad, everything else falls into the category of indifferents.

The Stoics held that indifferents are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. This is because they do not themselves provide benefit or harm since they can be used both in a virtuous and vicious manner.

Diogenes Laertius actually outlined two different Stoic meanings to “indifferent”:

1. Things that don’t lead to happiness/misery — you can be happy/miserable without them, but use of them in certain ways contributes to happiness/misery.

2. Things that have no power to stir inclination towards/against.

The Use of Indifferents

Some examples of indifferents are:

  • Wealth vs poverty
  • Pain vs pleasure
  • Health vs illness

Neither thing is going to make us virtuous or vicious. They can play a role, however, depending on how they are used. This is why it is wrong to assume we shouldn’t care about indifferents at all.

The Stoics introduced the distinction between preferred indifferents and rejected indifferents. We can prefer wealth, we can reject poverty, but none of them are going to make us necessarily virtuous and so they do have positive or negative value.

It is important to remember that the virtues are not a withdrawal from the indifferents. They have to do with how we use, and arrange, and prioritize the indifferents. In other words, the virtuous use of indifferents is good, while the vicious use of indifferents is bad.

Stoic Indifferent

What the Stoics Said

About good:

This may be taught quickly and in a few words. Virtue is the only good, or at least there is no good without virtue; virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part. And what will this virtue be? True and steadfast judgment. From this will spring the impulses of the mind; by this, every external appearance that stirs such an impulse will be reduced to transparency.

Seneca, Letters 71.32

If virtue promises good fortune, peace of mind, and happiness, certainly also the progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these things.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.4.3

About bad:

There is no evil that does not offer inducements. Avarice promises money; luxury, a varied assortment of pleasures; ambition, a purple robe and applause, and the influence which results from applause, and all that influence can do. Vices tempt you by the rewards which they offer; but in the life of which I speak, you must live without being paid.

Seneca, Letters 69.4-5

About indifferents:

Things themselves are indifferent; but the use of them is not indifferent.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.5

To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.16

Some things nature is indifferent to; if it privileged one over the other it would hardly have created both. And if we want to follow nature, to be of one mind with it, we need to share its indifference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.1

Practical Reminders

The above definitions help us understand what is truly good, what is truly bad, and what the different categories of indifferents are, but how can we use this information in our everyday lives?

The practical application of good and is fairly obvious:

  • We should be guided in our thoughts and actions by the four Stoic virtues. 

As is the application of bad:

  • We should refrain from thoughts and actions that corrupt the Stoic virtues. So, at all times we should seek to invoke Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance.

The application of indifferents is perhaps less obvious:

  • A common misinterpretation is that because something is an indifferent, we should withdraw from it completely. This notion actually goes against Stoic principles.
  • Stoic Wisdom enables us to apply reason and determine the value of indifferents. (As opposed to deeming all indifferents worthless).
  • Stoic virtue then lies in how we use these indifferents. For example, wealth can potentially be used in either a virtuous or vicious way.
  • We should calmly discern the value of the indifferents we encounter (are they preferred or rejected?) and use them in a virtuous way.