Not Indifferent to Indifferents …

Moving on “Star Trek and Philosophy”, the next essay is called “Death and Rebirth of a Vulcan Mind” by Walter Robinson, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, and the essay focuses a lot on that, wrapped around a fictional narrative by someone who is trying to become a Vulcan, and expressing the purported Vulcan ideals. I don’t want to talk much about that, but instead want to pull out one part of it because of its relation to Stoicism, both as a common complaint about it and as something that my preferred Stoicism — that of Seneca — avoids:

A Vulcan … would not read for entertainment, or do anything that failed to serve the need for self-improvement.

This is, of course, a pretty harsh requirement, and one that someone like me could simply not fulfill. I enjoy reading too much. But Stoicism is often seen as being just as harsh in service to virtue, denying the indifferents value and so seemingly discouraging people from seeking pleasure, love and everything that is not virtue. And this does seem to be a theme in at least Greek Stoicism. But it isn’t a Stoicism I support, and not one that I think Seneca supported either.

Seneca reports that he was charged with being an inconsistent Stoic because he was rich and enjoyed the comforts of wealth. Seneca’s reply was essentially that there was nothing wrong with having and enjoying indifferents like wealth as long as one didn’t acquire them viciously. Since, he claimed, no one could demonstrate that he did that there was no inconsistency. To me, this emphasizes something that I have indeed stood on in my Stoicism, and something that does appeal to me about Stoicism: it is just as irrational to treat indifferents as vices as it is to treat them as virtues. Indifferents are just that: indifferent. They have no true moral value, but that doesn’t mean that they have no value. As they include your own life, they certainly have pragmatic value, but the key is to not let pragmatic value overwhelm moral value. This is one of my major criticisms of Utilitarian-type moral systems, that they make virtues of pragmatic values and thus make them indistinguishable, which is almost certainly false.

So while it is wrong to elevate the indifferents to the level of or above the level of virtues, it is just as wrong to avoid them as if they were vices or worse than vices. The only reason to avoid indifferents is if in pursuing them you lose control and it hurts your pursuit of virtue. Other than that, feel free to indulge in them. There is nothing wrong with wanting them or in satisfying those wants.

Some may argue that any time or resources spent in pursuing indifferents could be better spent pursuing virtue, and so they must always be avoided on that basis (this ties into the quote that talks about not serving the need for self-improvement). But for the Stoics, all you are doing is trying to live the life you’re in as rationally as you can. Self-improvement is improving yourself, and part of that is knowing when indifferents interfere and when they don’t. Unless you want to argue that one can never indulge in an indifferent without it impeding virtue, it is clear that one can indeed satisfy indifferents without impacting virtue … and can even satisfy them virtuously while avoiding vice just as one can satisfy them viciously. Thus, again, the Stoic wise man knows how to get the indifferents they seek without sacrificing virtue to them, and self-improvement, then, must be bent towards that end as well. Simply eliminating all indifferents is nothing more than giving up on this aspect and, therefore, never learning to do it. This sort of improvement, then, cannot be a waste.


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