The aim of this essay is to prove the importance of the concept of Stoic indifference. However, to give you the TL;DR of it up front and save those who'd rather spend their time elsewhere: things aren't as important as you think.
Let me start by defining what Stoic indifference is.
A long time ago, a bearded dude by the name of Socrates quizzed a guy about good and evil. It went a little something like this (own translation):
Socrates: Hey, would you consider things like money, skills and talent, and a not shitty environment good things?
Guy: Yeah, I would. Very good things, actually.
Socrates: Okay, but would you say you could still be a good person even if you didn't have these things?
Guy: I suppose so.
Socrates: And if you did have this stuff, you still could be a bad person, right?
Guy: Yeah, of course.
Socrates: So, really, all those things like money and shit itself isn't good or bad, wouldn't you say?
Guy: When you put it that way, I guess so.
Socrates: Hear that? That's the sound of your mind being blown.
What Socrates is saying is that a lot of things, because they don't make us good or bad people, are not themselves good or bad. Take money, for example. Some people claim that it's the root of all evil, as it can afford extravagance. Others would say that money is good, as it can afford more charity. Socrates – and many other philosophers after him – would disagree with both of these views. Money was neither good or bad. It was up to the person who had it.
Guy: I don't get it. If money isn't good, then why do I feel better having it than not?
Socrates: Just because something doesn't make a person good or bad, doesn't mean it isn't nice to have. A house is nicer than not having one, but having one doesn't make you a saint.
Guy: So what makes you good?
Virtue. Now that's a word we don't often talk about today. In fact, come to think of it, having spent the last few years studying Stoicism, I still can't say for sure what virtue is.
We could launch into a long diatribe about what virtues means and explore the roots of the word, all that fun stuff. Or we could use the word “character” and go from there. The two are a little different in meaning, but close enough that I think we could get away with it.
So, back to what makes us good. As Socrates showed, things by themselves don't make us good. There's more to the discussion above, but to save time, he says what makes us good is the cultivation of our inner selves, our characters.
Of course, we can debate nonstop about what we consider good character traits. Do we start with the Seven Heavenly Virtues? Do we make our own list? Is it okay to come up short in others, so long as we also stronger than others? Does vice make us bad or just human? So many questions. But that's philosophy for you.
What's that? You're still not convinced things don't make us good or bad? Okay, fair enough.
Let's say there's this person who has all the best tools to fix any car. This person has the skills, too. But they're lazy, just sitting around doing nothing. They could fix any car, but, fuck, that's hard work. Does having the best skills and tools make this person a good mechanic? No, because without character, all this person has is heavy paperweights.
Now consider someone in the opposite position. They don't have many tools and they aren't the best. They don't have great skill, but a willingness to learn. And this person makes it a goal to fix at least a few cars a day and take notes about what they're doing right and wrong.
Who's the better mechanic?
Yes, having things and having skills can help out in your live. In fact, they can make life a lot easier to handle. But these things are meaningless if you don't use them right. Things are just things. They have to be used to be of any use. Same thing with skills. It's fine and dandy that something doesn't take much effort for you, but you still have to use your skills to get anything out of it.
But if things are indifferent, why bothering striving for anything? Why work for money or a house if neither one is needed?
Good question. And if this was about Cynicism, I'd tell you that they weren't and go live on the street. Maybe find a good barrel somewhere.
But this is Stoicism.
Thankfully, the Stoics understood human nature. It's clear that a house makes (most) people feel better than a barrel. Having money makes (most) peoples' lives easier. For the Stoics, having things was okay. The problem is when we think we need things to be happy. A Stoic would say that, yes, the house is nice, but if it was lost, they still could live a good life.
Remember our talk about virtue? Yeah, see, for Stoics, virtue (or character) was the only thing needed to make a happy and good life. Like the poor mechanic that worked hard, the Stoics felt that virtue could turn any life into one of happiness. Granted, it would take some hardcore philosophy to feel happiness if you lived in, say, a used septic tank. But the Stoics wouldn't recommend that.
Wait a minute! If the Stoics wouldn't recommend that we live in used septic tanks but say that only our virtue makes us happy, doesn't this mean Stoic philosophy is inconsistent?
Chill. Alright? I'm getting to this.
The Stoics used different analogies to better explain their position, but perhaps the easiest one to get is that of the athlete. An athlete that plans on competing will of course do what is needed to improve themselves, but at the end of the day, what matters most is that they competed well, not if they won. So, too, with life. It's fine to improve your life, to get things you think might make your life better. But like the athlete that mistakes winning for everything and so may cheat or just quit, people who mistake things for everything may end up doing the same thing.
Let's recap: things, while nice, aren't needed to make life good. Virtue, or character, is the only thing we need to make our lives happy.