Stoic Heresy: Aristo and the Indifferents


Within Stoicism, one would be hard pressed to find an issue more confusing to and confused by the newcomer or average person than preferred and dispreferred indifferents (Gr: προηγμένα and ἀπροηγμένα ).  The indifferents (Gr: ἀδιάφορα) are all things which do not have a moral quality.  Since a good or evil must by Chrysippus’ definition affect happiness, anything which is not clearly virtue or vice is indifferent.

The common misconception, however, is of a more Platonist or Peripatetic bent.  Indeed, you’ll see many moderns state that mere proclivity is the test, and a serpentine sense of hedonism slips into Stoic virtue.  This is , of course, a wrong interpretation.  However, the charge that preferred indifferents brings in a weakening of virtue is not a new one.  I’m alleging that folks are misinterpreting the doctrine, however, others alleged (to Zeno as it were) that in fact that was the case from the get go.

“Ariston the Bald, of Chios, who was also called the Siren, declared the end of action to be a life of perfect indifference to everything which is neither virtue nor vice ; recognizing no distinction whatever in things indifferent, but treating them all alike.”

— Diogenes Laeritus, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VII, Chapter 2

Aristo of Chios studied under the Academy and the Stoa, he was a contemporary of Zeno, and his Stoicism and a decidedly Cynic bent (although this is a criticism levied against Zeno as well).  He disavowed the value of logic and physics in philosophy (the modern atheist Stoics might be able to hop on board there, I’d disagree), and he also claimed the doctrine of preferred and dispreferred indifferents was inappropriate, and harkened back to the Cynics’ stance that only virtue is a good, and all indifferents are equally indifferent.  I’m more sympathetic to this position than I used to be.

“Aristo of Chios denied that health and everything similar to it is a preferred indifferent. For to call it a preferred indifferent is equivalent to judging it a good, and different practically in name alone. For without exception things indifferent as between virtue and vice have no difference at all, nor are some of them preferred by nature while others are dispreferred, but in the face of the different circumstances of the occasions, neither those said to be preferred prove to be unconditionally preferred, nor are those said to be dispreferred of necessity dispreferred. For if healthy men had to serve a tyrant and be destroyed for this reason, while the sick had to be released from the service and, therewith also, from destruction, the wise man would rather choose sickness in this circumstance than health.”

— Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, 11. 64-7.

Aristo eventually had his own school, but was relegated to the sidelines of history as Zeno’s doctrines were accepted as the Stoic position.  However, despite that, this position has continued to come up as a minority position in Stoic thought since then.

The “Stoic Heresy” of Aristo just refuses to die.

As we saw this week in Seneca’s letter on virtue, as soon a we begin categorizing goods and indifferents (preferred) we begin to make some indifferents like goods, and include them where they rightly ought not to be.

The misconception of the doctrien of preferred indifferents allows for an environment in which self-delusion is easy.  That’s a dangerous position.  Now, maybe a Sage could prefer some indifferent things to others:  but Sages we ain’t.

Indeed, the actions and projects of the prokoptontes are necessarily very different than that of the Sage, who requires no more training since she has attained that which we are seeking.

Even then, Aristo would say that the Sage is unaffected by preference in the matter of indifferents.  The more and more I chew over this position, the more I’m sure it has serious merit and more importantly serious consequences for modern practicing Stoics.

2 thoughts on “Stoic Heresy: Aristo and the Indifferents

  1. It seems clear to me that things like health and wealth occupy an intermediate place between virtue and things like the choice of a new hat. To classify health and ‘hat choice’ both as indifferent would miss a lot of important distinctions like how necessary health is to practising virtue. (It is said that Zeno committed suicide when he was too sick to practise virtue). So although preferred indifferent sounds paradoxical, it does capture the importance of some things that are not, strictly speaking, virtuous.

  2. Self-delusion is, indeed, the big worry here. The idea of preferred and dispreferred indifferents was supposed to deflect the charge that by seeking things that are not inherently good we demonstrate that we are insane (or, at least, that our philosophy is inconsistent.) A strict, categorical line between “good” and “indifferent” is the best way to avoid self-delusion, IMHO. The things we seek that are indifferent can be subsumed in the domain of duty — and, if they cannot, they might not ought to be sought in the first place.

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