Introduction: Stoicism and the Power of Indifference

Indifference is a particularly key word in Stoic philosophy, but before we go too deeply into defining what it is to be indifferent and how to use it, I think it’s worth having a little look at Stoicism from a distance to frame our discussion.

From the markets of Athens to the offices of Silicon Valley, philosophy has tightly woven itself into the story of human history.

From the ideology that’s shaped our cultures to the personal values that guide the behavior of individuals.

From it’s birth in the bustling Agora of Athens, Stoic philosophy was designed to help guide people down a path to happiness, virtue, peace of mind, and a mental resilience to the suffering and hardship we all feel from the outside world.

The Ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, found that the wisdom of Stoicism really did what they said on the tin when applied to day-to-day life. Its effectiveness, combined with the simplicity and ease with which it can be applied to daily life, meant that it quickly became one of the more popular philosophies of the time.

Its echoes can still be heard today in the boardrooms of tech giants and in the daily lives of everyday individuals like you and me.


Because Stoicism addresses a universal human pursuit: the search for a meaningful, resilient, and content life in the face of the unpredictable and often difficult winds of fate.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortue of its strength and burden.”


A Stoic Equation:

Indifference + Rationality = A Good Life

Let’s have a look at what ‘indifference’ really means in the context of Stoic teaching.

Indifference, as a word, can often feel loaded with passive or even dismissive connotations. If we hear that person is ‘indifferent’, it can sound like they’re apathetic or even lazy. It’s not generally a good thing these days.

However, in a Stoic context, the term means something different.

“For Stoics, external things are not good or bad in the strongest sense. They don’t make our souls better or worse, or affect our fulfilment (eudaimonia) in life. What matters ultimately is the use we make of them, good or bad, virtuous or vicious.”

– Donald Robertson

To a Stoic, to be indifferent is not to be uncaring; when done right, it’s simply the wisdom to recognize what is within our control and what is not and the ability to detach our emotional wellbeing from the things we can do nothing about.

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. This is how we learn: by looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole. Keeping in mind that none of them can dictate how we perceive it. They don’t impose themselves on us. They hover before us, unmoving. It is we who generate the judgments – inscribing them on ourselves. And we don’t have to. We could leave the page blank – and if a mark slips through, erase it instantly. Remember how brief is the attentiveness required. And then our lives will end.”

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. XI. 16

To the Stoics, there are so many areas of life that are outside our control. But instead of this reality causing hopelessness and depression, it can be used as a source of liberation.

It means that our path to a happy life is clear.

It’s not about controlling everything around us in an attempt to block out the unpredictability and risks of life (which is not possible); it’s about shifting our focus inwards and developing a state of mind that is stable and durable despite these things.

This idea is where the Stoic concept of indifference intersects with the broader philosophical landscape.

Adorn thyself with simplicity and with indifference towards the things which lie between virtue and vice.

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VII. 31

For the Stoics, external events, be that a crash in the economy, a war, or falling out with a loved one, were ‘indifferent’ when it came to whether or not they were morally good or bad.

They neither added to nor detracted from the intrinsic value of a human being. The true measure of a person was their virtue, or their ability to act with virtue in response to these events.

We can think of it like this: while most people engage in a never-ending scramble to control the uncontrollable and try to force the external world to align with what they want it to be (which is often not possible), the Stoics discovered a different, more rational, path.

They taught that instead of trying to shoehorn the world and make it conform to what you want it to be, we should instead turn our attention inward and work towards developing ourselves into the person we want to be.

Through this practice, we control what we can control and avoid trying to control what we can’t. As a result, we find that we are effective, and we avoid the pitfalls of trying to control the uncontrollable. Pitfalls that often lead to frustration and irritation.

So, through understanding and practicing the art of indifference to the external, we can achieve that much-coveted “eudaimonia”, the Stoic’s word for a good life.

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple


I’d like to end with the following:

We live in a world where our mastery has expanded to include things from splitting the atom to encoding the human genome. We’re more connected than ever before, have access to more information than ever before, and our quality of life, for the most part, has never been better.

However, there is one frontier that has progressed more slowly and perhaps even receded in recent centuries: the mastering of one’s own mind.

Here, the Stoics, in their ancient wisdom, offer us a compass, and a piece of that compass is the application of selective indifference.

Indifference, as we’ve seen, isn’t about neglect or apathy. It’s a way in which we can recognize that the world around us will happen as it happens, regardless of how we want it to behave. And by accepting this reality and detaching our emotions from it, we are able to remain resilient in the face of it’s change.

Instead, we can learn to focus on who we are and how we respond to the world around us. Something that is our responsibility and within our control.

“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.”
Epictetus. Discourses 2.17

In doing so, we become the people we want to be, regardless of our environment, and we become happier as a result, getting closer to the Stoic ideal of eudaimonia.

Further Reading:

For those looking to dive a little deeper into Stoicism, you can find more here at Orion Philosophy or read some of the original texts outlined below:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: A Roman Emperor’s personal journal and reflective notes, offering a window into Stoic philosophy in practice for everyday life.

  • Discourses by Epictetus: A collection of teachings by the former slave turned Stoic philosopher.

  • Letters from a Stoic by Seneca: Letters from one of the richest men in the Roman Empire, discussing Stoic principles with a friend, and their application.

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