Out of Indifference

by Ada Bronowski

Indifference is an attitude first theorised as a philosophical stance by ancient Greek Stoic philosophers from the 3rd century BC. It was conceived as the right attitude to cultivate in reaction to indifferent things. What was surprising were the things the Stoics considered to be indifferent and hence require us to be indifferent to. Not your usual ‘whether the number of hairs on your head is odd or pair’, or the number of billions of stars in the galaxy, or even what colour underwear your boss wears – though in some circumstances, the latter can start becoming titillating. And titillation is of course what it’s all about. It’s the tickle that spurs the Stoic to resist it. Resisting what exactly? Feeling, uncontrolled gratification, heart-melting, giving in, touching, kiss-&-make-up-ing.

The quintessential titillation is pleasure, sensorial or otherwise. The first Greek Stoics, pioneers of austere indifference, doubted there even really was such a thing: ‘pleasure, if it even exists’ reports of them their most stalwart chronicler, Diogenes Laertius[1]. But the more world-wise Romans, whose genius, after all, was to find pleasure in every aspect of everyday life from grooming to the delivery of justice in an orgy of spectacular blood, could not echo such a flat denial. The Roman Stoics we still know of, happen mostly to be from amongst the most prominent, wealthy and powerful figures of their time who could not but make full fruition of the gamut of pleasures life had on offer. It was the Roman Stoics who transformed the Stoic possibly non-existent pleasure into a tickle.

The great Roman Stoic Seneca thus likes to remind us – and perhaps mostly himself: what is pleasure if not a mere tickle, a ‘titillatio’ (as the Latin goes)[2]? By belittling the greatest temptation to Stoic rationalism to a mere ‘titillation’, a Stoic hopes to do two things: firstly to persuade himself there is nothing much to miss (and Seneca, of all Stoics, needed that reminder, one of the wealthiest people in Rome, tutor and erst-while friend and advisor to emperor Nero); secondly – and perhaps more importantly – to proselytise Stoic philosophy by making it appear easy, after all what is a tickle? Anyone can resist a tickle…not so?

If pleasure is but a titillation, that is because it comes in quite low on the scale of indifferents – indifferent things are indifferents in Stoic lingo. There are two kinds of things in the world: the good and the indifferents. Note that the first is singular, the second, plural. For there is only one good. ‘What is it?’ you may well ask – Only: ‘living in a rational way in conformity with the rationality of the world’. Everything else is neither here nor there with respect to that good: it is indifferent to it. Health, beauty, money, friendship… you name it, they are all indifferents, because none of these things consist of pure rationality. One may object that they can help you get closer to it. But the same things can help and hinder, lull you into states of false satisfaction that any minor cataclysm of nature, of the stock-market, of a love gone sour can ruin in the blink of an eye. Problems should start here, that is in deciding which amongst the indifferents helps or hinders to behave in a purely rational way in a given circumstance. But most of us, say the Stoics, do not even realise that that is the problem. Most of us, they say, take the indifferents to be the goals of life. And who could blame us?  Stoic indifferents are all the things you would think make the world go round, and certainly get most of us out of bed every morning. But the more provocative the theory, the higher the stakes and greater the rewards. Stoic philosophy is the ultimate philosophy of cool.

How could your health and bodily well-being be indifferent to you? A famous anecdote tells of how the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived in the late first century and who was a slave in his youth, was being tortured by his master: ‘Watch out or you’ll break my leg’ he said, calmly. Irritated by such matter-of-factness, the master persisted. ‘There it goes. See. What did I tell you?’, comments Epictetus with a detachment that turned this episode into the epitome of Stoic cool. It is Epictetus, (the writings and the idea of the man), who accompanied, as he claimed, an American naval officer who spent more than seven years in captivity, undergoing various forms of torture during the Vietnam war. Vice admiral James B. Stockdale spoke and published years later (in 1993) a text entitled Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. He recounts how his experience drove him to put into practice Stoic principles of indifference, distinguishing between what depends on us and what does not, what we can control and what we cannot. If you get overwhelmed by frustration and pain, it is because you do not detach yourself from what you cannot control.

Once you see how it might be possible to detach yourself from your own body’s suffering, the floodgates are open: what else could possibly matter? what are possessions, the consideration of other people, what is friendship? Nothing in themselves, and anyway insignificant as long as they do not directly lead to purely rational behaviour.

Stockdale is a hero and as for Epictetus, at the very least, a giant in the history of philosophy, and a wonderful creator of impactful imagery. But what of the rest of us? Though it is a privilege that we may slowly be running out of, that of not finding ourselves in critical situations of calamity and suffering, we still do not usually get the opportunity to test our inner Epictetus. It is hard to be a hero but it is harder still to get the chance to try. The Stoics were not proselytising to heroes, their philosophy is for everyone: it is a coolness for everyday life and everyday people. What kind of an ideal is this?

A famous painting by the American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967), from his later years – the years in which his iconic portrayal of stark loneliness gives way to that of the definitive impossibility of mutual communication – Excursion into Philosophy, (pictured above),  is a depiction of what a philosophical ideal can do to the life of a flesh and blood human being, or at least one of oil and canvas. The focal point of the painting is a book, splayed open on a bed, half in the shadow. In her diary, the painter’s painter wife Jo Hopper noted it was supposed to be ‘Plato re-read too late’. Beside the book sits a man making a strange face as if contemplating nothing and not succeeding in even being afraid. He seems to all intents and purposes a premonitory rendering of the glamourous French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy. But, anachronism apart, Hopper’s man is not a philosopher – he is not even The Thinker whose introspective pose he is far too aloof and not-engaged to get close to. But, well-dressed – despite the white socks – grey-haired with his white shirt open on his chest, he is caught in the process of willing total detachment. His right foot, inching tentatively into the light iterates a shy movement towards an ideal. The woman lying behind him, with her deep chestnut hair that should have been, in another time in another painting, so alluring has been ejected out of the sphere of interest.  She is naked from the waist downwards, but instead of being a temptation, there is something grotesque in the way the beginning of her nudity mirrors the open book. There isn’t a tickle in sight.

If Jo Hopper’s reference to Plato has given material for commentators to reflect on light and shadow in the painting as figurations of truth and illusion in echoes to Plato’s allegory of the cave, the painter’s own more universal title, Excursion into Philosophy draws attention to a subtler and pernicious undercurrent that belongs more generally to the world of philosophy and that most philosophers wilfully ignore. That there is a huge price to pay for lucidity, that is, seeing things for what they really are, and seeing that they are nothing, really.

The painting of course, is not an allegory of philosophy or the philosopher, the emphasis is on the excursion (the foot edging into the light). And so the depiction, harsh and alienating as it is, is of the process, the move away from the love of things, of the world, and towards a promised realm where this sacrifice will appear as nugatory.

What the Stoics brought to this view of the bleak path to philosophy is the rationalisation of an attitude which can be imitated and emulated if you cannot fully live its inner force. You can at least look Stoic even if you are not really one yet. The ‘excursion’ to keep to Hopper’s terminology, takes on the patina of a gothic drama through which the protagonists pass through the story, with brooding looks, untouched by the woes around them, howbeit darkened by all they have to suffer. That is, you can act like a hero without doing anything heroic. Seneca is a good example once more, though as all exemplary figures in Stoicism, the action surpasses the everyday. For Seneca commits suicide, coolly and calmy, in his bath as if he were in total control of his situation. Committing suicide like that was a great career move, certainly, which guaranteed Stoic coolness for eternity to this rather dubious figure who swayed all his life between opportunism and self-flagellating perspicacity. Had he truly reached indifference to indifferent external goods? The way Tacitus describes his last hours, the answer is clearly not at all. Seneca was hoping to the last just to be exiled by Nero, instead he got a note asking him to kill himself.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, the Stoics would urge us to know that the value of everything is precisely nothing. But even if we agree or pretend to agree, what then? Is the ideal to walk through our lives like would-be heroes? Perhaps what would be more interesting is to reverse the scale not of value but of the prices themselves, to pay an exorbitant price for very small things: a pat on the back, eye contact, the chance to apologise… the things that absolutely won’t lead to purely rational behaviour. The things that are the opposite of cool.

[1] Diogenes Laertius, Life of the Eminent Philosophers, book 7.86.

[2] Seneca, Letters to to Lucillius, 92.6