The stoics, philosophical friends of A Year of War and Peace, are often mischaracterized as cold, emotionless automatons. Indeed, just yesterday, their philosophy was used to illustrate the wisdom of indifference toward those things, even familial relationships, that fall without the individual’s control. That is pretty cold and emotionless. It is, however, an incomplete picture of the stoic approach to indifference. Today, luckily, the continuing Rostov family saga offers us a chance to further explore the nuances of the stoic indifference philosophy, particularly the distinction between preferred indifferents and dispreferred indifferents.
From very early on in our reading we’ve seen how the suffering our characters endure arises from their inability to distinguish between what is in their control and what is not in their control. The stoics would have our characters act virtuously towards the things they can control and treat as indifferent those things they cannot control. But not very much is truly under our control. According to the stoics, our very bodies are not really under our control. So does that mean that we should treat nearly everything with total indifference? Not quite. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
Indifferent things are either ‘preferred’ or ‘dispreferred’. Preferred are health and wealth, friends and family, and pretty much all those things that most people pursue as desirable for leading a flourishing life. Dispreferred are their opposites: sickness and poverty, social exclusion, and pretty much all those things that people seek to avoid as being detrimental for a flourishing life. Thus, the preferred indifferents have value for a Stoic, but not in terms of their being good: they have an instrumental value with respect to their capacities to contribute to a flourishing life as the objects upon which our virtuous actions are directed. The Stoic does not lament their absence, for their presence is not constitutive of eudaimonia. What is good is the virtuous use one makes of such preferred things should they be to hand, but no less good are one’s virtuous dispositions in living as well as one may, even when they are lacking.
In today’s chapter Berg’s insistence on purchasing the chiffonier is an example of a dispreferred indifferent while the Rostov’s decision to help the wounded soldiers is a preferred indifferent.
Both the chiffonier and human life are indifferents because they fall without the individual’s control. It could be argued that Berg’s chiffonier is a preferred indifferent because it contributes to wealth. But Epictetus qualified preferred indifferents by holding that they must “facilitate the pursuit of virtue.” Clearly, that’s not the case here.
Helping the wounded soldiers, however, is a preferred indifferent. It is a preferred indifferent because in so doing the Rostovs are pursuing virtue in behaving in a benevolent and social way. It’s nice to see that Natasha leads the way.
The nature of the Good is a certain Will; the being of the Bad is a certain kind of Will. What then are externals? Materials for the Will, about which the will being conversant shall obtain its own good or evil. How shall it obtain the good? If it does not overvalue the materials; for the opinions about the materials, if the opinions are right, make the Will good: but perverse and distorted opinions make the will bad.