Yesterday we read this:
All things in nature flourish after their own fashion. Different things need different circumstances and conditions in order to flourish. The specific ways in which something grows and behaves constitute its “nature”. This being so, it is usually fairly easy to see whether anything is appropriate or inappropriate for something:
— It’s appropriate to put the cat out for the night, but inappropriate to put the baby out for the night.
— The substances we use to “feed” plants are not appropriate for feeding to animals or humans.
— Polar bears will not survive in the tropics, and elephants will manage poorly on mountain ledges.
Like everything else in the natural world, human beings have been constituted by universal nature to have their own specific and particular nature.
(Seddon, Stoic Serenity p.58)
So when we’re talking about “human nature,” we’re essentially talking about the concept of something that “came about” as a result of the natural order of the Universe, which requires us to adhere to it in order to fully flourish.
Based on this, we’re beginning to see how some of the indifferents might be pretty useful to have. Virtue (self-restraint, justice, courage, wisdom) might be the only thing that’s intrinsically good, no matter the context. Yes, theoretically I can emerge from an apocalypse with all my Virtue still with me. But if we’re going to go about our daily lives, well, I’m not going to get very far if I don’t pursue food in order to live another day. So you can see that there is a connection between human nature and the preferred indifferents.
Most of the items in Maslow’s Hierarchy would be considered “preferred indifferents” in Stoicism—they aren’t intrinsically good, but they’re useful for living. The pinnacle, however, is where it seems that Stoicism tends to spend its focus.
I might be straying way off here, but I couldn’t help but think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Take a moment to look at the pyramid on the left. If you’re not familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, basically at the base of the pyramid are the most basic essential things in order to sustain life. As you move up the pyramid, we travel from sustaining life to flourishing (self-actualization). I would venture to say that Stoicism considers basically everything below the pinnacle to be a “preferred indifferent,” while the pinnacle itself is what Stoicism sets our focus to working on and developing.
(The difference that I see is that Maslow maintained that we must fulfill the lowest level before we can move onto the next. And if one level receives a blow, it will consequently make it harder to maintain the level above it. The Stoics, however, maintained that self-actualization lies within yourself, regardless of what happens. You have the power to choose whether your inner capacities are harmed by external events.)
Seddon says that we need these preferred indifferents, at least to some extent. “Some prisoners of war held by the Japanese in the Second World War survived, to be sure, but they most certainly did not fully flourish.”
Just as it’s appropriate for an elephant to seek a mud bath when it’s hot, to seek social contact within its family group, or to procreate, so it is appropriate for humans to seek a basic supply of food, drink, and shelter, seek human contact, maintain relationships with family and friends, and maintain good health. It’s appropriate according to our human nature to pursue these things.
Most humans pursue what is appropriate (or beneficial to our state of flourishing), although some humans pursue things that are inappropriate (for example, individuals who are addicted to drugs). At the same time, some people pursue what is appropriate, but they pursue it in an inappropriate fashion (without Virtue), such as criminals/thieves stealing in order to pursue wealth.
What Sets Humans Apart?
So does that mean that to live “according to Nature,” all we must do is pursue these preferred indifferents? No, because to simply pursue these preferred indifferents without regard to our reasoning capacities would place us on the same level as animals. When Seneca wrote to Lucilius about the human gift of foresight, he mentioned how we abuse it because we use it to anticipate and worry about the future. So how does a human use foresight well, if it’s a gift? As we seek Virtue, and preferred indifferents along the way, we use foresight to arrive at each step along the path and consider, “Is this wise to pursue? Am I acting with Virtue? What will be the results if I act in this manner?”
Below is an excerpt from Seneca’s Letter 76:
But humans are strong! And so is the lion.
What quality is best in a human? Reason: with this he surpasses the animals and is surpassed only by the Gods. Therefore, a human’s unique and exclusive good is reason; the rest of his qualities he shares with plants and animals.
But humans are strong! So is the lion.
But humans are beautiful! So is the peacock.
But humans are fast! So is the horse.
I’m not saying that humans are surpassed in all these qualities. I’m not looking to find the most dominant or developed quality in humans, but only the quality that is unique to humans.
But humans have bodies! So do trees.
But humans have the power to act and move at will! So do animals and worms.
But humans have voices! Yes, and consider how much louder is the voice of the dog, how much more shrill is the voice of the eagle, how much deeper is the voice of the bull, how much sweeter and more melodious is the voice of the nightingale!
So what quality is unique to humans? Reason. When a person has developed their reasoning capacity to perfection, that makes the full sum of human happiness. Therefore, if everything, when it has perfected its own good, is praiseworthy and has reached the end of its own nature, and if man’s exclusive good is reason and he has perfected this good, then he is praiseworthy and has attained the end of his nature. This perfect reason is called Virtue, and can be equated with that which is honorable.
(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 76.9-10 “On Learning Wisdom in Old Age”)
It seems that Seneca is getting at the fact everything in nature should strive to develop its capacities fully in order to flourish. Humans, however, have a unique capacity called “reasoning,” and therefore we should give it special care. It should be our top priority to develop, because it’s exclusive to humans. And when we have fully and perfectly developed our unique ability of reason, we have accomplished what humans are meant to do. We have attained Virtue.
We do best when we fulfill our natural function.
Chicken’s aren’t meant for laying golden eggs. Humans aren’t meant for living without using reason.
No one should revel in anything except that which is his own. We praise the vine if it grows many shoots, if the weight of its fruit bend the very poles holding it to the ground. But would anyone prefer a vine from which hang golden grapes and golden leaves? A vine’s unique virtue is its fertility. And so we should praise the qualities that are unique to humans. What does it matter if a man has a household attended by handsome staff, or a beautiful house, a large farm, and a large income? None of these things is the man himself; they are all on the outside. We should praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away; that is, the quality that is exclusive to the man. Do you ask what quality this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For a human is a reasoning animal. Therefore, a human’s highest good is attained if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth. And what does this reason demand of him? It demands the easiest thing in the world,—to live in accordance with his own nature. But this is turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind. We push one another into Vice. And how can a man be called back to salvation when he has no one to hold him back, and all mankind is urging him on? Farewell.
(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 41 “On the God Within Us” [last paragraph])
Seddon says that because humans have reason, we can be morally good or bad, and we can pursue interests and projects in ways that are beyond the capabilities of animals. Seneca and the Stoics saw reason as what set humans apart from the rest of the animal world. “[Reason] is indeed, supremely special. The extent to which we perfect our reason is the extent to which we approach closer to becoming fully human.”
The extent to which we perfect our reason is the extent to which we approach closer to becoming fully human.
“Working out” does not equal good character. Indifferents must be pursued with Reason, or Virtue.
How do I pursue the “preferred indifferents”? With Reason.
It’s not enough for us to pursue the preferred indifferents blindly. Just because being physically fit is beneficial to our overall wellbeing doesn’t mean that pursuing physical fitness is in itself a good thing. A person might go to the gym five days a week, but that fact alone does not determine his character. And clearly we can see how pursuing physical fitness does not mean he is a “good person” if his motive for working out is to eventually get fit enough to rob a bank. The key to pursuing indifferents is that they must be pursued with the crown glory of humans—Reason, and therefore with Virtue.