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STOIC POETRY | indifferentia

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

I met a new word today... A very interesting word, to be sure. This new vocabulary for me is indifferentia. I found this word while reading the thirty-first epistle of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, which is a letter the philosopher wrote to his friend Lucilius. The title of this letter is "On Siren Songs" and it opens with a caution to Lucilius not to be led astray by things of the world which are neither good nor bad. In particular, Seneca cautions Lucilius against wanting the things which those who love (or hate) him would wish for him, even those things which the gods might desire for him, as these things are not really good (or bad) things at all, but are part of the vast assemblage of objects, events, and circumstance in life to which we should have little to no concern. They are part of the indifferentia. What follows is the section of text which had me thinking:

In short, you will be a wise man, if you stop up your ears; nor is it enough to close them with wax; you need a denser stopple than that which they say Ulysses used for his comrades. The song which he feared was alluring, but came not from every side; the song, however, which you have to fear, echoes round you not from a single headland, but from every quarter of the world. Sail, therefore, not past one region which you mistrust because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass. What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, - trust in oneself. But this cannot be attained, unless one has learned to despise toil and to reckon it among the things which are neither good nor bad. For it is not possible that a single thing should be bad at one time and good at another, at times light and to be endured, and at times a cause of dread. Work is not a good. Then what is a good? I say, the scorning of work. That is why I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose. But when, on the other hand, a man is struggling towards honorable things, in proportion as he applies himself more and more, and allows himself less and less to be beaten or to halt, I shall recommend his conduct and shout my encouragement, saying: "By so much you are better! Rise, draw a fresh breath, and surmount that hill, if possible, at a single spurt!"

In particular, Seneca states that "Work is not a good", and that the happy life cannot be attained until "one has learned to despise toil."

What would it mean to "despise toil"? How is work part of the indifferentia?

I expect the key is the fact that whatever is good is always good, and never bad. And since work can be at times good, - as when our labor brings about the securing of necessary shelter for ourselves and our family, - and other times bad, - as when excess work drives us to an early grave, - it is therefore something about which we should be indifferent; not that we do not engage in or appreciate work, but insofar as our well-being, our balance and equanimity can be upset or impacted by work; to that extent, work is firmly part and parcel of the indifferentia.


My name is Kurt Bell.

You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.

Be safe... But not too safe

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