…vs. apathy

What makes a person take action? How do they know what action to take? If you know what it feels like to be torn about making a decision or taking a side, you know ambivalence. If you know what it’s like to give up on making those kinds of decisions, you know apathy. At times, it may seem that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Last week revealed that ambivalence is the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Distinctly different, yet often confused, the word apathy describes a state of being free from those feelings, or perhaps from any feeling at all…

“There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”
― C.G. Jung



“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
― Elie Wiesel


“Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.”
― Helen Keller


Apathy comes from a Greek word apatheia and the Latin word apathīa, both meaning someone who is free from suffering and emotion (“without experience of, impassability, want/lack of sensation”). Many ancient Greek philosophers (i.e. the Stoics) once considered apathy one of the great philosophical virtues. In the 16th century, to have apathy was to suggest a positive quality in a person meaning they were “indifferent to what should excite,” and were able to detach from things they cannot control– a sort of internal peace.

a- (“without, not, lack of”)

pathos (“emotion, passion, suffering, fate”)

Modern contexts and connotations do not suggest that being apathetic is socially acceptable, much less encouraged. If anything, it might be a joke if used as a compliment. Being apathetic is tied to those who let life pass them by… who don’t seem to stand for anything, and let things happen as if they are nothing other than victims of fate. In today’s world, apathy might be a vice rather than a virtue.


apathy [ap-uh-thee]  noun

  1. complete lack of emotion or motivation about a person, activity, or object; lack of interest or enthusiasm
  2. freedom from passion or feeling; insensibility
  3. absence or suppression of passion, emotion, or excitement
  4. lack of interest in or concern for things that others find moving or exciting
Synonyms — lethargy, coolness, indifference, stoicism, depression, disinterest, perfunctoriness, insensible
Antonyms — ardor, fervor, conviction


Remember from last week, the word ambivalence is the combination of ambo- (“both sides”) and valeō (“vigorous, powerful”). By contrast, apathy is far from feeling the frustration of being tossed between two strong, perhaps conflicting, emotions. To feel apathy means you feel nothing– no pull, no frustration, passion, or conviction.
Apathy is often simply the exhausted response to the discomfort, stress, and frustration of ambivalence.
See cognitive dissonance and the concept of flow.

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