Stoicism, Cold and Warm Streams

Matthew Sharpe
Jan 5 · 9 min read
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Photo by Cam Adams on Unsplash

Readers who have gone through some university courses over the last decades may be familiar with the sense of an imbalance between solely critical theorizing, and positive visions of how we might create a better world.

But ‘deconstruction’, in the technical or wider sense, is never by itself creative. It is at best the prequel to needed constructive change. At worst, it can feed the streams of knowing cynicism too prominent in today’s world, on all sides, as well as the alienation which characterizes so much of public life.

It was not always so. The history of ideas affords many traditions of thought, like Stoicism, which offer expanded visions of what we are and what we can be. Such philosophies are two- or many-sided.

They enable us to criticize the world as we find it, and the bad actions of our leaders, our institutions, even our colleagues and ourselves. But they also describe for us, and give reasoned understandings of, what human beings can be at our best. They provide reasons for hope and striving, as well as despair and nihilism.

In the 20th century, one of the more remarkable and often-forgotten thinkers, Ernst Bloch, used a memorable metaphor to describe the need to balance critical and analytic thinking, identifying avoidable injustices, and our shared need for positive visions of what we might strive for.

Bloch maintained that any complete philosophy, read truly, will be like a river. It will have a “cold stream”: the more critical, harder side, which appeals to our intellects. But it will also have a “warm stream”: its vision of the good life, a better world, which appeals to our hearts and wills.

A philosophy which is only cold will eventually “freeze” all positive impulses; just as a philosophy which is always and only warm, never critical, will end up being naïve. Each alone will be unable to help us reconstruct our fractured world.

I raise this metaphor from Bloch in a piece about Stoicism, as it is one that I’ve come over the last twelve months to use again and again with students, when I am teaching the philosophy. (Bloch also wrote about Stoicism in his book on Natural Law and Human Dignity).

The Cold Stream of Stoicism

Too often, the image of Stoicism people bring into the classroom, hailing from popular culture, is very partial. It singles out (parts of) what I call the cold stream of Stoicism. It paints this ancient philosophy in shades of grey; as an austere teaching in self-reliance and self-denial.

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Photo by Valentin B. Kremer on Unsplash

Readers will be familiar with this ‘cold stream Stoicism’. What does it teach us? That we must patiently forbear others’ follies, and bear misfortune “with ne’er a ‘plaint”. We must realize how little in the world depends upon us, and how much of what happens is wholly beyond our control.

We should practice disappointment, like Diogenes begging hopelessly before a stone statue, lowering our expectations of ‘what the world can do for us’.

Instead, we must focus only on what we can control: our thoughts, our impulses, our desires, and as such, our words and our actions.

Only then will be become happier, because we will have become tougher — more, indeed, like the statues Diogenes prostrated himself before. (The other image I always think of is that of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic tune, “I am a rock, I am an island.” As the song mournfully closes: “and a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”)

But human beings are not things of stone and wood.

From the Cold to the Warm Stream of Stoicism

Such a cold stream vision of Stoicism has been retailed (and wholesaled) by its critics as far back as classical antiquity. Stoicism kills joy, whilst claiming to secure it. It preaches ‘indifference’, even coldness, towards the sufferings of others.

It saves us from painful, negative emotions by robbing us of all emotions. However, the price is too high. Some emotions are necessary parts of a full life. What would a life without love be, after all? And could a person closed to all grief and joy for loved ones be a good parent, a good partner, a good husband or wife, a good son, or daughter, or friend?

Today, such a partial, cold stream Stoicism is being adopted by voices in the ‘manosphere’ and ‘alt-Right’. These figures, in triumphal tones, confuse Stoicism’s emphasis on self-cultivation with the rationalization of uncaring, even hateful attitudes towards women or to people with different ethnicities or sexual identities than their own.

But Stoicism is neither a philosophy of hatred, nor of parochialism. Like other great philosophies, it has different sides which should ideally inform and balance each other. And there is also the warm stream.

We should not forget, when we read Epictetus’ harsher tones, that there is also the music of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which breathes humility and denounces all hatred as unphilosophical. We likewise should not pass over Seneca’s On the Happy Life because we can also read and take guidance from the sterner lessons of a text like On Constancy.

The warm stream of Stoicism is about connection, not disconnection. It is about transcending egoism, not fortifying it. It is about cosmopolitanism, not partisanship, let alone parochialism or jingoism.

‘Warm stream Stoicism’ asks us to cultivate clemency and generosity towards others. For virtue is difficult for everyone, not just ourselves. The ideas which flow into the warm stream span continents and bind us to our fellows, rather than creating islands of solitary exile.

The Warm Stream in Cicero

Arguably the locus classicus of this warm stream is Cicero’s Cato’s account of Stoicism in De Finibus (On Moral Ends), book III. Here we start not with our individual choices, as (rightly) in Epictetus’ practical guide to the Stoic life, the Encheiridion. Instead, in the context of a far-ranging philosophical discussion, Cato sets up Stoicism’s ‘big picture’ account of the development of individual animals, and then human beings, within the larger Whole of Nature.

All individuals, all species, he tells us, are adapted to their place within this Whole (this is the Stoic idea of oikeiosis). Even the natural, selfish desire to preserve and promote oneself which we see on such naked display amongst toddlers (“it’s mine! No, it’s not; it’s mine! …”) is here seen as not “against nature”.

This self-concern is instead the precondition in humans for the later development of reason (from age 14, the Stoics maintained). And with reason comes the capacity to question the sufficiency of egoism for social beings like us.

Reason or Logos, too, when it develops, is not only a cold, analytic instrument of dividing things, serving our will to dominate or ‘set ourselves apart’. A small part of the divine Logos shaping the Whole, it allows us to see the natures of different things, and how they are interconnected.

It allows us for the first time to see how each thing and person, like we ourselves, has its own limited place in the larger order which sustains it, and to which it contributes — the taxis of society, for humans, but ultimately, of Nature herself.

In Cato’s ‘warm stream’ vision, then, no individual is an island, or a rock. Furthermore, affection and love for others is anything but absent from this philosophy, despite ‘cold stream’ representations of Stoicism. These things turn out to be absolutely basic.

The Stoics, Cato explains, recognized that none of us could even achieve the ‘age of reason’ except on the basis of the affection and assistance of others. We are rational beings, truly. But not being gods, we are dependent rational beings. Here is what Cato tells his friends:

Again, it is held by the Stoics to be important to understand that nature creates in parents an affection for their children; and parental affection is the source to which we trace the origin of the association of the human race in communities … it could not be consistent that nature should at once intend offspring to be born and make no provision for that offspring when born to be loved and cherished. Even in the lower animals nature’s operation can be clearly discerned; when we observe the labour that they spend on bearing and rearing their young, we seem to be listening to the actual voice of nature.

He continues:

Hence as it is manifest that it is natural for us to shrink from pain, so it is clear that we derive from nature herself the impulse to love those to whom we have given birth. From this impulse is developed the sense of mutual attraction which unites human beings as such; this also is bestowed by nature. The mere fact of their common humanity requires that one man should feel another man to be akin to him … (Cicero, De Finibus, III 19 62, trans. C. Yonge)

There is nothing ‘cold’ about this passage, at least as I read it. We are parts of nature; nature has bestowed upon us capacities and propensities for affection and connection. The love of parents, in particular, is hard-wired into the human animal, as into other higher animals. And it is on its basis that we can recognize and develop what we share with others, in our families, in our communities, and in the wider community of human beings.

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The intersecting, nesting circles of human concern, according to the Stoic account of oikeiosis. Public domain image.

The Warm Stream and Cosmopolitanism

Socrates and Diogenes, when questioned, are already said to have claimed that they were ‘citizens of the world [cosmos]’. The Stoics’ warm stream takes up this ‘cosmopolitanism’, as we can see clearly in many meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

If and only if we could find peoples in which there is no parental affection for offspring, no sense of the sacred duty to look after infants and the innocent, could we ever speak of a fundamental divide between peoples, Stoicism suggests. But there are no such peoples.

In Marcus Aurelius too, in another manifestation of this warm stream, we find fragment after fragment in which this Emperor, the most powerful man in the Western world, enjoins himself to respond to insults and sycophancy without anger. For anger, as Seneca concurs, is destructive of the natural bonds between people.

Marcus’ warm stream reasoning on this subject is also worth recalling here. Each person aims at the good, as Socrates had upheld. So, even the worst people act badly under the mistaken idea that what they are saying and doing is good. But to err is human, for everyone but the sage.

And besides, even if your critics are wrong about you this time, if you are honest you will recognize that you have many more faults than any critic at any one time is able to single out. So we should try to make criticism an opportunity for learning, not for animosity, however hard this always is.

If the others are wrong about you, after all, why worry? And if they are right, then you do have cause for rethinking and reform.

Given such a ‘warm stream Stoicism’, we share with our fellows not only a common nature and capacities, but also a common fallibility. Only the sage would have the right to look down on others.

Except that as a sage, s/he would feel no need or desire to.

So, next time someone charges Stoicism with being cold and heartless in your earshot, it might be useful is to refer to Bloch’s metaphor of the cold and warm streams in different philosophies.

Stoicism, you might concede, truly has a ‘colder’ side. But it also has a warm stream, which unites the head with the heart, the individual with the community, and the philosopher with the larger whole.

And this too should not be forgotten.

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Matthew Sharpe

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Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Matthew Sharpe

Written by

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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