This post might only appeal to those of you who know that Stoicism has enjoyed a little bit of a revival in interest among evangelical Christians in the last few years. It seems that John Calvin had some choice words for the old Greek philosophers in book three of his Institutes. Under the heading “The Christian, unlike the Stoic, gives expression to his pain and sorrow,” he wrote:
This struggle which believers when they strive for patience and moderation maintain against the natural feeling of sorrow is fittingly described by Paul in these words: ‘We are pressed in every way but not rendered anxious; we are afflicted but not left destitute; we endure persecution but in it are not deserted; we are cast down but do not perish’ [2 Cor. 4:8-9]. You see that patiently to bear the cross is not to be utterly stupefied and to be deprived of all feeling of pain.
It is not as the Stoics of old foolishly described ‘the great-souled man’: one who, having cast off all human qualities, was affected equally by adversity and prosperity, by sad times and happy ones—nay, who like a stone was not affected at all. And what did this sublime wisdom profit them? They painted a likeness of forbearance that has never been found among men and can never be realized. Rather, while they want to possess a forbearance too exact and precise, they have banished its power from human life.
Now, among the Christians there are also new Stoics, who count it depraved not only to groan and weep but also to be sad and care ridden. These paradoxes proceed, for the most part, from idle men who, exercising themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing but invent such paradoxes for us.
Yet we have nothing to do with this iron philosophy which our Lord and Master has condemned not only by his word, but by his example. For he groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes. And he taught his disciples in the same way: ‘the world,’ he says, ‘will rejoices; but you will be sorrowful and will weep’ [John 16:20]. And that no one might turn it into a vice, he openly proclaimed, “blessed are those who mourn’ [Matt. 5:4].
No wonder! For if all weeping is condemned, what shall we judge concerning the Lord himself, from whose body tears of blood trickled down [Luke 22:44]? If all fear is branded as unbelief, how shall we account for that dread with which, we read, he was heavily stricken [Matt 26:31; Mark 14:33]? If all sadness displeases, how will it please us that he confesses his soul ‘sorrowful even to death’ [Matt. 26:38]”
So, whatever other insights the Stoics might have, we have an example of Godly emotion in, well, Jesus himself. If God in human flesh showed real emotion, then that is the measure of true and mature humanity, and not, as Calvin says, some “iron philosophy.”