Two Handbooks for Life: Marcus Aurelius and John Calvin on Suffering

Sarah White
Monday, February 22nd 2021

Recently I read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for the first time—a bracing read in a weighty and contentious season. Likely written around the 170s, the material later published as Meditations probably wasn’t meant for public consumption. Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161–180 A.D.) kept the journal, a collection of short mental exercises, while leading his armies on the Roman frontiers. The “meditations” are meant to help Marcus live and die well, according to the Stoic view of a good life (one lived in harmony with reason, marked by vigilant moderation of emotion). Many are suitable for an anxious age:

“How much time and effort a man saves by paying no attention to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, and by concentrating on his own behavior to make it holy and just!”[1]
“Remember how long you have procrastinated, and how consistently you have failed to put to good use your suspended sentence from the gods […] Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.” (Ibid, 28)
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” (Ibid, 75)

But the Meditations ultimately fall short for a Christian reader, and this is especially true when Marcus takes up the subject of suffering. For example:

[Harm only consists in] your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad.[2]

Basically, if the human mind is doing its job, then there’s no need for tears in the face of suffering. Just control your reaction, and for all intents and purposes, the pain ceases to be real.

This take reminded me of another little “handbook for life” that takes Stoics like Marcus to task.

What’s come down to us as A Little Book on the Christian Life was first included in the second edition of Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion, which was published in 1539.[3] This section, “On the life of a Christian man,” was separately translated into French and circulated by a Parisian Huguenot named Pierre de la Place in 1540. Almost a decade later, English Reformer Thomas Broke published a version, itself more than a decade before the full Institutes appeared in English. The work, more recently titled the Golden Booklet, enjoyed renewed popularity in Dutch and English translations between the mid-nineteenth century and the modern day. Unlike Marcus’s Meditations, of course, it was meant to be widely read. And though a quick read might pick up on some surface similarities in subject and tone, it actually offers a markedly different approach to the topic of suffering.

The Medicine of the Cross

Right from the start, Calvin disabuses readers of any expectation of an untroubled Christian life:

“For those whom the Lord has chosen and condescended to welcome into fellowship with Him should prepare themselves for a life that is hard, laborious, troubled, and full of many and various kinds of evil.”

We see this just by looking at Christ’s life, which was “nothing other than a kind of perpetual cross. […] Why, then, would we exempt ourselves from the same situation to which Christ our head was subjected[?]”[4]

There’s none of Marcus’s Stoic idea that suffering is located in our perception, not in reality. In fact, suffering connects us to deepest reality: Christians experience trouble and care because they’re part of Christ’s body. Indeed, it would be more worrying if our lives didn’t mirror His in this way. “By virtue of this communion,” Calvin goes on to say, “sufferings […] not only become blessings to us, but they also serve to promote our salvation.”

One reason for “crosses” is that, without them, we would “become too confident in [our] own courage and constancy” (61). When crosses humble believers, that’s actually a victory for us, because we’re forced to trust more deeply in the Lord.

We’re also tested for sanctification’s sake. God wants to ensure that the graces He’s bestowed “don’t lie hidden and idle.” He therefore ordains events which “excite the virtues He has given to believers, so that those virtues don’t […] waste away.” Crosses also teach us “to live according to God’s will” instead of our own. If we got our own way all the time, Calvin goes on to say, we’d be stunted in our understanding of what it means to follow God.

Calvin even calls crosses “medicine” for our flesh—specially prescribed medicine that “uniquely [serves] each believer’s well-being.” “Our heavenly doctor,” he explains, “having purposed to restore all of us to health,” treats some of us with remedies that, to the outside observer, appear harsher or milder. But, regardless of the way it looks to us (or the ways we’re tempted to compare our lot with others’), God is applying precisely the cure each person most needs; and all such “medicine” derives from the same Cross, is applied through the same union with Christ, and anticipates the same ultimate healing in heaven.

Marcus Aurelius likens the practice of philosophy to a surgeon’s instruments; that is, all we need in order to overcome suffering is to get control of our mind through the practice of philosophical meditation. Calvin, though, contends that the suffering is the medicine.[5] If you try to rationalize suffering according to worldly wisdom, then, you might well miss its lesson.

Christ’s Tears and Ours

The most telling contrast between the two writers, though, is the difference in how Calvin invites believers to react to suffering. Calvin makes it clear that suffering involves real “anguish” and “sorrow” which shouldn’t be simply dismissed. In the Christian life, such feelings are “natural.”[6] So even if a believer is bearing the cross God ordained for them, this “doesn’t mean that a person is absolutely stupefied or robbed of every feeling.” In fact, Calvin asserts, ancient Stoics “foolishly idealized such a person—one who, having stripped himself of all humanity, feels the same whether he encounters adversity or prosperity, sorrow or success.” The problem is that such a “portrait of endurance […] has never been found, nor can exist, among men.” The Stoics’ stony portrait of endurance actually “deprived humankind of the power of genuine endurance” (A Little Book, 77). The Stoic approach to suffering—the idealization of the one who remains unflappable whether “stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus,” as Marcus says above —is not only inhuman, it is an impossibility. Human beings aren’t made this way.

Interestingly, Calvin observes that in his day, there were Christian “Stoics” “who think it a vice not only to groan and weep, but even to be sad or upset.” He suggests that these are “generally […] idle men” who “employ themselves more in observation than in action”—people, in other words, who haven’t really had to face suffering but instead enjoy abstracted debates about it. Jesus condemned such when he promised his disciples that “you will weep and lament […] but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20) and preached that those who mourn will be blessed (Matthew 5:4).

Christ’s most compelling argument, however, was His own tears. “For if all tears are condemned,” Calvin urges, “what will we make of our very own Lord, from whose body trickled tears of blood? […] If all sadness should be dismissed, how will we accept that His soul was sorrowful even unto death?” In his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, discussing Jesus’s grief in Gethsemane, Calvin quotes Ambrose:

“I boldly call it sorrow, because I preach the cross. For he took upon him not the appearance, but the reality, of incarnation. It was therefore necessary that he should experience grief, that he might overcome sorrow, and not shut it out; for the praise of fortitude is not bestowed on those who are rather stupefied than pained by wounds.”[7]

With Ambrose, Calvin criticizes this idea of apatheia, or the elimination of emotion. Christ’s own sorrow suggests that “fortitude” doesn’t necessitate shutting out pain; in fact, that’s not real fortitude at all. And if Christ didn’t experience real sorrow—if His humbling was in “appearance” only—then we don’t have the Incarnation or the Cross to overcome our sorrow and to save us.

Christ’s tears, then, are actually a model for believers on their pilgrimage. Turning to Stoic teachings would backfire—they actually “turn a courageous and faithful man into a wooden post,” unable to meaningfully engage life’s battle. In contrast, Scripture “praises the saints for endurance when we, though knocked around by evil circumstances, remain unbroken and undefeated” (A Little Book, 79). It’s possible to possess true joy even when life is bitter, and, “though oppressed by anxiety, [to] breathe freely.” In this view, oppression and freedom exist in a necessary tension with one another, and it’s not necessary to deny the former in order to truly experience the latter.

Another resource which Stoicism lacks is that, for the Christian, suffering isn’t just an inscrutable aspect of life. Through it, God is working justly to bring about greater fruitfulness in our lives, and ultimately, our salvation. So, Christians don’t “hear that frigid song: ‘Yield, for such suffering is necessary’”; rather, in accepting suffering, we’re “assenting to our own good.” However bitter our crosses, Calvin concludes, our souls will “expand […] with spiritual joy” during times like these—giving rise to thanksgiving. No circumstances can stop us from offering such praise to God, meaning that “the bitterness of the cross must be tempered with spiritual joy” (A Little Book, 85).

Calvin doesn’t offer the kind of “reason” for suffering that moderns might seek. There isn’t necessarily a clear answer to “why”—he takes it for granted that we can’t peek into God’s will that way. But we still have an advantage over the Stoic. By embracing suffering as real, we enjoy communion with Christ and know that we’re growing in conformity to Him. Short of that, there’s no real joy to be had.

Like Meditations, A Little Book on the Christian Life was written on a battlefield of sorts, albeit on a religious frontier rather than a military one. Besides providing a gentler approach to the Institutes as a whole, this small work also provides a good check on our assumptions about the role of emotion in the Christian life, which may become unwittingly “Stoic” when considered apart from Christ’s example. If we’re to be prepared “for a life that is hard, laborious, […] and full of many and various kinds of evil,” mental exercises won’t do: we need the real sufferings of One who sorrowed perfectly for us.

Sarah White lives in the Appalachian foothills with her husband and her Basset Hound. She holds degrees from Yale Divinity School and Saint Louis University.

[1] C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks, trans., The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations, 44. This lightly modernized edition is a great popular-level introduction to the work.

[2] Gregory Hays, trans., Meditations: A New Translation, 46.

[3] See Book III, chapters VI-XI of the Institutes or Reformation Trust’s 2017 A Little Book on the Christian Life, translated by Aaron Clay Denlinger and Burk Parsons.

[4] Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, 57–58.

[5] See Institutes, Book III.xiii.

[6] Calvin cites 2 Corinthians 4:8–9: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed[.]”

[7] Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 226–227.

Image: On left, Marcus Aurelius. On right, John Calvin, Dutch: Portret van Johannes Calvijn (1509-1564) , Public Domain {PD-US}

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Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Monday, February 22nd 2021

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