George Washington was an external stoic because he was raging internally. This was a recurring undercurrent throughout Joseph Ellis’s biography of Washington. There were constant references to his aloofness. One phrase that really stuck out as an odd thing to say about a person is that he was comfortable with uncomfortable silences. This was said a couple of times in various ways. Have you ever known one of those people who just hates those long silences and simply must fill them up with chatter no matter how inane or nonsensical? Washington wasn’t one of those people.
But the question is why. Ellis doesn’t really try to explain why until near the end of the book. There he points to a published eulogy where the speaker was reminiscing on seeing a mass of powerful emotions behind the famous controlled exterior. He was famous for being aloof, and he frequently referred to striving for self-mastery. On the surface it would be very easy to say that Washington was simply an introvert, but that’s clearly not the case. I think Ellis has gotten it right in that Washington was internally a raging inferno of passions that he sought his entire life to master and bring under self-control. He became obsessed with control, driving his estate managers insane and his tailors to madness. So he seemed to have swung too far in the other direction, from unrestrained passion to overly restrained stoicism.
This got me to thinking about two different passages of scripture. The first was the list of the fruits of the sprit where self-control makes the cut. The second was in Hebrews 4.15 where Jesus is tempted in every way as we are but without sinning. So Washington wasn’t crazy to seek to control his emotions, especially if they were as strenuous as it appears. This self-control (self-mastery Washington would call it) is not a bad thing to seek after, however it seems pretty clear that Washington is not a balanced model for us.
This is where the second passage came into the picture because Jesus was a man of strong passions. Jesus was no stoic, he was not trudging through Israel with a grim face and a stiff upper lip betraying no emotion. No, we see Jesus in a holy anger turning the money changers table, we see Jesus weeping over the hard heartedness of Jerusalem, we see Him in the garden sweating blood and pleading with His Father in a kind of terror over the horror to come, we see Jesus with righteous indignation rebuking the Pharisees for their erroneous leadership of the sheep of Israel. But that last phrase in Hebrews 4.15 is the key. He did all this without sin.
What Washington failed to show us, only Jesus can. It is possible to have strong emotions but to have them without completely subduing and controling them and to use them without sin. Only the perfect Savior could show us this, and this is one more way that we need to behold Christ in order to become like Him.
PS - Ellis also argues that only a person like Washington was suited to play the pivotal role that he did in winning a very difficult and gut-wrenching war and in the very difficult second term of his presidency he was well served.