Epictetus: ancient philosophy and the question of hope.

A Classical account I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a small fragment of the Roman philosopher Epictetus. Preserved only as a few lines of text, this ancient philosophical musing reads like much of the worldly wisdom we are offered today.

Οὔτε ναῦν ἐξ ἑνὸς ἀγκυρίου οὔτε βίον ἐκ μιᾶς ἐλπίδος ἁρμοστέον.

We ought neither to secure our ship to a single anchor, nor our life to a single hope.

Epictetus, Frag.30 (89).

Epictetus is making a simple point with these words, likely written in the early 2nd century AD. (Epictetus lived c.50 AD – 135 AD.) It’s the ancient equivalent of the idiom ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Epictetus sees a world where hopes are continuously dashed. A world where there is no certainty, no lasting stability. To live out a good life, Epictetus teaches, don’t fix your hopes on one thing.

A Radical Alternative

Epictetus was writing at a time when the first Christians were establishing some of the earliest church communities, and the Gospel was starting to spread throughout the Empire and beyond. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher, teaching a worldview that had roots in the ancient world stretching back hundreds of years. Yet the first Christian communities began sharing a new message. Rather than the hopeless impermanence of the pagan philosophies of the day, the Early Church offered a message of eternal security.

At the heart of their message was a Jewish man named Jesus Christ, whom they claimed was the Son of God Himself. And it was in Him, and Him alone, that the early Christians placed their hope.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The offer of this Son of God was eternal life, for whoever should believe in Him alone. And this is a claim made by Jesus Himself, recorded just a little later in John’s Gospel.

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6

Epictetus looked out at an uncertain world and called for a sceptical approach, one matched by our modern world. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t hope and trust in one thing alone. Be flexible, it’s all relative. The first Christians countered that with a living hope. And it equipped them to step out in boldness and live out their faith in a hostile Roman Empire.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

1 Peter 1:3

Because their hope was so secure, it gave them confidence for this life and the next. Theirs was a living hope. Not a fragile anchor, or merely another fleeting hope in a long list of disappointments. The hope of the Early Church was in Christ alone, a true and living hope, a sure and certain hope.

That Living Hope Today

Some 1800 years later, this hope remains. In Christ alone can true human hope be found. All other sources of hope and security will disappoint us, all others will let us down. Our hopes will be dashed if they are continually misplaced. But in Christ alone, our hope is in the sovereign and all-powerful Creator God. And if our God is for us, who can be against us?

I write this brief reflection on a day when America counts the ballots from their Presidential Election, and tensions are running high. I write this on a day when the British Parliament votes on implementing a national lockdown for a month from tomorrow, to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.

So many people, myself included, are tempted to hope in our governments and our democracies. We hope for change, for improvement, for victory. We hope for better, for our side to triumph, for our interests to be recognised. But we shouldn’t listen to Epictetus, casting our hopes onto anything and everything that we can. We should anchor our hope in the one sure and certain truth. We should anchor our hope in the eternal security of Christ alone.

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ Alone, v.1 Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.