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.

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr.

If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.

Justin lived and died in the second century, and was a hugely influential figure in the history of the church in Rome, just a generation or two after the teachings and imprisonment of Paul in the city.

Manuscripts that either describe Justin or record his writings, always give him the epithets ‘martyr’ or ‘philosopher’. This sums up what the man is best known for; as leader of a ‘school-church’ in Rome he was a philosopher, theologian and thinker, but in his death under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, we see the martyr.

Justin was born in AD 100, to a pagan family in the city of Flavia Neapolis. He was well educated, but describes in his own writings how he found the philosophies of the world to be hollow, unsatisfying, and inconclusive.

He tells readers in his Dialogue that he tried first the Stoic school of philosophy, then the Peripatetic, the Pythagorean and finally the Platonic. Having settled on Platonic thought, he waited for the revelation of God that was sure to come.

I supposed that I had become wise…I expected soon to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

Having chased down all these philosophers, Justin settled on the one that made the most sense, gave him the best answers. And he waited for this school of thought to make everything add up.

Whilst he waited, Justin came upon an old man, possibly a Christian from ancient Syria, who began to talk to him about God. Quite literally, this man shared the Gospel with Justin. He soon saw that the only philosophy or school of thought that contained any truth was the truth that pointed to Christ. Justin tells us that as he looked at the prophets and preachers of the Christian faith, he saw real life in their words.

A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

After travelling around telling people about this truth he had learnt, he came to Rome, where he settled in the city, and begun to teach Christian doctrine. He continued a life of academic debate, philosophical conversations and scholarly discussion. It was this that got him killed. Having engaged in a dispute with the cynic philosopher Crescens, his opponent denounced him to the authorities and Justin, alongside six companions, faced the Roman courts. The Urban Prefect, a high ranking Roman official in the city, heard the case, and sentenced them to death.

It was in this trial, facing death, that Justin gave the answer quoted at the top of this post. As Justin faced his accusers and the charges were read out, he replied “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”

Justin knew the truth that Paul teached in Philippians 1.

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed.

Philippians 1:21, 23b.

Life was good, academic debate and philosophical musings were all well and good, but far better is to be with Christ. There is nothing that can be done to a Christian, good or bad, that can separate the Christian from the love of God, and from our promised eternity with Him.

Justin was beheaded in the 160s and although the exact date is unknown, what is sure is that his confidence was in Christ, his heart and mind won to the Gospel, and his life and death a testament to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Justin Martyr has a lot to teach us. A man who sacrificed his life for the Gospel. A man who gave up his background, his worldview, his sinful identity to assume the identity of Christ. And someone who shared that with those he met. Justin presents us with a challenge, a life of sharing the Gospel, whether that is in academic debate or the chat in the pub, or the work break catch up. The Gospel is convincing, the Gospel is true, and the Gospel is there to be shared by the Christian. Even to the end.