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.

Hoping for better? Elections, Christmas and Augustine.

Image result for christmas election

In the UK we’ve just had a General Election. It’s been our third in five years, and possibly one of the most bitterly fought and divisive campaigns of recent decades.

The result has been clear, and many are not happy with it. Many were hoping for something else, many were hoping for a change of government, or at least a change of leadership.

One of our politicians, the Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson, had this to say as she gave a speech shortly after losing her own seat (and just before resigning as party leader.) “For millions of people in this country, these results will bring dread and dismay, and people are looking for hope.”

People are looking for hope.

Maybe people put their hope in our politicians this election campaign, and maybe millions were left disappointed. But Jo was certainly right about one thing. People are looking for hope.

Now the election is over, as a country our attention turns to Christmas. The somewhat incongruous placement of Santa outfits at polling stations or Christmas trees in TV studios throughout election day was a reminder that this election comes before the biggest holiday celebration of the year.

Christmas is a huge deal, and it has been for centuries. Today, for many, Christmas means gathering the family, getting a week off work, and eating and drinking too much. And Christmas is a season of hope. People wish one another good tidings, they speak of festive cheer, and they hope for so much. They hope they’ll find time to get the Christmas shopping done, they hope they’ll manage to survive the ordeal of the office Christmas party. And perhaps they hope for bigger things. They hope all the family will get on this year. They hope that that elderly or sick relative will be well enough to come. We put a lot of hope into Christmas.

We put a lot of hope in our politicians. We put a lot of hope into our Christmas plans. But it never quite seems to work out.

Politically, millions lost out on their preferred result, and as for Christmas? You never quite get the gift you want, the family always manage to mess something up, and there’s so often that inevitable reminder of someone absent who was celebrating along with you last year.

Hope can be awfully disappointing. Because we so often hope in the wrong things.

Politicians can promise hope for a better Britain, Christmas can spark hope for a happy holiday, but there’s only one hope that never lets us down.

Hope Has a Name.

True hope has a name. That name is Jesus.

Augustine wrote a short work entitled: The Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love. In it, he alluded to the hope that Christians have, and he argued why that hope was true hope. Augustine spoke of “the hope of future good”, a hope that “leads to eternal life.” But why was this true hope and how could one hope in it?

Augustine goes on.

For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves. For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this, that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

Augustine, Handbook, 117.

Here, Augustine links hope with love. But not just any love. Loving right. Loving good. And Augustine knows where true love is found: in God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 

1 John 4:7-8 (NIV)

We can love and we can be loved, because God is love. Love comes from God, it pours out of His very nature. And love, says Augustine, leads to hope. And the great hope of Christians, in the Early Church and today, is Christ.

Because Christ came to Earth out of love. The love of the Father for a broken and lost people. The love of the Father to bring His children home. The love of the Father to save hopeless people, and to fill them with a lasting hope in Himself.

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

John 3:16 (NIV)

God SO loved. That He sent Jesus Christ. He sent His only Son, to live and die in our place. To bear the punishment our sinful lives deserved, and to offer us real and lasting hope. Hope of an eternal life with Him, hope of an eternal love with God’s family. Hope of a Father winning back His children for all eternity.

This Christmas, hope is not found in the family we gather round us, or the social faux pas we avoid. Hope is found in a baby, born 2000 years ago. Hope is found in the God of Augustine. Hope is found in Jesus Christ. Sent because God loved so much, that He couldn’t bear to leave us hopeless.

Put your hope in that. Put your hope in Him.