Autarkeia: Recovering a Philosophy of Enough


E. Glenn Hinson


Read this as an unabashed plea for you to recover a crucial element of your heritage embodied in the Greek word autarkeia. I use the Greek because it takes more than one English word to translate it accurately. Autarkeia means "sufficiency," "contentment," or "enough." Lest you think I'm overlooking millions and millions of people in the world who don't have enough, I hasten to give a fuller definition of autarkeia. As the Apostle Paul used it, it entails detachment from externals because of a discovery of a sufficient Internal, the Living Christ, who will lead us to a new relationship and sense of responsibility for the whole creation. In the poetic imagery of Thomas Kelly, "[God] plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment. And [God] hurls the world into our hearts, where we and [God] together carry it in infinitely tender love."1



For Paul, as for his contemporaries, autarkeia implies first a certain amount of detachment or freedom from things. Aristotle, as a matter of fact, defined autarkeia as "freedom from all things" or "to have need of nothing or no one."2 As he used the word, we might call it "self-sufficiency." The Stoics frequently equated it with the word apatheia, which meant not even to desire. They believed that desire conditions our human attitudes toward things. Wanting paves the way to needing.

These ideas undoubtedly influenced Paul, too, but, shaped by Jewish and Christian perspectives, he would have made some important qualifications and gone well beyond either Aristotle or the Stoics. He certainly would not have subscribed to the widespread dualism of his day that regarded matter as evil and spirit alone as good. Like a woman giving birth to a child, the whole creation awaits redemption (Rom. 8:19). Everything God created is good and is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:3-4). The central issue is how we use what God has put at our disposal.

Paul used the adjective of autarkeia in paying his favorite saints, the Philippians, a sort of backhanded thank you.

I was greatly cheered in the Lord that you at last thought about me again. Well, it isn't that you didn't think about me. It's that you didn't have opportunity [to do something to help]. It is not that I speak out of need, for I have learned in whatever circumstances I am to be content [autarkes], I know both what it means to be in modest circumstances and to be affluent. In any and in all circumstances I have been initiated into what it means to have plenty to eat and to go hungry, to be affluent and to be needy.

(Phil. 4:10-12, my italics)3

Detachment. Paul's personhood and response to his circumstances did not depend on what he possessed or what he had to eat. "In any and in all circumstances," he insisted, he was "content." Neither riches nor poverty, neither plenty nor want had the final say in his well-being.''4


True Sufficiency

Paul knew this attitude would baffle those relatively new Christians in Philippi, even as you and I know it will baffle many people in our culture, a culture obsessed with acquiring and possessing, a culture that measures power and influence in terms of material wealth. He promptly added, "I have strength for all occasions in the one who empowers me" (4:13). You will observe, I am sure, that I have not given the popular translation handed down from the King James Version, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." At the risk of disappointing those who have found much comfort and assurance in the latter version, I would call attention to the context. Paul is saying here that he could cope with whatever he faced in life because he had discovered a true sufficiency in the Risen Christ, Christ united in the resurrection with the living God.

For the Apostle, the Christian life is life "in Christ," a phrase he used 110 times in his letters. To be "in Christ" has two nuances. It means to be in the Church, the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:5), or to be mystically united with the Living Christ. It is Christ indwelling us. "For me to live is Christ," Paul declares (Phil. 1:21). Our being and doing, therefore, do not hinge on our circumstances, but on Christ living within us. I wonder if we cannot discern here the nub of one of Western culture's chief puzzles—unhappiness and discontent despite possessing virtually all the material goods we could wish and then some, the fact that so many have not discovered a true sufficiency, "the one thing needful" or, better stated, "the One who is needful" (Luke 10:42). Quite to the contrary, Americans, blessed with almost unlimited availability of goods, seem to have slipped into the deceptive trap that caught old King Midas. Our thinking runs, "Possessions mean security and happiness. The more possessions I have, the greater my security and the more complete my happiness." What we discover, often too late, is that acquiring and amassing more and more only whets the appetite for more. It does not satisfy a deep, mysterious craving. What craving? The one a psalmist pointed to: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1, NRSV). Or Augustine, saturated with the Psalms: "You arouse [us] to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."5

Have you ever noticed what I would call "the Christmas syndrome"? At Christmastime, a family gathers before break of day around a tree ornamented, tinseled, and brightly lighted. Presents spill out under and beyond the tree and sprawl across the room. Each child creates a mound of gifts, ripping them open one by one. A train in this package, a doll in that one, a block set in a third, a game in a fourth, a sweater in a fifth, a cap in a sixth, and on and on. About daylight they stretch and yawn. "Dad, Mom, we're bored. What can we do?" A vast segment of American culture suffers from "the Christmas syndrome." The more we have, the more we want. The more we want, the farther we get from the One who is needful. The farther we get from the One who has implanted this homing instinct in us, the more dissatisfied and discontented we feel.

The more we have, the more we want.

A culture dominated by a market economy, which is what ours is today, adds to our dilemma. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out years ago in Economics and the Public Purpose, the American economy no longer operates on the principle of supply and demand.6 Instead, corporations manufacture a product, decide how much profit they want to make from it, and proceed to market it. Successful marketing means advertising to convince the public that they need this product and just can't do without it. Advertisers put what we have learned from study of human psychology to effective use to convince us. The net effect, Thomas Merton has observed, is that we function out of "artificial and contrived needs" and become "bio-physical" links between machines or objects "through which pass the products" of this civilization.7

Let us be honest and recognize that even earnest resolutions made at New Year's, however commendable, will not suffice to get us out of this trap. Every time my family and I have lived abroad—in England, Italy, Israel—we have returned to the United States avowing that we would not let ourselves become ensnared by the "conspicuous consumption" and wanton waste that characterize this culture. Invariably, within six months, the culture had again woven its cords around us and we found ourselves caught like flies in a spider's web. If we are to live "autarkic" lives, the Christ in us will have to mold and shape our thinking in ways we too seldom permit to happen. As we may paraphrase Paul's preface to the hymn in Philippians 2:6—11, "Think what you think in Christ Jesus" namely, "Think the way the Living Christ is thinking in you." Paul has put it another way in Romans 12:2 (in a Hinson paraphrase): "Do not be fitted into the mold of this age. But rather be transformed by a recycling of your understanding so that you may have a sense of what is God's will, what is good and acceptable to God and contributes to God's ultimate purpose."


The “Autarkic” Christian

In this significant exhortation to Christians in Rome, Paul is laying out his understanding of what I would call the "autarkic" Christian life. This is a life not captive to its culture because it is transformed by the Living Christ, the Holy Spirit, God immanent, so that the first concern is God's will—what is good, acceptable to God, and contributes to a loving God's desires for the whole creation.

The positive face of autarkeia shows up in Paul's pursuit of one of his most urgent projects, a relief offering for the saints in Jerusalem during a severe famine. The Jerusalem crowd did not look favorably on Paul's mission to the Gentiles or on Paul himself. He must have spent much time pondering how he might dampen the animus they had toward Gentiles and get them to change their attitude toward the mission. A substantial gift from churches composed especially of Gentile converts looked to him like a convincing argument for the legitimacy of the mission. "If these people give generously," the Jewish Christians would have to admit, "they might be genuine believers after all." So the Apostle pulled out all the stops in the churches he founded.

In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul resorted to a little gentle ecclesiastical arm twisting. The churches of Macedonia (notably Philippi) had given unstintingly to the Jerusalem Fund despite their "severe suffering" and "deep poverty" (8:2). They gave not only within but beyond their means (8:3), begging Paul and his coworkers to let them share in this ministry to the saints (8:4). They first gave themselves to Christ and then they gave to the fund (8:5). A year before, the Corinthians also had pledged generous support (8:10) and Paul had bragged in Macedonia about the fact that Achaia (notably Corinth) was ready to contribute. Now Paul was calling on the Corinthians to fulfill their commitment, trusting that they would not disappoint or embarrass him (8:11-12). So Paul was sending Titus and another coworker as his advance men, lest, if Macedonians came with him, they find his boasting in vain (8:16-21).

From what Paul says in his letters, we can be fairly sure that the church at Corinth did not have affluent members. In the first few centuries, Christianity's Gentile converts came chiefly from the lower socioeconomic levels, including many slaves. They barely managed. Understandably, therefore, he knew the Corinthians, like the Macedonians, had to give "as they were able and beyond" (2 Cor. 8:3). Here is where autarkeia came into play.

They should know the common adage that sowers reap what they sew, whether sparingly or bountifully (9:6). Each person, therefore, should give "from the heart and not out of pain or compulsion, 'for God loves a cheerful giver.'" Generosity, Paul knew, must come from deep within, from the heart, the center of one's being (9:7-8). It's here that God pulls off miracles of detachment and reattachment.

Now God is able to increase every gift for you, in order that in every circumstance, always, having complete autarkeia [sufficiency, contentment], you may increase for every good deed, just as scripture says,
‘[God] broadcast seed, gave to the poor,
[God's] righteousness abides forever.'
The one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your sowing and increase the fruit of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:8-10)

This is not your conventional success story: I failed in business four times. Then I started tithing, and suddenly I became a multimillionaire. Most people will find that they have ten percent less after they tithed than they did before, and it probably won't make them any more successful. No, Paul is talking about a miracle that God works in the heart. People who had scarcely enough to get by would find, when they heeded Christ as their true sufficiency, that they had more than "enough."

As year 2004 drew to a close, the world witnessed perhaps the most overwhelming natural disaster in recent history.8 An earthquake of 9.0 scale at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, so severe it was detected by seismographs on the opposite side of the globe, resulted in a series of tsunamis. These immense tidal waves claimed a reported 178,000 lives and wreaked nearly total destruction wherever they zoomed. Tragic happenings like this defy explanation and stagger human imagination. If contemplated in macrocosmic terms, they can completely overwhelm us and lead us to throw up our hands in despair: "What can I do that would matter? What can anyone do? Everything we do will be but a drop in the ocean."

In such circumstances, one should wish not to make trite and superficial observations about faith, but I know no conditions in which we may find faith more severely tried. Here we must ask whether we can find in ourselves the wherewithal not only to go on but also to make a meaningful response. In his effort to rally the Macedonians and the Corinthians to bring relief to starving Palestinians, Paul underscored a critical point: Do not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need and the minuteness of your ability to help. Little efforts matter, not in themselves but in the fact that God joins us, the Christ joins us with him and with one another in such endeavors. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor for your sake in order that you may become rich in his poverty" (2 Cor. 8:9). Thence, says Paul, act in the confidence that this vulnerable God "is able to increase every gift for you" and "to supply and multiply the fruits of your righteousness" (9:8, 10).

Because of our confidence that God is at work arranging things together for good through the living Christ (Rom. 8:28), like Christians in early centuries we dare to throw up our little straws of compassion and caring into the wind. Grounded in One who is "beyond in the midst of our lives," we act out of a realistic and relentless hopefulness which neither wars nor tsunamis nor earthquakes nor floods nor other challenges of enormous magnitude can quench. Though to many contemporaries such actions may seem woefully inadequate, we will persevere. Living in Christ, "enough" becomes "enough and to spare."



From “Autarkeia: Recovering a Philosophy of Enough” by E. Glenn Hinson. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, November/December 2005, Vol. 20, No. 6. Copyright © 2005 by The Upper Room.

Photography by Bonnie Kittle / Unsplash

1 Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Row, 1941), 47.

2 Aristotle, Politics 7.5. See also Gerhard Kittel, "Autarkeia, autarkes." in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. I, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans, and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 466-67.

3 All Scripture references are my own translation unless otherwise indicated.

4 To be sure, people could live in such dire reed that they could think of nothing but getting a crust of bread to assuage the gnawing pains in their stomachs. Though we do not live by bread alone, we do need bread.

5 Augustine, Confessions I.I; The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday/Image Books, i960), 43.

6 John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973), especially 1x9—31.

7Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday/Image Books, 1966), 76.

8 China lost 260,000 in a similar natural disaster in 1976. Humans, of course, have surpassed nature in their savagery. Sixty million died in World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone resulted in more than 150,000 deaths.