Justin’s Conversion

The much delayed conclusion to my look at Justin Martyr, other posts on Justin can be found here. A planned excursus on the identity of the Old Man has turned out to be more complex than I first thought, so I’m going to make that it’s own and truly final post.

The story of Justin’s conversion is the longest sustained portion of his Dialogue with Trypho. It’s easy to sketch out the details; Justin struggles to find a philosophical teacher that will lead him to God, believes he has found one among the Platonists, but after a chance meeting and dialogue with an old man (more on him later) on a beach, comes to see the inadequacies of Platonic thought and the comparative superiority of Christianity, leading to his conversion and, subsequently, his assumption of the robes and title of philosopher. There’s quite a bit of sophistication running beneath the surface, however, and it’s this sophistication that is a major reason–and certainly the only honorable reason, the others being laziness and distraction–why this post has been so long delayed. There are a lot of different threads to tug on, let’s start tugging.

As mentioned above, Justin’s philosophical journey begins with a desire to know God. It’s not a wholly conventional starting point for philosophical inquiry, though not wholly unprecedented either, but today we certainly don’t think of knowledge of God as the endpoint of philosophy, and it’s clear that not all of the philosophers Justin encounters do either, so it’s worth considering just what nurtured this motivation, which presumably involved a recognition that it was necessary to go beyond cultic practices of traditional Roman religion, which he doesn’t mention in the context of his conversion and only condemns in other parts of his corpus.

Is this indicative of a more widespread dissatisfaction with traditional piety, a sense that it was not a legitimate avenue to the divine? My intuition is, almost certainly. We see in other Christian sources, Athanasius comes especially to mind, a refrain of the failures of pagan oracles and rituals to bring about their promised effects, surely they were referring to some observable phenomenon.

(The pagans themselves seem likewise dissatisfied, see for instance Plutarch on the failures of the oracles or the skepticism (cynicism?) of Cicero.)

Returning to Justin, his journey is also shaped by the conviction that undertaking the search for God requires a teacher. After his dialogue with the Old Man convinces him of the inadequacies of even Platonic thought he exclaims with what seems to be a sort of despair, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’” You cannot, on Justin’s account, go it alone. Coupled with his use of dialogue, and indeed of dialogue within dialogue (as with the encounter with the Old Man) to the narrative of his life as a whole, this gestures towards the philosophical conviction that the habitat of truth is ultimately within interpersonal communication. Whether the truth lies within us slumbering and waiting to be recalled or outside us waiting to be seen, our apprehension of it must be awakened by another. Moreover, it also calls to mind the prohibition so steadfastly enjoined among the earliest monastic communities that progress within the spiritual life required careful submission to a mentor, and the most despicable sort of monk was the one who presumed to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Even Antony learned at the feet of another hermit.

I’ll suggest also that we should read Justin’s progress through the varieties of ancient philosophies as a sort of philosophical ascent, mapping on (at least vaguely) to Plato’s cave.

He begins with a Stoic:

I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God, for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary.

Dissatisfied, Justin abandons Stoicism, but the next philosopher he goes to, a peripatetic:

And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all.

Is the apathy of the Stoic worse than the venality of the Peripatetic? Apparently so. If we take the Stoic to be the furthest from divine truth, he seems guilty of merely trading in appearances, not concerned with the real at all but with form alone (and for what reason? simply for forms sake). The Peripatetics’s greed is at least greed for something, the Stoic only cares about making sure the shadows on the cave wall are the proper shape.

This characterization calls to mind Chesterton on the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius in particular, from Orthodoxy,

Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion…Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it.

Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World”

Surely the expert on Stoicism will disagree, and we should also point out that it was a Stoic judge under a Stoic emperor (himself baffled by the obstinacy of the Christians in the face of death, the very obstinacy Justin praises as the surest sign of their virtue) that sentenced Justin to die. Nevertheless, there is a sort of decayed bloodlessness to stoicism, when and where it gains currency is no accident.

After the venal Peripatetic, Justin turns to the Pythagoreans, who he claims seem to possess wisdom, but require him to engage in a lengthy program of learning before they will teach him. Daunted and discouraged, Justin is turned away because he hasn’t studied music, astronomy, or geometry. The Pythagoreans error, therefore, is an all-to-common conflation of erudition with wisdom, believing the latter to be a product only of the former. This, of course, mistakes the very nature of wisdom and the means of obtaining which is not, as the Pythagorean believes, the possession of an ever-growing profusion of facts, but love, the intoxicating love of truth of that so bewitched Socrates in the Symposium (quote?)(and remember that, for Justin, Socrates is our Socrates, a Christian before Christ). Mistaking knowledge for wisdom, the Pythagorean thus attempts philosophy without philos.

(Also, Justin is impatient, “I deemed the man had some knowledge; but reflecting again on the space of time during which I would have to linger over those branches of learning, I was not able to endure longer procrastination.”)

Appropriately, then, Justin finally approaches the Platonists, and here he seems to make real progress:

and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings,* so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

In eager anticipation of finally encountering God, he travels to, “a certain field not far from the sea,” where he encounters a strange old man. With the Old Man, Justin engages in a philosophical dialogue, beginning in simple wonder that another had come to this field, but quickly turning to how the Platonists are able to know and speak of God.

Justin replies that it must be through a certain faculty of the soul, and the Old Man takes this assertion as a jumping off point to examine the Platonic idea of the soul and through that examination demonstrating its inadequacy. But if the Platonists are wrong about the nature of the soul, then how can they claim to know its faculties? How can they claim that this soul, which they do not understand, allows them knowledge of God?

(I’m reminded of Augustine’s Platonic ascent to God in Book VII of the Confessions, note that the final transcendence here is only brought about by God’s condescension to Augustine. He ascends, yes, but it is God’s voice reaching downward that bridges the immeasurable distance between them.)

Justin is reduced to near despair by the latest, and notably first obviously intellectual, failing of his chosen philosophy, raising the lament I quoted above, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’”

As a solution the Old Man offers up the prophets:

There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them

(my emphasis)

Unlike the Platonists (though, recall from earlier that Justin did believe Socrates and Plato to have been inspired by God), these men were the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, specially chosen by Him, rather than rising on their own intellectual merits, men of true authority.

The Old Man’s description reminded me of another piece I read recently, Kierkegaard’s On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle. Two quotes to give you the sense, the same, I believe, that we find in Justin:

Genius is appreciated purely aesthetically, according to the measure of its content, and its specific weight ; an Apostle is what he is through having divine authority. Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. It is not by evaluating the content of the doctrine aesthetically or intellectually that I should or could reach the result : ergo , the man who proclaimed the doctrine was called by a revelation : ergo, he is an Apostle. The very reverse is the case: the man who is called by a revelation and to whom a doctrine is entrusted, argues from the fact that it is a revelation, from his authority. (70)

Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 70

When Christ says, ‘ There is an eternal life ’ ; and when a theological student says, ‘There is an eternal life:’ both say the same thing, and there is no more deduction, development, profundity, or thoughtfulness in the first expression than in the second; both statements are, judged aesthetically, equally good. And yet there is an eternal qualitative difference between them! Christ, as God-Man, is in possession of the specific quality of authority which eternity can never mediate, just as in all eternity Christ can never be put on the same level as essential human equality. Christ taught, therefore, with authority.

Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 78-9

Thus the roots of Justin’s near constant appeal to the prophets is grounded in his conversion and his conversion grounded in the prophets as authorities. Thus, also, why the martyrs are so important, for they too have authority, the freedom with which they give their lives a lived and divine sign.

Back to Justin, upon the conclusion of the Old Man’s speech:

straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.

Note the fire was kindled not for abstract knowledge or metaphysical truth but a love of other men, and, behind them, the God-man, Christ. It is this love that rightfully bestows upon Justin the title of philosopher, lover of wisdom as lover of logos incarnate, and thus enable him to achieve the happy life he had been seeking all along.

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