The final part of a series of posts on Justin Martyr.
As the months since I read Justin pass, it’s the enigma of the Old Man that remains most strongly impressed on my memory. I’ve come to think that he is the key point around which both Justin’s biography and bibliography crystallizes. The central pillar in his intellectual and autobiographical landscape. In a sense, as we shall hopefully see, to understand, to know, the Old Man is to attain the endpoint of Justin’s thought.
This all hinges on the identity of this figure, about whom Justin tells us relatively little, or so it seems. We meet the Old Man following Justin as he walks through a secluded field (I insist on imaging it as a beach. I’m not sure why, something about the sea) The man is described as simply old and, “by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners.” Following their conversation, which we don’t even get to hear all of, Justin never sees him again. A chance encounter cues an epiphany.
Yet, I cannot believe this is an ordinary man, some wandering theologian who just happened to stumble on Justin as he contemplated by the sea.
Let’s consider Justin’s disposition at the time of this meeting. He had, recall, been studying Platonic philosophy and been making rapid progress, such that: “I expected forthwith to look upon God…while I was thus disposed, when I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea”
Anticipating the vision of God, therefore, and filled with a great quietness.
In this state, Justin spies a figure following him and turns to look, whereupon the Old Man calls out to him, “Do you know me?” It’s difficult to imagine a more suggestive question given the context here. Think who Justin is most desperately trying to know, to recognize, at this moment (recognition is, of course, a central theme of the Gospels, most concretely at Mark 8:29 and the in interview with Pilate).
More, it’s surely significant that Justin does not speak first. He turns to look at the Old Man, who, feeling Justin’s gaze, calls out to him. I’ll quote what I wrote about Augustine in my previous post:
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.
The dynamic is strikingly similar.
In response to the allusive question of the Old Man, Justin replies that he does not know him, and inquires as to what he is doing there, to which the Man responds:
I am concerned about some of my household. These are gone away from me; and therefore have I come to make personal search for them, if, perhaps, they shall make their appearance somewhere.
The allusion is so strong here, that I’m not sure I have anything to add.
A final hint, at the conclusion of their dialogue, Justin writes that the conversation included, “many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present.” Indeed, perhaps were he to detail them the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.
During their conversation, reinforcing again the point I made in the previous post about true wisdom, i.e. knowledge of God, coming only from an encounter with God as a person, not as an abstract mental principle:
“‘Is not knowledge a term common to different matters? For in arts of all kinds, he who knows any one of them is called a skilful man in the art of generalship, or of ruling, or of healing equally. But in divine and human affairs it is not so. Is there a knowledge which affords understanding of human and divine things, and then a thorough acquaintance with the divinity and the righteousness of them?’ “‘Assuredly,’ I replied. “‘What, then? Is it in the same way we know man and God, as we know music, and arithmetic, and astronomy, or any other similar branch?’ “‘By no means,’ I replied. “‘You have not answered me correctly, then,’ he said; ‘for some [branches of knowledge] come to us by learning, or by some employment, while of others we have knowledge by sight.
If my contention about the identity of the Old Man is correct then this discourse, which remember utterly transforms Justin kindling within him a fire of love for Christ and anointing him a true philosopher, takes on profound significance. It is, in this moment, the act of seeing and hearing God through His condescension to us that we are moved and come to know and love Him.
I’ll end, therefore, with the final words of the Old Man. They seem appropriate.
But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom
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