Justin’s Old Man

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 a 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 than 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

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.

Preview of my Kalamazoo paper

 

Next Thursday, I’ll be presenting at the International Medieval Congress on “Creation and Conversion in Northern Europe.”  The general idea is that creation featured heavily in both medieval missionary preaching and in the conception of what those missionaries were accomplishing.  The subject was first suggested to me by a reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.  Creation, God as Creator, nature miracles, they cropped up all over the place, particularly in connection with missionary work, and I began to wonder why.

It wasn’t the easiest subject to study, far harder than I assumed when I first proposed the paper.  Turns out, medieval authors weren’t particularly interested in laying out an explicit theology of conversion, nor were they forthcoming about what missionaries actually said to their audiences.  Nevertheless, I believe I’ve found some interesting stuff, with a lot of potential for further investigation, though I’m not sure how interested I am in pursuing that potential going forward.  The general idea of the various permutations of conceptions of creation in the Middle Ages (and earlier? later?), absolutely, but perhaps not in the realm of the missionary project.

My contention is that there is a coherent theological outlook that lay behind Carolingian/Anglo-Saxon (perhaps also the Irish) missionary work, one deeply linked to an understanding of creation and described well by Romano Guardini here:

These churches in their turn carried forward the blessed work, sanctifying space itself by spreading cemeteries, chapels and wayside crosses over the land.  The very land became hallowed by the presence of the Church at large.  Each church building itself through the supernatural rite of consecration symbolized and enfolded the whole of Creation.  Every part of a church building from the direction of its main axis to its most minute appointments was invested with a divine meaning which fused the cosmic picture of the world with the course of sacred history into a symbolic whole.

Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 20

I argue that what Guardini describes in the landscape was consciously occurring everywhere, from within the minds of monks in their cells to amidst the pagans of the Saxon wilderness.

That’s the basic idea, come get some specifics next Thursday at 10am in Kalamazoo.