Author note: we are grateful for this post by guest blogger Jack Boczar. He is a current PhD student in philosophy and has a background in economics and continental philosophy.
A few months ago I was talking with an Anselm scholar and we came to the topic of the Church Fathers. Hearing about these men was intriguing, specifically the way that they did philosophy and theology. The Fathers weren’t interested in esoteric academic work, but wanted to live out their philosophy in a serious manner, and were engaged in moral and rational battle with other competing schools of thought. Philosophy wasn’t a job for them, but their very livelihood.
In my experience very few people have had any sustained engagement with the thinkers, but I am of the view that a ‘return to the Fathers’ is necessary for Christians today. Thankfully, the advent of social media, YouTube, and the internet has made their work much more accessible and more scholars are finding value in the ancient thinerk’s work (See, for instance, Dr. Thomas Matthew). It seems that Studying them will certainly showcase what it means to embody a rigorous Christian paradigm and wrestle with the contrary worldviews of the day.
One Church Father that I think is very peculiar and well worth reading in this respect is Justin Martyr. I’ll spare you the biographical details, as they can be found in his Dialogue With Trypho, and it suffices to say that he is a paradigmatic example of what I mentioned above. As a convert, he wrestled with other philosophical systems and defended the Christian faith. But his conversion is a topic for another time, and here I want to look at Justin’s Second Apology, and his comparison of Socrates and Christ in chapter ten.
Those who have even a cursory knowledge of Socrates know that he was executed and became a sort of martyr for the discipline of philosophy. Dying for the sake of a cause doesn’t quite make Jesus and Scoractes that similar though, and a brief glance at the lives of them reveal some more parallels:
(1) Socrates had a loyal group of followers, and so did Jesus. Though, as Justin says, “For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates…”
(2) Similar to Socrates teaching people how to be virtuous (Cf. Xenophon’s Memorabilia ch. 1 and 4 for a good account), Jesus taught men how to live, and his teachings have been influential ever since, to say the least…
(3) Just as Socrates was engaged in changing the very nature of what it means to be agathos, or a great man, so too was Christ engaged in changing the very nature of what it means to be good.
That last claim is highly technical. In short, some scholars read Socrates from a historical point of view and see one aspect of what he is doing as changing the definition of what it means to be agathos, i.e., the good, noble, great man. So too, was Christ doing the same thing. For the Romans, goodness was not humility, meekness, purity, etc…
Now, Justin draws a similarity between Socrates and the followers of Christ. At the time of writing his Second Apology, Christians were being prosecuted for atheism, because they did not offer sacrifices to the gods of Rome — Justin himself and Athenagoras discuss this in detail in their major works. This accusal is similar to that of Socrates, who was accused of impiety, or introducing new divinities into the culture. Famously, in bk. IX of the Republic, Socrates attacks the poets of antiquity, since the portrayal of the gods in such poems is corrupting to the soul. The poetic gods do not showcase many of the virtues, they cheat, steal, and rape, and for Socrates, teaching these stories to people encourages moral deprivation. Hence, Socrates, by wishing to censor the religious stories of old, was accused of impiety.
Instead of worshiping the gods of the poets, Socrates encouraged his followers to search, using reason, for the ultimate condition for the possibility of reality — The Good. This is beautifully portrayed in the Republic. At 507b-509c, Socrates compares The Good to the sun, and explains that just like the sun illuminating everything with its rays, so too does The Good make possible the very intelligibility of the world. This analogy will be crucial for the work of Christian philosopher Dionysius, as he will use it to explain what it means to give God the divine name of ‘good.’
This idea of the condition for the possibility of something, is called transcendence, and it is extremely hard to grasp in the modern age. We just aren’t used to asking what makes things possible, and applying this question to existence itself. But for the ancients, transcendence was a key component of their thinking, and drove their philosophical investigations to ultimate realities, such as Anaximander’s apeiron, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, and Plato’s Good.
Justin, recognizing that Plato had stumbled upon the first principle of all reality — that which makes it possible for there to even be a reality in the first place, recognized that Plato had come to discover the Christian God. For the Christian God is the one true God, and He is not some kind of anthropomorphic figure, but the very thing that makes all else possible — the grounding of reality. In Justin’s words, “God is not a name, but an opinion implanted in the nature of men of a thing that can hardly be explained” (Second Apology, ch. 6). God is just a name we apply to this ultimate foundation of reality, and since there is only one God, anyone coming to the ultimate principle of reality is thereby coming to God.
An analogy might be helpful. Imagine two miners digging each of them located in two different areas. They both come to discover a beautiful cavern, but since they started in different locations, they discovered the cavern from different angles, even though the cavern is one and the same. Just as there is one true God, any investigation that discovers part of him will reveal some truths. God was revealed to Socrates through the use of reason, and to Justin by revelation after his conversion.
As Justin clearly understood, Socrates taught people to turn their rational faculties toward The Good, and away from the pleasures of the world, for that is where you will find the most fulfillment. And Christ taught all men to turn their hearts toward God, as this is our eternal home. Not only are Socrates and Christ similar, they are compliments — one putting much emphasis on the rational faculties, and the other stressing the importance of the heart. Obviously, this is not all that the two men had to say, but this is quite intriguing because Athens and Jerusalem — the homes of Western philosophy and revelation — have often been portrayed as going hand-in-hand with each other, just as these two figures seem to.
These considerations are helped by Justin’s doctrine of the logos. Influenced heavily by the school of Middle Platonism, as L.W. Barnard points out in his study, Justin argues through Biblical exegesis and philosophical argumentation that Christ is the logos, or the Divine Wisdom, and all men partake in this wisdom through rational activity, (see especially Second Apology chs. 8 & 13 for a shorter treatment). Christ, being the logos, or Divine Wisdom, is implanted in all of us as reason. This enables Justin to conclude that by reasoning to God, Socrates, and other pagans like Aristotle knew Christ before he came to earth.
The Superiority of Christ
While the two figures are similar in many respects, there is an unbridgeable difference between Socrates and Christ, namely that Christ is the logos, that is, the very Wisdom that Socrates was partaking in. Though Socrates was a great man, he was just that — a man. And it was Christ who came to earth and took on all of the frailties of man to become both fully human and fully God – Wisdom personified, and that which Socrates spent his entire life searching for.
The similarities between Christ and Socrates point to an important truth in the Christian tradition. Philosophy and revelation can parallel each other, but it is revelation that transcends philosophy, fulfilling it and enabling philosophers to go beyond the bounds of syllogism, seeing God more clearly. As Aquinas succinctly puts it in the first article of the Summa Theologaie, “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” Fittingly, one may start to understand why Justin says that the doctrines of the Christians “are greater than all human teachings.”
- Justin Martyr, Second Apology
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho
- Athenagoras, A Plea on Behalf of Christians
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologaie Prima Pars, Q1
- Plato, Republic, books V and VI
- Xenophon, Memorabilia, chs. 1 and 4
- L. W. Barnard, The Life and Thought of Justin Martyr, ch. 7