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Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr, a second-century "Apologist", was one of the three pro-philosophcial Fathers. His importance lies not so much in his philosophical originality (which wasn't very great) but in his attitude. `Martyr' was not his name. That is, his mother did not call the poor child "Martyr". Nevertheless, he was martyred (sometime between 163 and 167); the term is a title.

Justin wrote two apologiai, that is, two pleas to the Roman Emperor (Antoninus Pius, although the second Apology is addressed to the Roman Senate - see Quasten, Patrology, I, p. 199), for religious toleration. Christians, recall, were not only new and slightly offbeat; they also refused to worship the state gods, and so were suspected of treason and lack of proper Roman patriotism. Besides these two Apologies, and a number of other works that are now lost, Justin wrote a famous Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, his best known work. It is available in translation in several collections of the Church Fathers. We possess most of this dialogue, although the introduction and a big part of Ch. 74 are lost. (Quasten, Patrology, I, p. 202.) It is this dialogue that I want to talk about here.

In the dialogue, Justin relates to a certain Trypho, a Jew, how he was converted to Christianity. The story is no doubt basically true, although it has been arranged and embellished for literary purposes. It goes like this (Chs. 2-8):

Justin was searching for wisdom, for God, as philosophers were wont to do in those days. He felt the "need for salvation". And so he went around to the various philosophical schools to see what they had to offer.

(1) First he tried a Stoic. But the Stoic did not himself believe in God, and thought it was foolishness. Justin decided he was not going to satisfy his soul that way. So,

(2) He went next to a Peripatetic, that is, a follower of Aristotle. But, after a while, "he asked me then to settle on his fee, so that our association should not be profitless to us" (2.2). Hence,

(3) He went to a Pythagorean. But the Pythagorean insisted that he must first learn music (that is, the mathematical theory of harmony, not musical performance), astronomy and geometry before he could get anywhere. But Justin had neither the time nor the inclination to learn all that stuff. So he went away. Note, incidentally, the implicit demand Justin is making here. The way to salvation, the true philosophy, should be open to all, not just to the learned.

(4) Finally, he went to a Platonist. "And I made progress and improved as much as possible every day. I was greatly taken with the thought of incorporeal things, and the contemplation of the Ideas excited my mind. I thought I had become wise in a short time and, in my laziness, I hoped to have a vision of God at once. For that is the goal of Plato's philosophy." (2.6)

Note that last claim well. Note also how it was the Platonists who first got Justin to realize that immaterial things existed. This is a common theme in the early literature. Apparently most people were materialists, and it took some persuasion to get them to believe that immaterial things could exist too.

In any case, having now found what he thought was the true philosophy, Justin retired to the seashore to meditate. There, as he relates to Trypho, he encountered an old man, who turned out to be a Christian, and who engaged him in dispute. Here is a fragment of their conversation:

"Does philosophy then produce happiness?", he said, interrupting.

"It certainly does," I replied, "and it alone."

"What then is philosophy," he said, "and what is its happiness? Tell me, if nothing prevents your telling."

"Philosophy," I said, "is the knowledge of what is and the discovery of truth, while happiness is the prize for that knowledge and that wisdom." [Note the Platonic tone of Justin's remark.]

"Then what do you call God?", he said.

"That which always stays the same, and in the same way, and is the cause of all other things' being. That is God." (3.4-5.)

Note: This is the classic Platonic way to describe a Form - as changeless and immutable. Things in this world, on the other hand, are mutable and impermanent.

The old man then argues with Justin, and convinces him that Platonism is wrong. The main point of contention is the Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence and transmigration of the soul. This feature of Platonism is generally not emphasized very much nowadays, but it is there in Plato, and was apparently an important part of "popular Platonism" in Justin's day.

The old man argues that this doctrine is incoherent. If you are bad, you are punished by being reincarnated as a lower form of life - for instance, as a toad. But what kind of punishment is that, if the toad does not know he is being punished, and why? So too, if you do good, you are rewarded by a vision of the Forms, but then you are promptly stuck back in a body, where you forget the Forms again. Some reward! (Ch. 4.)

Note that the old man is here arguing against a certain popular form of Platonism on purely internal grounds. And he is absolutely right about it! The re-entry of the soul into the prison-body is hardly a good thing - hardly a reward - for Platonism. In this connection, recall what I said earlier about the difficulty of incorporating the Christian hope of a resurrection into a Greek philosophical context. Reincarnation is just as hard, for the same reasons.

The importance of the old man's argument cannot be overemphasized. It is not that the argument is iron-clad. Rather, the point is Justin's realization that, in the framework in which he is working, the Christian doctrine of the soul made better philosophical sense than the best of the Greek philosophies he could find. For Christian doctrine rejected transmigration of souls into higher and lower forms of life.

Where did the old man get these doctrines, Justin asks. From the wise men of old, from the Hebrew prophets, whose prophecies are fulfilled in Christianity. In connection with this last point, there are two different doctrines in Justin, not necessarily compatible with one another:

(a) Whatever was worthy in Greek philosophy they stole from Moses and the prophets. This is an old and common view, going back at least to Philo of Alexandria. Chronologically, it is dubious - to say the least.

(b) All who live "reasonably" are really Christians whether they know it or not, even if they lived before Christ.

In accordance with (b), philosophy is viewed as a kind of revelation to the Greeks (through reason), just as the prophets were a revelation to the Jews. Hence there is a continuity of philosophy with Christianity. Recall the Prologue to John's Gospel: Jesus, the "Word" is the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world (John 1:9). This is a very important text.

There is one further point of Justin's doctrine that deserves mention for future reference: his theory of the soul. Recall the difficulties Platonism had over this question. And recall also Acts 17:18: the Greeks did not understand St. Paul when he taught them about Christ and the resurrection - that is, not just Christ's resurrection but ours too. (St. Paul thinks the former is a proof of the latter.) The doctrine of the resurrection just would not fit into the Greek way of thinking.

In order to avoid the Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence and transmigration of souls, which the old man had shown to be incoherent, Justin feels compelled to say that souls are not immortal by nature. On the contrary, by nature they are corruptible - that is, they can be disintegrated and come apart, they are by nature mortal. And, although I do not find Justin saying so in so many words, it appears that this means that souls are material. Because souls are by nature mortal (and material?), they survive only as long as God wills it. Now in fact God wills them to survive indefinitely; that is, in fact they are immortal. But this is a privilege they do not have automatically, by nature. Souls are immortal by participation, not by nature.

The immateriality and natural immortality of the soul, for which Plato argues, was tied up too closely in Justin's mind with the doctrine of transmigration, which he wanted to avoid. Hence he denied that souls were like that.

There is another reason for thinking that souls are material. Matter is tied up with change. (This is true throughout the Greek tradition.) The immaterial is therefore immutable. But immutability is the prerogative of God alone. Recall Justin's definition of God in response to the old man's question. Hence, mutability, and so apparently materiality, is the mark of a creature.

This is an important doctrine, even if it is not quite explicit yet in Justin. We have here the germ of the theory of universal hylomorphism that will become strong later, and against which Aquinas will argue. According to the doctrine of universal hylomorphism, everything - except God, who is special - is made up of matter and form)

For Justin, therefore, to make human souls naturally immortal and immaterial is to tread dangerously close to polytheism; it is to endow souls with the mark of divinity.


1. For the Greek text, I have used the edition by Georges Archambault, Justin: Dialogue avec Tryphon, which also contains a French translation. The complete text (which is rather on the long side) is translated in The Works Now Extant of S. Justin the Martyr, and in the volume Writings of Saint Justin Martyr in the series "The Fathers of the Church". The most important passages for our purposes are also contained in R. P. C. Hanson's translation, Selections from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest