As interesting and rich as Justin Martyr’s First Apology is, my reference point today is primarily the so-called Second Apology — which may actually be a detached bit of the First Apology or may be a different genre from apology altogether, written in 154.
In this text, Justin espouses the monarchy of God over the entire universe, the rule of humanity over the rest of creation, and the unjust enslavement of humans to the demons. One goal of Christ’s coming is to free humans from the demons.
Part of Justin’s demonic slavery is paganism — especially the poets but also pagan cultus, mythology, and, to some degree, philosophy.
Not being the most plugged-in reader of ancient philosophy, I cannot engage with everything Justin says in the Second Apology about ancient philosophy, and certainly not every time he engages with it, since some of those times will be oblique references and allusions.
Justin views philosophy, I think, as partly tied into the truth but also partly false, depending on the sect. Epicureanism, for example, he condemns at 12.5, whereas his views on Stoicism are mixed, and his appreciation of Socrates borders on that old idea that Socrates was a Christian before Christ.*
The cynical (not necessarily the Cynics) reader of Justin will assume that he speaks well of Stoics because he lives under a Stoic Augustus with two Stoic Caesares — Antoninus Pius and his two adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius; M. Aurelius being one of the most famous Stoic philosophers of all time.
Nevertheless, I think he sees real good in the Stoics, even if imperfect. He disagrees with the Stoic concepts of the whole universe — the god included — resolving into the same essence at the end and fate. The creation is always distinguishable from the Creator for Justin, and human beings have free will:
And this is the nature of everything generate — to be receptive of vice and of virtue. For none of them would be praiseworthy if he did not also have the power to turn either way. (6.6)
Justin approves of Stoicism largely in its ethical terms. He is not alone; the approval of Stoic ethics led some Christians in the fourth century to forge correspondence between Seneca and St Paul; that pagan persecutor of Christians, M. Aurelius, made his way into a calendar of Christian quotations possessed by my parents:
Let thy thoughts run not so much on what thou lackest as on what thou already hast.
This is wisdom, the sophia of philosophia. In other areas, Stoic recommendations for lifestyle remind me of early Christian ascetics, calling for moderation in food and dress, or of Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here), as when Seneca defends his wealth by arguing that it is not wealth itself but slavery to it (see my post Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved?).
How is it that Socrates and the Stoics grasp some of the truth?
This is part of Justin’s famous Logos theology, the spermatikon logikon, the seed of rationality that is in everyone. The Logos is Christ, as John 1 has made clear to Justin. But Logos is not simply some hypostasised word or utterance. Logos is the order and rationality and logic underpinning everything in the universe, holding it all together as part of God (God Himself?) and at God’s behest.
As the rational part of the universe, human beings have the strongest, most conscious vision of the Logos. We have an inborn rationality, given us by God, to be able to arrive at certain conclusions. We all have some grasp of the higher Truth that orders all things. Therefore, pagans — whether Socrates or the Stoics — have access to God and can discover the truly moral and ethical life.
And, for Justin, the moral life is what being a Christian is all about. We put our faith in Christ through our own free will, and then we are able to live holy, moral lives, following his teaching, which, as his First Apology makes clear, is the highest morality of all.
Through this, Christ becomes the hope of the nations and the fulfillment of all religions and philosophies. All truth is His. Through this, we are able to read the pagans — Greek, Roman, Hindu, Zoroastrian — without fear and without surprise when the Truth jumps out at us. Through this, we can find common ground with our friends of other faiths or none, common ground that can hopefully lead to the abundant life promised to all who follow Jesus, both here and hereafter.
*Although, given that Justin denounces ‘sodomy’, his reading of Plato’s Symposium was either very creative or non-existent.