[New lecture, May 17, 2011.  Pp. 27--33 of the Dulles book may be helpful here.]

Though Its Portion Be the Scaffold
The Apologies of Socrates and Justin Martyr

One of my favorite poems is James Russell Lowell’s Once to Every Man and Nation:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

You can, I suppose, see how the poem applies to this class.  Those with the will to truth stand boldly against the relgio of the time, the established order—and can end up paying with their lives.  The prophetic  voice is a problem for the status quo powers, and both the Pharisees and Sadducees, different as they were, had in common their dislike of the prophetic voice and its return with Jesus and the apostles.  The questioning tradition of the philosophers was (on occasion) every bit as disruptive to the status quo and likewise aroused intense opposition.

Socrates vs. the Sophists

Now one would think that, in ancient Athens, the status quo powers would dislike most the Sophists, teachers who taught the art of persuasion, teaching their students, not how to find truth, but how to win friends and influence people.  “Man is the measure of all things,” they taught: all truth is essentially subjective, whatever we want it to be.

But the wrath of Athens fell, not on the Sophists, but on a rather different sort of teacher, Socrates.

Socrates in commonly considered one of the greatest teachers who ever lived.  But while commonly regarded as a great teacher, Socrates never wrote a book or published an article.  He never had a paid teaching position.  He never took a dime for his teaching.  And, if he were brought back to life today, he couldn't get a job teaching at Harvard, Stanford, or NSU.  He lacked the appropriate certification!  There is certainly something wrong with a system that would hire Art Marmorstein and not Socrates or Jesus!

The Socratic Method

Socrates was important for lots of different things.  First of all, he was important for his method, a method we call "dialectic" (through words, dialogue) or "elenchus" refutation.  Essentially, Socrates would ask for a definition of an important idea (bravery, beauty, piety, justice, etc.).  He would then ask questions that would show weaknesses in the definition.  Then there would be a new definition, and, again, a series of questions showing why that definition also came up short.

The result of all this is sometimes frustrating.  In "Euthyphro," a dialogue I used to ask my students to read, the topic discussed is piety. One can finish the dialogue in an hour or so--but, after reading the entire dialogue, there isn't, in the end, any satisfactory definition of what piety is.

Now, at first it might seem that Socrates is moving in the Sophist direction: there is no truth.  But what's really happening here is that Socrates insists that there are two kinds of truths.  Some can be learned easily, just by definition.  When did Constantinople fall to the Turks?  1453.  An easiest enough thing to learn.  But other truths don't work this way.  One cannot learn what justice is just by having a definition.  And the same things  goes for any of the "higher" truths.  But by looking at things from one perspective, and then another, and then another, one gradually gets a better and better understanding of what that thing is all about.

[This, by the way, is one of the many reasons outcome-based education is such a tragedy, particularly when applied university level education. Outcome- based evaluations can only measure mastery of  relatively trivial kinds of issues, not the higher-level questions a university education should be about.  And only a rather ignorant sort of person would think that what you are supposed to be gettting out of your general education classes can be measured by something like the CAAP exam.  So why did we get things like the CAAP?  Brought in on ourselves, we did.  As university humanities and social science courses drifted back to the Sophist relative morality and relative truth, the people picking up the tab for higher education weren't very happy: not much point paying for courses that didn't seem to lead anywhere.  Man is the measure of all things has been replace by the idea that quantiative data is the measure of all things.]

Socratic ethics

Socrates was also important for his answer to the "right makes right" philosophy that had begun to dominate Athens and went hand in hand with the Sophist world view.  Socrates explains that, whenever we harm another human being, we put a blot on our soul.  Now the Greek word we translate as "soul" is "psyche," a word we also translate as "mind."  When one harms another person, violating what we call the Golden Rule, one is violating, not just a moral principle, but a logical principle as well. And what this means is, that, when we harm another, we end up not being able to think clearly anymore, and, especially, we don't think clearly in that area in which we have done the harm.

Take, for instance, that lowest of all types of human being, the seducer, the kind of man who gets a woman in bed by telling her he loves her when all he really wants is a night's fun.  One thinks that it is the woman who is hurt most in such a situation.  But, Socrates would argue, the man has hurt himself even more. He has put a blot on his soul, that is, on his mind.  He will not be able to think clearly--and, particularly, he will not be able to think clearly about the relationship between men and women.  And he will end up...well, he'll end up as people always do when they insist that black is white, night is day, evil is good: making self-destructive mistake after mistake--and, really, no true human being at all.

The Apology—Plato’s version

In 399 BC, Socrates was put on trial in Athens and condemned to death: in many ways, a puzzling event.  Socrates is an old man, and it’s hard to see exactly what harm he was causing.  The charges against him were somewhat vague: he was teaching gods other than those believed in by the state, and he was corrupting the youth.

Socrates himself says, however, that what he really has to fight against is old slanders against him, false impressions created by people like the comic playwright Aristophanes. 

Now it’s likely enough than many people in Athens did form their view of Socrates from the character in Aristophanes’ The Clouds rather than from the real Socrates.  Certainly the particular accusations against Socrates fit the Aristophanes character somewhat better than they do the real Socrates.

But driving the case against Socrates was really something else entirely, and the Apology shows pretty clearly what it was.

Socrates indicates that his mission in life had been to figure out what Apollo’s oracle at Delphi meant when it said that no-one was wiser than Socrates.  Surely he was not a particularly wise man: there must be someone wiser.  So Socrates began to question those who had a reputation for wisdom to see if they were any wiser than he.  And, again and again, he showed them wanting.  Certainly a guy like this would irritate self-important people, and, when young people began to imitate Socrates method, that would have been even more annoying.  But bringing capital charges against someone just because they are annoying?  This hardly makes sense—until one has the historical context.

In 399, Athens was just beginning to recover from its loss of the long Peloponnesian War, a war that disrupted everything in Athens.  There had been enormous strain on Athenian religio.  The Athenians had both suffered horrible things and done horrible things.  In 416, the had ordered all the men of Melos killed and all the women and children sold into slavery.  After the battle of Arginusae (an Athenian victory!) the Athenians had put their own generals on trial for negligence and condemned some of them to death. Following the war, in 404 BC, the “Thirty Tyrants” took control in Athens.  At one point, these men tried to get others fully committed to their cause by compelling them to seize and slaughter metics, resident aliens of Athens.  Socrates had happened to be on the “boule” when the generals were condemned and had refused to go along with the plan.  Likewise he had refused to go along with the 30 tyrants.

Socrates had offended both the democrats and the aristocrats with these refusals, refusing to be a champion of injustice.  Socrates describes his own role as being that of a gadfly—but useful in helping the Athenians get on the right track.  Is he the one destroying religio? On the contrary, he deserves a government stipend for his services.  When he is gone, the challenges to the status quo are going to be a lot worse.

Socrates Apology—Xenophon’s Version  

Xenophon wasn’t present at Socrates trial, but he has given us an account of the trial based on what had been told him by a man named Hermogenes.  Xenophon’s account emphasizes somewhat more Socrates’ claims to have lived an exemplary life and explains a bit more why Socrates chose the kind of defense he did.  Socrates’ claims that he didn’t need to put any special preparation into his defense because had been preparing for that defense his whole life: the divine voice had stopped him from proceeding when he thought he might plan a bit more carefully his words.  Notice a hint of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about not preparing their defense ahead of time: an interesting parallel.

Christianity: the former accusers

In many ways, the much later trials of Christians parallel the trial and death of Socrates.  They also had the problem of “former accusers,” and, whenever they were put on trial, they had to deal with judges prejudiced against the—in this case, by accusations much farther from the truth than anything Socrates’ jurors had heard about the great philosopher.

So what had Roman officials heard?

The rumor mill said that Christians were a political problem. They wouldn’t swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor as a god, the equivalent of not saying the flag salute.  To a people worried about political stability and sometimes invasion from without, Christian failure to support the emperor’s divinity meant political disunity and potential trouble.

Likewise, the rumors depicted the Christians as horribly immoral people.  Pagans believed Christians practiced incest and cannibalism.  They also believed that Christians were atheists and haters of mankind.

The first imperial persecutions

The Book of Acts suggests that, at first, Roman authorities were pretty much indifferent to Christianity.  When the Jews at Corinth complain about the Christians, the Roman governor (Gallio) is annoyed at the disturbance and order Sosthenes (the leader of the synagogue) to be beaten for bringing such a trivial issue before him.

A change came with the emperor Nero.  Nero, who had been blamed for starting a fire that destroyed much of Rome, needed a scapegoat.  He blamed the Christians, and began punishing them as if they really were responsible.  He killed most of the leaders (including Peter and Paul) and put the Christian to horribly cruel deaths.  If the Christians were allowed to speak in their own defense, to give their “apologies” we don’t know what they said: though, of the Book of Acts itself was possibly written just before this, in part to defend Christianity as no threat to Roman officials.

Under Nero and Domitian (a slightly later emperor) Christianity became, at least potentially, a death penalty offense.  Nero, of course, was something of a madman, as was Domitian.  But once Christianity was officially a crime, it proved enormously difficult to get it decriminalized.  Good emperors and good officials persecuted the Christians too.  But they went about it differently, following proper legal procedure and giving at least the Christians who had citizenship an opportunity to defend themselves: to come up with a defense: an apology.

Justin Martyr 

And so, finally, after much, much introductory material, we are finally getting to what this course is about: that combination of philosophy, Christian doctrine, and (in the early stages) legal defense that constitute apologetics.

One of the first of these apologetic works is that of Justin who we differentiate from other Justins by calling “the martyr,” e.g., the witness.

Justin (AD 100—165?) was born in Palestine to pagan parents. He studied the philosophers (the Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists, etc.) constantly searching for truth—but becoming more than a bit frustrated. And then an old man introduced him to the prophets--and Justin became a fervent convert. He believed that in Christianity he had found the true philosophy. He moved to Rome, and started a school.  He attracted converts, but also opposition.  Crescens, a rival philosopher who still defended pagan tradition, eventually resorted to political measures to silence Justin, bringing capital charges against him.

Justin’s defense is addressed to Antoninus Pius, the 4th of the five “good emperor,” a well-educated man, much interested in philosophy.  As a result, Justin can make his defense confident that there will be at attempt to understand his ideas.

Justin insists that it is unjust for Christians to be punished just for a name.  Their accusers ought to come up with specific criminal charges.  Justin then goes on to refute the general misunderstandings of Christians.  Are they atheists?  Only in the sense that Socrates was an atheist.  The Christians do refuse to worship demons, but they aren’t godless: they worship the one true god.

 Are they politically disloyal?  No.  The kingdom they talk of is not of this world, and Jesus specifically commanded his followers to submit to secular authority: render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Do they practice incest and cannibalism?  Quite the reverse: they follow strict moral standards.

Justin quotes extensively from the Sermon on the Mount, using Christ’s teaching as a defense against charges of immorality.

And then, Justin turns the tables on his accusers, condemning practices that had become all too common in Rome: infanticide, child prostitution, etc.  Justin also goes on at length about pagan religion as the work of devils.

As evidence for the truth of Christianity, Justin points to a long and impressive list of Old Testament scriptures fulfilled by Christ.

Finally, he defends Christianity by giving a fairly extensive account of Christian belief and practice.  Here’s baptism.  Here’s the eucharist.  Here’s the way we worship.  Nothing criminal in all of this, is there?

And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies. For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God, if you continue in your injustice; and we ourselves will invite you to do that which is pleasing to God. 

All very reasonable.  And yet, still, Justin is condemned to death.  But, like Socrates, he seems, if anything to welcome condemnation and martyrdom, and he would well have understood Lowell’s words:

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.