The philosophers’ saint

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As a young man, Justin was an avid student of Greek and Roman philosophy. Initially he was attracted to the works of Plato, then Pythagorus, and then the Stoics, but ultimately Justin found the works of the ancient philosophers unsatisfactory. He would write that he had been searching for "a vision of God," and in time he found it, but not in any classical philosophical text.

One day, when he was about 35 years of age, as he was walking along the seashore outside the city of Ephesus in what is now Turkey, Justin met by chance an elderly man whom he described as a "respectable old man of meek and venerable mien." The two strangers struck up a conversation, and eventually Justin mentioned his interest in philosophy. The elderly man asked Justin if he had studied the writings of the Hebrew prophets - of course, Justin had not since the sacred books of the Jews were not taught in the schools Justin had attended. The old gentleman explained first the writings of the prophets, then the message of Jesus Christ.

By the time the old man had finished, Justin's heart had been touched by divine grace: "I discovered," he wrote later, "that His was the only sure and useful philosophy." After this life-changing conversation, Justin sought out a Christian priest and asked to be baptized. Subsequently, Justin opened the world's first Christian philosophical school in Ephesus.

At that time, public philosophical debates were a popular form of entertainment, and Justin took on Jews, Gnostics and pagans. Eventually, Justin published his defense of Christianity in a series of books, only two of which have survived, his Apologies and his Dialogue with Trypho.

But there is more to Justin's work than a spirited defense of the Christian faith - he also presented the idea that the philosophy of Plato was compatible with Christian doctrine, an idea that would influence the work of two of the church's greatest theologians and philosophers, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas.

About the year 150 A.D., Justin relocated his school to Rome where he refuted the slanders that Christians practiced incest and cannibalism, and that baptism and the Eucharist were forms of black magic. When Emperor Marcus Aurelius began persecuting Christians, Justin and six of his pupils were arrested. A prefect ordered them to sacrifice to the Roman gods. "No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety," Justin replied. The prefect condemned Justin and his students to be flogged, then beheaded.

Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006) and This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk Books, 2011).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015