October 30th, 2009


Dialog with Trypho and the Myth of Er

Recently in this place began a discussion where was examined by what faculty, if any, man might perceive God, assuming God to be both benevolent in wishing Man to see Him, and omnipotent to accomplish that at which He aimed. One side argued that such a God would provide abundant evidence to the senses of Man so as to quell all honest doubt, and that since no such evidence existed, such a God's existence, or His providence, was in doubt. The other argument was that God, a spirit, both of necessity (since spirits are invisible) and of His providence (since it is less open to doubt, and more readily available to all men, including the blind and unlettered, than either empirical proofs or formal logic) reveals Himself to those who seek Him directly and not through the medium of the sense impressions.

Without revisiting that argument, I note with amusement that it is an old one. Here, for example, from circa 135 A.D. is Justin Martyr, my namesake, the patron saint of philosophers, discussing the purpose of philosophy, and the conclusion of Plato that the divine nature hidden in man allows men to perceive God directly, though the mind, much at other mental forms are perceived. He is debating an old man, not otherwise named, who (later in the dialog) leads him to doubt the wisdom of the philosophers.

‘Are you, then, a lover of words' said he, ‘but no lover of deeds or of truth? and do you not aim at being a practical man so much as being a sophist? '

‘What greater work, 'said I, ‘could one accomplish than this, to show the reason which governs all, and having laid hold of it, and being mounted upon it, to look down on the errors of others, and their pursuits? But without philosophy and right reason, prudence would not be present to any man. Wherefore it is necessary for every man to philosophize, and to esteem this the greatest and most honourable work; but other things only of second-rate or third-rate importance, though, indeed, if they be made to depend on philosophy, they are of moderate value, and worthy of acceptance; but deprived of it, and not accompanying it, they are vulgar and coarse to those who pursue them.'

‘Does philosophy, then, make happiness? ' said he, interrupting.

‘Assuredly, ' I said, ‘and it alone.'

‘What, then, is philosophy? ' he says; ‘and what is happiness? Pray tell me, unless something hinders you from saying.'
‘Philosophy, then, 'said I, ‘is the knowledge of that which really exists, and a clear perception of the truth; and happiness is the reward of such knowledge and wisdom.'

‘But what do you call God? ' said he.

‘That which always maintains the same nature, and in the same manner, and is the cause of all other things-that, indeed, is God.’ So I answered him; and he listened to me with pleasure, and thus again interrogated me:-

‘Is not knowledge a term common to different matters? For in arts of all kinds, he who knows any one of them is called a skilful man in the art of generalship, or of ruling, or of healing equally. But in divine and human affairs it is not so. Is there a knowledge which affords understanding of human and divine things, and then a thorough acquaintance with the divinity and the righteousness of them?'

‘Assuredly, 'I replied.

‘What, then? Is it in the same way we know man and God, as we know music, and arithmetic, and astronomy, or any other similar branch?'

‘By no means, 'I replied.

‘You have not answered me correctly, then, 'he said; ‘for some [branches of knowledge] come to us by learning, or by some employment, while of others we have knowledge by sight. Now, if one were to tell you that there exists in India an animal with a nature unlike all others, but of such and such a kind, multiform and various, you would not know it before you saw it; but neither would you be competent to give any account of it, unless you should hear from one who had seen it.'

‘Certainly not, 'I said.

‘How then, 'he said, ‘should the philosophers judge correctly about God, or speak any truth, when they have no knowledge of Him, having neither seen Him at any time, nor heard Him? '

‘But, father, 'said I, ‘the Deity cannot be seen merely by the eyes, as other living beings can, but is discernible to the mind alone, as Plato says; and I believe him.'
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