St Justin Martyr’s Second Apology to Senate, Quoting Xenophon’s Socrates, Blog 2

Justin’s Second Apology to the Roman Senate was written to protest the persecutions against the Christians undertaken by the Roman Prefect Urbicus and the accusations by the Cynic Philosopher Crescens that the Christians were atheists impious to the traditional pagan gods, which would eventually result in Justin’s martyrdom.  Justin praises the moral philosophy of the stoics, particularly Rufus Musonius, but Justin insists that Christianity is the true and complete philosophy.  Justin teaches, “our doctrines appear to be great than all human teaching, because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both bod, and reason, and soul.  Whenever lawgivers and philosophers uttered truth, this was an elaboration of what they found in some part of the Word of God.  But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.”

Justin compares Jesus to Socrates, who was accused of the same crimes as the Christians, being accused of atheism and impiety, and of corrupting the youth.  The Greeks accused Socrates “of introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods that the state recognized.  In the Republic he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poet related.”  The early Church Fathers, including Justin, did not deny the existence of the pagan gods, rather they saw them as demons active in the world.  But Jesus was mightier than Socrates, whereas “no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for his doctrine,” many willingly believes and are martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.

In the chapter on How Christians View Death, Justin illustrates with a story related by Socrates in the Moralia of Xenophon.  He quotes it from memory, and the subtle ways in which he changes the original story reveals something about ourselves.  This is such an interesting story that I will quote both Justin’s retelling with the original story in Xenophon.

In Justin’s retelling Socrates tells us of the story of the hero Hercules meeting the two ladies, Virtue and Vice.  “Hercules, says Xenophon, coming to a place where three ways meet, found Virtue and Vice, who appeared to him in the form of women: Vice, in a luxurious dress, and with a seductive expression blooming from her exquisite dress, her eyes betraying a quickly melting tenderness, said to Hercules that if he followed her, she would always enable him to pass his life in pleasure and adorned with the most graceful adornments.  But Virtue, with a squalid look and dress, said, ‘if you obey me, you shall adorn yourself not with ornament nor beauty that passes away and perishes, but with everlasting and precious graces.”

St Justin continues, “Everyone who flees those things that seem to be good, and follows instead those things that are difficult and strange to this world, enters into blessedness.  For Vice, by imitating what is incorruptible (for what is really incorruptible she neither has nor can produce)” she has painted her own actions as a false image of Virtue, and she leads astray her captive earth-bound men, misrepresenting as virtuous her own evil deeds. [1]

In Xenophon’s original version of this story these two women, Virtue and Vice, seem more like cousins, their appearances are not so different as in Justin’s remembering.  Xenophon’s Socrates tells us that when Hercules “was setting out from childhood to manhood, when the young become independent and choose whether they will follow the path of goodness or wickedness, he went to a quiet spot and sat down considering which way he should take.  While he was there he saw two women approaching him.  Both were tall, but one was handsome in appearance with a natural air of distinction, clean-limbed and modest in expression, and soberly dressed in a white robe, while the other was well fed to the point of fleshiness and softness, her make-up resulting in a complexion too read and white to be real, and with a carriage more upright than was natural, with a brazen expression, and robed in a way that revealed as much as possible of her charms.  Lady Vice kept examining herself, and watching to see if anyone was looking at her, and glancing at her own shadow.”

The lady Virtue of Xenophon’s Socrates is elegant, with a genuine noble character, whereas the lady Vice is plump with a pretension of nobility, who masquerades herself as a cheaper and less secure virtue.  Lady Vice is an Epicurean, she thinks pleasure is the primary virtue of life.

Xenophon’s Socrates has the lady Vice eager to rush ahead of Virtue, running up to Hercules saying, “Hercules, I see that you can’t make up your mind which way of life to adapt  If you take me as your friend, I will lead you by the easiest and most pleasant road; you shall not miss the taste of any pleasure, and you shall live out your life without any experience of hardship.”

How many of us wish to live the slightly plump Lady Vice version of Christianity?  How many of us seek the easiest and most pleasant road, working for the weekends?  How many of us seek a life without hardship, without suffering, without want?  How many of us are angry at God for hardships, for death of loved ones, for hurts caused by our loved ones and beloved?  How many of us seek for daily bread and also banquets and bounteous possessions?

Lady Vice continues, “Follow me and you will not be concerned with wars or responsibilities, you shall constantly consider what food or drink you can find to suit your teste, and what sight or sound or scent might please you, and which lover’s company gratifies you the most, how you can sleep the most comfortably, and how you can achieve all these objects with the least trouble.  And if you fear you will run out of these things, you need not fear that I shall bring any physical or mental effort or distress to obtain these, you shall enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors,” you need not refrain from anything that benefits you, because I allow my followers complete freedom to do anything that benefits them.”

“When Hercules heard this, he asked, ‘What is your name, Lady?’  She replied, ‘My friends call me Happiness, but people who don’t like me nickname me Vice.’ “

Lady Vice would have us believe that the good is really bad, and that the bad is really good, and that which leads to Misery Lady Vice labels as Happiness.

Xenophon’s Socrates continues the story as Lady Virtue comes forward to address Hercules.  “I know your parents” and have carefully observed your education, and this leads me to hop “that you may mature and perform many fine and noble deeds, and I may win greater honor still, and brighter glory for the blessings I bestow.  I will not delude you with promises of future pleasure, I shall give you a true account of the facts, exactly as the gods have ordained them.”

“Noting that is really good and admirable is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application.  If you want the gods to be gracious to you, you must worship the gods; if you wish to be loved by your friends, you must be kind to your friends;” “if you expect to be admired for your fine qualities by the whole of Greece, you must try to benefit Greece; if you want your land to produce abundant crops, you must look after your land; if you expect to profit from the sale of your livestock, you must take of your animals,” “if you want to be physically fit, you must train your body to be subject to your reason, and develop it with hard work and sweat.”

What really makes the original story better than Justin’s remembering is how Virtue upbraids Vice:

“Then Lady Vice broke in, ‘Do you realize, Hercules, what a long and difficult road to enjoyment this woman is describing to you?  I will put you on a short and easy road to happiness.’ “

“Lady Virtue responds, ‘Impudent creature!  What good have you to offer, or what do you know of real pleasure, you who refuse to do anything with a view to either?  You don’t even wait for the desire for what is pleasant, you stuff yourself with everything before you want it, eating before you are hungry and drinking before you are thirsty.  To make eating enjoyable you invent refinements of cuisine, to make drinking enjoyable you provide yourself with expensive wines.”  “You force the gratification of your sexual impulses before they ask for it, employing all kinds of devices and treating men as women.  That is the sort of training that you give your subjects, exciting their passions by night, and putting them to sleep for the best part of the day.’ ”

The Socrates of Xenophon is more stoic, more concerned with morals than is the Socrates of Plato.  The idea that you need to discipline your body to save your soul is a theme in both Stoicism and in the monastic writings of the early Church Fathers.

Lady Virtue continues upbraiding her cousin Lady Vice.  “Who would trust your word?  Who would assist you if you needed someone?  What sane person would join your devotees?  When your followers are young, they are feeble in body, and when they are older, they are foolish in mind.  They are maintained in their youth in effortless comfort, but pass their old age in laborious squalor, disgraced by their past actions and burdened by their present ones, because in their youth they have run through all that was pleasant, and laid up for their old age what is hard to bear.” [2]

This diatribe reminds me of a commentary by the psychologist Scott Peck on the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25.  These ten virgins waited with their lamps for Christ, the Bridegroom, to appear at the wedding feast.  The five wise virgins brought along an extra supply of oil, while the five foolish virgins only had the oil in their lamps.  “At midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ “[3]

Scott Peck says that “the parable stuck me as totally un-Christian.  What on earth is Christianity about if it isn’t about sharing?  But I had to give a sermon on the parable, and that meant I had to think about it.  Sometimes it is quite remarkable what can happen when we think.  I realized that the oil in this parable was a symbol for preparation, and what Jesus was saying to us was that we cannot share our preparation.  You cannot do another’s homework for them.  Or if you do their homework, you cannot earn their degree for them, which is the symbol of their preparation.  The only thing that we can do, and it is often very difficult, is to try as best we can to impart to others a motive for them to prepare themselves.  And I know of no way of doing that than attempting to teach them how important they are, how beautiful and desirable they are in the eyes of God.”[4]

Scott Peck is obviously sharing the frustrations all parents feel when they feel their children are going astray, not putting forth their best efforts at school, caring only for the pleasures of partying and their friends, blindly ignorant of the misery of the future when they cannot get a good job because they do not have a marketable skill or meaningful education, as well as our own misery when we do not plan for the future and only live for the weekend and today’s pleasures and partying and drinking and dancing.

The more spiritual interpretations of the early Church Fathers of the Parable of the Ten Virgins also illuminate Socrates’ story about the Ladies Virtue and Vice.  Like Lady Virtue and Lady Vice, the five wise virgins do not appear to be that different from the five foolish virgins.  St Augustine teaches that the number five refers to the five senses, and “that whoever abstains from unlawful seeing, unlawful hearing, unlawful smelling, unlawful tasting and unlawful touching, by reason of blamelessness, is here called by the name of virgin.”  The oil represents charity, compassion, and love for God and love for our neighbor.  All ten virgins slept before the Bridegroom came, so what was different about the five wise virgins?  “No coldness of love crept over them.  In them love did not grow cold.  And because their love glowed even to the end, therefore the gates of the Bridegroom opened up to them.”

Lady Vice deceives us into believing we should not prepare, that we should seek to benefit from the labor of others.  Likewise, St Augustine teaches that the five foolish virgins did the same, and when “their lamps began to fail, they pleaded with the five wise virgins, ‘Give us of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”  They sought for what they have been most prone to seek for, to shine with another’s oil, to walk after another’s praises.”[5]  As Christ exhorts in Matthew, “he who endures to the end will be saved.”[6]

Xenophon’s Socrates has Lady Virtue concluding her address to Hercules describing what is true and everlasting happiness that we should work towards, not the transitory happiness of Lady Vice from drinking and dancing and slothful habits.  “My friends can enjoy food and drink with pleasure and without effort, because they abstain until they feel a desire for them.  Their sleep is sweeter than the sleep of the easy-living,” neither guilt nor regret keeps them awake at night.  “The young enjoy the praise of their elders, and the elderly are happy and respected by the young.  They recall their past achievements with pleasure, and rejoice in their present successes, because through me, Lady Virtue, they are dear to the gods, loved by their friends and honored by their country.”

“There, Hercules,” said Lady Virtue, child of good parents, if you work hard in the way I have described, you can possess the most beatific and lasting happiness.”[7]

[1] St Justin Martyr, “The Second Apology of Justin,” In the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Chapter II, p. 188-193.

[2] Xenophon, “The Memoirs of Socrates,” In the Xenophon Conversations of Socrates, translated by Hugh Treadnick and Robin Waterfield (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), Book 2, pp. 106-108.

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A1-12&version=NRSVCE

[4] Scott Peck, “Further Along the Road Less Travelled,” pp. 96-97.

[5] St Augustine, “Sermon 93,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ib, Matthew 14-28, various translators (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), pp. 214-217.

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+24%3A13&version=NRSVCE

[7] Xenophon, “The Memoirs of Socrates,” Book 2, p. 109.

About Bruce Strom 142 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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