The Philosopher as Tyrant
Critias of Athens
One of the most common conceits among intellectuals is the fantasy / longing by so many of them to rule and to get rid of the “idiots” who actually run the world and thus get stuff done. This fantasy goes back to Plato in his various dialogues in which he indulged in various fantasies about the “ideal” society, which would of course be run by philosophers. Thus Plato’s dialogues, The Republic, The Laws which were in large respects Mary Sue fantasies about how if we (Philosophers.), ran the world how much better things would be. Well we have an idea right at the birth of Platonic philosophizing what would happen if a Philosopher took over a state.
It is here we get to Plato’s relative Critias. Now I’ve mentioned Critias before and his role has the leader of the Thirty Tyrants that controlled Athens 404-403 B.C.E. During which Athens suffered from a reign of terror has Critias and his colleagues terrorized and slaughtered thousands. Thus Plato’s dream of rule by a Philosophical elite had in fact happened even before and the results weren’t pretty.1
It will of course be argued that I’m being unfair to Plato and his teacher Socrates, and that Critias career has unfairly been blamed on Socrates. But it is a fact that Critias was a student of Socrates and that Socrates’ fellow Athenians blamed Socrates for the behavior / acts of Critias. Still what evidence we have would seem to indicate that Socrates and his students were at the very least strongly oligarchic in political beliefs and that they admired closed, authoritarian Sparta and thought rule of the elite who “knows” was the best kind of government. And of course they despised Democracy and the “wrong” people, (The great mass of the population.) being involved in intellectual disputes and government. Only a tiny insular elite could be trusted to exercise “virtue” and thus could engage in free inquiry or disputes, everyone else would just have to obey.2
Thus Critias, oligarchic in sympathy and contemptuous of Athenian democracy was involved for years in various oligarchic clubs that sought to undermine and destroy the Democracy and replace it by rule of a oligarchic elite.
Critias was of course given the philosophical and rhetorical tools to attack the Democracy by his long association with Socrates and Socrates’ other disciples. The rule by this philosophically trained man and others who thought like him could not illustrate better the incapacity of abstract thinkers most of the time to govern.3
After the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants Plato and indeed Socrates’ other disciples with great effort sought to distance Socrates and the philosophical schools founded by Socrates disciples from Critias and his blood stained rule. Thus post hoc they created a story of Critias betraying Socrates, being antagonistic to Socrates; of Critias philosophically betraying Socrates or they just made an effort to avoid discussing the whole event and its possible implications.
Thus Plato avoided discussing the Thirty Tyrants and in fact rather daringly included Critias in a least one of his dialogues. So we read in Plato many, many denunciations of Democracy and of course much ridicule of it, but of the Thirty Tyrants nearly nothing that is even an allusion to the event. Xenophon tried to separate Critias from Socrates by denying that Critias was a “true” disciple.4 It should of course be clear that this was a rather obvious post-hoc attempt to deny what was clearly obvious that Critias was a disciple of Socrates and heavily influenced by him into an anti-democratic, oligarchic direction. The attempt to deny that the association was long, intimate / close is obvious special pleading and should be ignored.
So what how did Critias behave has the leader of the Thirty Tyrants while ruling Athens. Well here we are helped by the fact that we have in Xenophon’s Hellenika a look at which the philosopher in power can behave like.
Now since Xenophon was not by any stretch of the imagination a friend of Athenian democracy, and in fact was a Sparta loving oligarch we can probably take this account has frighteningly accurate. Thus we have Critias being involved in the following atrocities:
At First they [The Thirty Tyrants.] arrested and executed those who everyone knew had made their living, during the time of the democracy, by being informers and who had caused much trouble for the noblemen.5
Soon however the Thirty, after they had arranged for a Spartan garrison to put into the Acropolis, began to destroy all those they considered potential threats to their tyranny. As Xenophon says later: concerning Critias appetite for blood:
But when Kritias proved to be keen on putting many men to death (for in fact he had been exiled by the people under the democracy), Theramenes opposed him…6
Theramenes, who was a moderate oligarch, would pay for his opposition to the brutalities of the Thirty by being judicially murdered with Critias taking the lead in this. By intimidating the Council trying Theramenes with armed men and by a bit of judicial trickery Critias got Theramenes condemned. Yes the rule of the Philosopher king is a messy business.7
As Xenophon says:
Later, when the Thirty continued to put many people to death unjustly and many citizens were openly joining together wondering what would become of the state.
Later Xenophon says:
When this had been accomplished, [A confiscation of arms.] the Thirty began to put many men to death simply out of personal enmity or because of their wealth, believing they could now do anything they wanted. Indeed, in order to raise money to pay the garrison, [The Spartans in the Acropolis], the Thirty even decided that each one of them should seize one resident alien, execute him, and confiscate his property.8
Xenophon gives Critias a speech to justify his judicial murder of Theramenes. Here is a sample:
And if we learn of someone who opposes oligarchy, we do away with him insofar as we can. And it seems particularly just to us that if one of our own people seeks to damage this established order of ours, he must pay the penalty.9
Theramenes in the speech Xenophon gives him refers to the murders of three highly placed Athenians Leon of Salamis, Nikeratos and Antiphon.10 Among other atrocities of the Thirty.
What with confiscations, judicial murder and exiling large numbers of the citizens and inhabitants of Athens. The Thirty managed to alienate just about everyone and in the process killed many thousands. In a state that had at most 300,000 people that was quite a feat.
Xenophon records that after Theramenes murder:
And the Thirty, thinking they could now act as tyrants without fear, proclaimed that all citizens who were not on the list of the Three Thousand were not only forbidden to enter the city proper but were to be evicted from their estates, so that the Thirty and their friends could take possession of the lands.11
Not surprisingly there was a revolt against all this. So the Thirty prepared a retreat in the Athenian town of Eleusis. Where they tricked the inhabitants of Eleusis into a military review and by a ruse captured most of the adult male population and executed them.12
The later historian Diodorus Siculus says concerning the Thirty:
When the Lacedaemonians sent a garrison and Callibius to command it, the Thirty won the commander over by bribes and any accommodations. Then, choosing out from the rich such men as suited their ends, they proceeded to arrest them as revolutionaries, put them to death, and confiscated their possessions. 13
Diodorus states that:
After the death of Theramenes the Thirty drew up a list of the wealthy, lodged false charges against them, put them to death, and seized their estates. They slew even Niceratus, the son of Nicias who had commanded the campaign against the Syracusans, a man who had conducted himself toward all men with fairness and humanity, and who perhaps first of all Athenians in wealth and reputation. It came about, therefore, that every house was filled with pity for the end of the man, as fond thoughts due to their memory of his honest ways provoked them to tears. Nevertheless, the tyrants did not cease from their lawless conduct; rather their madness became so much the more acute that of the metics they slaughtered sixty of the wealthiest in order to gain possession of their property, and as for the citizens, since they were being killed daily, the well-to-do among them fled from the city almost to a man. They also slew Autolycus, an outspoken man, and, in a word, selected the most respectable citizens. So far did their wasting of the city to that more than half of the Athenians took to flight.14
The Spartans according to Diodorus:
…seeing the city of the Athenians abased in power and having no desire that the Athenians should ever gain strength, were delighted and made their attitude clear; for they voted that the Athenian exiles should be delivered up to the Thirty from all over Greece and that anyone who attempted to prevent this should be liable to fine of five talents.15
A later writer further describes Critias in the following manner:
..that in savagery and bloodthirstiness he was outstanding even among the Thirty; that he sided with the outrageous plan of Sparta to give Attica the appearance of a mere pasture for sheep by emptying her of her human herd: for all this I hold him to be the basest of all men who have a name for baseness.16
Thus did the “Philosopher King” Critias carry out the rule of the “best” in Athens. Critias was eventually killed in the resulting civil war that over threw the Thirty whose reign lasted 8 months. Although that was eight months too long. It is annoying to record that Plato does not mention this terrible event in any of his dialogues, but he does put Critias in at least one of his dialogues. (The other Critias may in fact be an elderly male relative of Plato and not the Critias of the Thirty Tyrants.)
So aside from presiding over a blood stained regime of terror just what were Critias philosophical views?
Of course Xenophon tries desperately to disassociate Socrates from Critias; an effort that has been vastly more successful than it should be given the rather painfully obvious motive to deny, downplay etc., the connection. Xenophon settles for evasion and anecdotal story telling. Plato solves it by simply avoiding the question entirely. Although using Critias as a character in one of dialogues and making him a “decent” character would seem to suggest that Plato’s attitude was not very negative.17
Critias' opinions only survive in fragments. Critias apparently wrote, political, treatises, straight philosophy, poetry and drama.18
We have some fragments of Critias poetry including the following bit about the Athenian politician Alcibiades:
The decision that brought you home, ‘twas I that moved it,
And by my own proposing did the deed;
Upon these words the seal of my tongue is set.19
He also wrote maxims such as:
More men attain excellence by practice than by nature.20
Critias wrote several dramatic works of which we only have fragments perhaps the fragment that is most pertinent to Critias’ political views is this piece from the play Sisyphus:
Next, as the laws, inhibited men from acts
Of open violence, but still such acts
Were done in secret – then, I would maintain,
Some clever fellow first a man of counsel wise,
discovered unto men the fear of gods,…
Hence it was he introduced the Deity,
telling of a God who enjoys unfailing life,…
So that he is aware of man’s every act.
And so, if you plot in silence some foul deed,
This will not evade the gods;…21
Critias wrote several overtly political works including a Work on the Spartan political structure that celebrated Sparta and its brutal authoritarian political structure. Critias is alleged to have said:
…in Lacedaemon [Sparta] there are to the greatest degree both slaves and freemen.22
Critias celebrated it seems oligarchic rule and conventions further he apparently thoroughly despised the democracy of Athens in both word and deed.
Critias is also supposed to have written a work called On Love about the nature of love, along with books of maxims etc.23
What we have indicates that Critias was a man of high intelligence and an excellent education. He also wrote works that were remembered and appreciated down through the years. In other words he was what the Greeks would have called a Philosopher. They also indicate that the man was a thorough going oligarch and that he was both highly cynical and ruthless in both thought and deed. That he hated Athenian democracy and thought Sparta was something like the sort of state he desired is also clear. Critias unlike the vast majority of such arm chair theorists got the chance to try his fantasies for real. The results speak for themselves amidst the screams of the dying.
So here we have the “Philosophe” in power and trained by Socrates at that and the results were bloody horror, which was mercifully brief but still bloody. Plato was fortunately only able to create his Mary Sue fantasy states on paper. Thankfully we were spared an attempt to put them into practice. Critias’ disastrous bloody failure is the elephant in the room of Socratic / Platonic fantasies of the ideal state it does not seem to have curtailed Plato’s willingness to fantasize and it appears that he ignored it and it’s implication for his fantasies.
Xenophon tried to get around the problem by disassociating Socrates from Critias in a way that is not convincing and also by making Socrates into a thoroughly conventional Athenian conservative as much as possible. It is likely a white wash. Critias was as much Socrates’ disciple has Plato or Xenophon. So Socrates remains tarred by Critias brush.
We have even before Plato wrote about the rule of Philosophers just what the rule of philosophers could be like. A lesson Plato apparently ignored and did not face.
Plato asked “Who should Rule”. His answer was the “best” and the "best" was in his mind the “Philosopher King”. Well at the least the reign of Critias and his associates showed that the “best” were not necessarily philosophers.
1. Stone, I. F., The Trial of Socrates, Anchor Books, New York, 1988, pp. 140-173.
2. Popper, Karl, The Open Society & Its Enemies, One Volume Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994, pp. 83-157.
3. Footnote 1, Waterfield, Robin, Introduction, in Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Penguin Books, London, 1990, pp. 29-40.
4. Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates, Book 1, s. 2, pt. 8-40, in Conversations of Socrates, pp. 74-80.
5. Xenophon, The Landmark, Xenophon’s Hellenika, Anchor Books, New York, 2009, Book 2, s. 3, pt. 12, p. 55, see also Stone, pp. 140-173.
6. IBID, Xenophon, 2009, Book 2, s. 3 pt. 15, p. 55.
7. IBID, Book 2, s. 3, pt. 50-56, pp. 62-63.
8. IBID, pt. 21, p. 56.
9. IBID, pt. 26, p. 57.
10. IBID, pt. 39-40, pp. 59-60.
11. IBID, s. 4, pt. 1, p. 63
12. IBID, pt. 8, pp. 65-66.
13. Diodorus, The Library of History, Book XIV, s. 4, Lacus Curtius Here.
15. IBID, s. 5.
16. Critias, in Editors, Dillon, John, & Gergel, Tania, The Greek Sophists, Penguin Books, London, 2003, quoting Philostratus, Lives of Sophists, p. 219.
17. The two dialogues Critias is a speaker in and shown in a positive manner are Charmides and Protagoras. The two dialogues Timaeus and Critias may involve another Critias entirely, although that may not be the case.
18. Dillon et al, pp. 217-218.
19. Critias, p. 237, quote in Plutarch, Alcibiades.
20.Critias, p. 239, quote in Strobaeus, Anthology, III 29, 11.
21.Critias, p. 251-252, quote in Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, IX, 54=B25. This is not the complete fragment.
22. Critias, pp. 255-256, quote in Libanius, Orations, 25, 63.
23, Critias, p. 260, reference from Galen, Glossary of Hippocratic Terminology, XIX, 94 Kuhn.