Joshua J. Mark
published on 15 February 2011
Critias (c. 460-403 BCE) was an Athenian politician who, earlier in life, was one of Socrates’ followers and Plato’s mother’s cousin. One of the hated “Thirty Tyrants” of Athens, Critias was held in especially low esteem for his practice of confiscating citizen’s property by mis-using his power and executing those who disagreed with or challenged him. The Thirty Tyrants (or The Council of Thirty) were a pro-Spartan oligarchy who were installed in power by the Spartan General Lysander following Athens defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. The Thirty Tyrants severely limited the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Athens and, most notably, their right to vote as well as showing little scruple in having their opponents executed or exiled on the slightest whim. Of the thirty men who comprised this council, Critias was the most ruthless.
His known association with Socrates no doubt did little to help the latter’s case in court in 399 BCE (when Meletus, Anytus and Lycon charged Socrates with impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens). Prior to his dark history as a politician, Critias was a writer of tragedies and elegies and was highly praised for his prose works. That he should descend from the role of artist to tyrant no doubt furthered the suspicion among the Athenians that some corrupting force must have exerted itself on the young man to drive him to such excess in cruelty and villainy and that 'force’ seemed to them to be Socrates.
Unlike Protagoras, who claimed the subject of whether gods existed could not properly be known by a man, Critias claimed there were no gods and that, further, the gods were merely a construct created by man to control other men. In Critias’ view, “A time there was when anarchy did rule/the lives of men” and the laws which were created by men to control society simply were ineffective. So “some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise / Discovered unto men the fear of the Gods / Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin” and so the gods came to be the higher authority which would reward or punish people for what they did “secretly in deed, or word, or thought.” Critias was killed in battle near the port of Piraeus, outside Athens, in 403 BCE in the conflict which ended the rule of the Thirty Tyrants.
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