Critias of Athens

Critias? In the Great Minds series? Have we run out of really great minds already? Who was this guy Critias anyway? (And how do you pronounce his name?)

The last question is the easiest to answer. There are two choices in pronounciation: to Americanize or to pseudo-Hellenize. The Americanized form, used even by professional classicists, is “KRIT-ee-us,” and that’s good enough for all but the most pedantic sorts. The pseudo-Hellenizing approach would result in “Krit-EE-ahs”; I say “pseudo-“ because the second i has a printed “acute” accent in classical Greek, which was a “pitch” and not a “stress” accent, so it’s not a sound we can authentically duplicate today.

Now for the bigger issues. Who was Critias, and why does he belong in this series? Readers who have studied Greek philosophy may recall that Critias was, in some sense, a pupil or follower of Socrates—a relationship that may have had fatal consequences for both men. In political history, Critias played a significant—and baleful—role. As the nominal leader of the oligarchic “Thirty Tyrants” who overthrew the Athenian democracy in 404 b.c.e., he presided over a brutal purge of his opponents and was killed in battle the following year when the surviving democrats struck back. Rightly or wrongly, many Athenians believed that Critias had learned his aristocratic contempt for majority rule from some of Socrates’s teachings.

Critias’s violent career and his association with Socrates were almost certainly significant if unspoken factors in the famous trial of 399. Under the terms of the first “amnesty” in Western history (created in 403 to forestall a cycle of revenge) the indictment against Socrates could not make explicit reference to his alleged connection with the leader of “The Thirty”—but everyone knew about it. The votes of the five-hundred-member jury that convicted Socrates apparently split 280 to 220; Socrates says in Plato’s Apologia (the Greek word for “defense speech”) that a switch of thirty votes would have resulted in acquittal. (In Athenian courts, a tie vote went to the accused.) The jurymen would have been overwhelmingly pro-democracy, but we cannot know how many of the 280 were influenced by Socrates’s supposed position as “mentor” to the much-hated enemy of their government. It’s worth noting that nearly half of those citizens, in spite of the prosecution’s arguments and their own prejudices, concluded that Socrates was not “guilty as charged.”

From the standpoint of modern secular humanism, Critias’s importance comes from his writings—or, to be more precise, from one remarkable passage in a “satyr-play” titled Sisyphus. Ancient sources tell us that Critias wrote considerable quantities of prose and verse; all that remains is a few fragments (usually brief quotations in later authors) of hexameters, elegiac couplets, and tragedies—an anemic twenty widely spaced pages in the standard English translation.*

This is, by the way, typical of the loss-to-survival ratio for the whole of classical Greek literature; the extant corpus comprises some eighty million words, but that represents only a tiny percentage of literary texts written in Greek from the days of Homeric epic (the 700s b.c.e.) to the end of antiquity (about 500 c.e.). For example, the three dramatic playwrights whose work was chosen for performance at the City Dionysia festival each year were required to present tetralogies (three tragedies and a comic, mildly obscene satyr play), so that their complete output would have come in multiples of four. There is evidence that Aeschylus wrote about 88 plays, Sophocles 132, and Euripides 92, of which we have, respectively, six (plus the probably spurious Prometheus), seven, and nineteen—and almost nothing of the hundreds of other plays presented in the fifth century alone. (Imagine having only two or three of Shakespeare’s plays!)

So the survival of that one passage, by means of an extended quotation in a single late-classical author (Sextus Empiricus, second century c.e.), is a rare and fortunate circumstance. The original Greek lines, apparently spoken by the title-character Sisyphus, are composed in iambic trimeter, the normal dialogue mode of tragedy, but the text has a number of clumsy expressions and repetitions that a more skillful writer would have avoided. My translation is an excellent example of the “painfully literal” approach and makes no attempt to cover up the aforementioned inadequacies. (Sextus wrote that he had skipped a few lines before quoting the last two.)

There was a time when the life of humans was disordered
and bestial and subject to raw violence,
when there was no reward for the good
and no punishment for the wicked.
And then, it seems to me, humans set up laws
as punishers, so that justice would be the ruler
of everyone equally and would enslave criminal arrogance;
anyone who committed a crime would be penalized.
But then, because the laws prevented them
from doing things by violence in public,
they did them in secret, and that’s when, it seems to me,
some man of ingenious and wise intellect
invented for mankind the fear of the gods, so that
there would be a source of terror for the wicked,
if they did or said or thought up anything in secret.
At that point he introduced the concept of the divine,
saying, “There is a spirit that enjoys eternal life,
hearing and seeing in its mind, and thinking,
and paying attention to these things and having a godlike nature,
which hears everything that is said among humans
and is able to see everything that is done.
If you plan anything evil in silence,
it will not escape the gods, for they have
the highest power of thought.” Saying these words,
he introduced the most pleasant of teachings,
covering up the truth with a false story.
He said that the gods live in a place where
the mere mention of it would frighten people,
a place where he knew that both terrors
and benefits come for the wretched life of humans,
namely, from the revolving skies above, where they could see
lightning and terrifying crashes of thunder
and the starry form of the heavens,
the beautiful handiwork of Time, that ingenious craftsman,
from which the brilliant mass of the Sun goes forth
and moist rainshowers come down upon the earth.
This man set those sorts of fears all around humans,
and through those fears he set the divine spirit
with his story in a fine dwelling-place and a suitable domain,
and he wiped out lawlessness by means of his laws. . . .
And I think that’s how someone first persuaded
mortals to believe that the race of gods exists.

The speech is worth quoting in its entirety because it shows, perhaps for the first time in the recorded history of Western civilization, an attempt to account for the origin of the concept of the divine in a completely secular way. Earlier, pre-Socratic philosophers had criticized some aspects of traditional religious beliefs: Xenophanes (ca. 570–ca. 478) attacked Homer and Hesiod for portraying the Olympian gods as doing things that would be immoral in human society, and he also remarked that if horses and cows could draw, they would depict their gods as horses and cows, clearly a criticism of anthropomorphic thinking. But he also expressed belief in a single god who was far superior to mere mortals. Similarly, Anaxagoras (ca. 500–428) stated that the Sun, a divinity for most Greeks, was only an extremely hot and incandescent stone; around 437 he was charged in an Athenian court with impiety and had to flee, never to return.

But the speaker here goes much farther, invoking a sociological and quasi-moral purpose for inventing the gods (intimidating the otherwise criminally inclined into behaving themselves) and attributing that invention to an anonymous “culture-hero,” employing a rhetorical device in classical literature called the prôtos heuretês (first discoverer). There is a paradoxical element as well: Sisyphus is famous for perpetually rolling a huge rock up a hill, an eternal punishment imposed by the very gods whose existence he denies in this passage! This seems like a gesture typical of the Sophist era in late fifth-century Athens; Euripides, in his Herakles (ca. 420s), has that title character vigorously reject the idea that gods have humanlike desires—although in the standard myths, he himself is the product of Zeus’s unblushing lust for Alcmena. In both cases, the most important aspect of the character’s speech may not be what happens in the rest of the play but the simple fact that such sentiments were uttered at all—in the Theater of Dionysus during one of the most significant religious festivals of the year, an example of the remarkable level of parrhesia (free speech) that Athenians allowed themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence for the larger context of this speech, which, it should be emphasized, occurs in a type of drama not known for seriousness. Satyrs, depicted as uncivilized “wild men” with uncontrollable urges for wine and sex, formed (naturally enough) the chorus of satyr plays, which seem to have focused on making rather crude fun of the solemn figures seen in the tragedies. In spite of its evidently provocative thesis, the passage did not become notorious for later generations—as already noted, only one ancient source preserves the whole text and only one other quotes even a part of it.

But it is striking nonetheless to see a fairly fully developed theory that contradicts one of the most fundamental beliefs of the ancient world, the existence of gods prior to and independent of human beings. In later centuries, the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his admirer the Roman poet Lucretius reaffirmed and expanded the materialist worldview. The Augustan poet Ovid created a notorious line, etched in a cynicism that parallels what we have seen in Sisyphus’s speech: Expedit esse deos, et, ut expedit, esse putemus (“It’s convenient that there be gods, and, inasmuch as it’s convenient, let’s believe they exist,” Ars Amatoria, 1.637).

Openly expressed hard-core atheism was extremely rare in classical antiquity; there are not even ten well-attested cases across a millennium in both Greece and Rome. So it’s a little disconcerting to find that someone like Critias, who might seem congenial to modern secularists in that regard, could be so hostile to other values that most of us find just as important and compelling. Whatever their views on religion, both Socrates and his primary student Plato, like Critias, seem to have been proponents of a kind of aristocratic individualism and outspoken opponents of anything associated with “the masses.”

Nonetheless, although Critias may not have been a “Great Mind” in the usual sense of the phrase, we should acknowledge his status as one of the few ancient pioneers of forthright skeptical thinking and a forerunner of modern atheism. And that is no small honor, then or now.


Critias? In the Great Minds series? Have we run out of really great minds already? Who was this guy Critias anyway? (And how do you pronounce his name?) The last question is the easiest to answer. There are two choices in pronounciation: to Americanize or to pseudo-Hellenize. The Americanized form, used even by professional classicists, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.