Closet Atheism and Tyranny: The Case of Critias of Athens

Shadia B. Drury

It was both amusing and disconcerting to read the paean to “Critias of Athens” as part of the Great Minds series in the pages of Free Inquiry (February/March 2012). Author James H. Dee realized that including Critias among the Great Minds was something of a stretch. But he argued that we should nevertheless acknowledge the status of Critias as “one of the few ancient pioneers of forthright skeptical thinking and a forerunner of modern atheism.” Dee acknowledged that Critias was a close associate of Socrates, profoundly antidemocratic, and a dreadful tyrant. But he did not explain the connection between his atheism and his tyranny. Theistic apologists will no doubt connect the dots. They will link his atheism with his politics. It is my contention that Critias was not the bold atheist he is reputed to be. He was a closet atheist. In what follows, I will show that his brand of atheism is closely linked to his tyrannical brutality.

Critias was a close relative of Plato and part of Socrates’s inner circle. He appeared in many of Plato’s dialogues, but not a word is said about the pernicious role that he and other friends of Socrates (in particular, Charmides and the notorious Alcibiades) played in the history of Athens. Like other Socratics, including Plato and Xenophon, Critias was a sworn enemy of Athenian democracy and an admirer of the severe discipline of the Spartan oligarchy. So, after the Athenian defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, the triumphant city appointed Critias to head a group of thirty to draft a new constitution for Athens—one modeled on Sparta, of course. It was a classic case of regime change.

As with the contemporary American experience of regime change, the puppet regime installed by military means at great cost in blood and treasure did not turn out as expected. Instead of creating a new constitution for Athens modeled on Sparta, Critias, his right-hand man, Charmides (another close relative of Plato), and the rest of the infamous Thirty Tyrants were responsible for a terror in which at least fifteen hundred residents of Athens were victims of extrajudicial killing (404–403 BCE). At first, the victims were mostly democrats or sympathizers with the democracy. But as the terror intensified, even moderate oligarchs were exiled or murdered and their property confiscated.

Critias presided over a terror that was shocking to the whole of the Greek world. It is no wonder that ancient historians considered him the worst of all wicked men who ever held power. At first, Sparta supported this brutal regime. It prevented neighboring cities from accepting Athenian exiles. But Sparta was defied by Thebes and Megara because the brutality of the regime in Athens was too outrageous. Eventually, even Sparta found it hard to support its own puppet state. Critias was finally killed when Athenian exiles returned to reclaim their city under the leadership of Thrasybulus. The king of Sparta went so far as to bypass his own general (Lysander) and allowed the rebels to reestablish the democracy. The newly established democracy was threatened by what they regarded as the radicalizing influence of Socrates. He was tried in 399 BCE, only four years after the ousting of the Thirty Tyrants. The dreadful events of the recent past were fresh in the minds of members of the jury whose friends and relatives were killed or brutalized by the oligarchic thugs whom Socrates had mentored. So, it is no surprise that Socrates was found guilty as charged. Refusing to entertain exile, he was sentenced to death. The iconic image of the great sage whose wisdom and virtue are unassailable, but who is nevertheless brought down by a treacherous and unruly mob, is one of the founding myths of Western civilization. It belongs as much to Socrates as to Jesus. In both cases, to say the least, it is in need of profound revision.

The relationship between Socrates and Critias is an important matter that must be dealt with fully elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Socrates adhered to a new conception of the divine that was at odds with the pagan sensibilities of his time. Indeed, his fate—and the esteem in which he has been held through the ages—are closely connected to the triumph of this new religious sensibility. What was this new sensibility? How is it related to the atheism of Critias and his ruthless tyranny?

In the extant fragment of his satyr-play, Sisyphus, Critias expresses what appears to be a bold and shocking atheism. He allows Sisyphus to recount a time when human beings lived without faith in gods who punished the wicked and rewarded good in the afterlife. The result was that the wicked were undeterred by laws that their cleverness could circumvent. But then, a cunning philosopher appeared on the scene and claimed that there was a deity that hears and sees all things—not just deeds but also thoughts. These thoughts and deeds would determine the fate of individuals beyond the grave. In this way, the philosopher introduced what Sisyphus tells us is “the most pleasant of doctrines and with false discourse obscured the truth.” In other words, this artful fellow was a liar but also a great benefactor of humanity. Smartly, he filled men with fear and foreboding and in so doing, managed to quell lawlessness. Critias could not declare his atheistic doctrine openly without undermining its utility. So, he resorted to putting the truth in the mouth of Sisyphus, a man whose very fate appears to be a denial of the atheistic doctrine being espoused. After all, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill just to watch it roll back down again for all eternity. It follows that Sisyphus cannot possibly believe that the gods of eternal terror are just the devious invention of a philosopher. Supposedly, the unsuspecting multitude would be entertained by the play; they would laugh at Sisyphus and not believe a word he said. Critias was a deceiver; he was not telling us the whole truth. He was purposefully obscuring the distinction between the gods of Homer and the new religious sensibility represented by Socrates. It behooves us to recall that Sisyphus was not punished for wickedness. He was punished for insulting the gods. The gods of Homer were very sensitive to insults. They were more concerned about their honor and status than moral conduct.

We tend to associate religion with morality and faith in the rewards and punishments of the afterlife. But pagan religion lacked these elements. The pagan gods were personifications of natural phenomena—the thunderbolt (Zeus), the violence of the sea (Poseidon), the power of erotic love (Aphrodite), the sting of death (Hades), the bountifulness of the harvest (Demeter), and the like. Religion was not about morality—that is, the relations of human beings with one another. It was about the relationship between human beings and nature. The gods were honored or appeased in a desperate quest for protection from very real threats—storms, shipwrecks, crimes of passion, death, destruction, famine, and the devastations of war. Therefore, every city had its patron gods to forestall the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

No city claimed to have gods that were better than those of other cities—gods that were more powerful, more virtuous, or more real—as was the case when the Abrahamic religions came on the scene. All the gods were vain and fickle. All of humanity was at their mercy. There was no salvation and no immortality, for the soul was but an epiphenomenon of the body with no reality of its own. So understood, religion was an artistic, metaphorical, or childish explanation of the harsh reality of existence and the fickleness of fortune.

Then came the mystery religions that influenced Socrates. They established secret societies headed by priests who claimed occult
knowledge, conducted elaborate purification rituals and initiation rites, and offered personal salvation and immortality. They invented new gods allied with morality, which was understood not only in human terms as fairness to others but also in ascetic terms as self-abnegation. This explains why Socrates suddenly swore off his passion for boys, breaking the heart of Alcibiades. Thanks to the influence of these mystery religions, Socrates was so confident in his purity and immortality that he chose death over exile or escape when those were readily available to him. But not all the followers of Socrates bought into this new religious sensibility. Some, such as Critias, and arguably Plato, saw in the new religion not truth but a splendid political opportunity.

There is nothing either bold or genuine about the atheism of Critias. He was a closet atheist, an opportunist, and a political operative. Like most closet atheists, he shared the view of true believers in the value and utility of belief in meddlesome and moralistic gods, the immortality of the soul, and the torments of the afterlife. In contrast, a bona fide atheist would insist that human beings live without lies. A bona fide atheist would have nothing but contempt for those who frighten humanity into moral conduct. A bona fide atheist would realize that propping up morality with terror undermines it. Critias was not a bona fide atheist; he was a champion of the lies. He was committed to the political utility of the gods of shuddering awe. Since they share the same false assumption regarding the utility of the new gods, closet atheists wreak the same havoc on the world as theists. When endowed with political power, they display the same callous indifference to the suffering of others in this world. Morally speaking, closet atheists are likely to be even more reprehensible than theists. They lack the delusional, simpleminded naïveté of true believers. Instead, they consciously cultivate a cold, calculating bloody-mindedness devoid of all moral scruple as a badge of honor. Closet atheism entails a double standard—a callous immoralism for the initiated and a high-minded moralism for everyone else. Needless to say, closet atheists are not free from ideological delusions. They are deluded into thinking that they alone know what is best for humanity; they alone are the consummate disseminators of the lies that human beings need; they alone can rule the unruly multitude; they alone are fit for power; they alone have the gumption to do whatever it takes without flinching. Critias was a case in point. Closet atheism is still with us, and its proclivity for tyranny continues to be a threat in our time.

Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina in Canada. She is the author of several books, including Terror and Civilization (2004) and Aquinas and Modernity (2008). She is currently working on a book titled Socratic Mischief.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Critias believed not in religion but only in its utility. His closet atheism made him more reprehensible than many tyrants who were honest theists.

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