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WHO IS CRITIAS?
Written by Graham | Created: Friday 23rd August 2019 @ 1127hrs | Revised: Friday 18th September 2020 @ 2335hrs; Friday 16th October 2020 @ 2329hrs
One crucial point that is missed by many who advocate for the reality of Atlantis is that Plato himself never makes that claim on his own authority: in the dialogues, Plato presents Critias as the narrator of the Atlantis tale, as well as the greatest advocate for its veracity. But who was he?
On this page, I lay out my personal opinion on the matter, which is that Plato's Critias is to be identified by the Critias who ruled in Athens during the oligarchy of 404-403 BC.
THE "TRUE" NARRATOR OF THE ATLANTIS TALE: PLATO OR CRITIAS?
TRUTH, LIES AND ATLANTIS
There are a number of occasions in the Timaeus and Critias when the truth of the account of Athens and Atlantis is stressed. On all but one of these occasions, the speaker making the claim is Critias, who also narrates the story. Indeed, so adamant is Critias that what he is saying is a true recollection of the story told to his predecessor Solon by the Egyptian priests that even so great an authority as Plato's mentor Socrates is prepared to suspend his disbelief [Tim. 26e].
The big question is should we take Critias' claims at face value?
CRITIAS' SHORTCOMINGS AS A NARRATOR
As a narrator, Critias falls short of his stated purpose, which is to show Socrates' ideal city in a state of war. A few references to wars between those on either side of the Pillars of Heracles and Athens' position of leadership among the Greeks, as well as their desperate last stand when abandoned by their allies aside, there is no real sense of Athens in battle or of the ebb and flow of the war. No pitched battles are described in any detail. Rather, Critias appears to get lost, enamoured as he appears to be with his description of Atlantis and the goings-on therein. He is also highly unreliable, contradicting himself on a number of occasions: -
He cannot decide whether the 9,000 year figure refers to the founding of Athens (a statement attributed to an ancient Saïte priest) [Tim. 23de] or the war against Atlantis [Crit. 108e].
He cannot decide if his knowledge of these events is derived from memory alone or not. In the Critias, he pointedly invokes Mnemosyne [Crit. 108d], the muse associated with memory, as, by his own admission in the Timaeus, he "had forgotten too much" [Tim. 26a] - which prevented him from speaking up about this remarkable parallel to Socrates' city the previous day - but adds that Dropides had notes written by Solon which he studied as a child in addition to what he heard [Crit. 113b].
Also, in spite of his apparent confidence in the truth of the matter he describes, Critias is at pains to base his description on the foundations lain by Timaeus' creation story and Socrates' ideal state [Tim. 27ab], declining the opportunity to give his speech before Timaeus despite having already introduced Atlantis despite Socrates' eagerness to hear of it.
Another important point to consider is the depiction of Critias is consistent with his being a sophist, a group of lawyer-orators for whom Plato had little time. The infamous Critias of 404-403 BC was so well-known for both speechmaking and the writing of constitutions that, some centuries later, Athenaeus felt the need to mention a tradition which held that there were two men by this name: he suggests that the non-political writings of Critias were the work of a different man by the name, with the member of the Thirty only authoring "the Well-balanced Constitutions" (Deipnosophistae [4.184d]) - this latter interest being perhaps best attested the Platonic dialogue which bears his name.
CRITIAS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
I have already stated my preference for the Critias of the narrative being Critias the Athenian ruler of 404-403 BC. Here are a few brief biographical notes on this man: -
- Critias the son of Callaeschrus was born in about 460 BC.
- as a young man, he received the best education then available and was noted for his ability with the flute.
- an inscription, IG 13 1022, records two victories at the Isthmian and Nemean Games in 438 BC by a certain [Critia]s son of Callaeschrus, which is suggestive of Critias' athletic prowess.
- Critias also dabbled in non-political writing, producing a number of plays, including the Sisyphus, a fragment of which (if not a misidentified work of Euripides) states that: "a wise and clever man invented fear (of the gods) for mortals, that there might be some means of frightening the wicked [...] covering up the truth with a false theory."
- at some point, Critias became the ward of his youthful cousin (and later close ally) Charmides. Charmides was the younger brother of Perictione, the mother of Plato, emphasising the close relationship between these two men.
- Critias' relationship with Charmides appears as a theme in Plato's Charmides, which correlates with statements from Xenophon's Memorabilia, in which Socrates mocks Critias' lust for Euthydemus by comparing it to "a little pig scratching itself against a rock" [1.2.29-30], which suggests that Critias' interest in young men was somewhat above and beyond the norm.
- Critias was rumoured to have played a part in the infamous desecration of the herms (statues which marked boundaries in ancient Attica, where Athens is located), whose main instigator was another associate of Socrates', the mercurial Alcibiades.
- Critias' stance on the oligarchy of the "Four Hundred" in 411 BC is unknown. This was achieved through Alcibiades' promises of Persian support. What is known is that Critias posthumously prosecuted one of the group's leaders, Phrynicus, after the restoration of democracy in 410. Ironically, this Phrynichus was the leader of the extreme wing of these oligarchs (a role Critias would play more successfully seven years later), opposing the more moderate faction led by Alcibiades and including Theramenes.
- Xenophon records a report attributed to Theramenes which places Critias in Thessaly at some point between 406 and 404 BC (Critias was in exile at the time). Whilst there, he was working with a certain Prometheus to bring about a democratic revolution and "arming the Penestae (a class of hereditary serfs in Thessaly) against their masters."
- after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the victorious Spartans appointed Critias as one of five ephors (a high official in the Spartan constitution) in Athens.
- soon afterwards, Critias established a new oligarchic constitution, becoming of of the "Thirty," who governed the state, appointing his ward Charmides as one of the "Ten," a faction which governed Athens' port Piraeus on behalf of the Thirty.
- Critias emerged as something of an Athenian Robespierre, instituting a reign of terror, which saw multiple executions, including that of Theramenes, a veteran of the 411 BC oligarchy and a fellow member of the Thirty.
- it was this penchant for violent reckonings which cost Critias and his allies the support of Plato, according to the Seventh Letter (the most likely of Plato's letters to be regarded as actually having been written by Plato): initially sympathetic to the oligarchy, which featured men of his own noble class (and included relatives such as Critias and Charmides), he soon became disillusioned by Critias' cohorts' actions, citing their demand that Socrates go to apprehend a man condemned to execution as a special bugbear. This experience was enough to deter the young Plato from entering politics.
- another possible victim of Critias' tyranny was his former associate-turned-enemy Alcibiades, who was assassinated in Thrace in 403 BC.
- Critias was eventually killed fighting bravely against the pro-democratic forces led by Thrasybulus in May of that year.