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Dialogues with History: The Platonic Picture of Critias and the Thirty

Brian Bigio

Stanford University

Plato’s Charmides, set in 429 B.C., is a dialogue between Socrates, the future democratic partisan Chaerephon and two future oligarchic politicians, Critias and Charmides, both relatives of Plato. The fact that Plato has combined in the same scenario the full spectrum of political ideologies strongly intimates that for him political history presented different shades of grey, rather than a simple dichotomy of black and white. However, scholars like Popper (1945), Davies (1971), Rhodes (1981), or Krentz (1982), have considered Socrates and his associates, particularly Plato, as partisans of an aristocratic ideology surreptitiously opposed to popular democratic tendencies. Such a scholarly view has caused a serious misrepresentation of Plato’s views on Critias. It wrongly suggests that Plato’s purpose in the Charmides is to defend Critias, remembered for being an extremist leader of the oligarchy of Thirty that violently ruled Athens after the Peloponnesian War (404 - 403 B.C.). Even if granted that Plato had a grudge against the restored democracy for putting Socrates to death, it does not follow that he wished to save his relative Critias from the democrats’ damnatio memoriae.

I contend that, on the contrary, Plato’s Charmides should be read as a critical examination of the claims made by oligarchic ideologies against democracy. First, I analyze two passages from Plato’s Apology and the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter, and conclude that they offer compelling evidence of Socrates’ and Plato’s disapproval of the oligarchy of the Thirty. Next, I discuss four arguments that show how Plato’s criticism actually agrees with other contemporaneous accounts of the Thirty. I conclude that there are no grounds for assuming with Dušanić (2000) or Tuozzo (2011) that Plato had a “fairly positive” view of Critias. Finally, I examine Plato’s characterization of Critias in the Charmides, and conclude that he is far from being portrayed as an ideal interlocutor. I find external support for this conclusion in the pseudo-Platonic Eryxias, a dialogue that replicates the strategy of the Charmides: to criticize Critias’ claim that the aristocracy has a monopoly of knowledge. Rather than supporting a failure of an ideology, Plato draws for his readers an important lesson from history.

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Texts and Contexts: Learning from History

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