PLATO: Autobiographical Notes

The Thirty Tyrants

Plato Epistle 7 (324b–326b):
When I was a young man, I had the same ambition as many others. I thought of entering public life as soon as I came of age. And certain happenings in public affairs favored me, as follows. The constitution we then had, being anathema to many, was overthrown, and a new government ws set up, consisting of fifty-one men: two groups, one of eleven and another of ten, to police the market place and perform other necessary duties in the City and Piraeus respectively; and above them Thirty other officials with absolute powers. (324d) Some of these men happened to be relatives of mine [Kritias, Plato's mother Periktione's first-cousin; and Charmides, Periktione's brother], and they invited me to join them at once in what seemed to be a proper undertaking. My attitude toward them is not surprising, because I was young. I thought that they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice, so that I watched them eagerly to see what they would do.

But as I watched them, they showed in a short itme that the preceding constitution has been a precious thing. (324e) Among their other deeds they named Socrates, an older friend of mine, whom I should not hesitate to call the most wise and just man of that time, as one of a group sent to arrest a certain citizen [Leon of Salamis] who was to be put to death illegally, planning thereby to make Socrates a party to their actions, willingly or unwillingly. (325a) But he refused, risking the utmost danger, rather than be an associate in their impious deeds. When I saw all of this and other thinks like them of no little consequence, I was appalled and drew back from that reign of injustice

Not long afterwards the rule of the Thirty was overthrown and with it the entire consitution. And once again I felt the desire, this time more strongly, to take part in public and political affairs. (325b) Now many deplorable things occurred during those troubled days, and it is not surprising that under cover of the revolution too many old enmities were avenged; but in general those who returned from exile acted with great restraint. By some chance, however, powerful persons brought into court this same friend Socrates, preferring against him a most shameless accusation, (325c) and one which he, of all men, least deserved. For the prosecutors charged him with impiety, and the jury condemned and put to death the very man who, at the time when his accusers were themselves in misfortune and exile, had refused to have a part in the unjust arrest of one of their friends.

The more I reflected upon what was happening, upon what kind of men were active in politics, and upon the state of our laws and customs, and the older I grew, the more I realized how difficult it is to manage a city's affairs rightly. For I saw it was impossible to do anything without friends and loyal followers; (325d) and to find such men ready to had would be a piece of sheer good luck, since our city was no longer guided by the customs and practices of our fathers, while to train up new ones was anything but easy. And the corruption of our written laws and our customs was proceeding at such amazing speed that whereas at first I had been full of zeal for public life, (325e) after I noted these changes and saw how unstable everything was, I became in the end quite dizzy. And though I did not cease to reflect how an improvement could be brought about in our laws and in the whole constitution, yet I refrained from action, waiting for a proper time.

(326a) At last I came to the conclusion that all existing states are badly governed and the condition of their laws practically incurable, without some miraculous remedy and the assistance of fortune. And I was forced to say, in praise of true philosophy, that from her height alone was it possible to discern what the nature of justice is, either in the state or in the individual, and that the ills of the human race would never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy.

© 10/28/2003


May 28, 2009 3:54 PM

John Paul Adams, CSUN

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