By the beginning of the fifth century before the Christian Era (500 B.C.E.), Greek civilization had spread far beyond mainland Greece. Hellenic colonies dominated the shores around the Black Sea; the northern Mediterranean as far as Spain; many of the Mediterranean islands, including much of Sicily; and western Asia Minor (today’s Turkey).
In 490, Athenians defeated the Persian Empire at the battle of Marathon, thereby assuming a leadership position in Greece. By the middle of the 400s, Athens controlled a loose empire extending around the Aegean Sea. However, this empire encompassed only a small part of the Greek world.
The armed forces of Sparta and Syracuse broke the political power of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–404), but Athens continued to be a center of learning. It remained so throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Cicero (106–44) studied in Athens, and sent his son to study there as well.
SocratesSocrates was born about 470 and distinguished himself as an infantryman in the Peloponnesian War. He also served Athens in a few minor political offices. But what made him famous was his teaching.
Socrates’s passion was making friends and finding ways to turn those friends into better, more effective people. Socrates became famous for his frugal and unusual lifestyle: He would wander about town barefoot, followed by students, engaging citizens in conversation. Yet Socrates was by no means a counterculture figure or a dropout. As just noted, he served his city in various capacities, and he was a familiar figure in Athenian society.
When Socrates was 70 years old, a poet named Meletus raised criminal charges against him for allegedly undermining Athenian religion and corrupting Athenian youth. A jury found Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death. As was common in such cases, Socrates was given multiple opportunities to avoid both the sentence and the punishment. According to Xenophon, his decision to die was based on a desire to avoid the impending physical and mental deterioration, and resulting misery, of old age.
XenophonXenophon was born in Athens in about the year 430. Like Socrates and Plato, he enjoyed what was in those days a long life. Unlike his fellow disciple Plato, Xenophon didn’t devote his life to learning. He became a soldier and enlisted as a mercenary in the army of a Persian prince named Cyrus (who shouldn’t be confused with his ancestor, King Cyrus the Great).
Xenophon became highly regarded in his own lifetime as a soldier and historian, but made no pretense of being a scholar at the level of Plato. In my opinion, though, the Socrates Xenophon portrays is more realistic and more human than the one portrayed by Plato. Because Plato inserted so many of his own views in purportedly Socratic dialogue, Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates’s views may be the more accurate version.
Xenophon also related Socrates’s division of forms of government into kingship (monarchy), aristocracy, plutocracy (which overlaps oligarchy), democracy, and tyranny. Kingship is rule by one person in accordance with the law. Tyranny is rule by one person not subject to law. Aristocracy is government by those who meet certain legal requirements. Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy. Democracy is rule by the people.
PlatoPlato was born in either 428 or 427 and lived for 80 years. As a young man, he became a pupil of Socrates, and after the master’s death, Plato began to teach. In the 380s, he founded the Academy—a sort of proto-university. He traveled extensively, including three trips to Syracuse at the request of influential people in that city.
Plato applied Socrates’s methods to Socrates’s ideas to develop his own conclusions. It’s often difficult to figure out how many of the conclusions in Plato’s works are attributable to Socrates and how many are Plato’s.
Several of Plato’s books were widely read during the 18th century, including “The Republic” and “The Laws.” The former expounded the view that the human psyche (soul) has three parts—reason, spirit, and appetite. It extended that view to the ideal city-state, which, Plato said, should have three classes of citizens: guardians (rulers), soldiers, and workers.
Plato refined Socrates’s classification of political systems and suggested that the better political forms tend to degenerate into corrupt forms. Aristocracy, for example, becomes oligarchy, and democracy becomes tyranny.
“The Laws” was a later and more realistic work than “The Republic.” It recommended what came to be called a “mixed constitution” (which we’ll discuss in conjunction with Polybius). Plato proposed that a city-state have an assembly of all citizens with prior military service. The assembly would elect officials and perform a few other functions. Daily business would be carried on by officials and by an annually elected representative council. “Guardians of the law” elected for 20-year terms would comprise a judiciary with a very wide portfolio.
The next installment will explain in greater depth how the ideas of Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato influenced the Constitution.