Critias was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Athens in 460 BC. He was also a leading member of the Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy (rule by few) which took over Athens. The Thirty was a brutal regime responsible for the death of 1500 Athenians. Critias was related to Socrates, and Socrates’ death is seen in connection to the Athenians hatred of Critias, who was a brutal tyrant before the Thirty were replaced by a democracy. Critias even killed one of his fellow members without trial when opposed. In the Seventh Letter, Plato writes that it is because of Critias that he didn’t go into politics. Critias is known for his support of law (nomos) as well as his atheism, believing that the Gods were made up to trick people into doing things. He is featured as a character in Plato’s dialogues Protagoras and Charmides.
Critias came from an aristocratic background and believed that character was of supreme importance, saying that “a noble character is more credible than law, for no orator (speaker) can overcome it.” He believed, like other sophists, that people can be taught to have good character, although unlike other sophists he didn’t teach for pay. He was also a supporter of law, believing that it is necessary for the existence of civilized society and that it is what has allowed humans to rise above animals. Still, laws are human creations made to govern people, and someone of a noble character is above the law.
He also distinguished between the perception of the senses and understanding through the mind, believing that people would be less deceived if they had more understanding. He wrote a play entitled Sysiphus in which he says that the Gods of ancient Greek mythology were the invention of a crafty wise person, as were laws, in order to trick people into believing in supernatural powers. In addition to philosophy, he also wrote history, drama and poetry. He represented the ability for someone to be both well learned and integrated into the fabric of Athenian’s intellectual culture, while at the same time being a ruthless politician.