Socrates; drawing by David Levine


Socrates’ martyrdom and the genius of Plato made him a secular saint, the superior man confronting the ignorant mob with serenity and humor. This was Socrates’ triumph and Plato’s masterpiece. Socrates needed the hemlock, as Jesus needed the Crucifixion, to fulfill a mission. The mission left a stain forever on democracy. That remains Athens’ tragic crime.

But was the condemnation of Socrates a unique case? Or was he only the most famous victim in a wave of persecutions aimed at irreligious philosophers?

Two distinguished scholars, both justly respected, have put forward the view in recent years that fifth-century Athens, though often called the Age of the Greek Enlightenment, was also—at least in its latter half—the scene of a general witch hunt against freethinkers. 1

According to E.R. Dodds in his famous work, The Greeks and the Irrational, this witch hunt began with the passage in Athens of legislation so terrifying that one wonders why so many philosophers dared to flock there and by what miracle Socrates managed to avoid arrest for thirty years after its passage. Dodds wrote:

About 432 BC or a year or two later, disbelief in the supernatural and the teaching of astronomy were made indictable offenses. The next thirty-odd years witnessed a series of heresy trials…. The victims included most of the leaders of progressive thought at Athens—Anaxagoras, Diagoras, Socrates, almost certainly Protagoras also, and possibly Euripides.

Dodds said there were almost no aquittals. “In all these cases except the last,” he claimed, “the prosecution was successful: Anaxagoras may have been fined and banished; Diagoras escaped by flight; so, probably, did Protagoras; Socrates, who could have done the same, or asked for a sentence of banishment, chose to stay and drink the hemlock.” The evidence “is more than enough to prove,” Dodds concluded, “that the Great Age of Greek Enlightenment” was also marked by the “banishment of scholars, blinkering of thought and even (if we can believe the tradition about Protagoras) burning of books.” 2

A similar picture was drawn more recently by the late Arnaldo Momigliano in two essays he contributed to the fascinating but too little known Dictionary of the History of Ideas, one, “Freedom of Speech in Antiquity,” and the other, “Impiety in The Classical World.”3 Any reexamination of the trial of Socrates would be incomplete if it did not deal with these dark views, from such honored sources.

I believe the evidence for all this is belated and dubious—that the witch hunt fable originated, like some other notorious historical misconceptions, in Athenian comedy—in a lost play, fragments of which may someday turn up among new papyrus finds, which have added so much in the past century to our knowledge of classical antiquity.

No “evidence” of a witch hunt appears any earlier than in writers of the Roman era, principally Plutarch, who wrote about five centuries after Socrates. Plutarch’s distance in time from Socrates was as great as ours from Columbus, and the gulf in political outlook is as wide. The frequent expulsion of philosophers and other Greek teachers from Rome is well attested, and it was natural for writers of that time to assume that the Athenians were equally suspicious and intolerant. That also suited their contempt for democracy. The farther one turns back to the writers of Socrates’ own lifetime and the two generations after, the more difficult it becomes to find evidence of such previous persecutions. Indeed, the strongest rebuttal may be inferred from Plato himself, although—and especially because—he was as ready as any Roman aristocrat to believe the worst of the vulgar many.

Let us begin with the law against “disbelief in the supernatural and the teaching of astronomy,” which Dodds cited as the basis for this wave of prosecutions—a law sponsored by a man named Diopeithes.

So dramatic a departure from Athenian law and tradition should have provoked wide and bitter controversy. Yet the only mention of a law sponsored by Diopeithes in all antiquity is a solitary reference in Plutarch’s Life of Pericles.

All we know earlier of Diopeithes comes from Athenian Old Comedy: he was a favorite butt of its poets, who pictured him as a religious fanatic and wacky oracle-monger. Diopeithes—but not his decree—is mentioned in three plays of Aristophanes.4 The Pauly-Wissowa German encyclopedia of classical antiquity also lists references to him in four fragments from other writers of comedy. But nowhere else is he encountered in serious literature, as one would expect if he had been influential enough to put such an unprecedented enactment through the Athenian assembly.

Indeed the context in the Life of Pericles leads one to suspect that Plutarch was led astray by some recollection of another lost comedy that made fun of Diopeithes as well as of Pericles. Plutarch’s account is part of an extraordinary jumble that generations of scholars have failed to unravel.


Plutarch links a prosecution of Pericles himself with charges of impiety against his brilliant mistress, Aspasia, and his philosophic mentor, Anaxagoras. There are also a titillating assertion that Aspasia ran a private “house of assignation” for Pericles, and the allegation that he started the Peloponnesian War to divert public attention and restore his power, though even Plutarch admits lamely that “the truth about it is not clear.”5

Only one detail of Plutarch’s story is attested to by Thucydides. We know that Pericles in a moment of great dissatisfaction with his policies was once fined and temporarily removed from office by the Athenians. But this happened not before, but after, the Peloponnesian War began, when a second Spartan invasion of the lands around Athens and sufferings within the besieged city led to a demand for peace. Pericles paid a fine but soon rallied fresh support and was reelected to the leadership.6

So much was fact. Plutarch’s description of the impiety prosecutions, however, is highly improbable. “About this time also,” Plutarch wrote,

Aspasia was put on trial for impiety, Hermippus the comic poet being her prosecutor, who alleged further against her that she received free-born women into a place of assignation for Pericles. And Diopeithes brought in a bill providing for the public impeachment of such as did not believe in gods, or who taught doctrines regarding the heavens, directing suspicion against Pericles by means of Anaxagoras.

Plutarch says, “The people accepted with delight these slanders”; Pericles saved Aspasia “by shedding copious tears at the trial,” but “he feared for Anaxagoras so much that he sent him away from the city” and “kindled into flame” the conflict with Sparta to divert attention from all the charges against himself and his friends.7 Such a plot, at once philosophical and sexy, was made to order for the comic poets.

The telltale detail in Plutarch’s account is his statement that the prosecutor was “Hermippus the comic poet.” Of course a comic poet, like any other citizen, could initiate a prosecution under Athenian law. But we know of no other case in which a comic poet ever convicted himself of seriousness by taking his jokes and lampoons into court. In its article on Hermippus, the Pauly-Wissowa encyclopedia takes the Plutarchan account at face value and notes that Hermippus was the only comic poet who “did not limit his attacks on Pericles to the comic stage.”

Hermippus, I believe, would have made himself a laughingstock in Athens if he had stepped out of his role as a comic poet and tried to translate his jokes into a legal indictment. Indeed, it is hard to see how he could have found the time even if he had the inclination. He was prolific in his profession. Forty plays are attributed to him; we know the titles of ten and have one hundred fragments. He would have cut a strange figure as a prosecutor of impiety, since one of his own lost plays “impiously” made fun of the birth of Athena and was, as the Pauly-Wissowa observes, “the oldest example of comic treatment of a divine birth,” a genre much cultivated in later antiquity.

Pericles was one of Hermippus’ favorite targets. One of his plays—perhaps the one known as the King of the Satyrs—accused Pericles of “erotic insatiability.” Perhaps that explains his joke in accusing Aspasia of providing a private brothel for her indefatigable lover! Plutarch’s description of how Pericles saved his mistress from conviction is evidence enough that this account stems from comedy, not history. The incongruous spectacle of the aristocratic and notoriously standoffish Pericles shedding copious tears to save his mistress would have delighted an Athenian audience.

As for Plutarch’s suggestion that this may explain why Pericles started the Peloponnesian War, it is on a par with the theory that Aristophanes put forward in the Acharnians. There he suggested that it all began with a feud between two rival brothel keepers. Some of Athens’ gilded youth, more drunk than usual, stole Simaetha from a house in Megora—an ally of Sparta—and the Megorians in revenge “paid back the theft and raped of Aspasia’s harlots two.”8 This seems to have been standard bawdy fare in Athenian antiwar plays.

In fact, the suggestion that the Plutarchan account originated in a lost play by Hermippus was pointed out at least as long ago as the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, but in so inconspicuous a way that it attracted little attention. There, in volume 5, on Athens in its heyday, the great historian J.B. Bury contributed a chapter called “The Age of Illumination,” which included a section on “The Blasphemy Trials in Athens.” In this section—except for a revisionist footnote on Protagoras to which we will return later—Bury took at face value all the impiety trial stories.


But at the end of the volume in the Cambridge Ancient History there is appended “Notes on Points Especially on Chronology.” One of them, “The Attacks on the Friends of Pericles,” says:

It is possible that Aspasia was prosecuted for impiety [as related by Bury in a footnote on page 383 of the Cambridge Ancient History volume] but the statement that her accuser was the comic poet Hermippus, who added to it the charge of being the procuress for Pericles, makes us suspect that we have no more than a conflation of the belief in Aspasia’s free-thinking and the scurrility of comedy. The charge of being a procuress was brought also by Aristophanes in the Acharnians.9

The writer was F.E. Adcock, one of the three editors, with Bury and S.A. Cook, of the Cambridge Ancient History.

Adcock went on to note that the Plutarchan charge that Pericles started the war to divert attention from his troubles “was first brought by Aristophanes, ten years after the outbreak of the war, in the Peace,” and was “clearly the invention of a comic poet who rejoices in his extravagant novelty.” Adcock says it “was removed from its context and taken seriously by those who wished to blacken the character of Pericles.”

But what of the possibility that the decree of Diopeithes was also taken out of the context of a lost comedy by Hermippus and treated seriously to blacken the reputation of democratic Athens? The question is still unanswered. Adcock concluded that “the decree of Diopeithes is, doubtless, historical fact.” Adcock never explained why it was “doubtless.”

An admirable recent work by Mary R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Comic Poets, reaches a different conclusion. “The story that Hermippus charged Aspasia with impiety,” she wrote, “appears simply to replicate the plot of a comedy about her.” She puts the decree of Diopeithes in the same category, suggesting that “the notion of trials for impiety made particular sense” for later writers “because they offered precedents for Socrates’ condemnation.”10


Plutarch in his Life of Nicias gives a different version of the witch hunt. Nicias was the superstitious general in command of the Athenian naval expedition against Syracuse in the final years of the Peloponnesian War.

A surprise night attack on the city had been planned, “but just as everything was prepared for this and none of the enemy was on the watch,” Plutarch relates, there was an eclipse of the moon. “This was a great terror to Nicias and all those who were ignorant or superstitious enough to quake at such a sight.” He called off the assault when it could have succeeded and the expedition eventually ended in the greatest Athenian disaster of the war.

Plutarch attributes this setback to a favorite theme of his own, the supposedly superstitious character of the Athenian demos, and its hostility toward philosophical and astronomical speculation. Had the Athenians been more sophisticated—he implies—they would not have been frightened off by an eclipse of the moon.

Anaxagoras, Plutarch says, “was the first man to put in writing” a rational explanation of the moon’s eclipses, but his doctrine was not “in high repute” and was circulated in secret “among a few only.” Discretion was necessary; because “men could not abide the natural philosophers and ‘visionaries,’…they reduced the divine agency down to irrational causes, blind forces, and necessary incidents.” As a result of these popular prejudices, Plutarch says,

even Protagoras had to go into exile, Anaxagoras was with difficulty rescued from imprisonment by Pericles, and Socrates, though he had nothing to do with such matters, nevertheless lost his life.11

Plutarch does not explain why Protagoras was driven into exile. But more than a century later in Diogenes Laertius this story had taken on melodramatic details. According to this version, the first book from which Protagoras ventured to give a public reading in Athens was called On the Gods. In its preface Protagoras said, “As to the gods, I have no means of knowing that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”

According to Diogenes Laertius, this threw Athens into a frenzy. “For this introduction to his book,” he tells us, “the Athenians expelled him.” They also “sent around a herald to collect” the book “from all who had copies in their possession” and “burnt his works in the market-place.”12

A telltale incongruity should have disposed of this tale a long time ago Diogenes Laertius says Protagoras gave his reading at the home of Euripides. The Athenians were accustomed in his plays to hearing not just a mild Protagorean skepticism but aspersions on the gods that were downright insulting, as in lon’s scornful remarks about the criminal lusts of the Olympians,13 or downright atheistic, as in Hecuba’s prayer, in which she wonders whether Zeus is not merely “the necessity implicit in nature or a figment of mortal minds.”14

The conclusive answer to these Romane-ra fables is provided by Plato himself, though the clue seems to have been overlooked until the great Scottish classicist John Burnet called attention to it in 1914 in his Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato. All the nonsense about Protagoras in Cicero, Plutarch, and Diogenes Laertius should have been dissipated centuries ago by a passage in Plato’s Meno. Socrates is speaking to his future accuser, Anytus who has attacked Sophists—and, by implication, Socrates, too—for corrupting the youth.

Socrates replies that one of these teachers, Protagoras, “amassed more money by his craft than Pheidias—so famous for the noble works he produced—or any ten other sculptors.” And yet, Socrates adds, “how surprising that menders of old shoes and furbishers of clothes” could not go “undetected thirty days if they should return the clothes or shoes in worse condition than they received them” and would quickly starve to death, while for more than forty years all Greece failed to notice that Protagoras was corrupting his classes and sending his pupils away in a “worse state than when he took charge of them!” Socrates concludes that Protagoras had died at seventy and “retains undiminished to this day the high reputation he has enjoyed.”15

Burnet observed that this account in the Meno is “quite inconsistent” with the statement in Diogenes Laertius that Protagoras “was prosecuted and condemned for impiety” in 411 BC, only twelve years before the trial of Socrates. “Plato represents Sokrates,” Burnet wrote, “as saying things which make it impossible to believe that Protagoras was ever prosecuted for impiety at all.” For Socrates in the Meno made “a special point” of the fact that Protagoras’ “good name remained unsullied down to the supposed date of the dialogue, several years after his death.”16

Burnet rejected as “absurd” the story of Diogenes Laertius that the Athenian authorities collected and burned all copies of the book in which Protagoras expressed some skepticism about the gods. Burnet cited passages in the Theaetetus of Plato and in the Helen of the fourth-century orator Isocrates that show “that the work was widely read long after Protagoras died.”17

But it is surprising that Burnet failed to see that the speech Plato put into the mouth of Socrates in the Meno rebuts not only the fables in Diogenes Laertius but also those in Plutarch. For if we go back to this passage in the Meno and look again, we see that Socrates did not limit his defense to Protagoras but extended it to cover all the teachers whom Anytus stigmatized as Sophists. Socrates ended his speech by saying that it was not only the “high reputation” of Protagoras that had remained “undiminished to this day” but “a multitude of others too: some who lived before him, and others still living.” This is wholly inconsistent with the notion of a witch hunt.

Socrates asks Anytus triumphantly Now are we to take it, according to you had they wittingly deceived and corrupted the youth, or that they were themselves unconscious of it? Are we to conclude those who are frequently termed the wisest of mankind [sophistoi] to have been so demented as that?”

The reply made by Anytus to those new questions is also revealing. “Demented! Not they, Socrates,” Anytus answers.

Far rather the young men who pay them money, and still more the relatives who entrust young men to their charges; and most of all the cities that allow them to enter, and do not expel them, whether such attempt be made by stranger or citizen.18

He is complaining that Athens—and other Greek cities—are too tolerant of Sophists. That would be an odd remark if Athens had indeed only a few years earlier driven Protagoras out of the city, burned all copies of his book in the marketplace, and passed a “decree of Diopeithes” that initiated a general witch hunt against philosophers.

But Burnet’s acute inference from the Meno made too little impact on classical scholarship. Thirteen years later, in the Cambridge Ancient History, Bury retold all the old fables about Protagoras, though he added a footnote saying, “See Burnet’s Greek Philosophy I, p. 111 sqq. for reasons for rejecting the story with which the present writer is disposed to agree.”

But if Burnet’s observations had been accepted and carried to their logical conclusion, then the “Age of Illumination” was not also—as Bury still insisted—an age of witch hunting and “blasphemy trials.” Even now, while Burnet’s views about the case of Protagoras are generally accepted, the rest of the witch hunt account is still treated by most scholars as historical fact. Scholars, like journalists, hate to give up a good story so long as it can be attributed to some source however shaky.


Let us now turn to Anaxagoras the other famous philosopher who was supposed to have fallen victim to an Athenian witch hunt. Later centuries provide many diverse stories about him.

Our earliest surviving source for a trial of Anaxagoras is the historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote in the days of Julius Caesar and the Emperor Augustus. He tells the same story told by Plutarch—that Pericles started the Peloponnesian Wars to divert attention from scandalous charges brought against some of his friends. Diodorus adds that “the sophist Anaxagoras, who was Pericles’ teacher,” was “falsely accused” of impiety in the same affair.19 Diodorus takes it for granted that comedy could be read as history because he naively cites as proof, “mention has been made of this even by Aristophanes,” and quotes lines 603–606 from his antiwar play Peace. But actually Anaxagoras is mentioned neither in that play nor in the similar passages about the origins of the Peloponnesian War in the Acharnians. The Diodorus reference to Anaxagoras may have come from the same lost comedy by Hermippus that Plutarch seems to have made use of.

If there had been an impiety prosecution of Anaxagoras, one would expect some mention of it in Cicero, who wrote somewhat earlier than Diodorus. There are many references to Anaxagoras in Cicero’s philosophical works, and in two of his essays on oratory Cicero credits the eloquence of Pericles to the teaching of Anaxagoras.20 But nowhere does Cicero say that those teachings got either of them into trouble.

A rich crop of legends about Anaxagoras are harvested by Diogenes Laertius in the third century AD. They provide a jumble of inconsistencies, chronological and otherwise, that scholars are still trying to disentangle.

“Of the trial of Anaxagoras,” he writes, “different accounts are given.” He supplies four. One had Anaxagoras convicted of impiety, but added that Pericles got him off with a fine and a decree of banishment. A second version held that he was convicted of treasonable connections with Persia and escaped the death penalty by flight. The third account said he was in prison awaiting execution, when Pericles made a pathetic speech declaring himself a pupil of Anaxagoras and begging the people to free his teacher, which they did—but Anaxagoras “could not brook the indignity he had suffered and committed suicide.” A fourth version had Anaxagoras brought into court by Pericles “so weak and wasted” that he was acquitted “not so much by the merits of his case” but because the judges took pity on him!21 All but one of the authors cited by Diogenes are Alexandrians of the third century BC. One of them, Satyrus, is notorious for using not only Attic comedy but Greek tragedy as fact, as he did in his Life of Euripides.

The most thorough examination of these and other ancient accounts, including details added by Church Fathers anxious to convict the pagans of intolerance, is to be found in an unusual but neglected work, Anaxagoras and the Birth of Physics by Daniel E. Gershenson and Daniel A. Greenberg, in which the late Ernest Nagel of Columbia assigned a physicist and a classicist to write what was to be the inaugural volume of a history of physics.

All the ancient references to Anaxagoras’ life and work down to the Aristotelian commentator Simplicius in the seventh century AD are translated and analyzed by the two authors. They conclude that “the trial…is a persistent historical myth based on plausible reconstruction…because of its spectacular nature in posing him as the earliest martyr of science, and as the forerunner of Socrates.”22

Clearly, if the story was more than a later myth, this aspect of the case as a forerunner of that against Socrates would have been mentioned by those who had lived through the trial of Socrates or written about it in the years following his death. But there is no reference to a prosecution of Anaxagoras in Thucydides, Xenophon, or Plato.

The silence of any one writer may have many possible explanations, but the silence of all the “contemporaries” cannot be so easily dismissed. The most striking is that of Thucydides. Pericles is the hero of his history, but he makes no mention of any cabal to strike at Pericles through friends like Aspasia and Anaxagoras. Nor as the first “scientific” historian does he lend any credence to the scandalous and sexy explanation of how the Peloponnesian War started.23

The silence of the pro-Periclean Thucydides is matched by the silence in the anti-Periclean Xenophon and Plato. Xenophon attributes to Socrates the same reactionary views about astronomy as those of Diopeithes. He even quotes Socrates as saying that “he who meddles” in the study of the heavenly bodies “runs the risk of losing his sanity as completely as Anaxagoras, who took an insane pride in his explanation of the divine machinery.”24 But Xenophon never mentions any prosecution of Anaxagoras or any decree that would have made such astronomical speculation unlawful.

In Plato, Anaxagoras is discussed more often than any other philosopher, and there are many places where one would have expected some reference to his prosecution if it had really happened. In the Phaedrus Socrates credits Anaxagoras for Pericles’ “loftiness of mind”25 and skill in speaking but does not say that this association later caused Pericles political difficulties. In the Gorgias Plato had Socrates argue that Pericles was a bad “herdsman” as a statesman because he made his “herd” worse than he found it.26 Socrates claimed that the Athenians in the later years of Pericles “all but condemned him to death” for embezzlement! Here Plutarch’s story about the attack on Aspasia and Anaxagoras—if true—would have provided another dramatic illustration of how fickle and benighted the Athenian demos could be.

In the Phaedo, Socrates tells his disciples how thrilled he was as a youth when he first encountered in Anaxagoras the doctrine that mind rather than blind material forces set the universe in motion; he does not add that Anaxagoras, like himself, had become the victim of Athenian hostility to philosophic speculation.

In the Crito, the disciples could have argued that Socrates follow the example of Anaxagoras and flee Athens, reestablishing a school elsewhere as Anaxagoras is supposed to have done at Lampsacus.

The Apology is the place where one most expects mention of a prosecution of Anaxagoras. Burnet, to clinch his argument for disbelieving the story about the prosecution of Protagoras, says,

Further, there is no reference to any accusation of Protagoras in the Apology, though such a reference would have been almost inevitable if it had ever taken place. Sokrates has to go back to the trial of Anaxagoras to find a parallel to his own case. It is therefore safer to dismiss the story [about Protagoras] altogether.27

But this same inference from the silence of Socrates applies with equal force to Anaxagoras. Socrates nowhere mentions a trial of Anaxagoras as “a parallel to his own case.” Anaxagoras is indeed mentioned, but in quite a different connection and with a different purpose. His name comes up in the exchange between Socrates and his accuser Meletus. Socrates diverts attention from the actual language of his indictment by trapping the witless Meletus into accusing him of atheism. “Are you saying,” Socrates asks Meletus, “that I do not honor or believe in the gods the city believes in but that I honor other gods”—the actual charge in the indictment—“or that I do not myself believe in gods at all and that I teach this unbelief to other people?” The unwary Meletus replies, “That is what I say that you do not believe in gods at all.” Then Socrates says, “You amaze me, Meletus!… Do I not even believe that the sun or yet the moon are gods, as the rest of mankind do?” Meletus replies, “No, by Zeus, judges, since he says that the sun is a stone and the moon earth.”

Socrates is delighted by that answer. He sees a chance to expose Meletus to the court as a benighted ignoramus. “Do you think you are accusing Anaxagoras, my dear Meletus,” Socrates asks, “and do you so despise these gentlemen [i.e., the juror-judges] and think that they are so unversed in letters [apeirous grammaton] as not to know, that the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian are full of such utterances?”

Socrates goes on to say that the youth he is accused of leading astray with such irreligious ideas about the sun and moon can buy the book of Anaxagoras “for a drachma in the orchestra and laugh at Socrates, if he pretends they are his own, especially when they are so absurd!” 28 The word orchestra (orxestra) meant not only, as in our time, the forepart of the theater but also an open section near the agora where books and other wares were on sale.

This reference by Socrates conjures up a picture of Athens quite different from that in Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius—not of a bigoted city in which the works of a rationalistic philosopher were burned at the stake, but one in which such books were freely on sale and widely read. Socrates is paying his judges an implied compliment on their sophistication and open-mindedness.

If, on the other hand, Anaxagoras and Protagoras and other freethinkers had indeed been prosecuted for their views, such a compliment would have been unthinkable. He would have attacked the Athenians for their intolerance. He could not have spoken in so light a tone if Anaxagoras had also met a tragic fate.


The only credible parallel with the case of Socrates is that of Aristotle. In 323 BC, when Alexander died, Athens rose in joyful revolt against its hated Macedonian occupiers and restored the democracy. Aristotle, a lifelong protégé of the Macedonian court, fled the city, fearing for his life. An ancient tale quotes Aristotle as saying that he fled because he did not wish Athens to sin a second time against philosophy.29

A parallel with the case of Socrates is drawn by Diogenes Laertius. He claims that Aristotle fled rather than face a charge of impiety. The charge was based on a poem Aristotle wrote supposedly paying divine honors to the memory of a minor tyrant who had once befriended him. The poem does not bear out the charge. Anton-Hermann Chroust, who made the most thorough study of Aristotle’s flight, including Arabic sources, concludes that the most credible reason for his leaving Athens was the philosopher’s close ties to the Macedonians.30 According to Chroust, no formal charges had been filed and Aristotle left voluntarily, taking with him his personal property and servants. He withdrew to nearby Chalcis, probably in expectation of returning when Macedonian rule was restored, but he died there a year later. His school at the Lyceum was not closed down after he fled but remained in operation under Aristotle’s chosen successor, Theophrastus.

Macedonian rule over Athens was soon reimposed. But sixteen years later there was a second uprising and then, for the first time in Athenian history, the assembly did pass a law restricting the freedom of its philosophical schools.

The uprising had ended ten years of rule by a philosopher, Demetrius of Phalerum, who had been installed as dictator by the Macedonian general Cassander. In 307 BC rebellious elements allied themselves with a rival general in overthrowing Cassander and restoring the democracy. Demetrius fled, along with a group of philosophers associated with him. One of them was Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor.

One of the first laws by the reconstituted democracy forbade any philosopher to open a school in Athens without the express permission of the assembly. Both the Platonic and Aristotelian schools were tainted by the special privileges they enjoyed under Demetrius of Phalerum and they were regarded as sources of anti-democratic teaching and Macedonian influence.

The little-known story may be found in W.S. Ferguson’s Hellenistic Athens. “Philosophy,” Ferguson wrote, “had indeed been an aristocratic movement from its very inception. It had been recognized as dangerous to democratic principles from the time of Alcibiades and Critias, while ‘the greatest crime in Athenian history’ had been committed in defending democracy against the…teaching of Socrates.” 31

The new law would have ended academic freedom in Athens and subjected philosophic teaching to political regulation. But the law, though quickly passed, was soon attacked in the assembly. Democratic Athens never had a written constitution. But there was a special motion called a graphe paranomon, which was the equivalent of a charge of unconstitutionality. Any law passed by the assembly could be called up again within a year of passage for renewed debate and a vote to reconsider if it was attacked as paranomon, or contrary to fundamental law. If the assembly voted for the motion, the law was invalidated and its sponsor fined.

The law was obviously at odds with the free-speech traditions of democratic Athens. In the debate, the law was defended by a prestigious democrat, a nephew of Demosthenes named Demochares, who had led the revolt against Demetrius of Phalerum. Nevertheless, the assembly voted to repeal the law and fine its sponsor. Academic freedom was vindicated, and this laid the foundations for Athens’s survival as a venerable university town to which students like Cicero came from all over the Roman empire.

Three centuries later we get a glimpse of the intellectual atmosphere in Athens from an unexpected source, the New Testament, in its account of Saint Paul’s travels as a missionary. Elsewhere Paul met with persecution, but when Paul preached in Athens he found an open city, still fascinated by new ideas. Though the city was “full of idols” and he dared argue against paganism in the marketplace “with those who chanced to be there,” he met with intellectual curiosity rather than charges of impiety. Some of the “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” met with him and took him to the Areopagus, the seat of the city’s ancient aristocratic high court, not for trial but for a debate.

“You bring some strange things to our ears,” they said; “we wish to know therefore what these things mean.” The writer of Acts explains with evident surprise that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

So Paul preached on the Areopagus and received a mixed but not hostile reception. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead,” his most sensational doctrine, “some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.”‘ They were willing to suspend judgment and take time for reflection. Paul made some converts, one of them even a member of the court—described as Dionysius the Areopagite. The humble Christians were proud of so aristocratic a convert. Paul left Athens unmolested.32

That is the last glimpse that a meager history provides us of philosophical freedom in Athens until 529 AD, when the Emperor Justinian closed down the Platonic academy and the other philosophical schools of Athens forever under the pressure of Christian intolerance and imperial avarice; their rich endowments were tempting.

So from the sixth century BC to the sixth century AD, philosophy enjoyed freedom in Athens. That was twelve hundred years, or about twice as long as the period of free thought from the Renaissance to our own day.

The sad little story of how the schools were finally closed is told by Gibbon in Chapter 40 of the Decline and Fall, of course with his unmatchable eloquence, but also with a tribute to democracy unexpected from an eighteenth-century source. “The studies of philosophy and eloquence,” he wrote, “are congenial to a popular state, which encourages the freedom of inquiry, and submits only to the force of persuasion.”33 Pericles could not have wished for a finer epitaph on his city and the free traditions it preserved to the very brink of the Dark Ages.

Copyright © 1988 I.F.Stone

This Issue

January 21, 1988