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10/24/2004                                                                                       View Comments

The Critias fragment

sent in by Ficino

I thought readers of Ex-Christian might be interested in this expression of atheistic sentiment from the 5th cent. BCE in Athens. It's a fragment of the play, Sisyphus, attributed to Critias or Euripides. I'd send it in as a "letter" but I don't know how to do that. I tried sending a message to the webmaster but, as happened at first with my testimony, I don't think it went through. Maybe the Sisyphus fragment isn't germane to the interests of the website, but if you think it is, here's a link to an e-text:

Here's the text written out:

The Critias fragment

from Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos ix 54
(trans. R. G. Bury, rev. by J. Garrett)

I revised Bury's translation a few years ago when I was translating a book on Aristotle by Richard Bodéüs, who discusses the Critias fragment in chapter 3. The book has been since published by State University of New York Press: Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals (2000).--J. G. 8-09-01

1 A time there was when disorder ruled
Human lives, which were then, like lives of beasts,
Enslaved to force; nor was there then reward
For the good, nor for the wicked punishment.

5 Next, it seems to me, humans established laws
For punishment, that justice might rule
Over the tribe of mortals, and wanton injury be subdued;
And whosoever did wrong was penalized.
Next, as the laws held [mortals] back from deeds

10 Of open violence. but still such deeds
Were done in secret,--then, I think,
Some shrewd man first, a man in judgment wise,
Found for mortals the fear of gods,
Thereby to frighten the wicked should they

15 Even act or speak or scheme in secret.
Hence it was that he introduced the divine
Telling how the divinity enjoys endless life,
Hears and sees, and takes thought
And attends to things, and his nature is divine,

20 So that everything which mortals say is heard
And everything done is visible.
Even if you plan in silence some evil deed
It will not be hidden from the gods: for discernment
Lies in them. So, speaking words like these,

25 The sweetest teaching did he introduce,
Concealing truth under untrue speech.
The place he spoke of as the gods' abode
Was that by which he might awe humans most,--
The place from which, he knew, terrors came to mortals

30 And things advantageous in their wearisome life--
The revolving heaven above, in which dwell
The lightnings, and awesome claps
Of thunder, and the starry face of heaven,
Beautiful and intricate by that wise craftsman Time,--

35 From which, too, the meteor's glowing mass speeds
And wet thunderstorm pours forth upon the earth.
Such were the fears with which he surrounded mortals,
And to the divinity he gave a fitting home,
By this his speech, and in a fitting place,

40 And [thus] extinguished lawlessness by laws.

Note. Sextus Empiricus (3rd c. AD) assumes that "Critias" is the same Critias as Plato's uncle, the leader of the Thirty tyrants who ruled Athens briefly at the end of the Peloponnesian War. This citation is generally taken to be an extract from a tragedy or satirical drama called Sisyphus, a discourse placed in the mouth of one of its characters. If the historical Critias is its source, then this document goes back to the 5th century B.C. In any case, it probably reflects ideas of approximately that time.

Cheers, Ficino

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