Ideas that formed the Constitution: The Pioneers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato
by Rob Natelson – November 29, 2022
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).
Hellenic civilization was highly decentralized. The basic unit of government was the city-state. Decentralization tends to promote creativity and progress, and this certainly was true of the Greeks: They became the parents of modern thought. Cities such as Athens, Miletus in Asia Minor, and Syracuse in Sicily were seemingly inexhaustible fountains of talent. Indeed, Athens, like Florence, Italy, in future centuries, was so laden with talent that it could afford to waste it by killing or exiling some of its most brilliant citizens.
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.
The first three personalities in our list of political influences on the Constitution were all Athenians: Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato.
Socrates 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.
Like another famous teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates didn’t write down his ideas; he communicated them orally, largely through dialogue. His disciples preserved them in writing. Most of the disciples’ works survive only in fragments, but the writings of two authors are substantially complete. Those authors are Xenophon and Plato.
Xenophon 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).
Prince Cyrus aspired to the Persian throne, but was defeated in the battle of Cunaxa (401), near Babylonia in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The defeat stranded 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the middle of the Persian Empire. After their original commanders were captured and killed, Xenophon was elected as one of the replacements. The band traveled through seemingly endless hostile country back to Greece. You can read all about it in Xenophon’s book, “Anabasis” (“The March Upcountry”). Founding-era schoolboys read it in Greek.
After returning to Greece, Xenophon was exiled from Athens for reasons unknown, and he entered the service of Sparta. Among his works are some narrating the teaching of Socrates, the most important of which is the “Memorabilia.”
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.
The “Memorabilia” shows Socrates expounding a number of political ideas that, in modified form, proved influential with the American Founders. One was that government officials should rule, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the people. This is the core of the theory of “public trust” (pdf). Another was that freedom requires the exercise of self-control, and that only people with self-control can remain free.
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.
Plato 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.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015). He is a contributor to the Heritage Foundation’s “Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”