The ideas that formed the Constitution, part 3: The pioneers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato



This is the third in a series of essays on the ideas behind the Constitution. You can find the first two essays here and here.

By the beginning of the fifth century BCE (500 BCE), Greek civilization had spread far beyond mainland Greece. Hellenic colonies dominated the shores of the Black Sea; the northern Mediterranean to Spain; many Mediterranean islands, including much of Sicily; and western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).

Hellenic civilization was highly decentralized. The basic unit of government was the city-state. Decentralization tends to favor creativity and progress, and this was certainly the case with the Greeks: they became the parents of modern thought. Cities like 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 squander it by killing or exiling some of its brightest citizens.

In 490, the Athenians defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Marathon, thus assuming a leading position in Greece. By the mid-400s, Athens controlled a loose empire stretching 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 also sent his son to study there.

The first three figures on our list of political influences on the Constitution were all Athenians: Socrates, Xenophon and Plato.


Socrates was born around 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’ passion was to make friends and find ways to turn those friends into better, more effective people. Socrates became famous for his frugal and unusual lifestyle: he walked barefoot through the city, followed by students, engaging in conversation with the citizens. Yet Socrates was by no means a counterculture figure or a dropout. As I just noted, he served his city in various capacities and he was a familiar figure in Athenian society.

When Socrates was 70, a poet named Meletus brought 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 had multiple opportunities to avoid both pain and punishment. According to Xenophon, his decision to die was based on a desire to avoid the impending physical and mental deterioration, and consequent misery, of old age.

Like another famous teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates did not write down his ideas; he communicated them orally, largely through dialogue. His disciples kept them in writing. Most of the disciples’ works survive only in fragments, but the writings of two authors are virtually complete. These authors are Xenophon and Plato.


Xenophon was born in Athens around the year 430. Like Socrates and Plato, he enjoyed a long life at the time. Unlike his fellow student Plato, Xenophon did not devote his life to learning. He became a soldier and enlisted as a mercenary in the army of a Persian prince named Cyrus (not to be confused with his ancestor, King Cyrus the Great).

Prince Cyrus aspired to the throne of Persia, but was defeated at the Battle of Cunaxa (401), near Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The defeat pinned 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 group traveled through a seemingly endless hostile country to Greece. You can read all about it in Xenophon’s book, “Anabasis” (“The March Upcountry”). The schoolchildren of the founding era read it in Greek.

After his return to Greece, Xenophon was exiled from Athens for unknown reasons, and he entered the service of Sparta. Among his works there are those that relate the teaching of Socrates, the most important of which is the “Memorabilia”.

Xenophon became highly regarded during his lifetime as a soldier and historian, but did not claim to be a scholar on the level of Plato. In my opinion, however, the portrait of Socrates Xenophon is more realistic and more human than that portrayed by Plato. Because Plato inserted so many of his own views into an allegedly Socratic dialogue, Xenophon’s description of Socrates’ views may be the most accurate version.

The “Memorabilia” show Socrates expounding a number of political ideas which, in modified form, proved influential with the American Founders. The first was that government officials should govern, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the people. This is the heart of the “public trust” theory (pdf). Another was that freedom requires the exercise of self-control and only those who control themselves can remain free.

Xenophon also related Socrates’ division of forms of government into kingship (monarchy), aristocracy, plutocracy (which overlaps with oligarchy), democracy, and tyranny. The royalty is ruled by one person according to law. Tyranny is ruled by a person not subject to the law. Aristocracy is the government of those who meet certain legal requirements. The plutocracy is run by the rich. Democracy is governed by the people.

A statue of Plato from the Academy of Athens. (Anastasios71/Shutterstock)


Plato was born in 428 or 427 and lived to be 80 years old. 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 kind of proto-university. He traveled widely, including three trips to Syracuse at the request of influential people in that city.

Plato applied Socrates’ methods to Socrates’ ideas to develop his own conclusions. It is often difficult to determine how many conclusions in Plato’s works are attributable to Socrates and how many are to Plato.

Several books by Plato were widely read in the 18th century, notably “The Republic” and “The Laws”. The first expounded the idea that the human psyche (soul) has three parts – reason, mind and appetite. He extended this view to the ideal city-state which, according to Plato, should have three classes of citizens: guardians (rulers), soldiers and workers.

Plato refined Socrates’ classification of political systems and suggested that the best political forms tend to degenerate into corrupt forms. Aristocracy, for example, becomes oligarchy, and democracy becomes tyranny.

“Les Lois” was a later and more realistic work than “La République”. He recommended what came to be called a “mixed constitution” (which we will discuss with Polybius). Plato proposed that a city-state should have an assembly of all citizens with prior military service. The assembly would elect officials and perform a few other functions. Day-to-day business would be conducted by officials and by a representative council elected annually. The “guardians of the law” elected for a 20-year term would include a judiciary with a very broad portfolio.

The next episode will explain in more detail how the ideas of Socrates, Xenophon and Plato influenced the Constitution.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Rob Natelson


Robert G. Natelson, former professor of constitutional law and senior scholar of constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, is the author of “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015).


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