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Plato’s dialogues generally contain two types of characters: Socrates and his own students, and, acting as dialectical foils, contemporary Greek sophists such as Gorgias, Meno, and Euthyphro. This exchange leads to Plato’s presentation of Socratic-Platonic ideas to the reader, either by Socrates' irony-laden verbal sparring with the sophists or his only mildly more polite discussions with students, such as in the Crito.
Only rarely do characters appear who do not fit into one of these two categories (outside of the uncharacteristically populous Symposium), and it is even more rare that any such character might play a direct role in a dialogue. The figure of Anytus is a singular exception. Anytus is a politician, not a philosopher, and in fact appears twice: in a key speaking role in the Meno, where he is interrogated by Socrates as to the teaching of virtue, and as a much-referenced player in the trial of Socrates - specifically, as one of Socrates’ three accusers alongside the poet Meletus and the orator and rhetorician Lycon.
Plato gives Anytus an uncommon treatment as well - uncommonly critical, in fact, even compared to the sophist characters in other dialogues. Anytus suffers deficiency in triplicate in Plato’s eyes: first, he is an accomplished democrat and thus a representative of a system Plato found dangerously foolish; second, he is an uncompromising traditionalist who cannot and cares not to distinguish between different types of philosophical inquiry; third, he, specifically, is surmised to be the real power behind the trial and execution of Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the main character of the dialogues.
Plato presents, in the Republic, the stages of a degenerative state from his perfect ideal of leadership by philosopher-"guardians", with democracy as the second-to-most-degenerate state (preceding only outright tyranny). Anytus, an accomplished politician under a system which "comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power. . ." was seen as, by definition, an unworthy ruler, because of the lack of wisdom of the populace that elected him. As a democratic official, Anytus was an odd combination of upstart and traditionalist - he promoted democracy in Athens through tumultuous revolution, but had no desire to shake up the populace that supported him.
Born into a middle-class family of tanners and a general in the Peloponnesian War, he overcame charges of treason following a loss to the Spartans (possibly by a well-placed bribe to the jurors), and went on to help lead the democratic revolt of 403 BCE against Athens’ oligarchic Thirty Tyrants. Anytus’ refusal to compensate himself for his own loss of property under months of oligarchy, as well as his key support for the Amnesty of Eucleides, which proscribed prosecution of crimes occurring before or during oligarchy, made him increasingly popular.
Anytus’ appearance in the Meno occurs during the discussion of "teachers of virtue", and is prefaced by Socrates’ extensive praise of Anytus’ parentage and virtuous origins, while pointedly omitting his actions as a politician or citizen. Socrates interrogates Anytus as to the wisdom of sending Meno to acclaimed "teachers" - sophists - to learn virtue, but one of many subtexts of this exchange is the irony inherent to Plato in asking an advantaged and well-taught citizen, who has nevertheless descended to the vulgar position of democrat, whether virtue is something one gains by instruction.
Socrates points out that "the majority of Athenians believe" that Anytus’ upbringing and education were top-rate, as "they are electing him to the highest offices". This is a sarcastic observation by Plato, who would consider success by popular election to be rather opposed to virtue as a leader, as it would make one subject to pandering by the masses of unwise citizens. Anytus is viewed by Plato as an example of Athenian democracy and "the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city", a populist whose own support for amnesty simply made for minor difficulty in the accusation of Socrates (who had to be brought up on charges relating only to his actions following the democrats’ victory in 403).
One must review Anytus’ interaction with Socrates in the Meno in order to gain an understanding of how Anytus, while a revolutionary, was also (at least as a character in Plato’s work) a reactionary, specifically to the methods and ideas of contemporary figures in Greek and Athenian thought and teaching. Socrates teases Anytus by asking him if he should not send Meno, who seeks to learn virtue, to the most popular teachers on the topic: that is, the sophists. Anytus reacts disgustedly: "may no one of my household or friends. . .be mad enough to go to these people. . .for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers." Anytus had distaste for the sophists, whose teachings were most likely in rivalry with the control exerted by the state and its extensions; it remains a common tactic by a politician seeking support to pit oneself against an enemy, real or imagined, to a vague "way of life" supposedly shared by every citizen. As many citizens no doubt feared the sophists, whose popular discourses ran the gamut in their definitions of what was and was not divine, virtuous, and any other number of subjects which had previously been in the realm of tradition and religion, Anytus’ foe of choice was obvious. Socrates fell neatly into this same amorphous definition, as his understanding of morality was certainly not orthodox, and thus incurred Anytus’ politically expedient wrath.
Plato is not kind to Anytus’ populist idea that "any Athenian gentleman" would be a better teacher of good than a "sophist" (which covered Socrates in Anytus’ eyes). Socrates counters with examples of well-raised and well-educated men of virtuous fathers, "good sons" in the vein of Anytus himself, who nevertheless were not known for their own virtue - did those fathers impart expensive skills like horsemanship or rhetoric and yet neglect "free" instruction in right and wrong? Anytus is not the quickest of Plato’s characters, but he understands what Socrates is implying. "I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people," replies the irked politician. "I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful." After Anytus departs, Socrates slyly points out that Anytus thinks Socrates is publicly slandering him, but that the Athenian politico doesn’t really understand slander (one of many unstated qualifications is that slander must, of course, be false).
Anytus, in his last appearance in the life of Socrates, makes plain his most key acquaintance with Plato - the accuser, and the indirect executor, of his teacher. The principal of Socrates’ three accusers, traditionally, was Meletus the poet, who swore out the affidavit charging Socrates with "corruption of the youth" and "refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the State and of introducing new and different gods". However, Plato notes that Meletus was unknown to him before the trial, and it may be that the real power behind the accusation was Anytus. While Meletus’ motivation, beyond personal conviction and the rather dim responses he gives in the Apology, are unknown, Anytus had good reason to promote the conviction, and indeed, the execution of Socrates. Socrates’ distaste for democracy, as presented by Plato, was a direct threat to Anytus’ personal power and acclaim as a democrat; Socrates was also connected to some of the key figures who ruled Athens during the eight months of oligarchy before the democrats’ victory. Attacking Socrates at the point of religious dispute - something which could paint the philosopher as an evil beyond mere political disagreement - would appeal to Anytus’ constituency, who undoubtedly, like him, viewed the unorthodox views of philosophers as a threat to Athens.
The accusation of "corrupting the youth" pertained to the crowds of young men who followed Socrates to hear his disputations (and generally represented the fear of unorthodox and their ability to lead men away from their traditional lives in youth). There was, of course, another aspect to such relationships - the personal and sexual intimacy of such students. Shockingly, Anytus’ own son had, according to Plato, "a brief association" with Socrates, who found him "not lacking in spirit". According to Xenophon, Socrates also advised Anytus’ son to escape from the family business of tanning. There was likely little doubt in Plato’s mind that Anytus’ attack on Socrates was vulgarly personal, as well as politically petty. What we know about Anytus’ involvement in the trial itself comes exclusively from Plato’s record of Socrates’ responses, which mainly present Anytus and the others as upset with Socrates’ revelation of their own pretenses at knowledge. It is known that Anytus, among the three, demanded the death penalty for Socrates’ crimes, overtop of exile (which Socrates claimed that he would refuse anyway, if offered). This is the last known of Anytus, other than his immediate victory in judicial condemnation of Socrates.
Anytus, perhaps more so than many of Plato’s characters, remains recognizable in the modern world: an opportunistic politician bent on the removal of anyone who might pose a threat to his reign. The historicity of this representation is, of course, open to question; primary sources on Anytus’ political career remain few and far between. However, Anytus serves a key role within the dialogues that makes understanding of his character fruitful in interpretation.