That Sinking Feeling
Atlantis Part I
|Destruction of Atlantis|
One of the most popular of myths has been Plato’s tale of Atlantis found in two of his dialogues. The dialogues are the Timaeus and the Critias. Both dialogues were written late in Plato’s career as a philosopher and writer. They represent a late development in Plato’s ideas.
Now it is important to remember that Plato’s original conception was to write three dialogues of which the Critias represented the middle. The Timaeus was the first dialogue, the Critias was the middle and a dialogue called the Hermocrates was to be the third and final part.1
Plato completed the Timaeus, but stopped in mid-sentence it seems of the Critias and never it appears even started the Hermocrates. Plato it appears abandoned the project to work on his last dialogue The Laws.2
Atlantis is mentioned over a few pages of the dialogue Timaeus and is then gone over in much more detail in the surviving fragment of the Critias.
The plan of the series of three dialogues seems to have been that the Timaeus covered the creation of the world and a dialogue on the soul. Most of that given in a very long monologue by the character Timaeus. The dialogue Critias was supposed to cover Atlantis and an earthly cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis and reduced man to a tiny number of survivors. This dialogue was largely a monologue by the character Critias. The third dialogue Hermocrates would go over the re-establishment of civilization up to the Plato’s time, with most of it being a monologue by the character Hermocrates.3
In the Timaeus Atlantis is described over a few pages in summary fashion only by Critias. The dialogues main topics by far are the creation of the world and the nature of the soul. Critias goes into much more detail in what we have of it. It talks about the history and society of Atlantis but as I said above breaks off in mid-sentence. It also describes in about has much detail as Atlantis an Athens with admirable Platonic institutions.4
Plato placed all three dialogues in the year 425 B.C.E. The characters in the dialogues are Timaeus a politician from Locri in southern Italy. This character may in fact be made up. Critias is a relative of Plato. Since Plato had a number of relatives with the name Critias we cannot be sure which one it was. It could be his great grandfather or his second cousin Critias. This Critias was the thoroughly infamous leader of the “thirty tyrants” who ruled Athens, briefly with Spartan support, after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War. Their reign was characterized by a terrible blood bath and terror. Another character is the Syracusan soldier and politician Hermocrates who helped to defeat and destroy the Athenian expedition against Syracuse, (415-413 B.C.E.).5
It is possible that Plato was being deliberately ambiguous about which one of the Critias’ he was employing as a speaker in his dialogue. As it is given that Athenian memories of the “thirty tyrants” were, not surprisingly decidedly negative, this was rather daring on Plato’s part. Including the Syracusan politician Hermocrates not only was one of the leaders of the forces that destroyed the Athenian Sicilian expedition but he had intervened in favour sparing the lives of the captured Athenian generals. A request that was overturned by the Syracusan assembly and both generals were put to death. Most of the surviving Athenian prisoners were then put in a quarry were practically all of them died.6
It is interesting that Plato puts as one of his participants in the dialogue an enemy politician of Athens. Further that politician led the fight against Athenian imperialism in Sicily in the same way that mythical Athens in Plato’s dialogue fought against Atlantis.
The last figure is Socrates who doesn’t say too much but exists in the dialogue to provide a bridge to Plato’s dialogue The Republic. Socrates was the first great philosopher of Athens and the teacher of Plato. Plato in most of his dialogues has Socrates as one of the speakers.
Socrates claims in the dialogue Timaeus to be unable to describe his ideal society in terms of real life so he requests that his three companions describe it and the overall milieu in which it is set. In other words since previously, in The Republic, Socrates has described his ideal society in theory he asks for a concrete story of this society in action from his three companions.7
As Socrates says:
…you are the only living people who could adequately describe my city fighting a war worthy of her. So when I have done what you asked of me, I set you the task I have just described. You agreed to put your heads together, and return my hospitality today; and here I am dressed in my best and looking forward to what I am about to receive.8
Thus we are starting on a myth making account further the focus was supposed to be not on Atlantis in Plato’s three dialogues as originally conceived but on his ideal prehistoric Athens, that was supposed to be like the society described in The Republic.
This often forgotten by so many people enamored with the idea of Plato’s Atlantis being “real”. Plato’s mythical Athens of c. 11,000 years ago was in his mind equally prominent and equally “real”. This Athens was supposedly exactly like the ideal society in the The Republic and equally virtuous. Meanwhile Atlantis would be its opposite, instead of small and full of virtue, it would be large and powerful and full of corruption. It would be a vast sea spanning empire and this Athens would be a small, tiny city state run by philosopher kings.
Critias in the dialogue claims that he heard the story of Atlantis recited to him on one of the days of the festival of Apaturia, which was a festival in honor of Athens’ patron god, Athena, during the day of that festival called “Children’s Day”. Rather interestingly the festival was a festival of trickery and deception.
In fact this is very important although it is claimed in the dialogue that the tale is “true” the bottom line is that the tale is told on a day of a festival in that honors a deception or trick of some kind.9
Thus Critias relates that he heard the tale of Atlantis on a day of a festival called by some the “Feast of Deception”.10 It could not be made much clearer that Plato did not want the tale of Atlantis taken as serious history and all the statements in the two dialogues about Atlantis being real can be dismissed has part of the deception.
Further there is the matter of Platonic myths. Plato was very fond of inserting in his dialogues all sorts of wonderful stories and asserting that they are true. These myths are often quite wonderful as stories and often pretty evocative and compelling but and this is important they are not meant to be literally truthful.
In other words Plato made up stuff and asserted it was true in his dialogues. The Atlantis tale was just Platonic myth that Plato but into one of his dialogues. No more true or false than any other myth in his dialogues.
It is sometimes said that Plato fills his story of Atlantis with such circumstantial detail, especially concerning the transmission of the tale. In this case the story about how the great Athenian statesman Solon heard the tale from Egyptian Priests while visiting Egypt and then the tale was transmitted by succeeding generations of Solon’s descendants until the dialogue Plato put it into.
The problem with that is of course that Plato had in his dialogues many; many myths which he in the dialogue asserted were true. Thus we have the myth of the metals and the myth of the cave in The Republic. The myth of the origin of the two sexes in The Symposium. In the dialogue Phaedrus we have the myth of Theuth and Thamus and a myth about cicadas asserting that cicadas had once been human. One can go on and on in this vein.11
Why did Plato create those myths? Why to illustrate a point and to point a moral and sometimes as a substitute for actual argumentation and in place of an argument. Plato was interested in showing a philosophical point not in showing the world just how much “fact” there was in his myths for that was not the point of them.
The argument that by stating that Plato made them up is accusing Plato of lying is not in the slightest germane. It appears that Plato never intended the Atlantis tale any more than his other myths to be taken literally seriously.
After all Plato wrote dialogues having real people and in some cases made up people having conversations that illustrated Plato’s philosophy and these dialogues are not in the slightest verbatim recordings of what was actually said. Especially since the actual dialogues are totally made up. There was no secretary around to take verbatim notes of what people said and Socrates did not take notes or write a diary so even the gist of what was said could not survive. Since Plato’s day the philosophy in his dialogues has been considered his philosophy not that of Socrates or the people in whose mouth he put words. Just what Socrates’ actual views are is now very hard to figure out.12
Thus we have Plato making up dialogues that never happened with people including Socrates uttering words they never uttered and holding opinions that they likely never held. And to top it off Critias’ Atlantis tale was told to him on an Athenian festival that celebrated trickery or deception.
It can’t be much clearer that Plato did not intend the dialogue to be literally true. And all the so-called circumstantial detail that Plato gives to substantiate the tale can be dismissed as part of the deception / trickery.
Further Plato completes the deception by putting the tale way back in time, i.e., more than 9000 years before!13
The statement’s allegedly made by the Priests that they got all this from their records is made up circumstantial detail. The Egyptians did not have records going back that old by a long shot. Even with stretched chronologies it would not go so far back. But it fit into Plato’s cosmology for as the Priests say:
There have been and will be many different calamities to destroy mankind, the greatest of them by fire and water.14
Further the Priest says:
You remember only one deluge. Though there have been many…15
And of course Plato’s Egyptian Priests discuss ancient Athens, which is as prominent and touted as has real as Atlantis: The Priest says:
For before the greatest of all destructions by water, Solon, the city that is now Athens was preeminent in war and conspicuously the best governed in every way, its achievements and constitution being the finest of any in the world of which we heard tell.16
Thus the Athens of Plato’s imaginings which defeated Atlantis and lived under the constitution described in The Republic was a prominent in Plato’s mind as Atlantis at least. Certainly this Athens occupies about as much space in the description in the Critias of this antediluvian world.17 Just why an alleged Egyptian Priest(s) would sing the praises of an ancient Athens is more than a bit mysterious especially of an ancient Athens that just happened to have a constitution similar to that of the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic! Well the solution is obvious Plato made it up for it suited his philosophical purpose.
And of course it must be remembered that the dialogue that introduces the idea of Atlantis the Timaeus is not concerned with Atlantis except tangentially for a few brief pages but with the creation of the world and the soul. The speaker Timaeus introduces and explains those ideas in the form of a series of myths all the while stating that they are true! Well they are true in the same sense of the Atlantis tale, myths concocted to illustrate higher truths. They are no more to be taken as “true” than the Atlantis tale and the Atlantis tale is not more “true” than them.
Of course Atlantis believers tout the “truth” of the tale and the circumstantial detail, but neglect to note that in the dialogue Timaeus in which Atlantis is first talked about the myths told by Timaeus are equally true. In other words they engage in a double standard of evaluating the “truth” of Plato’s myths.
So in the end we must conclude that the Atlantis tale is a typical Platonic myth designed to illustrate a point and point a moral and like Aristotle is alleged to have said:
Its inventor caused it to disappear, just as did the Poet the wall of the Achaeans.18
Since Aristotle was taught by Plato if he did indeed say this it is rather telling about the “truth” of the story.
Plato created a fiction and that should be fairly obvious to anyone reading his dialogues. Sadly a great many believers in Atlantis do not read anything in Plato’s dialogues it seems except the Atlantis story. When Plato’s myth of Atlantis has to be understood in relation to Plato’s other myths and his philosophy as a whole. Plato was not writing prehistory but philosophy and I suppose thought his readers would understand the difference.
If Plato’s Atlantis is a myth that does not mean that real world events and places were not woven into Plato’s myth. At another time I will go into the sources of Plato’s myth.
1. Lee, Desmond, Introduction, in Plato, Timaeus and Critias, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 7-25, at pp. 22-23.
4. Plato, Timaeus, pp. 34-39, Critias, pp. 131-135.
5. Footnote 1, p. 18, Burn, A. R., The Pelican History of Greece, Penguin Books, London, pp. 300-304, Kagan, Donald, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1981, pp. 219-222, For a discussion of the three characters including a discussion of which Critias was the Critias of the dialogues see Forsyth, Phyllis Young, Atlantis, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 1980, pp. 42-44. The problem with the idea that it was Plato’s great grandfather who was intended to be the Critias in the dialogues is that he would have been at least 90 years old at the alleged time of the dialogue! There is no indication in the Critias that Critias is a very old man for the time, so it appears that Plato may have screwed up his description of how the tale was transmitted through the generations.
6. Kagan, pp. 351-353.
7. Plato, Timaeus, pp. 29-32.
8, IBID, p. 29.
9. Greswell, Edward, Origines Kalendariae Hellenicae, v. 6, University Press, Oxford, 1862, pp. 595-616., Forsyth, p. 181, Plato, Timaeus, pp. 33-34.
10. IBID, Forsyth.
11. There is even a book of them, Plato, Selected Myths, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009. See also Forsyth pp. 59-77.
12. This is the so-called Socratic problem. Just where does Plato leave off in the dialogues and where do we get the “real” Socrates? I fear that we really can’t answer the question. Perhaps the biggest indication of just how hard it is to distinguish between Plato and Socrates in terms of philosophy is Xenophon’s work The Memorabilia, it consists of Xenophon’s memories of Socrates of whom he had been like Plato a disciple. Xenophon’s Socrates is quite different, in fact so different as to be almost a different man. Xenophon’s writings about Socrates are the only large corpus of writings to survive that talk about Socrates and his alleged ideas aside from Plato. See Xenophon, Conversations with Socrates, (Memorabilia), Penguin Books, London, 1990. For more about the Socratic problem see Waterfield, Robin, Introduction, in Xenophon, pp. 5-26.
13. Plato, Timaeus, p. 36
14. IBID, p. 35.
15. IBID, p. 36.
16. IBID, p. 36.
17. See Plato, Critias.
18. Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, v. 1, Loeb Classical library, London, 1917, Book 2, ch. 3, s. 6. There is a debate over whether or not Aristotle said this but the language is similar to another quote in Strabo’s Geography that is similar and attributed to Aristotle that goes:
However, the Naval Station, still now so called, is so near the present Ilium that one might reasonably wonder at the witlessness of the Greeks and the faint-heartedness of the Trojans; witlessness, if the Greeks kept the Naval Station unwalled for so long a time, when they were near to the city and to so great a multitude, both that in the city and that of the allies; for Homer says that the wall had only recently been built (or else it was not built at all, but fabricated and then abolished by the poet, as Aristotle says);…(Strabo, Geography, Book 13, ch. 1, s. 36.)