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Plato's Idea

"He who invented it also destroyed it."
--Aristotle


When examining a subject that has prompted centuries of speculation and perhaps thousands of published books, it is necessary to look at the one text that introduced the Atlantis myth to the world.

Plato first wrote about Atlantis in his philosophical dialogues, the Timaeus and Critias. However, far from elucidating the Atlantis myth, the Timaeus and Critias raise more questions than they answer; scholars have long questioned Plato's intentions, his possible historical sources for the legend, his use of myth in previous dialogues. The Timaeus and Critias cannot even be properly dated, and what appears to have been planned as a trilogy exists only as one and a half dialogues.

Aristotle believed the story to be complete fiction, while Crantor, the first editor of the Timaeus and Critias, claimed that every word was true. Just as scholars have tried to find an historical basis for the myth, there are elements of Plato's philosophy which surface in his imagining of Atlantis; for Plato, constantly concerned with the conflict and contrast between the ideal and real, Atlantis is perhaps part of an ongoing struggle to see a philosophical utopia take its place in the real world

The Timaeus and Critias take place the day after Socrates has illustrated his idea of the ideal state to Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates. As they reconvene in the Timaeus, Socrates reviews his description of this state and its citizens in what amounts to a summary of the first five books of the Republic. Socrates then expresses a wish to see his ideal state in action "I would be glad to hear some account of it engaging in transactions with other states, waging war successfully and showing in the process all the qualities one would expect from its system of education and training, both in action and negotiation with its rivals".

Curiously, this is not to be accomplished in a straightforward way: Timaeus is to relate instead a story of the cosmic origins of the universe, eventually bringing his tale down to men. After Critias's tale of Atlantis, Hermocrates is to finish the cycle with a contribution that remains unidentified and unaccomplished. Indeed, the vast majority of the Timaeus is concerned not with the story of Atlantis, but with "a religious and theological account of the origin of the world and of the phenomena of nature"

When Plato does finally arrive at his Atlantis myth in the Critias, it reads more as a digression, adeparture from the solemn philosophical ambitions of the Timaeus. The myth itself is a curious amalgam of specific, supposedly historical, details and explanations that would not be out of place in a child's fairy tale. It is difficult to remind oneself that, in fact, Atlantis is supposed to be the enemy, the inferior forces set against the ideal state of ancient Athens.

Plato himself appears to have become far more enamored with his dystopia than with his utopia; he relates the history of Atlantis from its founding to the Gods' decision to destroy it, gives extensive physical description of the continent itself and the buildings of the capital city, and details a ceremony performed by the ten kings of Atlantis once every five or six years. In contrast, Athens seems a stuffy, tired utopia, an inheritor of left-over ideas from the Republic.

The first details of Plato's Atlantis would seem to place the continent in the realm of the impossible. "We must first remind ourselves that in all nine thousands years have elapsed since the declaration of war between those who lived outside and all those who lived inside the Pillars of Heracles. ... At the time, as we said, Atlantis was an island larger than Libya and Asia put together".

Given that the dramatic date of the dialogues is approximately 425 B.C., advanced civilizations would have had to exist both in the Mediterranean and on the lost continent around 1300 BC Added to this impossibility is the simple improbability of a continent as large as Plato suggests existing beyond the Straits of Gibraltar.

When the Gods divided up the world, Poseidon received Atlantis, and promptly fell in love with a young Atlantean woman named Cleito.

To protect her, Poseidon reshaped the land in alternating concentric circles of land and water. The central island he made extremely fertile and equipped with both hot and cold springs. They had five pairs of twin boys, who grew up to the ten kings of Atlantis. The continent was blessed with plentiful mineral resources, timber, a variety of animals, cultivated crops and wild vegetation, fruit trees.

The Atlanteans, however, did not simply await the gifts of the gods, but under the leadership of the ten kings, undertook massive building projects. They linked the rings of land with bridges, and to dug a canal "three hundred feet wide, a hundred feet deep and fifty stades long from the sea like a harbor; and they made the entrance to it large enough to admit the largest ships". The palace, temples, and shrines of the Atlantean acropolis were rich and ornate, though "somewhat outlandish in appearance".

A stone sea wall enclosed all three rings of land, yet even this enormous construction was not necessarily forbidding, but built up with houses. The large harbor was not closed off from the outside world, but "crowded with vast numbers of merchant ships from all quarters, from which rose a constant din of shouting and noise day and night". The Atlanteans also asserted themselves over the geography of their land rings, flattening and trimming a large plain on the central island into a long, perfect rectangle of impossible dimensions.


If Plato's Atlantis is not a utopia, is at least a great and once-noble power; the very story demands it, demands that the ideal state of ancient Athens does not enter into a war that is beneath her. Rather, a true rival must be created, one that would challenge the ideal state and offer Athens the opportunity to prove its superiority through battle with a near-equal. Atlantis is a hero turned villain, a civilization overcome by corruption and degeneracy. While the Atlanteans retained the divine blood of their ancestors, they remained obedient to laws, great of mind. "So they bore the burden of their wealth and possessions lightly, and did not let their high standards of living intoxicate them of make them lose their self-control, but saw soberly and clearly that all these things flourish only on a soil of common goodwill and individual character, and if pursed too eagerly and overvalued destroy themselves and morality with them".

Their literal divinity granted them a nobility of spirit, a self-control and restraint that was stronger than materialism or love of wealth. In turn, as long as the Atlanteans did not value their prosperity too highly, Atlantis continued to prosper.

Yet the divine element was diluted by "frequent admixture with mortal stock". As their human traits came to dominate their natures, they became unable to handle their prosperity with moderation.

While they appeared to be at the height of their power and wealth, they had sunk to new depths of degeneracy. While it is generally believed that Atlantis's punishment was its destruction, the Critias seems to imply that the gods' first punishment for the Atlanteans was encouraging war between Athens and Atlantis. "This was the nature and extent of the power which existed then in those parts of the world and which god brought to attack our country".

While the gods undoubtedly destroyed Atlantis, the degenerate race was perhaps first punished by being "brought" to attack the great and perfect power of Athens. Indeed, Atlantis had just been defeated on her own soil by the Athenians when the continent was destroyed; although the resulting loss of Athenian troops still on the continent was a tragedy for Athens, Atlantis was forced to suffer the humiliation of destruction and defeat. The passage that would make clear the gods' views towards Atlantis is missing from the Critias; the dialogue ends just as Zeus begins to address the assembled gods.

While Plato's account of Atlantis has been called "the first exercise in the art of science fiction", Plato may not have been inventing a new art form so much as taking part in much older, and somewhat similar tradition: the interpretation and creation of myth.

"Myth was the basic raw material of Greek literature," whether in the form of concrete tales or unconscious influences.

"In [Greek writers'] eyes, myth was not static and fixed forever in an immutable form, but rather it was fluid and flexible, able to be reshaped at will" (Plato 59). Myth could be freely interpreted or manipulated to serve the writers' ends; it was a small step from this wholesale alteration to the act of actually inventing a myth.

He rejected myths which portrayed divinity in a negative light, in which the gods acted as "bad examples," believing that humans could use these myths as justifications for their own immoral behavior.

In the Republic, however, Plato develops his idea of the "noble lie," a fiction made permissible by its benefits to society. Plato's personal views towards myths were fairly ambivalent; although critical of the content of many tales, Plato was well aware of the power of myth, as example, as persuasion, as history.

Myths have also always existed as lessons, as hidden truth; children are often educated through stories, and in the Timaeus, Greeks take on the role of children. The Atlantis myth is originally related to Timaeus's grandfather by Solon, an Egyptian priest. "You are all young in mind, you have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age.

The story of the ancient, ideal Athens has been lost by the Athenians themselves, a young and ignorant race, but preserved in Egyptian records. Plato's account of Atlantis acquired an air of possibility through this association with an older race, one more closely connected to history. However, it also necessarily becomes associated with children's stories; Plato's myth of Atlantis may be no more than the most basic of teaching tools, an fairy tale-like illustration to accompany his description of the ideal state in action. In any case, for Plato, the literal truth of a myth was subjugated by its spiritual truth (Forsyth 148). One must ask, however, what exactly were Plato's needs? What was he hoping to accomplish in the Timaeus and Critias? It is a difficult, perhaps impossible question to answer, especially given the dialogues' unfinished state and their ambiguous position in Plato's overall body of work. Yet the Atlantis tale does clearly display a continuing fascination with a pervasive theme in Plato's philosophy: the contrast, even conflict, between reality and the ideal. It is a theme played out in his central ideas about the world of forms, as well as in his life: Plato famously tried to make a philosopher-King out of Dionysius II of Syracuse, and equally famously failed. Not only the Timaeus and Critias dialogues, but the very absence of a Hermocrates dialogue, may be products of this failure; Hermocrates, it is believed, was intended to take the cosmic assertions of the Timaeus and the ancient, lost history of the Critias, and bring the story into the present, dealing with current issues. Plato may have turned away from the application of his philosophy to his society, leaving Atlantis as allegory and answer to Syracuse, a state stripped of divinity (Forsyth 184).

Biographical theorizing however, is far more likely to yield facile, easy explanations than to truly approach the "truth" of Plato's Atlantis account. While the Atlantis myth has few qualities more elusive than truth, the central question that must be asked is whether Plato could or would have created a myth, the Atlantis myth, to suit his own needs. Given Greek, and more specifically Plato's, attitudes to myth, even if there had been some traditional basis, whether mythological or historical, to the Atlantis tale, Plato could and would have freely adapted it to suit his needs, without regard to traditional or even factual content. Truly, while even the most outlandish theories about Atlantis have found supporters, there are few who would defend Plato's continent as the "real" Atlantis.

Neither utopia or dystopia, paradise lost or regained, whatever truth exists in Plato's Atlantis is spiritual rather than literal, suggestive rather than didactic. Instead of an illustration of an ideal state, Plato's Atlantean legacy is a blank canvas.