The phrases “true myth” and “probable myth” – in Greek, alethinos muthos and eikos muthos – come from Plato’s dialogues. They designate a rhetorical gesture in the dialogues that has to do, on the one hand, with the limits of definition and syllogism, and on the other with the validity of image and symbol.
From The Symposium comes the likely story of Philosophy’s Ladder, as told to Socrates by his teacher in youth Diotima of Mantinea and retold by him to the guests at Agathon’s drinking party. The tale gives a comprehensible “plot” to the stages by which the philosophically inclined spirit passes, not without exertion, from his attraction to the cosmetic beauty of some one particular person to his awe before the Absolute Beauty that the comeliness of individual people but distantly reflects.
From The Phaedrus comes the likely story of the Charioteer and the two Pegasi, which Socrates rehearses spontaneously to his interlocutor, the dialogue’s titular character, during their conversation on the banks of the Ilissus near Athens. The story’s images make intuitively accessible the concept of the earthly life as a type of exile from the Vision of Truth towards which the soul, the immortal part of human being – more or less obscurely or more or less clearly – yearns. The two winged horses that pull the chariot of the soul stand for the base and exalted desires, such that the difficulty of living the philosophical life can be understood as the job of the driver to chastise the petulant animal and give rein to the “upright” one. The reader must not take the imagery literally, but as suggestive only, a means to understand by analogy what purely rational discourse cannot sufficiently convey.
The most current of Plato’s myths, the most dramatic and self-declaredly actual, is the Atlantis Myth, the narrative of which Plato divides between two late dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. The Atlantis Myth thus has two contexts: The cosmological discussion in Timaeus, with its theory of existence as creation, and of a demiurge or world-maker; and the ethical-political discussion in Critias, which grounds morality in ontology. The Atlantis Myth, more than any of the other Platonic myths, has tempted interpreters to take it literally, not least because Plato endows on his fable a rich pedigree designed to increase its plausibility. Already around the era of Caesar and Augustus, the geographer Strabo (64 BC – 24 AD) and the naturalist Pliny (23 – 79) had dislocated the legend from its allegorical context. They ignored its philosophical connotations thereby concretizing it as something which, if it had a real referent, would be perfectly consistent with known facts of natural history. Later examples of the literalized Atlantis are the work of the Seventeenth-Century Swedish polymath Olaus Rudbeck (1630 – 1702) whose study, Atland eller Mannheim, appeared, in four folio volumes, in year of his death; and the work of the American enthusiast Ignatius Donnelly (1831 – 1901), whose book, Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, appeared in 1882 to be followed by Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel one year later.
The climax of this literalizing trend comes with the convergent theories of archeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901 – 1974) and geologist Angelos Galanopoulos (1910 – 2001), articulated by them in the middle of the last century, that the Atlantis Myth referred to the Minoan-type Bronze-Age civilization on the Aegean island of Thera, obliterated in a volcanic super-eruption around 1500 BC that wreaked havoc all over the Eastern Mediterranean. The details of the Marinatos-Galanopoulos theory find abundant empirical confirmation. The ash-layer from the explosion reveals itself as a geological stratum, as do the effects of a tsunami. Undoubtedly the Greeks of the Archaic and Classical periods systematically misunderstood Egyptian chronology, as Marinatos argued, so that Solon (638 – 558 BC), who according to Plato gleaned the story from an Egyptian source, mistakenly dated the catastrophe to nine thousand rather than to nine hundred years before his own time, the modern correction making it coincident with the Thera event. Undoubtedly the label “Pillars of Hercules” can as well refer to Cape Sounion as to the Straits of Gibraltar, putting “Atlantis” right where Thera is, in the Aegean Sea north of Crete.
The proposition is all at once inarguable and irrelevant. The legend of the Lost Continent might take its occasion in the folk-memory of a cataclysm, but it takes its meaning in the symbolic accretion around that occasion, in Plato’s usage of the story, whatever its empirical basis. It is indeed with the problem of origin that the Atlantis Myth begins.
The Atlantis Myth – Its Pedigree.
In Timaeus, no sooner has the discussion of cosmology begun when the interlocutors suspend the topic so that Critias might rehearse a story that he has inherited across generations from the legendary Athenian lawmaker Solon. The participants in the dialogue are Timaeus himself, a cosmologist, after whom the text takes its name, Socrates, Hermocrates, and Critias. Hermocrates, a military professional, hails from Syracuse; Critias is an Athenian politician, perhaps the Critias who earned notoriety as one of the Thirty Tyrants ruling in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. That war took fire from the Athenian scheme to achieve hegemony over the other Greek cities; in the course of the war, Athens committed genocide against island-state of Melos, which refused to join its league. Athens lost the war, and suffered the humiliation of having to pay for its own occupation by Sparta. Yet Sparta could hardly claim victory: The war left Sparta bankrupt along with most of the city-states. Sparta herself quickly faded into irrelevance. The dialogue in Timaeus takes place on the day after the dialogue in The Republic, which itself occurs on the day set aside for the Procession of the Foreign Gods (Bendideia) in the Piraeus.
Foreigners and Athenians play their roles in the Atlantis Myth. If the year 404 BC were that of The Republic then so also would it be that of the twin symposia Timaeus and Critias. The day is that of the Panathenaea – the festival of the city’s patroness-deity. Plato was writing these dialogues from a perspective thirty years after the events that give rise to them; and the texts treat those events by the method of their author’s finely calculated indirection. The name of Melos need not appear to haunt the dialogues by its presence.
Thus far the exposition has discussed the pedigree of the two dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, which a connoisseur might describe as two conjoint meditations, one of them a cosmology, on the origins of a political catastrophe that, much more than metaphorically, destroyed a world. In Timaeus, however, before getting to the story, Plato takes noticeable authorial care to inform his readers concerning the pedigree of the Atlantis Myth. The tale of the tale, so to speak, is quite as interesting as the tale itself, neither being independent of the other (au contraire), but both together forming an intelligible whole. As already noted, Critias is the bearer of the Myth’s genealogy, the one who knows its all-important origin, as well as the one who can rehearse that genealogy when requested. The themes of knowledge and continuity commingle in the Atlantis Myth, whose background is cosmological as well as historical and political. The Atlantis Myth articulates what Plato sees as the indissoluble union of the cosmological, the historical, and the political.
The Atlantis Myth, according to Critias, “though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon, who was the wisest of the Seven Sages.” The attribution of the Myth preliminarily to Solon itself carries considerable weight. Solon famously addressed an outbreak of near-civil war in Athens by adjudicating violent disagreements between the social classes, to ameliorate which he introduced legal reforms. When his arrangements broke down due to intransigence by all parties, Solon withdrew from politics and began a series of travels that took him around the Eastern Mediterranean. According to Critias, Solon “was a relative and a dear friend of my great-grandfather, Dropides, as he himself says in many passages of his poems; and he told the story [of Atlantis] to Critias, my grandfather, who remembered and repeated it to us.” Familiarity assures credibility. Let us consider what Plato has given us so far.
What should readers make, for example, of the double qualification that the Atlantis Myth is “strange” yet “true”? The story is “strange” for three reasons: (1) It has crossed a border like a foreigner – and just will become apparent; (2) it tells of a prehistoric Athens whose virtue, being quite high, renders it radically unlike the intransigent Athens of Solon’s day, which resisted reform, and quite as radically unlike the Athens of the dialogue’s moment – the Athens that has compromised itself morally in the policy of aggressive self-aggrandizement; and (3) its premises although intrinsic to the order of being will likely fall on deaf ears in the belated retelling because the contemporary mind, as indicated by the disastrous policy, is estranged from the order of being. The story is “true” for related reasons: Not least because it articulates in narrative form certain facts about the order of being, knowledge of which the construction and maintenance of a sane polity requires. That the story hails from ancient age and has been transmitted by active commemoration against the deteriorating current of time belongs to the discussion. The Greek language denotes what English calls remembering by a negation, as anamnesis or “un-forgetting”; the term implies a conscious effort against an implacable tendency and functions almost as a synonym of consciousness. Forgetting, on the other hand, is easy.
Forgetting belongs to the implacable tendency of phthora or “destruction”; forgetting indeed befalls everything not deliberately and continuously salvaged from phthora’s remorseless action.
How exactly has the Atlantis Myth negotiated its way past relentless oblivion to be recited – or paraphrased – on the new occasion by Critias the Younger? The answer is that it has done so barely and, in part, by a lucky accident. Solon, in his travels, visited the priestly college on the island of Saïs in the Nile Delta where the learned and wise of the temple welcomed him. As Critias says, still framing the actual story, Solon despite his wisdom let his Athenian patriotism get the best of him. He boasted to the priests about the antiquity of his city. One of the priests replied: “O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you.” When Solon inquired what the seeming disparagement meant, the priest continued: “You [Greeks] are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age.” As to how this could be, the priest explained: “There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.” Myths familiar to the Greeks such as those of Phaethon and Deucalion preserve dim memories of catastrophe.
The Priests of Saïs recognize in these poetic improbabilities the rude allegories of recurrent cosmic events. Phaethon’s disastrous attempt to drive the Chariot of his father the Sun, for example, “really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore.” During hydraulic cataclysms, however, as in the great deluge that only Deucalion and his wife survived, destruction afflicts those who dwell near the sea or bodies of water, while the mountaintops offer asylum. The periodic catastrophes constitute epochs separating one era of civilized life from another. In the priest’s words to Solon: “Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.”
The fortuitous geography of the Nile Delta, according to the priest, shelters its inhabitants against this cycle of millennial disruptions. Thus, says the priest, “whatever happened either in your country or in ours, or in any other region of which we are informed – if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples.” The temple archives preserve a record of the prehistoric ancestors of the Athenians, of whose deeds living Attic people remain oblivious. The priest tells Solon: “In the first place you remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones; in the next place, you do not know that there formerly dwelt in your land the fairest and noblest race of men which ever lived, and that you and your whole city are descended from a small seed or remnant of them which survived.” The priest now tells Solon the Atlantis Myth, which much later in life Solon makes the topic of an epic poem. Critias’ grandfather heard the author recite his poem, acquired it in manuscript, and retold it to his grandchildren, one of whom, his namesake, now retells it again for the benefit of Socrates and the other guests.
A war-epic, the Atlantis Myth recounts how the island-state of that name tried to subdue Europe and the Mediterranean. It also tells how the prehistoric Athenians mounted singlehandedly a defense of freedom and defeated the invasion. The famed Sinking of Atlantis occurs in the aftermath of that victory and destroys not only the arrogant warmongers from beyond the Pillars of Heracles but the virtuous Athenian state as well – with similar effects presumably all around the Mediterranean. Plato reserves most of the story to the companion-dialogue Critias, where the account says as much about the prehistoric Athens as it does about Atlantis, but most readers have focused on the saga’s Atlantean aspect, with its plethora of special effects. Recalling the cosmological framework that surrounds the Atlantis Myth in the two dialogues, this focus has not been unjustified. The Atlantis Myth resembles a tragedy, with the recognizable elements, linked causally, of hubris and nemesis. The fate of the prehistoric Athens figures in the story, as a kind of collateral damage, more or less.
According to Critias, who is remembering the story from his knowledge of Solon’s epic poem, which he possesses in manuscript, both the prehistoric Athens and Atlantis had divine origins. When Zeus, having defeated the Titans, justly apportioned the newly domesticated cosmos among his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, he gave the region of Attica to Athene and Hephaestus, who collaborated with the earthborn primitives to raise up an ideal community of tough farmers and philosophical statesmen. To Poseidon, Zeus appointed the large island opposite the Pillars of Hercules, or the Straits of Gibraltar, in the west. Poseidon discovered there a beautiful girl, Cleito, with whom he mated and through whom he sired ten sons – that is, five pairs of twins – who resembled their father in godlike qualities. In the words that Plato gives to Critias to speak, Poseidon, “dividing the island of Atlantis into ten portions, he gave to the first-born of the eldest pair his mother’s dwelling and the surrounding allotment, which was the largest and best, and made him king over the rest; the others he made princes, and gave them rule over many men, and a large territory.”
Poseidon built a sanctuary for Cleito on the part of the island directly opposite the straits. He “inclosed the hill in which she dwelt all round, making alternate zones of sea and land larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe, each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre, so that no man could get to the island, for ships and voyages were not as yet.” Later, the sons of Poseidon “bridged over the zones of sea which surrounded the ancient metropolis, making a road to and from the royal palace.” They established an inland harbor, connected to the ocean by a canal, and other works, for the details of which, too often quoted, curious readers may consult Plato’s text. The important thing to remark is that the Atlantean metropolis possesses a cosmic form; indeed, the whole island is analogous to the human body, just as the human body, according to Timaeus, is analogous to the cosmos. The metropolis surrounds a temple of the god, and the island, its rich soil extensively farmed, surrounds and nourishes the metropolis. Poseidon’s construction of the kingdom, moreover, reflects Zeus’ construction of the cosmos after the defeat of the Titans.
The key term is just apportionment (Greek moira). The parts balance one another; they take strength from the whole, which they serve. Thus: “The order of precedence among [the ten kings] and their mutual relations were regulated by the commands of Poseidon which the law had handed down. Now these were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon, whither the kings were gathered together every fifth and every sixth year alternately, thus giving equal honour to the odd and to the even number.”
In existence, however, as the Timaeus makes clear, everything is subject to decay. When at length after many generations, “the divine portion [of the Atlanteans] began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts.” As Critias puts it, in the dialogue that bears his name, “they were full of avarice and unrighteous power,” impelling Zeus “to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve.” There the Critias breaks off, but whether after Plato’s completion of it, it became a fragment, or Plato intended it to be fragmentary in form, the implication remains that the disaster that befell Atlantis originated in divine indignation and constituted a rebuke. (Apparently “improvement” struck Zeus as unlikely.) Part of late-Atlantean unseemliness is the policy of nationally aggrandizing imperial conquest and the subjugation of free people, like the prehistoric Athenians, to an enslaving Imperium.
In purely formal terms, the Atlanteans began their polity by imitating the cosmic order of just apportionment, as heralded by Zeus in his victory over the Titans. Since the cosmos itself conforms to just apportionment, either on the Hesiodic model in the Theogony or on the scientific model in Timaeus’ disquisition, it follows that activity contrary to just apportionment must contradict cosmic, or as one might say, natural, law. To the extent that the Atlanteans lost their sense of measure, their policies more and more transgressed the built-in moral limitations of the cosmos. The incumbency of the gods, insofar as they subordinate themselves to the Creator and act on His behalf, requires them to remark and redress such transgressions. Some actions offend cosmic just apportionment egregiously; they thus also offend the gods because they offend the Creator, or the Apportioner, who communicates His ire down the line. There are obvious Biblical parallels, not least the story of Noah and the Flood – but that also of the Cities of Plain.
Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.