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Home » Atlantis » Plato's Timaeus and Critias

PLATO'S TIMAEUS AND CRITIAS

Written by Graham | Created: Sunday 18th October 2020 @ 1110hrs

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Atlantis is described in Plato's Timaeus and Critias. This page gives more information on these dialogues, their account of the transmission of the tale and Plato's family.

As noted previously, the Timaeus and Critias were among the latest of Plato's dialogues, written in about 360 BC. The late Slobodan Dušanić provides a plausible scenario for their composition in response to the crises facing Athens at a slightly later time of 356-355, namely the Social War (in which Athens' "allies" in the Second Athenian Confederacy rebelled) and the Sacred War (fought over the famous shrine at Delphi). In particular, the impeachment of Plato's associate Timotheus during the period likely gave rise to the use of Critias, with his fondness for legal terminology, as a narrator.

TRANSMISSION OF THE ATLANTIS STORY

  • after the war between Athens and Atlantis 9,000 years before Solon's visit to Egypt, the story was passed down orally for at least 1,000 years, until the founding of Saïs by Athena.
  • at some point during these 8,000 years, the full account of Athens' heroic campaign against Atlantis was written down in Saïs.
  • during his visit to Saïs, Solon has an audience with the priests, led by one of great age, who furnishes him with an outline of the story.
  • upon his return from his ten-year voluntary exile from Athens, Solon begins to write a poetic account of Athens' war with Atlantis, but is unable to continue due to internecine strife, possibly associated with events leading to the rise of Solon's kinsman Pisistratus to the office of tyrant.
  • Solon passes on what he has learnt, as well as his written notes, to his close friend Dropides, who in turn bequeaths them to his son Critias.
  • many years later, when he is about 90 years of age, Critias tells the story of Atlantis to a group of boys including his grandson Critias, then aged about ten, at the Cureotis, a ceremony for boys involving recitation and part of the Panionian festival known as the Apaturia.
  • Critias the younger, in turn, suddenly remembers the story at a convenient time and is able to provide the details to the assembled company of Socrates, the astronomer and Pythagorean Timaeus of Locri and the Syracusan statesman Hermocrates. This discussion takes place at a festival in honour of Athena, commonly identified as the Panathenaea (though Zdravko Planinc suggests the Plynteria).

In terms of the date of the festival at which the dialogues are set, the most commonly-argued date is in around 421 BC, with Planinc a notable dissident, suggesting instead a setting at the Plynteria of 407 BC, with the participants eagerly awaiting the return of Socrates' and Critias' ally Alcibiades.

WHO ARE TIMAEUS AND HERMOCRATES?

TIMAEUS

Timaeus is depicted as a follower of Pythagoras from the city of Epizephyrian Locris in Calabria, the southernmost region of the Italian mainland. As there are no surviving references to this Timaeus outside of Plato, many scholars consider him a fiction. Various theories are proposed as to who Plato might have based him on: the Italian Pythagoreans Philolaus (with whose work Plato was familiar) and Archytas of Tarentum (who aided Plato in his escape from Dionysius II). Dušanić believed that the name was a reference to the aforementioned Timotheus of Athens, with their mutual enemies forming the basis (along with Dionysus II and his cohort Philistus) of the ten archons of Atlantis to some extent.

Timaeus' home city may well have been chosen for its associations with Dionysius II, whose mother came from the city and which he would terrorise after matters in Syracuse came to a head in 357 BC and Dionysius was removed from power and replaced for a short time by Plato's friend Dion. Dion came to be regarded as a rather high-handed ruler, propped up by foreign troops in his pay, and was removed from office in relatively short order. Additionally, Dion had been banished by Dionysius prior to all this, due in no small part to his conspiring with the Carthaginian enemies of Syracuse.

HERMOCRATES

Hermocrates was a key figure in Sicilian politics during the latter half of the 5th century BC. He was a steadfast opponent of the Athenians, mentioned extensively in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, and was instrumental in the defeat of the disastrous Sicilian Campaign launched by Athens during that conflict. One interesting notice we have of Hermocrates from later times is a punning statement by Plutarch [Life of Nicias 1.3], which depicts him as divinely inspired to wreak vengeance on Athens for the desecration of the herms (in which Critias was implicated): -

... by the mutilation of the "Hermae," Heaven indicated to them in advance that by the hands of Hermocrates the son of Hermon they were to suffer most of their reverses during the war.

Hermocrates was also important for his political ambitions. He eventually met his end during fighting in the streets of Syracuse subsequent to his attempt to become tyrant, and he can thus be seen as the founding father of the Syracusan tyranny which Plato attempted to guide. His erstwhile lieutenant and son-in-law would eventually secure that position: he was Dionysius I, with whom Plato had some dealings. His son in turn was Dionysius II, whom Plato, along with Dion, unsuccessfully attempted to fashion into the ideal "philosopher-king."

WAS PLATO PRESENT?

Well, notwithstanding the fact that Plato is writing a philosophical dialogue and not an account of something that happened to him decades previously, this question certainly deserves an answer.

The only real potential clue is the identity of the fifth participant, who was indisposed due to illness and did not attend the discussion [Tim. 17a]. This may be a reference to Plato: Plato's non-appearance at the deathbed of Socrates is explained as being due to illness according to the title character in the Phaedo [59b]. Other than that, the chronology presents various difficulties. Plato's birth is usually placed in 428/7 BC, which would make him a child at the time of the discussion if the 421 date is used. If Planinc's alternative is preferred, it is, of course, possible, as Plato was very likely a member of Socrates' circle by that date. However, Debra Nails suggests that Plato was born as late as 424/3 BC, which would render even this date difficult.

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