Written by Graham | Created: Sunday 4th October 2020 @ 2323hrs | Revised: Sunday 20th December 2020 @ 1133hrs
We begin with a quote from Plato's Phaedo [109c-110a]. About the sea, Plato has Socrates say the following: -
Now we do not perceive that we live in the hollows, but think we live on the upper surface of the earth, just as if someone who lives in the depth of the ocean should think he lived on the surface of the sea, and, seeing the sun and the stars through the water, should think the sea was the sky, and should, by reason of sluggishness or feebleness, never have reached the surface of the sea, and should never have seen, by rising and lifting his head out of the sea into our upper world, and should never have heard from anyone who had seen, how much purer and fairer it is than the world he lived in. [...] For this earth of ours, and the stones and the whole region where we live, are injured and corroded, as in the sea things are injured by the brine, and nothing of any account grows in the sea, and there is, one might say, nothing perfect there, but caverns and sand and endless mud and mire, where there is earth also, and there is nothing at all worthy to be compared with the beautiful things of our world.
Here, Plato introduces the analogy of people dwelling on the floors of the sea, as a means to highlight the difference in perception between people from our common surface world and those of the world above. This correlates well with a statement in the Timaeus [92b], where the origins of sea creatures are explained: -
And the fourth kind, which lives in the water, came from the most utterly thoughtless and stupid of men, whom those that remolded them deemed no longer worthy even of pure respiration, seeing that they were unclean of soul through utter wickedness; wherefore in place of air, for refined and pure respiring, they thrust them into water, there to respire its turbid depths. Thence have come into being the tribe of fishes and of shellfish and all creatures of the waters, which have for their portion the extremest of all abodes in requital for the extremity of their witlessness.
A similar reference to pitiful sea-dwellers, though one which is much contested, appears in the fragmentary remains of the Arimaspea ascribed to Aristeas of Proconnesus [BNJ 35 F 7, apud pseudo-Longinos, de sublimitate 10.4]. In it, the author describes: -
This too is a great wonder to us in our minds:
men live on water, away from the land on oceans.
They are miserable people, as they have a grievous lot:
they have their eyes on the stars, but their life in the sea,
ah yes, much raising their very hands to the gods,
they pray, with their guts evilly thrown up
While this is often understood as a parody, with mercantile Greek navigators in the Black and Mediterranean Seas being referenced from the perspective of the landlocked Issedones, given the often outlandish nature of Aristeas' material elsewhere (for example the one-eyed Arimaspoi and their constant contention with the gold-guarding Gryphons), it is also possible to read this as a reference to actual mermen.
Therefore, the Platonic account of villains being punished through reincarnation, coupled with the notional sea dwellers in the Phaedo - who are depicted as being as much lower than humanity than humanity are in relation to the aether-breathing friends of the gods (who can be compared to Homer's Ethiopians and Phaeacians [Odyssey 1.22-26; 7.199-206, cf Phaedo 110a-111c, especially 111b: "they have sacred groves and temples of the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and they have intercourse with the gods by speech and prophecies and visions"], as well as the Hyperboreans in Pindar's Tenth Pythian Ode [29-44] - lends an aptness to Plato's placing of a continent inhabited by a people latterly "unable to bear the burden of their possessions," and "filled [...] with lawless ambition and power" [Crit. 121b] outside the Pillars of Heracles in the Atlantic Ocean.
All of this suggests that there was a certain poetic justice to the destruction of Atlantis, with its submergence under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean representing a fall to a lower condition as a result of the iniquities of the populace and, more particularly, the ruling class. The souls of its inhabitants would thus be associated with these miserable sea-dwelling creatures.
However, the Atlantic was noted in a number of sources, as noted elsewhere, as being the domain of particularly monstrous marine creatures. Thus, what likely began as travellers' tales musing on the vastness of the ocean and its suitability as a habitat for similarly-gargantuan beasts of the deep, became, in Plato's narrative, the home of those who once were the best of humanity brought into the most base of estates.