Home » Atlantis: the debrief » What exactly is Atlantis?


Written by Graham | Created: Thursday 17th September 2020 @ 1140hrs

2 3 4 5


Requesting information on the origins of the story of Atlantis.

Present: Interrogator (Second Class) Корень, interrogating, and Agent Г.


What is Atlantis?
Atlantis is an island continent described by the Athenian philosopher Plato in the dialogues Timaeus and, in more detail, the Critias. During the 2,380 years (give or take) since then, Atlantis has gone on to capture the attention and imagination of people throughout the ages. Many have sought it and have expended many hours of research on the subject, producing a breadth of of all manner of weird, wonderful, interesting and, in some cases, downright odd material.
Tell me more about these dialogues.
The Timaeus and Critias were two of the last dialogues written by Plato, in about 360 BC, shortly before he began working on his monumental Laws. They follow on from a discussion of the ideal state led by Plato's mentor Socrates...
... Socrates? The Brazilian footballer?
No. Socrates the son of an Athenian stonemason who took it upon himself to incessantly ask somewhat annoying questions. He lived in the late 5th century, so definitely not the good doctor.
"Good doctor?"
Indeed. Socrates... I mean the footballer Sócrates... practiced medicine.
We're getting off topic. Where were we... ah yes, these dialogues. Continue, if you please.
Very well. Socrates (the Athenian) has ostensibly laid out his plan for an ideal city along the lines of that featured in Plato's Republic, on the day before the setting of the Timaeus and Critias. Socrates, at the beginning of the Timaeus, from a desire to see his perfect city in a state of war [Tim. 19c], proposes a thought experiment...
... and this ideal city is Atlantis, of course?
Actually, no. As I was saying, Socrates' wish to see his city in action is Critias' command. He begins by stating that, remarkably, he has knowledge which has been passed down his family from the time of Solon (an important Athenian lawgiver and statesman who flourished in the period from about 600 to 550 BC), which Solon in turn got from a visit to Egypt from priests in the temple at Saïs.
Apparently, Solon was informed by the priests of the constitution and glory of the Athens of 9,000 years before Solon's day. Its constitution matched that of Socrates' city quite closely.
Thus, Athens and not Atlantis was the ideal state.
Really? Hmmm...
... so the rest of these two dialogues is a discussion of this Athens' war with Atlantis then?
Actually no. While the Timaeus begins with Critias giving an overview of the fate of Atlantis, when Socrates presses him further, he gives the floor to Timaeus, who presents a lengthy speech on the origins of the universe, humanity and many other things.
Critias then proceeds to discuss Athens and Atlantis, which ends rather abruptly just as Zeus, king of the Greek gods, is about to give a speech on the punishment of Atlantis for having gone awry.
In the meantime, besides a few references to wars between those on either side of the Pillars of Heracles, Atlantis' conquests as far as Tyrrhenia (modern-day Tuscany in Italy) and Libya (as far as the borders of Egypt), and Athens' position of leadership among the Greeks, as well as their desperate last stand when abandoned by their allies, there is no real sense of Athens in battle or of the ebb and flow of the war.
Overall, Critias' speech fails to deliver on its promise of showing Socrates' ideal state in action.
Does Plato give any indication of where Atlantis actually was?
He does. It is described as being located outside the Pillars of Heracles in what we now know as the Atlantic Ocean, with its presumably easternmost point being not too far from southwestern Spain.
So, on to the big question: was Atlantis real?
Unfortunately, no. All the evidence we have today indicates that this part of the Atlantic Ocean has never been home to a landmass on the scale described in the dialogues.
Yes. The romantic in me would love to believe that Atlantis is there, beneath the deep, waiting to be discovered. After all, isn't that part of the mystique of Atlantis?
But... Plato says...
I know, I know. However, I'd be wary about attributing a belief in Atlantis to Plato himself. After all, he was making use of characters in his writing.
The statement of the veracity of the account is attributed to the character of Critias, who is adamant that what he is describing actually happened - to the extent that so great an authority as Plato's mentor Socrates is prepared to suspend his disbelief [Tim. 26e].
Critias, though, is an unreliable narrator: he cannot decide whether Athens was founded 9,000 years before Solon (a statement attributed to an ancient Saïte priest) [Tim. 23de], fought against Atlantis [Crit. 108e] or destroyed at that time along with Atlantis [Crit. 111ab].
Wait... Athens was destroyed too?
That's what we are told.
Anyway, in addition to this vague chronology, he cannot decide if his knowledge of these events is derived from memory alone (he claims to have learned it as a boy of about ten from his 90-year-old grandfather Critias [Tim. 21b], who learned it in turn from his father, Solon's dear friend Dropides [Tim. 20e]) or not. In the Critias, he pointedly invokes Mnemosyne [Crit. 108d], the muse associated with memory, as, by his own admission in the Timaeus, he "had forgotten too much" [Tim. 26a] - which prevented him from speaking up about this remarkable parallel to Socrates' city the previous day - but now adds that Dropides had a written synopsis of the tale which he studied as a child in addition to what he heard [Crit. 113b].
I would also add that, in spite of his apparent confidence in the truth of the matter he describes, Critias is at pains to base his description on the foundations lain by Timaeus' creation story and Socrates' ideal state [Tim. 27ab], declining the opportunity to give his speech before Timaeus despite having already introduced Atlantis.
So, to summarise, what you mean to say is that...
... Critias "invented" Atlantis?
Most probably. But it's not quite as simple as that.
Hmmm... I shall need to learn more about Critias. Who was he? Where did he get his ideas from? Was this really an Egyptian tale told to Solon? And what does Plato have to do with this? Was he there when they were talking?
These are good questions, which require good answers.
Right, then. It is agreed that we reconvene at █████████. After all, I don't want to have to write too much up. Deadlines, you see? The fellows up on the top floor can be pretty demanding...
... I'll be here.
Of course you will, Comrade Obvious. You're not going anywhere. Toodles!