Home » Atlantis: the debrief » "Why invent Atlantis?" and other questions


Written by Graham | Created: Monday 5th October 2020 @ 2347hrs


Requesting information on Plato's motives for writing what he did.

Present: Interrogator (Third Class) Ветка, interrogating, and Agent Г.


Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3...
This is Interrogator (Second Class) Ветка interviewing suspected enemy agent Agent Г.
You got a promotion?
Well, okay. Interrogator (Acting Second Class) Ветка, if you want to split hairs.
And what's all this "suspected enemy agent" rubbish? I only went out to buy a pint of milk, when your snatch squad bundled me into the back of a Skoda and, next thing I know, I'm sharing a cell with a talking dead guy and sharing an interrogation room with the youngest-looking 26-year-old in history.
Why thank you!
That wasn't intended as flattery.
Okay. To the task at hand. Why would Plato invent this tale of Atlantis?
Well, I've already been over the reason cited by Proclus Lycaeus...
The naysayers who accused Plato of plagiarising the Egyptian constitution?
That's them: -

With respect to the whole of this narration about the Atlantics, some say, that it is a mere history, which was the opinion of Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, who says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity.
- Proclus Lycaeus, On the Timaeus of Plato [1.75-76].

What's that smell? Ah, yes. Déjà vu. Again!
Isocrates and Aristotle, right?
Yup. A second reason stems from his ideas expressed in the Republic and again later in the Laws: the "Noble Lie."
That capitalism is good?
No, not that one. But choice of many different types of product surely drives improvements and reduces the length of bread queues.
Well, what then?
I shall quote from the Republic: -

"How, then," said I, "might we contrive one of those opportune falsehoods of which we were just now speaking, so as by one noble lie to persuade if possible the rulers themselves, but failing that the rest of the city?" "What kind of a fiction do you mean?" said he. "Nothing unprecedented," said I, "but a sort of Phoenician tale, something that has happened ere now in many parts of the world, as the poets aver and have induced men to believe, but that has not happened and perhaps would not be likely to happen in our day and demanding no little persuasion to make it believable."
- Plato, Republic [3.414bc].

A "Phoenician tale?" What is he on about here?
Likely the myth of Cadmus, as suggested in the Laws: -

Athenian: Be it so; yet it proved easy to persuade men of the Sidonian fairy-tale, incredible though it was, and of numberless others.
Clinias: What tales?
Athenian: The tale of the teeth that were sown, and how armed men sprang out of them. Here, indeed, the lawgiver has a notable example of how one can, if he tries, persuade the souls of the young of anything, so that the only question he has to consider in his inventing is what would do most good to the State, if it were believed; and then he must devise all possible means to ensure that the whole of the community constantly, so long as they live, use exactly the same language, so far as possible, about these matters, alike in their songs, their tales, and their discourses. If you, however, think otherwise, I have no objection to your arguing in the opposite sense.
- Plato, Laws [2.663e-664a].

What is this tale Plato hopes to tell?
Well, in the Republic, he introduces a caste system (the one claimed as being a knock-off of the Egyptian system), along these lines: the ideal state is governed by phylakes ("rulers" or "guardians"), defended and administered by a warrior caste termed epikouroi ("auxillairies") and, under these and separated from them, are the polloi, the common people, broken down into husbandmen and artisans (two of the four classes which Strabo [8.7.1] credits Ion with having created), as well as merchants. Basing this schema on myths such as that of Cadmus and the spartoi (his exemplar of the "Noble Lie") and Hesiod's five ages (gold, silver, bronze, heroic and iron [8.547a]), Plato suggests that those born with souls of gold are to serve as the philosopher aristocracy, whilst silver souls are given to those whose calling is warfare. The possibility of meritocratic movement between the classes based on the specific abilities of an individual - both upwards and downwards - is mooted [3.415c]. The city's working class possess souls of brass and iron.
The tale told by Critias is, as noted elsewhere, an extension of this argument, which depicts this ideal city in war against a powerful enemy. That enemy is Atlantis. Thus, for the purposes of this myth, Atlantis is the "Noble Lie."
Okay. But if these Athenians were so great, why did they get killed off at the same time as the evil Atlanteans?
A global cataclysm isn't that effective if it doesn't affect the entire globe, surely?
Is that it?
No. Plato's description of the demise of the Athenians at their greatest moment of triumph is a blessing of which Solon (certainly in Herodotus) would have approved.
How so?
One of the most mystifying elements of the myth to modern readers is the destruction of the Athenian forces along with their Atlantean counterparts. While, in the case of the former, this is explained as the result of their growing wickedness coupled with a signal failure to mend their ways, the Athenians appear to be blameless. Slobodan Dušanić reminds the reader that similarly innocent Delphi was damaged by the earthquake which led to the destruction of the impious Helice and Bura, an event whose significance, Dušanić argues, was not lost on Plato, and is a likely prompt for his notion of Atlantis.
It is also germane to note Susan O. Shapiro's reappraisal of Herodotus' treatment of Solon, wherein she argues that the myth of Tellus of Athens [1.30-31], which Herodotus has Solon relate to Croesus the Lydian, represents Herodotus' own opinions of the good fortune of meeting one's end at the time of one's akme. Tellus, according to Herodotus, lived a virtuous life, becoming prosperous, living to see his children grow, and gaining glory in his death in battle at Eleusis against Athens' neighbours.
Shapiro contrasts the tale of Tellus with what Herodotus recounts about a variety of other figures, including Militiades, the victor at Marathon [6.132-136]. Unlike Tellus, Miltiades survived the battle and, his stock having understandably risen, he undertakes a deceptive and hybristic campaign against the inhabitants of Paros to avenge a personal grudge and seek plunder. He ends up mortally wounded after committing an act of sacrilege and is subsequently fined for his iniquity, a fine which is eventually paid by his son Cimon after Miltiades' demise.
Thus, as well as providing a critique of democracy, in that a popular figure can pursue his own ends unhindered by checks and balances, a comparison of Tellus and Miltiades shows a contrast between Tellus - who, in Plato, represents these former Athenians - who dies at the high point of his career, and the prideful Miltiades - who, like the Atlanteans, was rightly revered for his previous glorious deeds and achievements, only to overreach himself and suffer an ignominious end. The demise of the ancient Athenian guardians, at the time of their greatest victory in vanquishing the might of Atlantis, is thus the ideal death in Herodotus' thought, voiced by Solon, a notion followed also by Plato.