Home » Atlantis » "Why invent Atlantis?" and other questions


Written by Graham | Created: Monday 5th October 2020 @ 2347hrs | Revised: Monday 21st December 2020 @ 1126hrs

As to why Plato wrote his story of Atlantis, I put forward four possible reasons: a thought experiment; an effort to show the shortcomings of Critias' sophistic approach; a rejoinder to Plato's critics; and a "Noble Lie" for contemporary Athenian consumption.


The first two theories I wish to investigate centre upon my earlier reasoning which makes Plato's Critias the in-story originator of the theory. The first of these theories is that Plato developed the Atlantis portions of his Timaeus-Critias as a thought experiment, the primary goal of which was the depict Plato's ideal city in a state of action, namely the war between Athens and Atlantis. This reasoning is supported by a statement Plato attributes to Socrates after a brief recap of the constitution outlined in the Republic [Tim. 19bc]: -

And now, in the next place, listen to what my feeling is with regard to the polity we have described. I may compare my feeling to something of this kind: suppose, for instance, that on seeing beautiful creatures, whether works of art or actually alive but in repose, a man should be moved with desire to behold them in motion and vigorously engaged in some such exercise as seemed suitable to their physique; well, that is the very feeling I have regarding the State we have described. Gladly would I listen to anyone who should depict in words our State contending against others in those struggles which States wage; in how proper a spirit it enters upon war, and how in its warring it exhibits qualities such as befit its education and training in its dealings with each several State whether in respect of military actions or in respect of verbal negotiations.

Tellingly, Socrates himself expresses his inability to carry out this experiment, handing over to Critias and Hermocrates, which ties this theory in with the next I would like to cover.


Of the sophists, who are compared to poets, Socrates opines [Tim. 19d]: -

Again, as to the class of Sophists, although I esteem them highly versed in many fine discourses of other kinds, yet I fear lest haply, seeing they are a class which roams from city to city and has no settled habitations of its own, they may go wide of the mark in regard to men who are at once philosophers and statesmen, and what they would be likely to do and say, in their several dealings with foemen in war and battle, both by word and deed.

While pointedly removing Critias from this grouping, it soon becomes clear that Critias too is "wide of the mark": he signally fails to provide a detailed account of the war, instead outlining only the general condition of the Athens of around 9,500 BC (which he unilaterally likens to the kallipolis described by Socrates) and - in much greater detail and with far more relish - that of its fearsome Atlantic enemy. Critias' narrative is in the same blustering style as the speeches of the sophists.

In short, Socrates gives Critias the contact details of a ropemaker, whose product Critias proceeds to hang himself with.


For the purposes of the final two motives, the identification of Critias as the "author" of the Atlantis myth is temporarily abandoned. In this particular section, the 9,000 year datum is of paramount importance as a means of establishing Athens' great antiquity vis-à-vis Egypt, and the work stems from criticisms of Plato's perceived plagiarism of Egyptian prototypes in his Republic.

In the Saïte priest's speech, during which he shoves all manner of sunshine up the collective Athenian fundament [e.g. Tim. 23d-e, 24d], there appears to be a great deal of focus on Athens' temporal pre-eminence over his own civilisation: in her guise as Athena, the Saïte goddess Neith founds Athens a millennium before Egypt. Alan Cameron notes much disagreement in the centuries after Plato as to the precise nature of the relationship between Athens and Sais, which Plato notes at Tim. 21e, and cites Proclus Lycaeus, who mentions contemporary jibes about Plato's borrowing his political notions and hierarchical system from the Egyptians. According to Proclus Lycaeus [On the Timaeus of Plato 1.75-76]: -

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.

Plato's contemporary and rival Isocrates [Busiris 15] says, of the mythical pharaoh Busiris: "he divided [the Egyptians] into classes: some he appointed to priestly services, others he turned to the arts and crafts, and others he forced to practise the arts of war." Perhaps even more significantly, Plato's student Aristotle [Politics 7.9-10] is convinced of the pre-eminence of Egypt with regards to the caste system: -

And that it is proper for the state to be divided up into castes and for the military class to be distinct from that of the tillers of the soil does not seem to be a discovery of political philosophers of today or one made recently. In Egypt this arrangement still exists even now, as also in Crete; it is said to have been established in Egypt by the legislation of Sesostris and in Crete by that of Minos. [...] It is from this country that the system of common meals has its origin, while the division of the citizen-body by hereditary caste came from Egypt, for the reign of Sesostris long antedates that of Minos.

With regards to the fragment highlighted, the translator H. Rackham notes that it is "[p]erhaps to be read as denying the originality of Plato's Republic," which suggests that Proclus' statement that Plato's work being ridiculed as derivative of Egyptian custom was based on solid evidence. Consequent from this, Plato's timeline for the development of the civilisations of Atlantis and Egypt by Athena-Neith as set out in the Timaeus and Critias can be read as a response to this criticism, in that the Saïte priest is made to declare the primacy of Athens [Tim. 24c], whilst admitting similarities between the two systems [Tim. 24a-b, cf. Herodotus 2.164 ff.] and, indeed, the division of the Athenians by Ion into four distinct castes is similar. Herodotus also outlines the elaborate caste structure employed by the Egyptians: -

The Egyptians are divided into seven distinct classes: these are, the priests, the warriors, the cowherds, the swineherds, the tradesmen, the interpreters, and the boatmen. Their titles indicate their occupations. The warriors consist of Hermotybians and Calasirians, who come from different cantons [i.e. nomes], the whole of Egypt being parcelled out into districts bearing this name.

Plato rightly points out that the Athenians too had ancient traditions of class distinctions (indeed, it could be argued that the tetrapartite system of the Athenians represents a closer approximation to Plato's schema than does the Egyptian model), and is ultimately citing Egyptian authority to refute claims that he derived his scheme from the ancient country on the Nile by providing a precedent for the Egyptian caste system located at Athens itself. As such, Plato's riposte to his alleged critics represents a breathtakingly audacious piece of propaganda.


This fourth motive stems from ideas expressed by Plato in his Republic and again later in his Laws: the "Noble Lie." The scholar Kathryn Morgan has done detailed work on this. I shall quote from the Republic [3.414bc]: -

"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."

The "Phoenician tale" referred to here is almost certainly the myth of Cadmus, as suggested in the Laws [2.663e-664a]: -

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.

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."


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 the Ur-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.