So, finally, the story of Atlantis. Is it a real place or did Plato make it all up as a metaphor that he never bothered to explain to anyone? Frank Joseph wrote several articles for Atlantis Rising, which editor J. Douglas Kenyon included in Forbidden History. I’ll focus on Chapter 18 but I’ll also include an opposing viewpoint, portions of Lost Continents by Lyon Sprague De Camp when it suits the topic. This is going to be a long one. Go get a snack and then come back.
First, part of a translation of Timaeus
Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.
But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.
An expanded (but incomplete) version of the story, including the war between Athens and Atlantis is in Critias, which chronicles events that Plato says occured nine thousand years before he wrote about them.
In case you’re wondering why Plato is the only one who’s mentioned Atlantis, Joseph has the simple answer; it’s because only Plato’s documentation of the place survived. He also poohpoohs the assumption that Atlantis was an allegory created by Plato. I prefer to think it is allegorical. Plato was writing for his contemporaries, who knew him, and thereby knew his style. The Republic was a perfect philosophical paradise. Atlantis was grand but not perfect; hubris caused its downfall and the gods punished the prideful, morally-corrupt inhabitants by wrecking the place.
It was not a stretch for those in Plato’s time to assume (likely rightly) that Plato wrote the Atlantis stuff as an allegory reflecting the Peloponnesian war and other major events in the history of the time. It was only later when the Neoplatonists (Proklos in particular) got a hold of it and started to second-guess its meaning that people started to think it might be based on a real place. By then, Christianity was gaining a foothold and De Camp writes about the first century of the Christian era on pages 17 and 18:
Up to this point, most of the commentators had viewed the story with a coldly critical eye. Under the later Roman Empire critical standards, which had never been high according to modern ideas, declined still further, with the result that people like Proklos the Neoplatonist began to take the story seriously. The Neoplatonists … constituted one of the many semi-magical and semi-philosophical cults that arose in the brilliant Hellenistic Alexandria, flourished under the Roman Empire, became more and more magical, and finally disappeared (partly by absorption) with the triumph of Christianity.
Proklos declared that Krantor, one of the early followers of Plato, took the story as historical fact. Krantor also claimed he had confirmation
by the testimony of Egyptian priests who showed tourists columns on which the account was inscribed, though since the visitors could not read hieroglyphics they had to take their guides’ word for the content of the inscription.
Porphyrios, another Neoplatonist, and Origen, a Church Father, were convinced Plato’s story was an allegory
to which they attributed symbolic meanings … The Neoplatonist Iamblichos and Proklos himself, by a Herculean effort, convinced themselves that the story was “true” in the literal and the figurative senses at the same time. Classical Alexandria was a hotbed of the vice of allegorization … and the early Church Fathers rejoiced in ascribing symbolic meanings to their sacred writings, even, absurdly enough, asserting that every passage was both literally true and allegorically significant.
Sounds like what people do to the Bible all the time, too. Old habits die hard, I guess. But I digress.
Proklos, according to De Camp, fell into the same trap in his Commentary on the Timaios, attributing extra meaning into Plato’s work. It’s a book De Camp describes as
dreadful stuff; a vast mass of meaningless mystical “interpretation.” Amidst a lot of maunderings about the significance of certain shawls embroidered with pictures of the gods trouncing the giants and the Athenians butchering the barbarians, used in Athenian religious festivals, Proklos dropped the remark that Kritias had woven a myth worthy of the festival of the Lesser Panathenaia, supposed in Plato to be in progress at the time of Timaios.
Joseph mentions these peplums the women wore during the Panathenaia Festival as proof Atlantis was known of before Plato wrote about it. De Camp makes quick work picking apart this theory.
Later a scholiast on Plato’s Republic misunderstood this passage to state that it was the custom at the Lesser Panathenaia to embroider a shawl with pictures of the war between Athens and Atlantis. The scholiast thereby gave the unfounded impression that the tale was known long before Plato’s time, confusing an already dark subject further. However, we cannot blame the scholiast, considering that Proklos was about the most obscure philosopher that ever put pen to paper.
What De Capo refers to as the “age of Faith” (pg 19) might be what Joseph gets into next. Knowledge of Greek philosophy and literary works held at the Library of Alexandria wound up as heresy and efforts were made to destroy everything to do with early civilizations, pagan stuff, and anything else that contradicted the Church’s decree of God’s first week on the job (later to be “accurately” measured as happening on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC “at nine o’clock in the morning.”)
When America was discovered the people starting wondering about Plato’s Atlantis again. Perhaps Plato’s description of a land “opposite” meant the newly discovered continent. This silliness started in the mid 1500s when historians and mapmakers started making assumptions and persisted even up to the mid 1800s when, according to De Camp,
the German poet Robert Prutz not only located Atlantis in America, but also worked out an elaborate scheme to show that the Phoenicians discovered America, using all the scraps of ancient literature that could be bent to his purpose.
Knowing what we do about the actual history of North American Indians and how advanced they weren’t in Plato’s time, it makes little sense to continue to think this continent could have been the basis for anything Plato described. But, De Capo (pp 30-31) writes,
The finding of the Americas loosed a regular flood of pseudo-scientific speculation about the origin of the Amerinds. Theologians who had been denying that people could live in the Antipodes, embarrassed by the new discoveries, came forth with the opinion that the redskins were a separate species of mankind whom the Devil had made for his own sinful purposes. This theory was not unpopular with our own Anglo-Saxon forebears, since it game them an excuse to slaughter the poor aborigines on sight.
Other theories involved claiming they were descendants of Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the like. De Camp mentions that early British visitors thought their language sounded vaguely Welsh, which lent credibility to the idea that Prince Madoc made it across the ocean in 1170 and his crew went native. There’s also the theory that they’re descendants of apes (but aren’t we all?) or that they’re the lost Ten Tribes of Israel.
These speculations have continued down to the present, despite the fact that science has pretty well establisthed that (as Sir Paul Rycaut surmised in the seventeenth century century) the American Indians belong to the Mongoloid or Yellow Race along with the Eskimos, Chinese and Malays, and that they came from Siberia via Alaska.
Ah, behold the wonders of science!
But, back to Plato, specifically Solon, whom Joseph mentions was the author of a poem about Atlantis. It was based on a story he heard from priests while visiting Egypt. Plato claimed to use this unfinished poem as the basis for his work, but we’ll conclude with one more quote from De Camp (p. 10-12)
It’s worth noting, however, that there is no mention by any writer before Plato of any sunken island in the Atlantic, and no evidence outside of Plato’s word that Solon’s unfinished epic ever existed. There is nothing either in the rather scanty remains of pre-Platonic Greek literature; nothing in any of the surviving records of Egypt, Phoenicia, Babylonia, or Sumeria, which go back many centuries before the beginnings of Greek civilization.
Of course that does not prove that no such account existed. Only a small fraction of the original Greek literature has come down to us, owing to the ravages of time and neglect, and the bigotry of early Christians like Pope Gregory I who destroyed pagan literature wholesale lest it distract the faithful from the contemplation of heaven. … The loss of important Greek works is to some extent made up for by the Greeks’ habit of quoting each other with credit; but still, hundreds of books that would tell us things we should like to know are gone for good.
That doesn’t stop people from guessing where Atlantis could be, what island might have been and is now named something else (Crete gets a mention). Some notions of the Atlantis tale are beyond barmy and some people are still very keen to pull a Heinrich Schliemann and continue to delve into Plato’s work for clues to the real place, hoping they’ll one day find it.