Plato, The Atlantis Dialogue

(2013-10-19 008)Title: The Atlantis Dialogue

Author: Plato; translated by B. Jowett; edited with an introduction by Aaron Shepard

Publication Information: Friday Harbor, Washington: Shepard Publications, 2011

Library of Congress Classification: PA4279.T7 [Timaeus]

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Atlantis (Legendary place)
Atlantis (Legendary place) in literature

Plato never wrote a work called The Atlantis Dialogue. Rather, Plato wrote about Atlantis in two of his works: Timaeus and Critias. Aaron Shepard, who edits and introduces the text, put together the parts of the works dealing with Atlantis. Shepard reports that Plato intended to write about Atlantis in three works, but that he never finished Critias (his Atlantis discussion breaks off in mid-paragraph) and the third work was never written–or was lost to time.

Shepard is skeptical about the real existence of Atlantis, and with good reason. He gives the history of the idea of Atlantis, and the real interest in it started in the nineteenth century. It’s a modern interest in the “lost continent” that has let to wild speculation and  archaeological interest in finding the roots of the myth, the Minoan civilization being the most popular. I’ve seen shows on attempting to “prove” that Atlantis was near Cyprus, it was in the mid-Atlantic Ocean (one of the most prevalent ideas), or that it was based on Thera, which blew up around 1500 B.C., creating the Santorini archipelago, which ties into the Minoan civilization.

In reality, Plato is the only person who wrote about Atlantis. There is no other extant Greek author that mentions the place. Plato writes that the Egyptians were the ones who knew about the “lost continent” and this is where his information came from, but no extant Egyptian work mentions Atlantis. Though Shepard doesn’t mention the Minoans, I think that Plato is creating a fictional place based on the stories that surely must have circulated about the semi-mythical Minoan civilization, but I have talked to classicists who poo-poo this idea.

All the Greeks would have had were their myths, the ones involving Theseus, the Minotaur and King Minos. Minos ruled from Crete, and he held Athens captive, demanding tribute of seven youths and seven maidens. This surely must have been some lingering memory of Minoan sea power and its dominance of the Aegean. I do not believe that any Minoan settlement has ever been found on mainland Greece, but the Minoans would only have had to dominate trade and commerce for this idea to metamorphosize (over time) into the tribute story. This seems logical, but because only Plato talked about it and no one else, it is assumed that Atlantis was based on nothing and that Plato made the entire story up to communicate his ideas about government.

This may be true, but it does not rule out the fact that he may have been influenced by the stories and myths about the civilization on Crete. Long ago, I read something by an author who posed the question, “Where did the saying ‘All Cretans are liars’ come from?” If the Cretans remembered something about the Minoans, surely the other Greeks elsewhere would have dismissed the idea of a great civilization being based there. Isn’t it possible that Plato was influenced by the myths and “lies” about Crete to create a mythical civilization to use to discuss his ideas?

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