Listen to Plato Invent the Myth of Atlantis (360 B.C)

Myths emerge from the murky depths of human pre­his­to­ry, leav­ing their sources shroud­ed in mys­tery. But on rare occa­sions, we can trace them to a sin­gle point of ori­gin. The myth of Atlantis, for exam­ple, the ancient civ­i­liza­tion that sup­pos­ed­ly sank into the sea, has one and only one source — Pla­to — who told the sto­ry in both the Timaeus and Critias, some­time around 360 BC, as an alle­go­ry for cor­rup­tion and civ­i­liza­tion­al decay.

Pla­to puts the tale of Atlantis nesos, the “island of Atlas,” in the mouth of the aged Critias, a char­ac­ter in both dia­logues, who says he heard the sto­ry sec­ond-hand from Solon — “not only the wis­est of men, but also the noblest of poets” — who in turn brought it from Egypt, where he sup­pos­ed­ly heard it from a priest in a city called Sais.

As you can hear in the dia­logue that bears his name, read above in the Voic­es of the Past video, Critias gives a lengthy descrip­tion of the island’s size (in Timaeus it is “larg­er than Libya and Asia put togeth­er”), its loca­tion (“the Pil­lars of Her­a­cles”), and its geog­ra­phy, cities, peo­ples, and so forth. In Timaeus, Socrates declares that this tale (unlike his imag­i­nary republics) “has the very great advan­tage of being fact not fic­tion.”

But there was nev­er such a place in the ancient world. While islands have dis­ap­peared after earth­quakes or vol­ca­noes, “I don’t think there’s any ques­tion,” says geol­o­gist Patrick Nunn, “that the sto­ry of Atlantis is a myth.” Pla­to made up the lost civ­i­liza­tion and for­mi­da­ble rival to Athens, who sound­ly defeat­ed the Atlanteans, as a dra­mat­ic foil. “It’s a sto­ry that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion,” says Bard Col­lege pro­fes­sor of clas­sics James Romm. Its pur­pose is illus­tra­tive, not his­tor­i­cal.

[Pla­to] was deal­ing with a num­ber of issues, themes that run through­out his work. His ideas about divine ver­sus human nature, ide­al soci­eties, the grad­ual cor­rup­tion of human soci­ety — these ideas are all found in many of his works. Atlantis was a dif­fer­ent vehi­cle to get at some of his favorite themes.

Why has there been so much desire to find Plato’s account cred­i­ble? Ear­ly mod­ern Euro­pean read­ers of Pla­to like Fran­cis Bacon and Thomas More — authors of The New Atlantis and Utopia, respec­tive­ly — treat­ed Atlantis as philo­soph­i­cal alle­go­ry, a fic­tion like their own invent­ed soci­eties. But lat­er inter­preters believed it, from ama­teur schol­ars to colo­nial adven­tur­ers, explor­ers, and trea­sure hunters. Atlantis, wher­ev­er it is, some thought, must be full of sunken gold.

Nation­al Geo­graph­ic quotes Charles Ors­er, cura­tor of his­to­ry at the New York State Muse­um in Albany, who says, “Pick a spot on the map, and some­one has said that Atlantis was there. Every place you can imag­ine.” Yet what­ev­er sim­i­lar­i­ties it may have had to a real place, Pla­to’s yarn was strict­ly para­ble: Its inhab­i­tants were once divine. “Sired and ruled over by Posei­don, and thus half-gods and half-mor­tals,” writes Aeon, they “despised every­thing but virtue.”

But Atlantis grew cor­rupt in time, Critias tells us, “when the divine por­tion began to fade away, and became dilut­ed too often and too much with the mor­tal admix­ture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their for­tune, behaved unseem­ly, and to him who had an eye to see grew vis­i­bly debased, for they were los­ing the fairest of their pre­cious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true hap­pi­ness, they appeared glo­ri­ous and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unright­eous pow­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Mythos: An Ani­ma­tion Retells Time­less Greek Myths with Abstract Mod­ern Designs

Ancient Phi­los­o­phy: Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia

Orson Welles Nar­rates Ani­ma­tions of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Para­bles of the Human Con­di­tion

What is the Good Life? Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Niet­zsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Ani­mat­ed Videos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (12)
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  • Jay Carlisle says:

    The eye of the Sahara Richart struc­ture is mak­ing a fair case for Atlantis
    The impact crater under Green­land ice­cap dat­ed to the neolith­ic sug­gests that ancient his­to­ry as giv­en stands on very shaky grounds
    Spec­u­la­tive his­to­ry is fic­tion and dis­missal of Our ances­tors words stat­ed as giv­en fact with noth­ing approach­ing first order evi­dence to back such a pre­sen­ta­tion is ques­tion­able on the best face of it
    Not say­ing it’s wrong just point­ing out it’s FAR from a set­tled ques­tion

  • Jim Griffiths says:

    Did he invent the myth? Sure about that?

  • Victoria says:

    If you dig a bit deep­er, espe­cial­ly look­ing into Aztec cul­ture and what they have to say about “Aztlán” or “The White Place” .. also check out Man­ly P Hall (33rd degree Freema­son, mys­tic, author) Search up “Atlantis, The Lost World” or real­ly any of his work on Atlantis and gods of antiq­ui­ty or any of his work in gen­er­al. There is many more pieces of the puz­zle to be unlocked my friend do not close your mind because if you go look­ing, with an open mind, you will be lead deep­er and deep­er towards inef­fi­ble truths about your­self and the world as you *thought* you knew it.

  • Sila Trevor says:

    Pla­to does not strike me as a man giv­en to roman­tic flights of fan­cy and myth mak­ing. In fact he is high­ly crit­i­cal of myth in poet­ry. He even sug­gests in one dia­logue that poets should be banned from Athens for mak­ing up fic­tions or myths that cor­rupt truth and rea­son. So he is hard­ly like­ly to do it him­self!

    All philoso­phers may use para­ble type exam­ples — but all those who say Pla­to’s Atlantis is a myth are sim­ply spec­u­lat­ing with scant evi­dence. We are con­stant­ly dis­cov­er­ing new ancient human com­mu­ni­ties much old­er than pre­vi­ous­ly thought. It is more like­ly to me that Atlantis reflects a truth about “pre­his­to­ry” yet to be dis­cov­ered and under­stood.

  • Beth says:

    The “lead line/title” to this arti­cle is “a bait”. This is the focus of my point as doing so says every­thing about the Writer/Publisher and noth­ing about the sub­ject.

    A gener­ic Social-Psy­chol­o­gy defin­i­tive descrip­tion, yet most accu­rate.

    Next Point: at no time in His­to­ry, or all of His­to­ry was Myth estab­lished as it is by Main­stream Aca­d­e­mics whom hold a 19th Cen­tu­ry as their Foun­da­tion of Truth and estab­lished Par­a­digm with which every­thing must fit into.

    Pla­to is found accu­rate in count­less of his writ­ings and all these years lat­er he is held in the high­est Aca­d­e­m­ic regards.

    This arti­cle is “opin­ion based” and there­fore holds no real Aca­d­e­m­ic val­ue, as it lacks resource sub­stance.

    The facts always emerge in time and facts need no defense not jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

    I know Atlantis is a fact of His­to­ry and remains in its future lin­eage.


  • Beth says:


  • Beth says:

    The “lead line/title” to this arti­cle is “a bait”.

    Next Point: at no time in His­to­ry, or all of His­to­ry was Myth estab­lished as it is in this time/era by Main­stream Aca­d­e­mics whom hold a 19th Cen­tu­ry The­o­ry as their Foun­da­tion of Truth and its estab­lished Par­a­digm with which every­thing must fit into.

    Pla­to is found accu­rate in count­less of his writ­ings and all these years lat­er he is held in the high­est Aca­d­e­m­ic regards.

    Facts always emerge in time and facts need no defense not jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

    I know Atlantis is a fact of His­to­ry and its ener­gies remain in its future lin­eage.


  • peter halliday says:

    Sor­ry my friend, but over the next few years the loca­tion of Atlantis will be wide­ly known, as it has been dis­cov­ered with the rings still intact and a full land­scape to match, I can’t divulge the loca­tion yet, but remem­ber my name. Thank you

  • Chris says:

    Atlantis or most of it is under­wa­ter now but what has left behind is in plain sight and is exact­ly where Pla­to says it was.
    Now it is called Azores Arch­i­pel­ago.

  • Terry says:

    Yes the eye of the Sahara. And the pic they showed is a map from the 1300s of the north pole.

  • Brittany tree says:

    It’s not a Myth moron’s. Stop try­ing to throw off the peo­ple .

  • Wylie Cox says:

    The mod­ern infat­u­a­tion with Plato’s tale of Atlantis is unsur­pris­ing, giv­en our already-intense & ever-increas­ing desire to either escape from our­selves or have someone/thing show up to save us from our own fol­ly. In that sense, belief in Atlantis is like our oth­er fan­tasies of out­er space, aliens, heaven&hell, var­i­ous bizarre crea­tures, and a tech­no­log­i­cal par­adise wait­ing just around the cor­ner in the ‘future’. Sad­ly, we’ll be wait­ing for­ev­er for any of those things to res­cue us. :)

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