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 (11)
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  • 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

  • Beth says:

    Agreed

  • 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.

    Beth

  • 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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