Cornel West Teaches You How to Think Like a Philosopher

Cornel West has never shied away from disagreement, which is one of the qualities that has kept him prominent as a public intellectual for decades. Another is his intense, even lyrical style of expressing those disagreements — and everything else he has to say besides. In his academic career he’s built a reputation as not exactly the average professor, as his former students at Harvard, Yale, Princeton University, the University of Paris, and other schools have experienced first-hand. Now, online education platform Masterclass has made his distinctive pedagogy available to anyone willing to pay USD $20-per-month membership price with its brand new course “Cornel West Teaches Philosophy.”

“This class revolves around three fundamental questions,” West says in the trailer above. First, “What does it mean to be human?” Second, “What are the forms of love that constitute the best of our humanity: love of truth, love of goodness, love of beauty?” Third, “How does community, tradition, heritage shape and mold our conceptions of who we are as human beings?”

This material, one senses, will be less straightforwardly practical than in some other Masterclasses; but then, is there any viewer to whom it could be irrelevant? Whatever our particular field of endeavor, each of us is, as West puts it, “a featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creature, born between urine and feces, whose body will soon be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.”

Yet in West’s view, we can also reach toward higher things. This requires the proper attitude toward wisdom, the love of which is at the root of the very term philosophy: hence the lessons in West’s Masterclass dedicated to “How to Think Like a Philosopher” and “How Philosophy Serves Humanity.” Later he goes deeper, and at one point even “unsettles the mind and empowers the soul by illuminating the delicate interplay between hope, optimism, and despair.” Carrying on the expansive tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, West has created a role for himself that encompasses the work of academic, activist, public intellectual, and even music-lover. For his dedicated listeners and readers, his lesson on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the “jazz-like conception of philosophy” it encourages will surely be worth Masterclass’ price of admission alone. Explore the course here.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War About?: A Short Introduction

After wars in Japan and Vietnam, the U.S. military became quite keen on a slim volume of ancient Chinese literature known as The Art of War by a supposedly historical general named Sun Tzu. This book became required reading at military academies and a favorite of law enforcement, and has formed a basis for strategy in modern wartime — as in the so-called “Shock and Awe” campaigns in Iraq. But some have argued that the Western adoption of this text — widely read across East Asia for centuries — neglects the crucial context of the culture that produced it.

Despite historical claims that Sun Tzu served as a general during the Spring and Autumn period, scholars have mostly doubted this history and date the composition of the book to the Warring States period (circa 475-221 B.C.E.) that preceded the first empire, a time in which a few rapacious states gobbled up their smaller neighbors and constantly fought each other.

“Occasionally the rulers managed to arrange recesses from the endemic wars,” translator Samuel B. Griffith notes. Nonetheless, “it is extremely unlikely that many generals died in bed during the hundred and fifty years between 450 and 300 B.C.”

The author of The Art of War was possibly a general, or one of the many military strategists for hire at the time, or as some scholars believe, a compiler of an older oral tradition. In any case, constant warfare was the norm at the time of the book’s composition. This tactical guide differs from other such guides, and from those that came before it. Rather than counseling divination or the study of ancient authorities, Sun Tzu’s advice is purely practical and of-the-moment, requiring a thorough knowledge of the situation, the enemy, and oneself. Such knowledge is not easily acquired. Without it, defeat or disaster are nearly certain:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

The kind of knowledge Sun Tzu recommends is practical intelligence about troop deployments, food supplies, etcetera. It is also knowledge of the Tao — in this case, the general moral principle and its realization through the sovereign. In a time of Warring States, Sun Tzu recognized that knowledge of warfare was “a matter of vital importance”; and that states should undertake it as little as possible.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” The Art of War famously advises. Diplomacy, deception, and indirection are all preferable to the material waste and loss of life in war, not to mention the high odds of defeat if one goes into battle unprepared. “The ideal strategy of restraint, of winning without fighting… is characteristic of Taoism,” writes Rochelle Kaplan. “Both The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching were designed to help rulers and their assistants achieve victory and clarity,” and “each of them may be viewed as anti-war tracts.”

Read a full translation of The Art of War by Lionel Giles, in several formats online here, and just above, hear the same translation read aloud.

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

Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies 10 Tactics of Fascism: The “Cult of the Leader,” Law & Order, Victimhood and More

What is fascism? Fascism is an ideology developed and elaborated in early 20th-century Western Europe and enabled by technology, mass media, and weapons of war. Most of us learned the basics of that development from grade school history textbooks. We generally came to appreciate to some degree — though we may have forgotten the lesson — that the phrase “creeping fascism” is redundant. Fascism stomped around in jackboots, smashed windows and burned Reichstags before it fully seized power, but its most important action was the creeping: into language, media, education, and religious institutions. None of these movements arose, after all, without the support (or at least acquiescence) of those in power.

There are differences between Italian Fascism, German Nazism, and their various nationalist descendents. Mussolini secured power chiefly through intimidation. But once he was appointed prime minister by the King in 1922 he began consolidating his dictatorship, a process that took several years and required such dealings as the creation of Vatican City in 1929 to secure the Church’s goodwill. Some later fascist leaders, like Augusto Pinochet, came to power in coups (with the support of the CIA). Others, like Hitler, won elections, after a decade of “creeping” into the culture by normalizing nationalist pride based on racial hierarchies and nursing a sense of aggrieved persecution among the German people over perceived humiliations of the past.

In every case, leaders exploited local hatreds and inflamed ordinary people against their neighbors with the constant repetition of an alarming “Big Lie” and the promises of a strongman for salvation. Every similar movement that has arisen since the end of WWII, says Yale University Professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley in the video above, has shared these characteristics: using propaganda to create an alternate reality and paying obeisance to a “cult of the leader,” no matter how repugnant his tactics, behavior, or personality. “Right wing by nature,” fascism’s patriarchal structure appeals to conservatives. While it mobilizes violence against minorities and leftists, it seduces those on the right by promising a share of the spoils and validating conservative desires for a single, unifying national narrative:

Fascism is a cult of the leader. It involves the leader setting the rules about what’s true and false. So any kind of expertise, reality, all of that is a challenge to the authority of the leader. If science would help him, then he can say, “Okay, I’ll use it.” Institutions that teach multiple perspectives on history in all its complexity are always a threat to the fascist leader. 

Rather than simply destroying institutions, fascists twist them to their own ends. The arts, sciences, and humanities must be purged of corrupting elements. Those who resist face job loss, exile or worse. The important thing, says Stanley, is the sorting into classes of those who deserve life and property and those who don’t.

[O]nce you have hierarchies set up, you can make people very nervous and frightened about losing their position on that hierarchy. Hierarchy goes right into victimhood because once you convince people that they’re justifiable higher on the hierarchy, then you can tell them that they’re victims of equality. German Christians are victims of Jews. White Americans are victims of Black American equality. Men are victims of feminism. 

The appeal to “law and order,” to police state levels of control, only applies to certain threatening classes who need to be put back in their place or eliminated. It does not apply to those at the top of the hierarchy, who recognize no constraints on their actions because they perceive themselves as threatened and in a state of emergency. It’s really the immigrants, leftists, and other minorities who have taken over, “and that’s why you need a really macho, powerful, violent response”:

Law and order structures who’s legitimate and who’s not. Everywhere around the world, no matter what the situation is, in very different socioeconomic conditions, the fascist leader comes and tells you, “Your women and children are under threat. You need a strong man to protect your families.” They make conservatives hysterically afraid of transgender rights or homosexuality, other ways of living. These are not people trying to live their own lives. They’re trying to destroy your life, and they’re coming after your children. What the fascist politician does is they take conservatives who aren’t fascist at all, and they say, “Look, I know you might not like my ways. You might think I’m a womanizer. You might think I’m violent in my rhetoric. But you need someone like me now. You need someone like me ’cause homosexuality, it isn’t just trying for equality. It’s coming after your family.”

Stanley offers several historical examples for his assessment of what he breaks down into a total of 10 tactics of fascism. (See an earlier video here in which he discusses 3 characteristics of the ideology.) Like Umberto Eco, who identified 14 characteristics of what he called “ur-fascism” in a 1995 essay, Stanley notes that “not all terrible things are fascist. Fascism is a very particular ideological structure” that arose in a particular time and place. But while its stated aims and doctrines are subject to change according to the psychology of the leader and the national culture, it always shares a certain grouping, or “bundle,” of features.

Each of these individual elements is not in and of itself fascist, but you have to worry when they’re all grouped together, when honest conservatives are lured into fascism by people who tell them, “Look, it’s an existential fight. I know you don’t accept everything we do. You don’t accept every doctrine. But your family is under threat. Your family is at risk. So without us, you’re in peril.” Those moments are the times when we need to worry about fascism.

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

Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in philosophy these days, but every political philosopher must grapple with the history of the idea — a foundational conceit of modern Euro-American thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “contractualist” philosophers, often grouped together in syllabi and selected introductory texts, relied on the notion that humans once existed in an anarchic state predating civil society, and that this state might be re-discoverable in indigenous ways of life in the Americas. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philosophers and their political theories.

Unlike the Biblical garden of Eden, the state of nature was hardly perfect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw government as a necessary mediator for competing self-interests. The kinds of governments they theorized were vastly different from each other — one an absolute monarchy and the other a capitalist republic. But in each theorist’s pseudo-prehistory, early humans gave up their independence by making social contracts for protection and mutual interest. These “contracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the origin of governments.

Hobbes was the first major thinker to elaborate a version of this story, and his description of life before government is well-known: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful existence, humans would have sought out a powerful ruler to protect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could provide the protection people need. It was perhaps no coincidence that Hobbes worked for a king, his former student, Charles II, restored to the throne after the English Civil War that drove Hobbes to his authoritarian views, supposedly.

Despite his defense of divine power, Hobbes stood accused of atheism and blasphemy for, among other things, writing a secular justification for monarchy that was not based on revelation or the divine right of kings. Likewise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was a forceful refutation of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of toleration were far more threatening to the state, which is why he published anonymously. In his Second Treatise, he laid out his version of the state of nature and the social contract — ideas drawn in part from travelogues written by early colonial adventurers.

Locke’s theory of government is also a theory of private property — the rightful source of political power, he believed — and who should own it. Decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, including a book titled The Social Contract, in opposition to the inequality of Hobbesian and Lockean states. Rousseau believed in human perfectibility and claimed that governments imposed a “general will” on individuals, repressing an essentially benevolent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoinder to the myth of vicious savagery gave rise to another: that of the noble savage, an appealing image for the revolutionaries of late-18th century France and later utopian socialists tasked with the difficult project of imagining an alternative to political hierarchy. In social contract theory, the imagined way forward derives from an imagined precolonial past, more “moral fiction” than “historical fact,” as scholar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the mythical state of nature and the primary theorists of the social contract above.

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

Exercise Extreme Mindfulness with These Calming Zen Rock Garden Videos

The Internet is a place where the ancient past and the modern and trend-driven can collide and produce wondrous things. The concept of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) took off in 2007, describing the pleasurable tingling response from various stimuli, such as whispering, or quietly being read a story, or listening to the closely mic’d sounds of paper. There are currently some 13 million ASMR video channels on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the idea of the Zen garden is about 800 years old, and at the center of its care and upkeep is a quiet, mindful practice that mirrors meditation. Unlike classic Western gardens that brought symmetry and mathematics into their design, Japanese gardens recreated a sort of curated chaos. A Zen garden takes this idea further, making its centerpiece a rock garden that is raked into patterns to mimic water. They are also small and meant for individual contemplation.

Artist-Designer Yuki Kawae combines the two with his series of videos on his YouTube channel. In close frames, he takes his rakes and creates patterns and fractals in sand around a series of stones. The sound of sand and rake and ringing bowl make for a very meditative experience. The confidence and beauty of his steady hand are mesmerizing, but you could also just listen to the audio.

Kawae is based in the Bay Area and told Colossal that the practice came out of the anxiety of life in 2019:

I was quite overwhelmed with day-to-day tasks and what are the ‘expected’ next steps in life…One day, I realized all of those thoughts were completely gone when I was gardening, pruning, watering, and re-potting the soil. That process let me be clear-minded somehow, and it was very calming and refreshing.

You don’t have to be a Zen monk to realize the calming effects of gardening—-ask anybody who tends to their garden weekly. But there is something special in the minimalism of the sand and the rake and the rock. Kawae’s “garden” is only coffee table sized.

Sand is also a good material in which to practice mutability, says Kawae: “All the zen garden patterns are not permanent, and they get erased to start a new one. It is temporary like many things in life. It taught me about what not to overthink as what I am stressing about may also be temporary.”

Meanwhile on YouTube there are others working on Zen gardens. The Kikiyaya Forest Dwelling and Zen Garden is actually located in the Netherlands and the owner posts her raking adventures on YouTube.

And for those who would like to hear from an actual Zen master and gardener, this hour-long presentation from Shunmyo Masuno—one of Japan’s leading landscape architects and an 18th-generation Zen Buddhist priest—will fill in the philosophical details.

I’ll leave the last word to 13th century Japanese Zen master, writer, poet, and philosopher, Dogen Zenji: “Working with plants, trees, fences, and walls, if they practice sincerely they will attain enlightenment.”

See you in the garden!

via Colossal

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Philosophy vs. Improv: A New Podcast from The Partially Examined Life and Chicago Improv Studio

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast has been sharing reading-group discussions on classic philosophy texts for well over a decade, with over 40 million downloads to date.

However, interactive conversations about texts you probably haven’t read can be difficult to follow no matter how much we try to make them accessible, and a decade of history means that many names that might be dropped that those newly checking in may or may not be familiar with.

I’m one of the hosts of that podcast, and while I’m very happy with the format and thrilled to have reached so many people with it, I also appreciate the dynamic of a one-on-one tutoring interchange, and I stand firmly behind one of the original rules of The Partially Examined Life: No name-dropping.

As we read more complicated texts, our interest becomes figuring out what the philosopher meant, and only secondarily whether that meaning actually relates to something in people’s actual lives. Yes, we are critical (some say too critical) of the subject-matter, but we’re also big fans; we could bask in the literary glow of Hegel or Plato or Simone de Beauvoir or Hannah Arendt all day, and have often done so.

My newest podcast, Philosophy vs. Improv, is reciprocal tutoring realized as comedy (or at least performance art?). As someone who studied philosophy for many years in school and has then been hosting The Partially Examined Life for so long, I’m in a good position to come up with particular philosophical points worth teaching to a new learner.

My Philosophy vs. Improv co-host is Bill Arnett, founder of the Chicago Improv Studio, author of The Complete Improviser, and the former training director at Chicago’s famed iO Theater. He has appeared repeatedly on the Hello From the Magic Tavern improv comedy podcast as a character named Metamore who leads the show’s hosts (who are all fantasy characters a la Tolkein or Narnia) in a table-top role-playing game called Offices and Bosses. This and other shows ignited in me an urge to learn the fundamentals of improv comedy, and so each Philosophy vs. Improv episode, Bill comes up with some trick of the trade to try to teach me.

There are two rules of engagement: First, we can’t just state up front what the lesson is. We can ask each other questions, go through exercises, and otherwise discuss the material, but the lesson should emerge naturally. Second, we don’t take turns in trying to teach each other. As he’s making me act out scenes, I’m trying to set up those scenes or have my character react in such a way to exemplify my philosophical point. As we’re discussing philosophy, Bill is relating it to comparable points about improv. Of course, we’re both interested in learning as well as teaching, so the “vs.” in the show’s title is not so much competition between us as between which lesson ends up more nearly producing its intended effect in the other person.

It is surprising how smoothly these dueling lessons often fit together, as lessens about ethics in particular, about the art of living, are very much relevant to the improvisational skills of being present, presenting yourself, discovering the reality of a situation, and exploring truths of character. Fiction is often a very effective vehicle for addressing philosophy, whether the characters themselves are talking philosophically (even if they’re animals, cave men, or otherwise in a non-typical situation for discussion), or perhaps we’re embodying some political situation or thought experiment that we’re subjecting to philosophical analysis.

Likewise, back to the days of Plato, a dose of irony in discussing philosophy can be useful, and this format allows us to not just be ourselves on a podcast discussing philosophy, but at any point to launch into some comedy bit, and in this way show the absurdity of views we’re arguing against or just play with the ideas in a manner that I think enhances mental flexibility, which is essential both for improvisation and for philosophical creativity.

Listen to the latest episode (#7), entitled “Meritocracy Now!”

Start listening with Philosophy vs. Improv episode 1.

For more information, see

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of four podcasts: Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, Nakedly Examined Music, The Partially Examined Life, and Philosophy vs. Improv.

Hear Philip K. Dick’s Famous Metz Speech: “If You Find this World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others” (1977)

A newspaper article about this speech could well be titled: AUTHOR CLAIMS TO HAVE SEEN GOD BUT CAN’T GIVE ACCOUNT OF WHAT HE SAW. — PKD

In 1977, cult writer Philip K. Dick arrived at a science fiction convention in Metz, France to deliver a speech called, “If You Find this World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.” (Read an edited transcript here.) The audience would leave bewildered, mystified. His talk ranged widely across such topics as cosmological time, the possibility of the universe as a computer simulation, the experience of deja vu, and the oppressive regime of Richard Nixon. It would become a sort of rebus for decoding Dick’s fiction.

If the “Metz address” were only a key to the strange occurrences in novels like A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and The Man in the High Castle, it would be an extraordinary document for Philip K. Dick fans.

But just as Dick claimed that the events of his 1981 novel V.A.L.I.S. were real– he had actually had a visionary encounter with “God” after dental surgery in 1974 — so here he claims to have actually experienced, or remembered, multiple realities and, after said encounter, to have recognized them all as true.

I, in my stories and novels, often write about counterfeit worlds, semi-real worlds, as well as deranged private worlds inhabited, often, by just one person, while, meantime, the other characters either remain in their own worlds throughout or are somehow drawn into one of the peculiar ones. …At no time did I have a theoretical or conscious explanation for my preoccupation with these pluriform pseudoworlds, but now I think I understand. What I was sensing was the manifold or partially actualized realities lying tangent to what evidently is the most actualized one, the one that the majority of us, by consensus gentium, agree on.

“The world of Flow My Tears is an actual (or rather once actual) alternate world, and I remember it in detail. I do not know who else does. Maybe no one else does. perhaps all of you were always — have always been — here. But I was not. In novel after novel, story after story, over a twenty-five year period, I wrote repeatedly about a particular other landscape, a dreadful one. In March 1974, I understood why. …I had good reason to. My novels and stories were, without my realizing it consciously, autobiographical. It was — this return of memory – the most extraordinary experience of my life. …

The narrower subject of his speech, Dick says by way of introduction, is “orthogonal time,” or “right-angle time.” To explain this he calls up an image of parallel universes overlapping at the edges of a “lateral axis.” These blend and “come into focus,” as an entity he calls “the Programer-Reprogrammer” changes the variables, while a “counterentity” he calls the “Dark Counterplayer” tries to mess things up. Despite the use of software terms, Dick’s imagery seems to draw as much from chess, or Taoism, as computer science. The interplay of programmer/counterprogrammer is a dialectic, resulting in new syntheses. God is not an independent, self-existent being but something more akin to Atman, “the view of the oldest religion of India, and to some extent… of Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead …. God within the universe… The Sufi saying [from Rumi] ‘The workman is invisible within the workshop’ applies here.”

We cannot see the workings of this mystical intelligence except when the illusion of seamlessness breaks down and memories of past or alternate lives intrude. These are not memories of a linear time, but of other possible present times, all existing at once just out of focus. Dystopian police states, an alternate present ruled by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan… These currently exist, Dick says, on the orthogonal line of time, only we cannot see them because the variables, and our memories, have been changed to suit the latest version of reality, a synthesis and updated improvement. However, it’s entirely possible that we’re all experiencing slightly different realities, depending on the “memories” of alternate presents leaking into our experience.

Thus, the talk’s title: not only could the world be worse, he says, but it is currently worse in the multiverse of rejected alternate worlds we can’t (or can’t quite) see. Here, at the end of his speech, Dick gets theological, and teleological, again, claiming to have seen a vision of a “parklike” world that “was not what my Christian training had prepared me for at all.” His description sounds ripped from the cover of a 70s pulp fantasy novel, complete with a naked goddess and an alien “landscape beyond a golden rectangle doorway.” He takes pains to distance his vision from the Christian garden of Eden, but his final remarks sound more like C.S. Lewis than the paranoid, drug-addled conspiracist his audience might have been prepared to meet:

The best I can do …is to play the role of prophet, of ancient prophets and such oracles as the sibyl at Delphi, and to talk of a wonderful garden world, much like that which once our ancestors are said to have inhabited — in fact, I sometimes imagine it to be exactly that same world restored, as if a false trajectory of our world will eventually be fully corrected and once more we will be where once, many thousands of years ago, we lived and were happy.

…I believe I know a great secret. When the work of restoration is completed, we will not even remember the tyrannies, the cruel barbarisms of the Earth we inhabited… the vast body of pain and grief and loss and disappointment within us will be expunged as if it had never been. I believe that process is taking place now, has always been taking place now. And, mercifully, we are already being permitted to forget that which formerly was. And perhaps in my novels and stories I have done wrong to urge you to remember.

Was Philip K. Dick out of his mind? He sounds perfectly lucid in other interviews he gave at the same time, and dismisses the notion that his ideas are the product of mental illness. Travis Diehl writes at Art Papers that Dick has come to seem more like an actual than a self-styled prophet in the decades since this interview, and his “paranoia comes to seem more and more like prescience,” foreseeing the major themes of The Matrix, Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern classic Simulacra and Simulation, and favorite philosopher of Silicon Valley Nick Bostrom.

Whatever the source of the author’s experiences, “the rupture that pushed Dick’s life toward a knowledge of other worlds — towards gnosis — was an aesthetic one: Dick’s visions appeared accompanied, or induced, by art,” and it was only by means of art that he claimed to apprehend them. “Our God is the deus absconditus: the hidden god.” We cannot know what it is, he says. But this does not exempt us from the making and remaking of the world. No one is — to use a current term of art — a non-playable character. “Concealed though the form is,” Dick says, “the latter will confront us; we are involved in it — in fact, we are instruments by which it is accomplished.”

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

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.”

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

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