Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"No he didn't! He made it up!"

I shouted this at the television a lot yesterday.

I was watching a programme on The History Channel about Atlantis. It was trying to be quite sensible about the whole thing, but managed to blow it from the very beginning. The legend of Atlantis, we were told, is first found in the works of Plato, who, many years after the event, recorded a dinner party he had, as a boy, sneaked into, in which the story was told by his uncle (actually his mother's cousin) Critias.

Well, no. This over-literal reading of the two Platonic dialogues, the Timaeus and Critias, is one of the things that has bedevilled writings on Atlantis for centuries. Though these dialogues, written perhaps in the 350s BC or may be a little earlier, purport to record a dinner party that, given the attendees, must have taken place in Plato's childhood, in the 420s BC, Plato never says that they are an eyewitness report, and you don't have to read much to realize that the detailed and philosophically-complicated conversation cannot possibly represent Plato's seventy-year-old memories. The dialogues, as with almost all of Plato's work, are dramatic fictions to allow Plato to explore and explain his philosophical ideas. The most likely conclusion to be drawn is that Atlantis is a myth Plato invented to make a philosophic point, a device he used elsewhere.

Even if he didn't invent the tale, and it was recounted by his cousin, there's no real reason to believe that Critias didn't invent the story. He claims that the story was told by Egyptian priest to the Athenian statesman Solon, who lived in the early sixth century BC. Yet no trace of the story is to be found in Greek literature between Solon's time and Plato's. The attachment of Solon's name to the legend is merely to give it authority. And even if the story does go back to Solon, it could well have been made by him for some political purpose, or made up by the Egyptian priests. The automatic assumption that Plato's account is a historical document of any sort is simply unfounded and untenable. There really is no reason to search for the 'true' Atlantis, either in some non-existent worldwide civilization previously unknown to science, or in Minoan Crete, or Thera, or Troy, or Helike, or to see any specific historical resonances beyond an understanding of what destruction earthquakes could wreak.

Unfortunately, many people seem unable to distinguish between the factual and the fictional. It's the same thing that sends people in search of a historical precedent for every single detail of the Arthurian romances, or treats the Book of Genesis as a literal account of the creation of the planet, or probably thinks that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.

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