Friday, April 20, 2007

Atlantis was not Crete

I'm writing this blog entry as I watch a BBC Timewatch programme on the Minoans and their fate. The programme is pushing a 'new' theory about the destruction of Minoan society, that a volcanic eruption at Thera caused a tidal wave that swept away settlements across the Aegean. So far, so good, though this theory has, quite literally, been around at least since I were a lad, and all that seems actually new is improved scientific understanding of the power of the explosion of Thera and knowledge of the destructive power of tidal waves gained in the wake (if you'll forgive the pun) of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, allied to more and better archaeological evidence.

What is really getting me shouting at the television, however, is that the bloated, rotting, stinking cadaver of Atlantis has been dragged out again. Was Plato's tale of Atlantis a folk memory of the destruction of Minoan civilization, the programme asks.


The tale of Atlantis is only known from Plato's Timaeus and Critias. It is not independently attested in Greek literature, unlike other myths, such as that of the Minotaur. Plutarch mentions it in his Life of Solon, but he explicitly cites Plato, so is not an independent witness. Secondly, the tale is given in great detail. For some, this is evidence that Plato can't have made it up. It is precisely the opposite. Plato wrote the Timaeus in about 360 BC. The conversation that it allegedly reports must have a dramatic date of about 425 BC. The tale of Atantis is told by one of the speakers, Critias, who heard it when he was a boy of ten. We know Critias was born in 460, so that dates Critias getting the tale to 450. He got the tale from his grandfather, who was about 90 at the time - the grandfather allegedly got it from the Athenian statesman Solon, but since he died about 558, one must start to question that detail. Solon himself was told by Egyptian priests. That the story is then told in such clear detail by Plato suggests large-scale embroidery. Without independent evidence, which does not exist, one cannot get anywhere in finding a historical core to the legend.

But why should we look for one in the first place? The trouble with the way Plato's account of Atlantis is used by those who believe in a historical Atlantis is that it ignores the genre that Plato writes it in. Contrary to what this programme has said (and I cannot forgive them for this), Plato was not a historian. He was a philosopher. That difference is very important. He is not interested in recording history or folklore - he is interested in making philosophical points, and uses a number of devices to do so. He is quite prepared to make things up to do so. Atlantis is surely another example of this. It is no more sensible to search for Atlantis than it is to try to find More's Utopia, or Swift's Liliput, or Orwell's Animal Farm.

Notably, not one of the experts they have on screen have mentioned Atlantis once - this appears to be entirely the imposition of the narration, presumably the idea of the producer, slipped in to get people to sit up and pay attention. And so more people will be encouraged to take a postivistic view of the Atlantis tale.

In the olden days, programmes like Timewatch and Horizon used to debunk nonsense like this, not contribute to it.

1 comment:

Georgeos Diaz-Montexano said...

Dear Mr. Keen: most of the points that you use to criticize Plato and to question the history about Atlantis are not correct, are based on deceits that has been maintained throughout history, due to a deficient study of the primary sources, that is to say, to badly a study of old texts.

I have discovered precise references to Atlantis, in texts of authors who do not mention Plato, and with sufficient variants, that they demonstrate that they used other sources, or traditions, different from which used Plato.

My thesis demonstrates that Plato did not invent the history of Atlantis, and that could be a “true history”, or “alethinon logon”, that is, one “veram historiam” and not a myth nor a fiction, as he same said in several occasions, and as also other famous authors of the antiquity said.

I have found proofs in oldest codices and MS of the Plato's Timaeus paleographical and Critias, that demonstrate that he used an archaic text, written in one more a older date, with more than 100 or 200 years before he was born.

If you were interested in knowing these facts, and these evidences, that have been corroborated and verified here in Spain by academic outstanding scientific of the University of Barcelona, I could contribute the necessary information.

Kind Regards,
Georgeos Díaz