Skip to main content Accessibility help

Designer History: Plato's Atlantis Story and Fourth-Century Ideology*

  • Kathryn A. Morgan (a1)


The myth of Athens and Atlantis in Plato's Timaeus and Critias can be, and has been, interpreted on a number of different levels. On the most fundamental, philosophical level the myth sets into narrative motion the paradigm of the ideal state elaborated in the Republic. Gill, in a series of publications, has done much to throw light on the nature of this invention: its relationship with modern categories of fiction and with antecedent historiography. Yet the extent to which the myth of Atlantis is embedded in larger fourth-century political and historiographical concerns has been insufficiently appreciated. In what follows, I shall attempt to reconstruct some of these concerns. I shall argue, first, that the narrative set-up of the Atlantis myth corresponds to the conditions specified in the Republic for the successful creation of a charter myth (the ‘Noble Lie’) for the ideal city, and that this is a valuable indication of the truth status of the myth and of the function it is expected to perform. This function is not merely a matter of abstract philosophical interest, since there are close parallels between the Atlantis myth and contemporary panegyric versions of Athenian history; in Section III, therefore, I shall explore these parallels through an examination of some Isocratean orations. Sections IV and V will investigate how such panegyric history illuminates areas of ideological concern for Athenians in the first half of the fourth century, most notably worries about legitimating the constitution (politeia) under which they lived, and about the attitude that should be taken towards Athenian maritime interests in the Aegean. The Atlantis myth creates a vision of Athens that is true to Plato's political ideals, but which is animated by contemporary historical topoi. The result is a narrative for an audience of philosophical cognoscenti that both rejects and transforms such topoi, and sparks a second-order consideration of the forces at work in the construction of history.



Hide All

1 Gill, C., ‘Plato on falsehood—not fiction’, in Gill, C. and Wiseman, T.P. (eds.), Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Exeter 1993) 3887; Plato's Atlantis story and the birth of fiction’, Ph&Lit 3 (1979) 6478; The genre of the Atlantis story’, CPh 72 (1977) 287304.

2 The fourth-century context is adumbrated at Gill, 1977 (n. 1) 295 n.36, and in Vidal-Naquet, P., ‘Athènes et l'Atlantide. Structure et signification d'un mythe platonicien’, REG 11 (1964) 433 with n.66. Brisson, L., ‘De la philosophic politique à l'épopée. Le “Critias” de Platon’, RMM 75 (1970) 436 is the most expansive: ‘il ne faut chercher l'ile mystérieuse nulle part ailleurs que dans l'Athènes du Ve et du IVe siècles dont une des faces est tournée vers la puissance maritime’. Brisson does not, however, examine the larger context of fourth-century panegyric and historiography.

3 The latter is plausibly identified with the Hermocrates who appears in the narrative of Thucydides as an architect of resistance against Athenian imperialist designs. The identity of Critias is more problematic. Gill, 1977 (n. 1) 294 n.33, assumes that he is the notorious member of the oligarchic junta of 404-3 BC. This interpretation is accepted also by Davies, J.K., Athenian Propertied Families (Oxford 1971) 325. This would make him Plato's mother's cousin. Such an interpretation has not gone unchallenged, however. J.V. Luce has argued, based on Davies’ stemma, that our Critias is Plato's great-grandfather (The sources and literary form of Plato's Atlantis narrative’, in Ramage, E.S. [ed.], Atlantis. Fact or Fiction? [Bloomington 1978] 76–8, with discussion of previous scholarship). Critias’ reference to his old age at Tim. 26b inclines me to believe that Critias is not the oligarch, and I note that Osborne, C., ‘Creative discourse in the Timaeus’ in Gill, C. and McCabe, M.M. (eds.), Form and Argument in late Plato (Oxford 1996) 179211, agrees, although, on her reading, maximizing the distance of the tale from the original narration indicates its inadequacy (182 n.8).

4 Gill, 1993 (n.1) 65.

5 Rowe, C.J., ‘Platonic irony’, Nova Tellus 5 (1987) 95.

6 If Critias is the oligarch, this passage becomes extremely resonant. It defines both the closeness and distance of any Critian politics from Socratic ones. One could say that the extreme irony here points up the appropriation by Critias of certain Socratic ideas, but also that any application of them is not a Socratic one. If members of the Thirty made pious noises about searching out the ancestral constitution, Critias’ remarks are even more pointed. It may be that Plato has purposely constructed the character of Critias ambiguously, in order to spur reflection on these questions (cf. Brisson, L., Platon, les mots et les mythes [Paris 1982] 37).

7 For a more extensive treatment of the ‘prehistory’ of the Atlantis story, and one which makes it paradigmatic for mythological transmission in general, see Brisson (n.6) 32-49.

8 For the relationship between Plato and the historiography of Herodotus and Thucydides, see Weil, R., L'“archéologie” de Platon (Paris 1959) 1826.

9 Compare Rep. 382dl-3 ‘In the mythological narratives we've just been talking about, because we don't know the truth about the past, we liken the false to the true as much as possible and so make it useful’.

10 Gill, 1993 (n. 1) 64-5.

11 Although one might note that Egyptian authority in this sphere is itself a literary device, presumably borrowed from the historiographic tradition of Herodotus and Hecataeus (Gill, 1979 [n. 1] 75).

12 On festival orations, see Kennedy, G., The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton 1963) 166–67. The most complete survey of the genre of the funeral oration is Loraux, N., The Invention of Athens, trans. Sheridan, A. (Cambridge, Mass. 1986). As Loraux points out (302-3), Plato borrows most of the Atlantis myth from Athenian tradition. For the Atlantis myth as a panathenaic oration, see Cornford, F.M., Plato's Cosmology (London 1937) 45; Luce (n.3) 59 with n. 28.

13 Of the speeches to be considered in this paper, Panegyricus, On the Peace, and Areopagiticus have been called variously symbouleutic, deliberative, or political. The Busiris and Panathenaicus have been labelled encomiastic and epideictic. For a survey of these generic classifications, see Too, Yun Lee, The Rhetoric of Identity in Isocrates (Cambridge 1995) 1317.

14 Too (n.13) 23-32. There is argument about the seriousness of Isocrates’ advice. I return to this question below.

15 The Panegyricus is to be dated to 380 BC, and thus would have been available to Plato. The Panathenaicus, Isocrates’ last work, dates to 342-339 BC, and thus postdates Plato.

16 Loraux (n. 12) 91-7, 142.

17 Loraux (n. 12) 298.

18 Loraux (n. 12) 455 n.168.

19 On the Menexenus as parody, see Vlastos, G., ‘ΊΣΟΝΟΜΙΑ ΠΟΛΙΤΙΚΗ’, in Vlastos, G., Platonic Studies2 (Princeton 1981) 188201; Loraux (n.12) 311-27.

20 Contrast the hegemony freely given Athens in the Timaeus-Critias and in some of Isocrates’ versions of Athenian history (see above p. 106, below p. 117). Whereas Plato rejects history entirely, and Isocrates partly, the funeral oration has difficulty rejecting any. Phthonos, rather than Athenian error, is the cause of disaster. An anonymous referee of this journal points out that the Hipparchus takes a similarly cavalier attitude to historical fact in order to set up a positive paradigm. There, Socrates asserts that Hipparchus was a beneficent and quasi-philosophical ruler, who was murdered because Harmodius and Aristogeiton (his competitors in wisdom) were enraged when a young man thought Hipparchus wiser than they.

21 Cf. Loraux (n.12) 315.

22 For this topos in the funeral oration, see Loraux (n.12) 231-4.

23 For Plato's Athens ‘rebelle à l'histoire’ see Brisson (n.2) 418.

24 On the competing claims of Isocratean and Platonic philosophy, see now Nightingale, A. Wilson, Genres in Dialogue. Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (Cambridge 1995) 1359.

25 Osborne (n.3) has a different perspective on the narrative remoteness of the myth. She argues that Plato uses the Timaeus-Critias to present two different kinds of authoritative discourse: a correct historical account and one which brings a living model into being. Timaeus’ creative cosmology corresponds to the creative act of the Demiurge, while Critias’ history lacks philosophic authority (184-5). Osborne proves eloquently the superior correspondence of the cosmology to its model. Nevertheless, one wonders what creative account of the just city in action could satisfy this criterion for authoritative philosophical discourse. Osborne cites Rep. 592b4, where Socrates remarks that the significance of the perfect city does not depend on its actual existence, but this is the view that Socrates finds unsatisfactory at the beginning of the Timaeus, precisely because that paradigm was not sufficiently animated. It is true that mere repetition does not create an authoritative account, but this censure might more justly be levelled at Isocratean (and other) panegyric; at least Critias’ ancient Athens corresponds to the perfection of the paradigm. The remoteness of the source of the Atlantis myth and the contexts of its multiple reperformance create a distance not so much from living narrative as from current encomiastic practice.

26 Havelock, E., Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass. 1963) 6184.

27 On the causal relationship between Solon's legislation and his travels in the ancient sources, see Markianos, S.S., “The chronology of the Herodotean Solon’, Historia 23 (1974) 16.

28 Plutarch (Sol. 31.3) has perceived the difficulty. Since he accepts the tradition that the travels follow the legislation, he must put Solon's abandonment of the Atlantis narrative after the rise of Peisistratus, in Solon's old age. But he must then disagree with Plato (which he does explicitly) that Solon abandoned it because of lack of leisure, since he had indeed much leisure in his old age. Plutarch is probably entirely dependent on Plato's narrative in his account of Solon and Atlantis. The only tradition that connects Solon's travels with Peisistratus puts them after Peisistratus’ rise to the tyranny (Diog. Laert. 1. 50).

29 This is not, however, to suggest that Solon's legislation either does, or is supposed to, reflect the constitution of the Republic. On the (spurious) tradition of a tripartite division of the Athenian civic body in early times and along the lines of the Republic and Timaeus, see Lambert, S.D., The Phratries of Attica (Ann Arbor 1993) 371–80.

30 On the relationship of the Busiris to the Republic, see Ries, K., Isokrates und Platon im Ringen um die Philosophia (Munich 1959) 52–3. Pohlenz, M., Aus Platos Werdezeit (Berlin 1913) 216–22 uses the similarities between the Busiris and the Timaeus to argue that both works are dependent on an early version of the Republic where Plato was explicit about his dependence on Egyptian models. The wording of the Busiris passage quoted above does not, however, compel us to believe that the preference was explicit.

31 Pohlenz (n.30) 219 n.3 aptly compares Phaedr. 275b. When Phaedrus reproaches Socrates that his Egyptian myth of Thamus and Theuth is made up, Socrates replies somewhat tartly that it is the truth of the tale that matters, not its provenance.

32 The major piece of evidence for such a revision is Andocides (1. 83), who cites the ‘decree of Teisamenus’ and claims that it called for an examination and publication of the laws. There has been much recent controversy over the accuracy of Andocides’ claim and the nature of the decree of Teisamenus. Robertson, N., ‘The laws of Athens, 410-399 BC: the evidence for review and publication’, JHS 110 (1990) 4375 has argued that Andocides is an untrustworthy witness and that the decree does not indicate that the Athenians either contemplated or engaged in a revision of the laws. This interpretation has not been universally accepted. Rhodes, P.J., “The Athenian code of laws, 410-399 BC’, JHS 111 (1991) 87100, gives a measured survey of the problem, and while granting the force of some of Robertson's arguments (99), concludes nevertheless that ‘anagrapheis were to find and republish in or near the Stoa of the Basileus all currently valid written laws which applied to the whole community of Athenian citizens’, and that ‘additional laws should be enacted to give appropriate effect to the revised code in the circumstances of the amnesty’ (100). Most recently, Todd, S.C., ‘Lysias against Nikomachos: the fate of the expert in Athenian law’ in Foxhall, L. and Lewis, A.D.E. (eds.), Greek Law in its Political Setting (Oxford 1996) 101–31, concedes the unreliability of Andocides (cf. Rhodes 97) but concludes that there was ‘a substantial process of legal revision during the final decade of the fifth century’ (107, 127-8). It seems reasonable to believe, therefore, that whatever the precise form of publication, there was publicly-expressed interest in compilation and revision of the city's laws.

33 Finley, M.I., ‘The ancestral constitution’ in The Use and Abuse of History (London 1975) 3940.

34 M.H. Hansen, ‘Solonian democracy in fourth-century Athens’ in W.R. Connor et al., Aspects of Athenian Democracy (= C&M Dissertationes xi, Copenhagen 1990) 88.

35 Hansen (n.34) 90.

36 Finley (n.33) 50.

37 E. Ruschenbusch, ‘PATRIOS POLITEIA. Theseus, Drakon, Solon und Kleisthenes in Publizistik und Geschichtsschreibung des 5. und 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., Historia 7 (1958) 400-5.

38 Thomas, R., ‘Law and the lawgiver in Athenian democracy’ in Osborne, R. and Hornblower, S. (eds.), Ritual, Finance, Politics. Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis (Oxford 1994) 122–4, 128-9.

39 The dating of these two dialogues is, of course, a matter of considerable controversy. For an overview of the stylometric and philosophical problems involved in G.E.L. Owen's placement of the Timaeus at the end of the middle period, soon after the Republic, see Fine, G., ‘Owen's progress’, PhR 97 (1988) 373–83, and more generally, Brandwood, L., ‘Stylometry and chronology’ in Kraut, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge 1992) 90120. In this paper I follow the conventional dating, which puts the dialogues in the last stages of Plato's career.

40 Note that the terms in which Critias refers to the similarity between the Solonian and the Socratic constitutions, ‘You [Socrates] agreed with Solon’ (25e), are nicely calculated to invert the real state of affairs in which Plato has made Solon agree with Socrates.

41 Finley (n.33) 50-51.

42 Szegedy-Maszak, A., ‘Legends of the Greek lawgivers’, GRBS 19 (1978) 200.

43 Hansen (n.34) 72-3, when noting the fourth-century trend to place the ‘golden age’ not in the remote but in the recent past, remarks that it is only Plato who has to look back millennia in order to find a society he approves of. This is a reflection of the vigour with which Plato wishes to cut himself off from all known history.

44 Loraux (n.12) 297.

45 For an interpretation of this passage that focuses on the tension between narrative and reality, see Gill, 1977 (n.1) 303-4; also Weil (n.8) 30-31.

46 LSJ s.v. μηνύω II. cf. Todd, S.C., The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford 1993) 187. The verb used of introducing the ‘fictional’ Athenians into the presence of the interlocutors, είσάγω, also has technical implications (LSJ s.v. είσάγω) II.3).

47 But see also Manville, P., The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens (Princeton 1990) 124–44, for whom the implication of much of Solon's legislation is the formalization of citizenship categories.

48 Vidal-Naquet (n.2) 429: ‘Rencontrant et vainquant l'Atlantide, qui done vainc en réalité l'Athènes de Platon, sinon elle-même?’. So too Brisson (n.2) 436: ‘il est nécessaire de considérer le combat de l'Athènes primitive contre l'Atlantide comme l'expression de l'opposition intérieure à l'Athènes contemporaine à Platon entre sa face tournée vers la puissance maritime et celle tournée vers la puissance terrestre, gage de sobriété, qu'incarne dans sa pureté l'Athènes primitive’. Cf. Gill, 1977 (n.1) 295-8.

49 Vidal-Naquet (n.2) 427. This parallel is reinforced, as he points out (428), by echoes of Herodotus. The ‘great and wonderful deeds’ (μεγάλα τε καί θωμαστά) of Greeks and barbarians at Hdt. 1. 1 are matched by the ‘great and wonderful deeds’ (μεγάλα καί θωμαστά) of the ancient Athenians at Tim. 20e4-5, and both sets of deeds are threatened with obscurity because of the passage of time.

50 Vidal-Naquet (n.2) 429-33.

51 See above (n.2).

52 Thus, e.g., Marshall, F.H., The Second Athenian Confederacy (Cambridge 1905) 5053. Samos and Potideia were not league members, and Potideia's cleruchy was probably installed by request (cf. IG ii2 114). Cargill, J., The Second Athenian League (Berkeley 1981) 146–60 objects to the interpretation that sees the cleruchies as infringing the spirit of the charter. For those with their eye on the past, however, the cleruchies may have seemed an ominous development.

53 Cargill (n.52) 161; Harding, P., ‘Athenian foreign policy in the fourth century’, Klio 77 (1995) 113–15.

54 C.D. Hamilton, ‘Isokrates, IG ii2 43, Greek propaganda and imperialism’, Traditio 36 (1980) 83-107 argues that references to autonomy, etc., are a response to recent Spartan excesses rather than to Athens’ fifth-century malpractice, and that the purpose of the league was the restoration of Athens’ empire. It seems unlikely, however, that allied memories were short enough for members to jump into the Athenian fire (however vicious the Spartan frying pan) without guarantees they at least felt were sincere.

55 Cargill (n.52) 176-8 admits the seriousness of the speech, but thinks that Isocrates’ criticisms apply only to the period of the Social War, and not to a process of degeneration. But Isocrates certainly thinks that the constitution has been degenerating consistently, and it is difficult to find evidence for a period of political and military recuperation in the speech.

56 Cf. the remarks of Moysey, R.A., ‘Isokrates’ On the Peace: rhetorical exercise or political advice?’, AJAH 7 (1982) 118–27.

57 For a full-scale study of links between cosmology and political history in Timaeus-Critias, see Pradeau, J.-F., Le monde de la politique (Sankt Augustin, forthcoming).

58 Gill has speculated that the myth is about playing the ‘game of fiction’, although he subsequently repudiated this notion (1979 [n.1] 76, 1993 [n.1] 62-6). Certainly, to call it a game is to underestimate the didactic stakes involved; cf. Naddaf, G., “The Atlantis myth: an introduction to Plato's later philosophy of history’, Phoenix 48 (1994) 200. Naddaf sees the myth as the ‘preamble’ (191) to the foundation of a new constitution along the lines of the Laws. I find the idea of the myth as a preamble attractive, but am doubtful whether it is appropriate to have a Republic-like paradigm of the best city as the persuasive introduction to the ‘second-best’ constitution of the Laws. On the relationship of the Critias to the Laws, see further Gill, C., ‘Plato and politics: the Critias and the Politicus’, Phronesis 24 (1979) 148–67. The Atlantis myth has another interesting parallel in Xenophon's creation of didactic pseudo-history in the Cyropaedia, on which see Stadter, P.A., ‘Fictional narrative in the Cyropaedia’, AJP 112 (1991) 461–91. Stadter remarks on the overt and Utopian didacticism of the narrative (464). Although Xenophon includes the obligatory preface, he, unlike Critias/Plato, makes no claim to factual accuracy. For Stadter, ‘Xenophon and Plato, in their different ways, reassert for prose the right to present the truth without focusing on the validity of the historical referent’ (465).

* This paper is an expansion of material which appears in a chapter of my book, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. I would like to thank audiences at Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Center for Hellenic Studies for helpful comments on earlier versions. Special thanks are due to A. Nightingale, R. Stroud, S. Todd, and the anonymous referees of this journal.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Designer History: Plato's Atlantis Story and Fourth-Century Ideology*

  • Kathryn A. Morgan (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.