Voyage to Atlantis
Plato interrupted the flow of several of his dialogues to tell a myth, the purpose of which was to convey in an imaginative or symbolic way a truth not (or less) accessible to his usual dialectical method of demonstration. They were eschatological or more general religious truths, with one striking exception: the myth of Atlantis, told near the opening of the Timaeus and again, with much fuller detail, in the Critias, a fragment of a dialogue that breaks off in the middle of the myth.
The story is given to Critias, an Athenian political figure in the Socratic circle. He heard it when he was ten years old from his ninety-year-old grandfather, who had it from his father, a friend of Solon’s. The bald outline goes like this (omitting all the social, political, and metaphysical aspects which give the myth its point in the dialogues). When Solon was in Egypt the priests of Saïs told him they had records indicating that 9000 years earlier Athens was the most powerful and best governed state of all. There was then an island called Atlantis, outside the Pillars of Heracles (Straits of Gibraltar), larger than Libya and western Asia combined, under a king so powerful that he controlled Africa to the borders of Egypt and Europe to the Tyrrhenian Sea. He sought to enslave Greece and Egypt, too, and the Athenians led the defense. When the other Greeks deserted the alliance, Athens fought on alone, defeated the Atlantids, and liberated all Europe and Africa. Then one day earthquakes and floods swallowed Atlantis and all the Athenian warriors.
The ancients were quite clear that, despite Homeric and Herodotean echoes in certain details, none of them related to the central narrative, the Atlantis myth was altogether a Platonic invention. It was left to the modern world to treat it as garbled history. A seventeenth-century Swede wrote three volumes to prove that Atlantis was actually located in Scandinavia. Others preferred America, or Heligoland, or a place in Siberia or the Sahara. Pathetic and harmless displays of erudition, they merely added their bit to the story of human gullibility. But now, remarkably, a few scientists and archaeologists have introduced a radically new twist, creating a headline-catching sensation. How they have achieved this mystifies me, but I can record the sequence of events, which began with a discovery about the small Aegean island of Santorini (ancient Thera) that has no apparent connections with Atlantis at all.
Santorini has a long record of volcanic activity. In the nineteenth century two French geologists demonstrated that, together with nearby Therasia and Aspronisi, Santorini is a surviving fragment of a larger complex that blew up and disappeared at some time in the past. (A fourth island, Kamenis, came into existence as the result of volcanic action in 197 B.C.) That explains a phenomenon familiar to all tourists in the Aegean, namely that the sea is too deep here for ships to anchor. Small boats have to be tied to the face of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.