© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

E-mail Archives :
Why did Plato destroy Athens along with Atlantis ?
(about Timæus, 25b-d)

August 8-9, 1998

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

From: "Richard Denis England" <9503964e@student.gla.ac.uk>
To: "Bernard Suzanne"
Date: Sat, 8 Aug 1998 11:47:00 +0100
Subject: Timæus and Critias

Dear Mr Suzanne

I write to you to ask one simple question:

"Why does Plato destroy both Atlantis and ancient Athens?"

Corrupt, lawless and insolent Atlantis being defeated by moderate, wise and virtuous Athen does not present a problem in itself, but the fact that both ultimately suffer the same fate at the hands of nature seems perplexing.

Most commentators (e.g., Taylor, Cornford, Gill, Hackforth, Friedlander) either fail to address this problem or deal with it inadequately. Welliver states that both were destroyed by natural disasters as a device to separate pre-history from history, but for Plato to destroy a virtuous - indeed, the ideal state - must have key significance.

I agree with Dombrowski's hypothesis that it symbolises Plato's final abandonment of high utopianism that he was reluctant to cast off completely in the Republic.

I would be very interested in your view on this matter.

Richard England

To: "Richard Denis England" <9503964e@student.gla.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 09 Aug 98 11:54:19 +0200
Subject: Re: Timæus and Critias

Two remarks to begin with  : (1) it is not Plato who destroys Athens, but Critias (I mean, Plato tells us the story though the mouth of Critias, and we have to take that into account, in the same way we don't give the same weight in the Symposium to Aristophanes' speech, to Agathon's and to Socrates') ; (2) Critias mentions the destruction of Athens in his summary at the beginning of the Timæus, but, for some reason he can't go that far in the Critias, because the dialogue is interrupted.

To me, the answer to your question must be part of a broader understanding of the task Critias in undertaking and the reason why the dialogue was left unfinished. And my understanding of all this is that the Critias was deliberately interrupted by Plato at the very moment "Zeus, the god of gods who reigns by laws" (Critias, 121b) is about to talk in the assembly of the gods he has convened to set a plan to straighten up men's mess. The Critias, which, in my ordering of the dialogues in tetralogies, is the central piece of the 7th and last trilogy (tetralogies are made up of a trilogy and an introductory dialogue ; the 7th tetralogy is introduced by the Philebus and includes the trilogy Timæus/Critias/Laws) is the ultimate "test" (krisis in Greek whence comes the name Critias) of the reader at the end of the long progress through the dialogues : it separates those who accept Critias' story and don't see what he is at, who thus miss the end of the story of Atlantis, from those who have understood, after Socrates long training, that the gods don't straighten up men's mess, at least not the way Homer and Critias think they do, but that Zeus has given men "logos" to take care of themselves and to bring "kosmos" in their cities through laws, taking example from the "kosmos" of he whole creation described at length by Timæus, and that this is done the way the Athenian does it in the Laws, drawing laws for a new city in the future while climbing toward the cave of Zeus on Mount Ida in Crete.

But what is wrong with Critias ? Well ! First, he is the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who all but destroyed Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war, with the help of archenemy Sparta (I am aware that lately, some scholars have cast doubts on this identification, on the grounds that it doesn't fit with the genealogical and chronological data Critias gives in his story ; but to me, I have a hard time imagining that, for a reader of the dialogue in the second half of the IVth century, that is, about half a century later, a Critias mentioned in relation with Socrates could be anybody else than the bloody tyrant he had been accused of socializing with ; besides, as we'll see as we go, Critias keeps lying all along, and has good reasons to tamper with historical data...) With Alcibiades, he is among the leading "associates" of Socrates whose later deeds owed Socrates his condemnation, or at least, played a major role in it (Alcibiades opens, with the dialogue that bears his name, and Critias closes, in the Charmides, the initial tetralogy that opens the cycle of the dialogues ; Alcibiades is then taken care of in the Symposium, which explains, from his own mouth, the truth of his relationship with Socrates and exonerates Socrates from any guilt ; The Critias is Critias' "day in court", where, again from his own mouth, we will hear what he did with Socrates' lessons and be his judge). Here, he is shown in pretty good terms with Hermocrates, a leading Sicilian general who was instrumental in the downfall of the Sicilian expedition that preluded to the defeat of Athens in the Peloponesian war (and a guy whose name means "endowed with the power of Hermes, the messenger of the gods"...)

Now, what is Critias asked to do and what is he doing ? The program of the announced trilogy Timæus/Critias/Hermocrates is set by Socrates at Timæus, 19b-c. Basically, Socrates is asking his interlocutors to give life to the "ideal" of the Republic summarized just before (again, I know that the summary is not that of the dialogue called the Republic--other time, other place, other cast of characters--, but it is the summary of the ideas introduced in the Republic,and ideas are outside time and space, which is precisely what Plato wants to hint at in dissociating the ideas from their earlier setting in the Republic). To answer this call, Critias, with the help of Hermocrates, who plays usher to him, is suggesting nothing less than rewriting history, than making up a new Iliad, a new tale à la Homer, going as far as suggesting that Solon lost his time drawing laws for Athens and should have been more famous had he written himself the tale he is about to tell (Timæus, 21c) !... Is that what Socrates advocates at the end of the Republic and through all the dialogues, when he criticizes Homer and the poets, and promotes political activity and law-making ?...

Remember that Critias, besides being a statesman, was also counted among the sophists, and that, in a poem preserved in part in Sextus Empiricus, Against Mathematicians, IX, 54 (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsocratiker, Critias, frag. B, XXV), he suggests that gods were an invention of some shrewd man to frighten men, exploit their sense of guilt and induce them to obey law even when acting in secret. Well, here, he is making up a tale to refound Athenian imperialism while defusing Socrates' revolutionary ideas by suggesting that they are old stuff already put in practice in a remote past for better and for worse.

A careful reading of his story at the beginning of the Timæus and of his introduction at the beginning of the Critias shows that he keeps contradicting himself, twisting what Socrates was asking, taking his ironic praises at face value, that he confuses past, present and future, and probably made the whole story up during the night.

He is basically rewriting the story of the Medean wars and Marathon by changing time and places and suggesting that a more recent event than Homer and the Trojan War is indeed much older, that the Egyptians know the history of Athens better than the Athenians themselves, and that he has a better memory of a tale heard when he was 10 than of the discussion of the previous day with Socrates (Timæus, 26b-c) which, by the way, he is supposed to illustrate !...

So, in that perspective, he has to provide for an explanation why Athens doesn't remember this part of its history, and that, he does at Timæus, 22b-23d, through the mouth of the Egyptian priest. Athens had to be destroyed by one of these periodical cataclysms to explain why the memory of this part of its history was lost. But the fact is, because the memory of Marathon didn't find its Homer and, indeed, is too recent to allow for the kind of embellishment the Troyan War afforded, Critias projects it in a remote past to offer new grounds for Athens' dominion over the Greek world. And an immediate destruction of the winner along with the loser after the wondrous deeds provides an easy enough explanation why the memory of it was lost to future generations (there remains to be explained how it got known by Egyptian priests, but this is only a small detail !... Who might be picky enough to ask ? !...)

This is the rationale from Critias' standpoint. But, with Plato, there is always more to any given item than meets the eye. If, from Critias' standpoint, he is making up new ratonales for Athens' imperialism and thus, draws his inspiration from the Medean wars, Plato finds a way to make the story such that it also includes its own antidote (aside from being shut in the middle to make us wonder...) !...

So, besides suggesting the Medean wars moved west, the story also draws upon... the Peloponnesian war and more specifically the Sicilian expedition. Look ! We are talking about a huge island west (OK ! it's supposed to be past the Pillars of Heracles in the Atlantic Ocean, but it is also supposed to have taken place east and is moved west by Critias to better blur the picture ; besides, the name "Altantis", which sort of implies the location, and the story, refer to Atlas, the guy who thought he could sustain the world on his own shoulders without the help of the gods, a fitting "sponsor"--in Plato's eyes-- for a Critias who thinks the gods are an invention of a shrewd man, and suggests so himself cryptically at Critias, 107 b : "with regard to gods, we know where we stand !...") ; Critias is ushered into his tale by a Sicilian general instrumental in the downfall of the whole Athenian expedition ; and the summary given at Timæus, 25b-d, affords a double reading, when read with the Sicilian expedition in mind : what is told here is probably what Alcibiades had in mind in promoting the expedition, except that things didn't work as planed and as suggested here, but for one thing : the end ! The Athenian army indeed was gobbled up by the earth in one day and one night, sort of, thanks in large part to none other than... Hermocrates, ending prisonner in the quarries of Syracuse where most of them died (Thucydides, Histories, VII, 72-87)...

Thus, behind Critias' attempt to justfy a new imperial Athens as an answer to Socrates plea for an "ideal" city, Plato, between the lines, tells his readers "Look where imperialism leads ! Look what Alcibiades and Critias brought upon Athens, because they did not follow Socrates' lessons ! Judge by yourselves if you can, and turn toward the proper way, that of the laws..." But, fot those who didn't get the message, there still is the possibility to give a try to completing Critias' tale, and to spend the rest of their life searching for lost Atlantis, the pure product of Plato/Critias' imagination... To look at the past that never was rather than build the future that will be what we make it...

Does that answer your question ?


Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published August 10, 1998 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.