The 'truth' behind Atlantis - Christopher Gill on Plato's Atlantis Story
Christopher Gill, author of Plato's Atlantis Story, discusses the philosophical significance of Plato's compelling Atlantis story and how the mythical city has captured our imagination throughout time.
Could you give us an overview of Plato’s Atlantis Story?
First of all, it’s not just the story of Atlantis. That is the famous name, but it’s actually a tale of two cities. It’s the story of Atlantis and Athens, two long-ago cities in Greece, and both of them are set in an idealised past. It’s about the character of the two cities, especially the contrast between them, which is a contrast in constitution, structure and character. The story describes each of them separately and leads up to a future war which is never actually described, a war which leads to the defeat of Atlantis – and that is something that is often glossed over in people’s idea of Atlantis. Ancient Athens wins and Atlantis is defeated.
What is the philosophical meaning of the story?
To get the philosophical meaning, it’s useful to think about the relationship between the Atlantis story and other major Platonic works of philosophy. There is an explicit link to the Republic in that the philosophical meaning of this story is a political one. We have the equivalent of the ideal state of the Republic set in ancient Athens and we have a kind of counter-ideal in Atlantis. The focus, in both cases, is on their structure or constitution, which is what Plato’s Republic is also about. Political structure is important and gives rise to events – and this is part of the philosophical significance of the story.
You get another indication of the philosophical significance if you think about the relationship to the Timaeus, the story of the creation of the universe – both stories are put side by side in this text. Both stories, in different ways, place human life in the context of the cosmos, and this greatly expands the perspective that you have on the city as a political community. In the Atlantis story, we find a massive expansion of time, space, and geography; we go out to the far west and we go far back in time. The story invites us to place the city in this much broader perspective. Also, the description of the city is very much centred on its physical context, showing the city in its material and environmental context, just as the creation story is an account of human beings being formed within the universe as a physical entity.
These themes, the political theme and the theme of the universe, are expressions of the more general idea of making the ideal into something concrete, physical and actual. The two cities are specific expressions of the ideal and the un-ideal political community and Atlantis functions as a foil or contrast to the ideal.
What is the significance of Plato’s presentation?
This volume brings out the significance of the use of dialogue and the interplay between characters. The dialogue between the figures (Socrates and the other characters) frames the story, which forms part of their conversation. Plato in other writings uses dialogue form and tells stories (his ‘myths’). But this story is quite unique in Plato, offering a quasi-historical description of two cities, going back far beyond Plato’s own time. It is very vividly presented, with highly specific and graphic presentation of both the cities, their geography, topography and the physical expression of their political life. Of course, that’s what has captured people’s imagination over time. The description reflects the 4th/5th century Athens of Plato’s personal experience whilst also creating an idealised past.
Also, Plato presents the account in such a way that the theme of truth runs through the story. It poses the question, implicitly: what is truth? Critias insists that his story is true and accurate but it looks suspiciously unlike a true story, and more like a philosophical fable. The story starts like a myth, so it is puzzling when it is described as true. Running through the conversation between the characters is this interplay between truth as fact and truth as ideas. This interplay feeds back into the core philosophical point in the story about making the ideal into something actual. It’s difficult to work out when the story is set, whether it is real or not, whether it could have been real. There is a slightly surreal quality to it all, which helps to unsettle our notion of truth and makes us raise profound questions, which is Plato’s ultimate aim in the story.
Why do you think people are still drawn to Plato? What makes him so significant?
The reason why we’re drawn to Plato is because he is an absolutely brilliant, world-class philosopher. It’s like being drawn to the Bible or Shakespeare or Darwin. The ideas are still philosophically powerful for us. But also, I think Plato also still attracts because he’s a wonderful writer. He is bold, his conceptions capture people’s minds and imagination. He combines philosophical and literary brilliance. It’s that combination of the philosopher and the author that makes him still continually compelling to us.
The story-telling is key in this text, people return to again and again because it seems so vivid that people almost feel it must be true. It’s so wonderfully told, and with such richness of detail, that it has driven people over time to actually look for Atlantis even though it absolutely isn’t there.
What do you think will make this book useful to students?
There are two kinds of readers who will find it really useful. One is Platonic scholars or philosophy scholars in general; they will appreciate the fact that it is comprehensive, with the text, the commentary, the translation and vocabulary brought together in a compact format. There’s a very long and in-depth and new interpretive essay which builds on previous scholarship on the work. So the book has a definite appeal at the academic level.
But there’s also something for everyone because some can just use the translation, and others can make use of the book as a whole. It is especially directed at students, people studying Greek at university or school. It is a very practical text, in a number of ways. This is partly because it’s comprehensive, but also because it gives a lot of help with the grammar and translation, help that students need to work their way through this text. There is a detailed grammatical commentary and a full vocabulary of Greek words, as well as a new translation of the text. Alongside this, the unusual presentation of the text in bite-sized chunks of notes and commentary makes the content more digestible. This book is practical, engaging and designed to provide what modern students need.
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