Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.14

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Platon und die Erfindung von Atlantis. Lectio Teubneriana XI.   Munich & Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2002.  Pp. 62.  ISBN 3-598-77560-1.  EUR 18.00.  



Reviewed by Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, University of California, Berkeley (throsen@uclink4.berkeley.edu)
Word count: 1276 words

This hard-cover booklet -- 46 pages of text, 20 pages of notes -- offers a lecture presented in March of 2002 at the Alte Börse in Leipzig, complete with musical introduction (not here reproduced, alas), thus ceremonially designed for generalist consumption. The noted Göttingen Hellenist proposes to demonstrate once again that Plato's Atlantis as sketched in the Timaeus and the Critias, an island larger than Lybia and Asia combined, cannot, despite thousands of attempts, be located anywhere on the earth's surface or under water but is a myth arising out of moral and social considerations akin to the arguments on behalf of the ideal city of the Republic. He emphasizes that often not enough attention has been paid to the role of rugged Ur-Athens as the adversary of opulent Atlantis.

A large part of the discussion is given over to the critique of a number of recent books, of which only two or three meet with his approval. His major debt is to L. Sprague de Camp's Lost Continents (1954) and Paul Jordan's The Atlantis Syndrome (2001), in both of which the same subject is handled at greater length. Given the small format of the work it was not to be expected that N. would cover all varieties of Atlantomania, but I was disappointed that he does not take a look at the phantasmatic racist manipulation of Atlantis by the Nazis, who ventured to draw on an old tradition locating Atlantis in Thule or Norway; see now F. Wegener, Das atlantidische Weltbild: Nationalsozialismus und Neue Rechte auf der Suche nach der versunkenen Atlantis (2001). But a good argument can be made for a compact and genial summary of the sort N. has provided, and the number of works he manages to cite, especially in the notes, is considerable. N.'s negative observations on the placement of Atlantis in Anatolia, in the Antarctic, in the Andes, in Minoan Crete and in a host of other places are often amusing and must have induced a mellow mood in his audience for the serious moves that follow.

N. divides his more systematic criticism of past interpretations of the tale into a number of traditional points that bear on the reading of Plato's texts. He charges the authors of disregarding or tampering with what Plato says about the time when Atlantis flourished, about its location and its size, and about the alleged chain of information, from Egypt via Solon to the elder Kritias to the Kritias of the dialogue, with its modicum of temporal and genealogical mystification. N. then asks why, if the story reflected a historical reality relayed by Solon, no trace of the victory of Ur-Athens over Atlantis can be found in the literature prior to Plato, especially in the funeral speeches, or in the Panegyrikos and the Panathenaikos of Isocrates. If Kritias calls his tale a true logos and not an invented story, we should remember, N. claims, that Plato's dialogues are dramatic pieces, and an actor's opinions are not to be confused with those of the dramatist. In any case, Kritias's statement at Timaeus 26C-D suggests that he himself is able to think of his report as a fictional approximation of Socrates's utopian scheme rather than as the record of a historical fact.

That this fiction is based on various sources of inspiration available to Plato is undeniable. N. cites passages from Homer, Herodotus and Aristotle for the notion that beyond the Pillars of Herakles navigation was impeded by shoals. Plato and his contemporaries were familiar with accounts of inundations and earthquakes, especially the flooding of Helike reported by Herakleides Pontikos, whom N. calls a student of Plato. The Carthaginian threat, undoubtedly experienced by Plato on the occasions when he visited Syracuse, may also have contributed to the image of a western power poised to attack the Greeks.

But why, N. asks, did Plato decide to construct the myth? Plato the literary artist must have derived pleasure from the detailing of the Athenian and particularly the Atlantian figurations. But beyond this, N. proposes two possible answers. For one, Plato's Republic, with its extraordinary political and social arrangements, had met with criticisms and also encountered Isocrates's implied charge, in the Busiris, that Plato had plagiarized Egyptian materials (N. here follows C. Eucken's Isokrates of 1983). The Atlantis myth would provide Plato with the opportunity to argue that the Republic replicates conditions already found 9000 years earlier, in Ur-Athens. More important, secondly, Plato composed the Atlantis myth at a time when Athens had been weakened by the war with her allies (357-355 BCE) but was seeking to retain or recover some of her old maritime primacy. Plato chose to remember the Athens of his early youth, a city glorying in its art works, a maritime power bursting to enlarge its influence and ready to make war on its enemies, confronting a Sparta whose simple functionality formed a striking contrast to its own sophisticated lifestyle. Ironically, then, by drawing a successful Ur-Athens and a defeated Atlantis, reversing the features of the Sparta and the Athens of the Peloponnesian war, Plato, like Isocrates in On Peace, gave vent to his reservations concerning a reliance on sea power. By having Ur-Athens overcome Atlantis, before both were annihilated by natural disasters, Plato tried to show that a state organized along the lines developed in the Republic would be superior. Against this one might raise the question why the portrayal of Atlantis is so much more detailed and lavish than the description of Ur-Athens. N.'s answer would conceivably be that the very magnificence of the Atlantian construction, with its foundation by Poseidon and its ten kings and its many waterways and metal walls, is an index of both its might and its ultimate vulnerability. But doubts remain in the light of the smaller scope of the portrayal of Ur-Athens and of the features of Atlantis that appear to exceed what is needed if this is what Plato had in mind.

In a final section N. asks why the Critias was left incomplete, and surmises that as Plato was developing the traditional topic of a council of the gods convoked to determine how to punish the offenders, he began to realize that his drama had moved beyond its original goal. If Ur-Athens was going to be an instrument in the hands of the gods, how could it still be asserted that it was her political and moral superiority that won the war? Thus Plato lost interest, abandoned the project of a Hermocrates, and turned to the Laws. This exclusory contrasting of divine control and human initiative in a Platonic myth will not, I think, in spite of Laws 644Dff., meet with universal support.

Two issues not broached by N. are the place of the myth in the Timaeus, and the role of Kritias. The former was dealt with by Pierre Vidal-Naquet in REG 77 (1964), a classic not noted by N. As for the latter, why did Plato choose his older relative to report the Atlantis tale? Kritias's political career and his literary productions mark him as an enemy of democracy. One might be tempted to speculate that some of the features of the Atlantian empire were not uncongenial to the thinking of the aristocratic intellectual. If so, in recalling the defeat of Atlantis Kritias would be memorializing the failure of his own political aims. But to advance this proposition is as much guess work as so much else hazarded about this tantalizing story.

Summing up: N's engaging lecture, buttressed by a strong column of bibliographical notes, is a welcome compendium of what Plato has to say about Atlantis, and of the history of Atlantomania.

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