Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.43

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Platon: Kritias. Platon Werke VIII, 4 (translation and commentary).   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.  Pp. 496.  ISBN 3-525-30431-5.  €79.90.  



Reviewed by Barbara Sattler, University of Illinois, Champaign (bsattler@uiuc.edu)
Word count: 2307 words

This edition of Plato's Critias is the latest volume in Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht's series providing modern German translations of Plato's works with scholarly commentary. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath presents a generally very readable translation, and an extensive philological commentary -- 375 pages of comments on 15 Stephanus pages, rounded off by a useful "intelligent" index. Philosophers, though, will find philosophical problems left aside in this commentary-- a choice, however, consciously made by Nesselrath. His justification for the exclusive concentration on the philological side, much more so than in some of the other volumes in this series, is the lack of any extensive philological commentary on this dialogue; and indeed, if translations come with commentaries at all on this dialogue, as e.g., Taylor's English as well as Apelt's German translations, their comments accompanying the translation are not particularly broad.

Part of the reason for the lack of a satisfactory commentary to this day is the fact that the Critias is one of the least frequently read dialogues of Plato even though it has established a whole industry with its myth of Atlantis. This narrative, allegedly brought from Egypt by Solon, is already foreshadowed in the prologue of the Timaeus, to which the Critias is a clear sequel. (The Critias starts out with Timaeus finishing off his cosmology with a prayer before handing the burden of speech over to Critias, and Hermocrates' speech is supposed to follow later on, so that all three will have contributed to pay back Socrates for "yesterday's" speech.) In the form handed down to us, however, the Critias does not deal with the whole story of Ur-Athens and Atlantis indicated in the Timaeus, but only with its very beginning: the coming into being of the two powers Athens and Atlantis after the world is distributed among the gods. Athena and Hephaestus are allotted Attica, where they encourage the ideal society of the so-called Ur-Athens that is meant to show Socrates' ideal state in action. Poseidon, on the other hand, is given the huge and rich island of Atlantis, where he installs ten of his descendants as rulers. The first big historic change comes about when, owing to their continuous procreation with humans, the godly part of the rulers in Atlantis becomes too attenuated to keep them virtuous given the unbelievable wealth of the country. Zeus' intention to stop this degeneration by punishing Atlantis is only hinted at; the dialogue breaks of at the beginning of Zeus' speech presenting this problem to the other gods, right after the introductory eipen ("he said").

A table-of-contents-like outline of this story is provided by Nesselrath's introduction, as well as a broad, even if not quite systematic description of the scholarly discussion on the completeness of the dialogue.To put it very roughly, which side one takes in this dispute seems to depend on two points: the relation assumed between the Critias and the Laws, and the evaluation of the figure of Critias. One tradition, dating back to Proclus' Timaeus commentary, takes the Critias to be actually complete the way it is. On this view, the Critias stops where it does either in order to show some flaws in Critias or because everything needed to be said has been presented up to this point. Nesselrath rejects this line of interpretation since it cannot account for Socrates' wish at the beginning of the Timaeus to see his ideal city in action.

Since he does not assume any kind of mechanical loss either, Nesselrath presents three possible explanations for the incompleteness of the dialogue. The first two are (a) that death stopped Plato from completing it, and (b) that Plato didn't manage the task he has set up for himself in the Critias. Against these views, Nesselrath refers to the Laws, which take up topics that according to the preview of the story in the Timaeus will be discussed in the Critias. Thus, the Laws not only show that between his death and the end of his work on the Critias Plato still had time to write his enormous last dialogue; it also demonstrates that Plato was perfectly able to fulfil the task he had set out for himself. Hence Nesselrath opts for a third view, which assumes that Plato simply lost interest in completing the Critias since the functioning of a well-ordered polity could be better demonstrated in the way set out by the Laws. However, Nesselrath gives this last view a special twist -- he assumes Plato switched from the Critias to the Laws "weil sich ihm der Stoff unversehens in eine Richtung entwickelt hatte, die ihn von der ursprünglichen Darstellungsabsicht, wie sie im Anfangsteil des Timaios zu fassen ist, sehr weit und vielleicht zu weit zu entfernen drohte." While the original intention was to show the ideal state in action, at the end of the Critias as we have it the enemy of the ideal state, Atlantis, and the reversal of its moral depravity has become the focus of attention. According to Nesselrath, this forced Plato into the alternative of either totally abandoning his original goal or stopping this development by stopping the dialogue. However, Nesselrath's assumption that by showing the reversal of the moral depravity of Atlantis Plato would not have managed to show the ideal state in action is by no means necessary; one could think of several ways to bring both together. Furthermore, Nesselrath's twist on the third view brings him unintentionally closer to the second rather than to the third view, which he claims to be the most plausible one and the one he adopts himself. In his introduction of the speakers, Nesselrath focuses especially on the fierce debate on the identity of Critias. According to the two main lines of interpretation, Critias is either the infamous uncle of Plato who was one of the thirty tyrants governing Athens after the Peloponnesian war (so the opinio communis from ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century) or the tyrant's grandfather. Nesselrath tries to argue for the first interpretation, seeing Critias the tyrant as afigure who would have meant something to the Athenians, while keeping open the possibility of disconnecting him from the notorious reputation he had if the fictive date of the conversation is before 404 B.C. Hence, Nesselrath obviously grants the Athenians a very high capacity for abstraction if Critias "means something" to them precisely because he was a tyrant and yet are simultaneously able to disregard completely his tyrannical character. The interpretation followed by Nesselrath creates a rather awkward chronological problem (since Solon is said to report the Atlantis story to a Critias who is the grandfather of the current speaker, connecting Solon with Critias the tyrant requires the mediating grandfather to be remarkably long-lived). But Nesselrath puts this aside by referring to chronological "mistakes" in other Platonic dialogues and the pre-Aristotelian tradition which apparently dated Solon's life later than we do.

The figure of Hermocrates raises the question whether Plato indeed intended a dialogue "Hermocrates" as a follow-up to the Critias. Nesselrath brings enough textual evidence from the Timaeus and Critias to answer the question with a very likely yes. However, neither the Timaeus nor the Critias makes it clear what this dialogue would have dealt with. Against Wilamowitz' assumption that the Hermocrates dialogue would have described the degeneration of Ur-Athens into the current state, Nesselrath rightly objects that, as the Egyptian priest tells us in the Timaeus, most of its inhabitants were killed by a natural catastrophe before they would even have had the chance to degenerate. Other suggestions include thoughts about a re-introduction of the ideal state as a better future for an Athens currently in crisis. Nesselrath thinks this goes too far beyond what Socrates articulates as wishing to hear from the three. However, it would take up a theme already hinted at at the beginning of the Timaeus: how we could actually learn from history if we are aware of the recurrent cycles of history. Nesselrath, though, prefers to follow Cornford's suggestion from 1937, according to which the end of the Critias as sketched in the Timaeus prologue -- Athens defeats Atlantis before both are destroyed by a natural catastrophe-- naturally raises the question how a society can get going again after such a disaster. The Laws are thus seen as continuing the Critias and substituting for the answer to be expected from the Hermocrates dialogue. In his discussion of the dating of the dialogue, Nesselrath first attempts to answer the question when we should imagine the fictive dialogue in the Timaeus and Critias taking place. According to Nesselrath, we cannot assume it to happen right after the conversation in the Republic since the festival for Bendis at which the Republic is meant to take place cannot be closely connected with the Panathenaea of the Timaeus. But he says nothing at all to explain why the ideal state described as having been talked about the day before at the beginning of the Timaeus resembles the Republic so closely (at least in some important respects) . For this we probably have to wait for the Timaeus edition in this series. Taking Critias' and Hermocrates' actual political activities as the limiting factors, Nesselrath presents different possible dates for the imaginary conversation withoutarguing for any specific alternative; most of all he tends towards Muthmann's statement that the historic figures could probably never have met in the way depicted.

As for the time when the dialogue was actually written, after a last attempt by Owen in the 1950s to save the old assumption that the Republic, Timaeus und Critias are closely connected also by the time they were written, it is now generally agreed not least on linguistic grounds that there is quite some temporal gap between the Republic on the one hand, and the later Timaeus and the Critias on the other. However, there is no agreement on the dating of the Timaeus and the Critias within the late dialogues: Brandwood regards them as the earliest of the late dialogues, Ledger as the latest, even after the Laws, both interestingly on stylometric grounds.

While older scholarship tended to use Plato's Syracusan projects to give an absolute date to the writing of the dialogue (following their assumption that it was written shortly after the Republic), today scholars focus more on the relation between the work of Plato and of Isocrates, and Athens' attempt to play a more imperial role again, which led to its defeat in the Social War in 357-355. Assuming the Critias to be written sometime in the first half of the 350s allows it to be read as a warning to Athens against an aggressive imperialism by the Atlantis example.

Nesselrath's commentary on the text provides helpful little introductions to each section of the dialogue. At problematic passages the relevant translations provided by earlier translators are presented, enabling the reader to get a good overview of the possibilities in a comfortable way. His comparisons with passages of the Greek historians are, given the topic, especially interesting. While this part of the book is helpful for Plato scholars, the target group named by the publishing house, the reader who doesn't know any Greek, might have some trouble with the many Greek quotations that are left untranslated.

What will help readers who know Greek as well as those who do not, however, is that Nesselrath's translation keeps close to the Greek text without being afraid in principle to fill in where necessary in order to make the text more intelligible (e.g., he renders "peri theôn ismen hôn echomen" at 107b as "hinsichtlich der Götter wissen wir ja doch, auf welchem Kenntnisstand wir uns befinden", which is absolutely adequate in the context). Additions in the German which do not correspond to any Greek word are put in round brackets; alas, Nesselrath is not consistent with this later practice, and he does not always stick to the principle of filling in where the understanding would require it. Thus, he is sometimes unnecessarily complicated; for example., in 110b, an especially interesting passage since it shows how names get semantically emptied and refilled during the course of history, consulting the Greek text or a different translation first is helpful in order to understand Nesselrath's translation. Comparing it to Diskin Clay's English translation one has to say that the latter almost always sounds fresher, and in few cases even the Müller-Widdra translation is easier to grasp. (The latter is the translation usually accompanying the German Schleiermacher editions since Schleiermacher himself never translated this dialogue.)

Leaving aside the speculative literature on the possible existence of Atlantis, which Nesselrath dealt with in a separate essay four years ago, there has been very little research on the Critias. This might be due not only to its shortness (and probable incompleteness) but also to the fact that it seems to be far more straightforwardly narrative and less philosophically interesting than other dialogues. However, there are obviously some quite important philosophical problems raised by the Critias, mostly centred around Plato's political philosophy and philosophy of history, which await further treatment: e.g., the contribution of the Critias to Plato's explanation of the decline of a society; the way Plato plays around with allusions to different wars (e.g., allusions to the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War to characterize the political situation of Atlantis) in order to show some general structures of historic developments; how the particularity of history can be related to general concepts of philosophy; how the relation between human history and natural catastrophes should be conceived; and the notion of mimesis in the particular way it is presented in the introductory section of the dialogue. Nesselrath does not discuss any of these problems, nor does he take a stance on any of these topics. Nevertheless, his extensive commentary clearly prepares the philological ground on which such debates can safely be built.

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