BMCR 2008.05.29

The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth. Translated by Janet Lloyd

, The Atlantis story : a short history of Plato's myth. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. xxii, 192 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780859898058 $59.95.

We live in a time of parallel historical ‘realities,’ or perhaps more properly, mentalities: those constructions and parameters within which the scholarly community generally operates, and those of popular culture. Although these occasionally may wave to each other in the distance as they pass on the highway, in many cases they exist in conceptually opposite corners, swords drawn in active hostility. The phenomenon of this alienation between scholars and the general public, in which each side battles to own or control the categories proof, evidence, objectivity, critical distance, the scientific method and scholarly authority, has been examined in several studies over the last ten years or so, yielding fascinating analyses of various controversies, including the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the archaeology of Palestine-Israel-Jordan, the real existence of Noah’s Ark, the split between mainstream Egyptology and certain elements of Mormonism, the biography of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and of course anything and everything mentioned in The DaVinci Code.1

In this short volume, the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet extends this analysis into the history and development of popular views of the City of Atlantis. The book begins with several forewords and introductions, which locate the problem of Atlantis in Vidal-Naquet’s thinking about myth and politics, and these reflections continue into the analytical Chapter 1, which provides a systematic overview of the two passages, from Timaeus and Critias, where Atlantis is discussed. In these passages, which represent an idealized, primitive Athens pitted against the mighty but corrupt Atlantis, Vidal-Naquet argues that the main point is the comparison between that earlier, ideal city, and the imperialistic Athens of the fourth century (23). In a fascinating observation, which it is most unfortunate that Vidal-Naquet will not be able to pursue, he notes that through his use of this figure, Plato has invented science fiction (32), and certainly, like some examples of science fiction, the idea of Atlantis seized imaginations and has taken on a life of its own.

In the second chapter, Vidal-Naquet takes the necessary step of demonstrating that in speculative literature, philosophy and historiography, the idea of Atlantis is not really pursued or used either in timelines of history or in geography. He argues that it is through the work of Philo, extremely concerned to bring Platonic philosophy and world-view into conformity with the time line of biblical narratives, that the idea of Atlantis found its way into the faith-world of Christianity, which eventually of course became the dominant world-view for the West (43). From this point, Atlantis begins to move in various different circles, but especially in Christian authors functioning as factual evidence; in Tertullian and Arnobius as an example of a natural catastrophe for which Christians cannot be blamed; later, as a Greek confirmation of the Great Flood. It is through this last association that the idea of Plato’s texts as true witnesses of ancient oral tradition becomes a much more critical article, necessitating proof but also in itself providing proof for other things.

Ch. 3 discusses the transformations of the myth of Atlantis in European Renaissance thought from 1485-1710. For these scientists or natural philosophers, both before and after the discovery of the Americas, Atlantis is assumed to be a real historical datum, that both provides an independent witness for the Flood account, and is itself proved by biblical authority; this in turn allows various ways to connect the otherwise-inexplicable people of the Americas to both biblical narrative and to classical antiquity. It should be noted, though Vidal-Naquet does not discuss this, that during the same period such thinkers were also postulating, with the same lack of empirical justification, a great southern continent which was, against all reason, actually discovered (Australia).2

Ch. 4 continues this discussion into the Enlightenment, and Ch. 5 to the period 1786-1841. For the material of these chapters, much of the ground has been covered more systematically by other studies (see notes in Cline, Pleins, and Cohn in fn.1 below), but it is refreshing to read accounts of these authors with the focus on Atlantis, which is usually a side-issue in a discussion of Noah’s Ark. Vidal-Naquet’s study makes clear that Western thinkers faced an intellectual crisis over the historical authenticity of Plato, Herodotus and so forth, almost as stressful as that generated by historical-critical biblical scholarship. Ch. 6 explores the motif specifically in French authors;3 and Ch. 8 provides a brief summation and conclusion.

The book is written in a casual and conversational tone and reading it is rather like spending an afternoon with a great scholar, but with several brandies and in a state of total relaxation. If I were not already familiar with the natural philosophers and geographers discussed here, I am not sure I would have been able to follow the progression Vidal-Naquet makes, but, since I am in fact familiar with them, reading this book was like discussing new things about old friends. For this reason, while on the one hand specialists in the history of science may have the greatest interest in the volume, it could also, with the help of an instructor, provide a good example of the transformations of classical literature in popular science and popular cultureā€”a valuable resource and a tribute to a great scholar no longer with us.


1. To name only a few of these wonderful studies, see Eric H. Cline, From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007); J. David Pleins, When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood (Oxford University Press, 2003); Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (Yale University Press, 1996); Lynn Schofield Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2003); Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1985); against which see Robert K. Ritner, “‘The Breathing Tablet of Hor’ Among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” JNES 62.3 (July 2003):161-80; John Baines, “Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27 (1990):1-23; Dominic Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt (Routledge, 2000).

2. See Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding (New York: Vintage, 1986): 1-83, esp. 43-83.

3. The excursus Ch. 7 discusses an opera composed in Theresienstadt in 1944, and the 1975 novel W or the Memory of Childhood, by Georges Perec, both of which compare Atlantis to totalitarian states.