All About Atlantis
It's a legend that's inspired more than 200 TV shows and movies. The Library of Congress has over 4,400 listings for books about it. It is scarcely possible to grow up and not hear stories of Atlantis, the legendary ancient civilization that faced the wrath of the gods and was crushed beneath the seas — but not before lending its name to the ocean itself. Today we're going to look at the story of Atlantis, its origin and its influence, and come to a conclusion on whether any of the modern claims for its actual existence as a real civilization have any merit.
The myth of Atlantis is, in the simplest terms, an Elvis sighting. When Elvis Presley was found unresponsive in his bathroom in 1977, doctors tried to revive him. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was autopsied. There is no doubt that he died on that day; it is an absolute fact — any dispute of this is little more than philosophical gymnastics. And so, when someone reports an Elvis sighting, we do not bother looking into it because we already know that person is mistaken at best. Similarly, over the course of the 2400 years since Plato wrote of Atlantis, and countless people have tried to match his fiction to some actual island or geographical structure, we already know that all such efforts are in vain. For Atlantis was never anything but an allegorical device used briefly by a philosopher who made up such things all day long, and this is as established a fact as is the death of Elvis Presley.
So it's not surprising that Atlantis left us no art, no language, no literature, no foreign trade goods scattered about the Mediterranean, no currency. Such things exist for all ancient cultures, well outside their geographical boundaries; and they would have for Atlantis as well. If we take the details of Atlantis given by Plato and consider any other ancient civilization for which we have a similar level of detail — names and histories of people who lived there, the population and their possessions and the decorations on their buildings, the attire of their kings — without exception, we find that innumerable other lines of evidence also survive of that society. But for Atlantis, not a single speck of this exists. Not a coin, not a shard of pottery, not a clay tablet, not a descendant language family, not a word mentioned by any historian. Nothing at all, except two mentions by a single philosopher, who never traveled far, never did any archaeology, never would have been expected to make such a monumental discovery.
The reality of Atlantis does include an implied claim that Plato was the civilization's discoverer. If this had been the case, how would he have announced his discovery? We don't know, as this is not something that Plato ever did in his career. His only discussion of Atlantis came in two of his writings: a brief mention in his dialogue Timaeus, in which he asks for examples of the perfect society and the politician and author Critias answers with Atlantis as an example of the antithesis of a perfect society. Plato brought up Atlantis again in his dialogue titled Critias in which Critias launches into a lengthy and greatly detailed discussion of the island nation, its lands and people and history, describing it as a tale handed down from a man known to his great grandfather — but Plato left the book incomplete for an unknown reason, literally cutting off in the middle of a sentence — and all that survives is this introductory fragment. Both dialogues include the same four characters: Socrates as the leader of the debate; plus Timaeus who has his say in the first book; Critias who has his say in the second book; and Hermocrates, who, from references in the texts we infer was to be the main speaker in a third book to complete a trilogy which Plato never wrote. Timaeus and Critias were written around 360 BCE.
These books are examples of works that we collectively describe today as Socratic dialogues, and were written by Plato and others of his contemporaries. Their basic form has Socrates (or occasionally someone else) leading a discussion in which he invites one or more opponents to present him with a moral argument. Socrates lets them have their say (which would often employ allegory), then he deconstructs their argument to find its inconsistencies. The dialogues always end with that person seeing the error in their thought, and with Socrates having illuminated the path to true wisdom. They embody what we now call the Socratic method of philosophical questioning.
Because Plato wrote so little of Critias, the story of Atlantis only got started, and Critias himself never really got around to presenting his moral argument around the story. So we can't guess too much about how Plato was going to have his Socrates character respond, or what Plato's point might have been with this dialogue. One thing we can say for certain, however, is that this was a Socratic dialogue. It was a philosophical exploration, and — unless this particular dialogue was unlike every other one ever written — the story of Atlantis was an allegorical device devised by the Critias character to illustrate a moral argument. To consider that it was instead a literal historical account of an actual civilization, oddly enveloped in a Socratic debate, is to grossly misunderstand who Plato was and what the dialogues were.
Much of Greek mythology is profoundly entangled with philosophical allegory. Homer's epic poems, Plato's parable of the cave, Hercules at the crossroads, neo-Pythagoreanism, neo-Platonism, indeed nearly everything about the Greek gods and their conflicts and interactions with humans was allegorical.
Thus, that the evidence for Atlantis came from a Socratic dialogue tells us two things. First, that it had some larger intent other than as mere literal evidence of Atlantis being a real place; and second and consequently, that it was actually evidence that Atlantis was not a real place.
In both books, the character Critias states that the great battle between Athens and Atlantis had happened some 9,000 years prior, or more than 11,000 years ago from today. The imperial Atlanteans had taken over the Mediterranean as far as Italy to the north and Egypt to the south. Alone among all nations, Athens fought back the invaders; and upon their mighty triumph, Zeus punished the Atlanteans by sinking their island into sea. A war of such epic proportions would not have escaped the notice of every historian in the ancient world, so we can conclude that this sole event for which Atlantis is known did not take place. And certainly nothing like it took place 11,000 years ago, as the human populations in the region at the time consisted only of pre-civilization stone age people, with no known population centers.
While it's easy to determine that the only event in Plato's story is fictional, it's equally easy to use hard physical evidence to say for a certainty that Atlantis itself did not exist. Plato's Atlantis was enormous, and it was unambiguously located in the Atlantic ocean just west of the Straits of Gibraltar. It was the size of "Libya and Asia put together", and the Mediterranean was as a harbor to it. Atlantis had herds of elephants, great mountains, lakes, marshes, and rivers. Of its structures and geographical features, one linear dimension alone was given as 3,000 stadia, which is 450 km; by Plato's description we can infer that Atlantis was approximately the size of Iceland. It's not easy to lose an island the size of Iceland. The tectonic structure and history of the Western Mediterranean is well known to modern geology, as are the character and movements of the African, Eurasian, and Caribbean plates which underlie the Atlantic ocean west of the Mediterranean. We can emphatically assert that there is no potential candidate from the geographical record for what Plato's character described — at least not within the past 100 million years or so, longer ago than Critias' apocryphal great grandfather.
And yet, clearly, many have pointed to today's actual geographical features and claimed them as Atlantis for centuries — features which cannot possibly be reconciled with the only description of Atlantis. This makes them Elvis sightings with the added element of the guy not looking anything like Elvis. Nevertheless, Wikipedia's article "Location hypotheses of Atlantis" lists more than 25 candidates, with their proponents and origins of the belief. These candidates include some that have been around for centuries, since before we had detailed geographical knowledge of the continents — such as Atlantis being in Sweden, in the Americas, in the Azores. They include newer claims made by alternative history enthusiasts such as any number of places inside the Mediterranean and around the Straits of Gibraltar. They even include a new one that springs from the world of YouTube conspiracy mongering: a circular igneous intrusion in Mauritania called the Richat Structure, in a part of Africa that hasn't been undersea for hundreds of millions of years, and that's less than 1% the size of Plato's description. In these great lists of proposed locations, we find many of the famous names from pseudoscience and alternative history: Charles Berlitz, creator of the Bermuda Triangle mythology and co-creator of the Roswell mythology; Erich von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods; Peter Kolosimo, author and promoter of "ancient aliens" claims; Graham Hancock, a leading proponent of the anti-scientific notion of ancient advanced civilizations; and even early 20th-centry celebrity psychic healer Edgar Cayce claimed to have wisdom from Atlantis.
All such proposed locations are unacceptable candidates for Atlantis for at least several reasons — we can find inconsistencies about each that can't be reconciled with Plato's story — and they all share one fatal flaw in common: they attempt to explain a structure that we know from the geographical record to be nonexistent, and that we know from its only source to have been a work of philosophical allegory. In addition, since each of these proposed sites is a physical location that we can actually go study, we find it easy to dismiss them as having been the sites of ancient civilizations, as the evidence that must remain is obviously not there. So no matter how many YouTube videos come out with some new proposed location for Atlantis, they will all continue to be provably wrong by these same measures. When Plato describes an island the size of Iceland, located just west of the mouth of the Mediterranean, with a circular canal 1,500 km in circumference — you don't get to say you located a small circular lake in Outer Mongolia and claim success in finding Plato's fabled city.
We won't conclude today by saying that we've laid the claims to rest, because they won't ever rest. Another book and new claim will come out tomorrow (when it does, please don't email me that Atlantis has finally been found and I need to retract this episode). The same allure of ancient miracles that's kept Von Däniken and Graham Hancock rolling in book sales for decades is now keeping YouTube conspiracy videos high on the list of what's trending, and will continue to mesmerize tomorrow's alternative theorists. There is a great irony in that we never really got to learn what point Plato intended to make with his story, since he discontinued the book so abruptly — he never really got to have his say with Atlantis, and yet it ended up being his work that had the biggest impact on popular culture. By saying almost nothing, he said the most.
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