utorak, 29. ožujka 2011.

Atlantis - Facts

Plato’s story of Atlantis has the unenviable reputation of being the absurdest lie in all literature. One major problem has been the long eclipse which Plato’s reputation as a philosopher and political thinker suffered during the twentieth century.

Some scholars have written about Plato in such vitriolic terms as to test the boundaries of the term ‘scholarship’. He has been damned for his assumed moral decadence, on the strength of what he wrote in the Symposium,  even though he argued for legislation against homosexuality in the Laws; he has been condemned for the obscurity of his cosmology and for his totalitarian politics, his approach to state education sounding uncomfortably like the strategy behind the Hitler Youth.

The adoption of the Atlantis allegory by the Nazis seriously damaged Plato’s reputation. Hitler admired Plato’s cyclical view of history involving periodic catastrophes and the return of the demi-gods, discussing it frequently with Hermann Rauschning, who observed, ‘Every German has one foot in Atlantis, where he seeks a better fatherland and a better patrimony. This double nature of the Germans [to live in both real and imaginary worlds] is especially noticeable in Hitler and provides the
key to his magic socialism.’

There is also a parallel, ‘alternative’ twentieth-century literature which has sometimes sought to establish the truth of Plato’s story by refuting what has been learnt through the natural sciences, and that too has alienated academics. Few scholars have been prepared to expose themselves to ridicule from their colleagues by discussing the matter, and it is symptomatic of the climate of opinion in the twentieth century that a young academic who saw a link between the Minoan civilization and Atlantis at the time of Evans’s Knossos excavation felt that he had to publish his ideas anonymously.

The story which has produced such extremes of credulity and incredulity was written down for the first time that we can be certain of between 359 BC, when Plato returned to Athens from Sicily, and 351 BC, when he died at the age of 81.

In a preamble he claimed the story had been handed down to his narrator, Critias, from a distinguished ancestor of Critias, the statesman Solon, who heard it in Egypt in about 590 BC. The Timaeus was written as a sequel to the Republic, and its opening pages show Socrates asking for a narrative to illustrate the ideal state in action.

Critias’ story about the war between Atlantis and the prehistoric Athenians is by no means the main part of the Timaeus, a seventy-five-page discourse on cosmology by the astronomer Timaeus. The discourse throws no light on Atlantis.

At first sight it looks as if Plato realized the usefulness of the story only after completing the Republic, and slipped it into his next dialogue as an after-thought.
It nevertheless reappears in the Critias (113C–121C), and the short account in the Timaeus (23D–25D) is really a trailer for that.

The more detailed Critias breaks off at the moment where Zeus is about to pass judgement on the mortals. Since that moment in the 350s BC, the story of Atlantis has hovered between fable and folk tale, taken as history by some, acknowledged as allegory by others. Today some take it literally, others see it as didactic novella; in the ancient world too opinion was divided. Is the story true? If so, where was Atlantis? The longer version mentions ‘the extremity of the island near the Pillars of Heracles’  and ‘the war between the dwellers beyond the pillars of Heracles [Atlanteans] and all that dwelt within them’. The shorter version is clearer still: ‘in front of the mouth which [Greeks] call the pillars of Heracles, there was an island larger than Libya and Asia together’. Plato is evidently describing an island-continent out in the Atlantic Ocean, just west of the Straits of Gibraltar. There are nevertheless
possibilities other than the obvious one. Although Plato may have placed Atlantis far to the west in an ocean whose immensity was in his time only just being recognized, the original of his story, the Atlantis described by Egyptian priests 250 years earlier, was smaller and nearer to home. The term ‘Atlantic’ is misleading; as late as the first century BC, Diodorus (3. 38) was using it for the Indian Ocean, so it may be wiser to translate it less precisely as ‘outer’ or ‘distant’ ocean. 

We cannot assume ancient authors meant the same as us by either ‘pillars of Heracles’ or

Both place names and geographical perceptions shift with time, and the world of fourth-century Athens was already larger than the world of the Egyptian priests of 600 BC. To the Egyptians, a huge island in the ocean to the west could have been Sicily or even Crete. To the early Greeks the pillars supporting the corners of the vault of heaven might be anywhere remote. Even as late as Strabo’s time opinions differed about the location of the pillars of Heracles; some thought it was the mountains on each side of the Straits of Gibraltar, others argued it was even further west. There was even disagreement about whether the pillars were real pillars, perhaps made of bronze, or mountains. Before the sixth century BC several mountains on the edges of mainland Greece were seen as supports for the sky.

Amongst others, the two southward-pointing headlands on each side of the Gulf of Laconia were pillars of Heracles. Then, to the Greeks, a large island with one end just outside the pillars of Heracles could only have meant Crete. The exotic civilization of Atlantis could then have been the Minoan civilization, which threatened the mainland Greek and Anatolian cultures not 9,000 but 900 years before Solon. Support for a Peloponnesian location for the pillars comes, unexpectedly, from Egypt. The Medinet Habu texts, dating from 1200 BC, describe the Sea Peoples invading from islands to the north (possibly the Aegean) ‘from the pillars of heaven’, by which the Egyptians probably meant that the invaders came from the end of the world as they knew it.

The power that held sway over all the island and over many other islands also was the economic and possibly political power of the Minoan civilization, which was centred in Crete but enmeshed most of the Aegean region and reached out to trade, among other places, with North Africa (‘Libya’) and Italy (‘Tuscany’).

The island of Crete was not swallowed up by the sea, but perhaps the tradition was a misremembering of what happened to the Minoan trading empire, which contracted during the fifteenth century culminating in the fall of the Knossos Labyrinth in 1380 BC. It was as if the invisible network of trading routes and political controls had unk to the bottom of the Aegean, perhaps in the face of competition from Mycenae, metaphorically ‘swallowed up by the sea’.

The thesis of this articles is that the story is not one piece of identifiable proto
history but several, and that Plato drew them together because he wanted to weave them into a parable that commented on the state of the world in his own times. It is clear from Plato’s other writings that he had mixed motives: he wanted to entertain, improve and exalt his readers. A distant memory of the Minoan civilization was available, preserved for his use, as he said, by the seventh-century priests in the Nile delta. The wealth, orderliness and strangeness of the Minoans are sketched in for us. Atlantis has often been referred to as a Utopia, a fantastic extension of the ideal state Plato alluded to in the Republic, but it is really not that. It is the Athenians who are described in utopian terms. It is they who have relinquished private property, and have prolific fields and boundless pastures. It is Athens that is the excellent land with well-tempered seasons. Atticais the Utopia, not Atlantis, for all its marvels.

The second strand in Plato’s proto-history is hinted at in the words ‘all the island and over many other islands also’. Atlantis is an archipelago consisting of one large island and a group of smaller islands: the Aegean islands controlled by the Cretans in the sixteenth century BC. Such details of the destruction of Atlantis that Plato gives us speak of a geological cataclysm: earthquakes and subsidence taking significant parts of Atlantis below the waves. Small-scale gradual subsidences (and emergences) are common on all the Aegean islands – they tilt as a result of the ongoing collision between African and European plates – but something large-scale and sudden is meant. Red, white and black rocks are mentioned as building materials on Atlantis. Volcanic rocks like these exist on Santorini, an island that was the scene of a massive, destructive eruption in the bronze age, about a century before the Minoan civilization collapsed.

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