Credibility and Veracity of the Atlantis story
The Credibility and Veracity of the Atlantis story must be considered on three levels. Was the story true and did Plato himself believe it to be so and is it credible to us today? Any reading of the text reveals that Plato did believe it even though he had reservations about some of its contents. Plato’s faith is clearly based on the fact that he traced the tale back to Solon whose reputation placed him beyond question for the Athenians of Plato’s era. For Plato to claim Solon as the primary conduit for the Atlantis story is the equivalent of an American writer today claiming George Washington as a source. Unless the citation is factually correct, any such writer would be committing literary suicide. In Plato’s case he not only quoted the ‘canonised’ Solon but also included two of his own dead relatives in the chain of transmission from Egypt. This combination of Solon and his own relatives in the provenance of the narrative has led many to conclude that it is highly improbable that Plato would have done so in the perpetration of a literary fraud, leading to the reasonable assumption that there must be some basis to the story. The fact that the chain of transmission is so convoluted, has also added to the view that the Atlantis story is to be believed.
To my mind, if Plato had invented the Atlantis story he would have had no reason to refer to childhood memories. In fact, unless we are to attribute very great deviousness to Plato, his very reference to Mnemosyne reinforces the veracity of his narrative.
The account of how Plato received the story contains no logical contradictions, which further enhances its credibility. In addition to this, as H.S. Bellamy pointed out, it is remarkable that Plato was able to credit the Egyptians with knowledge and antiquity superior to that of the Greeks.
Plato relates how the priests of Sais told Solon that the last flood to engulf Athens led to the art of writing being lost and not regained for some considerable period. That the Egyptians were aware of this seems to come as a surprise to Solon. It was not until the 19th century that it was confirmed that the Greeks had possessed writing prior to the ‘Dark Age’, a discovery that adds further credence to the whole narrative.
In addition to all this, is the fact that Plato unambiguously claimed on four occasions in Timaeus that the story was true, as if anticipating the incredulity of some of his audience. It is not impossible, in fact it is more than likely, that Plato added his own elaboration to the Atlantis story in keeping with the norms of literary licence of his time. However, he has never been shown to be guilty of wholesale fabrication. Interestingly, Plato declared that his Republic is a fiction but that Atlantis is true.
John Michael Greer[0345.15] notes that Plato stated “three times in the Timaeus alone that the story Solon heard from the Egyptian priest is true, ‘not a mere legend but an actual fact (Tim.21a).’ This is the only place anywhere in Plato’s dialogues that he puts this much emphasis on the factual nature of one of his stories. This dosen’t guarantee the truth of his account of Atlantis, of course, but it does suggest that he wanted to make sure that his story was not dismissed as ‘a mere legend’.”
The Greek researcher, Anthony N. Kontaratos, listed twenty-two instances of Plato asserting the truthfulness of the Atlantis story, directly and indirectly, in a paper delivered to the 2005 Atlantis Conference on Melos.*This led him to ask the question; “How many times in a narration does an author have to insist that his story is true and then again use a credible side plot to drive the point home? Why would Plato go to such lengths to convince his readers that his story is real, if it were not?” [p.80]*
A common criticism is that Plato was merely using the Atlantis story to advance his own views of an ideal state. In fact, he had no need to concoct a country unknown to his listeners to promote his political philosophy when he had already expounded them more than once in other works without resorting to historical or geographical invention. It does seem far-fetched to suggest that Plato used the exotic story of Atlantis to highlight his ideal state system while his prehistoric Athens as outlined in Timaeus was already available for this very purpose.
If Plato had invented the Atlantis story it makes no sense that he included in the narrative his disquiet at some of the details contained in it. In Critias 118c he has the speaker, Critias, declare “now as regards the depth of this trench and its breadth and length, it seems incredible that it should be so large as the account states, considering that it was made by hand, and in addition to all the other operations. But none the less we must report what we heard”. Galanopoulos and Bacon drew attention to this extract as an inexplicable comment by a ‘fabulist’ intent on misleading an audience. They surmise that Plato was torn between the reputation of his source, Solon, and the incredibility of the content of his tale and opted for reputation over reason. If Plato had invented the story he would have devised more credible dimensions. They very fact that he offers such seemingly exaggerated numbers, which in other circumstances might have generated open derision, is in itself evidence that he accepted their veracity and believed that he was relaying a true story.
If we compare the manner in which Plato presents Atlantis in Timaeus and Critias with his introduction of the myth of Theuth and Thamus in his dialogue Phaedrus, where the speaker, Socrates, announces “I can tell you a story from the men of former times but only they know whether or not it is true”, we can see an element of doubt which he does not apply in the case of the Atlantis story. Although Plato clearly accepts that the Atlantis account is a ‘strange’ one, he is adamant that it is true, ‘having been attested by Solon, the wisest of the Seven Sages’. In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato has the speaker, Critias, twice emphasise that his story is about something that actually happened and he has Socrates himself welcome the story on that understanding.
The weight of evidence is that Plato believed the story to be true and if doubt is to be cast anywhere it should be directed towards Plato’s source, Solon, the Egyptian priests or the subsequent line of transmission. And so, the key questions are: (i) did the Egyptian priests tell Solon the truth and (ii) did Solon fully understand what he was being told and (iii) was the story transmitted intact to Plato?
In a March 2014 interview George Sarantitis gave his reasons for accepting Plato’s credibility, “So, going back to its author, Atlantis was written almost 2.360 years ago by the Greek philosopher-scientist Plato. He wrote about it in two separate books, Timaeus and Critias. Plato was renowned in his time and is considered to be of the greatest thinkers ever. Many believe Atlantis to be a figment of his imagination, written to illustrate a point. But Plato was an arch exponent of rationalism and logic, renowned and acclaimed philosopher-scientist of wide interdisciplinary knowledge and he wrote about Atlantis in the latter part of his life. It was in his last works. So the question is; would one like him, at his age and reputation and in that era, write a work of pure fiction, a fairytale? The logical answer is no. It’s illogical to expect that one under his circumstances would spend time to write such an incredible story solely for philosophical instruction. Would one reasonably expect Einstein or Hawkins for example, to write fairytales as part of their life’s work and especially while approaching the end of it? Besides, Plato’s account of Atlantis contains geographical directions, mathematical descriptions and precise measurements; hardly the stuff of fairy stories. Why (did) he write about it in two separate books?”(a)
Lewis Spence pointed out[259.41] that Sais, which had a Greek quarter, had very strong religious, social and commercial links with Athens that would have generated regular traffic between the two cities. It is highly unlikely that the Atlantis story was related to Solon alone and further remarks that as a consequence, “if Plato’s account had not been inherited from Solon, and had its Egyptian form not been current in Sais, there were thousands of Greeks there who could have contradicted it, and that some negative of the kind would have reached Athens sooner or later.”
Eberhard Zangger contends that there is no reason to believe that Plato saw the Atlantis story as anything other than an actual historical account. He argues that the length and specificity of detail would render the tale purposeless as fiction.
*Rhys Carpenter pointed out “A remarkable detail that should convince the most skeptical of the genuineness of Solon’s conversation with the Saite priests is the latter’s unambiguous statement that the older Greek race had been reduced to an unlettered and uncivilized remnant which, like children, had to learn its letters anew. This claim we know to be entirely exact, but we have no reason to believe that Plato himself was aware of it.” [629.498]*
The strongest case that can be brought against the credibility of Plato’s tale is perhaps the high numerical values given to both architectural dimensions and the antiquity ascribed to Egypt, Athens and Atlantis alike. Since Plato did not treat his audience as fools, we can only attribute these apparent exaggerations to a transmission error as the narrative passed through many persons from the Egyptian priests to Plato or, as some have suggested, from even earlier sources such as Sumeria or the Indus Valley.
The fact that Plato incorporated such excessive numbers into his Dialogues only enhances the view the Plato really believed the data given to him and that they were not the outpourings of a deluded romantic.
Finally, had Plato’s intention been to totally deceive his listeners then it is reasonable to expect that he would have used the long recognised ploy of carefully mixing the false with large dollops of commonly accepted truths, thus luring his audience into accepting everything presented as fact. There is no evidence of such a strategy, instead we have Plato doubting some of his own story but obviously compelled to relate it as given to him out of regard for its source, Solon.
Nevertheless, in spite of all this we cannot ignore the fact that there is a high level of scepticism regarding the Atlantis story, particularly among academics. I suspect that in many instances that this intellectual cowardice stems more from a need to protect careers rather than engage in controversy.