Plato's "Lost Island"

From Plato's Timaeus and Critias

 Since modern research is focusing so much attention on the lost continent of Atlantis, trying to establish its possible location, it may be of interest to consider what Plato has to say on this subject. Antiquity never doubted that at one time there existed some islands in the "external sea," outside the Pillars of Hercules. Many references can also be found in Greek mythology to this effect. Parallel to the events related in Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these islands perished as a result of great floods, preceded, as some accounts have it, by violent earthquakes. The cause of these calamities was not to be sought in the blind workings of nature, but was deemed to be a direct consequence of the inhabitants of the lands having fallen into wickedness so great that total destruction was the only course open to the divine pantheon, so that a new humanity could make a fresh start on virgin soil.

Plato gives quite detailed descriptions in his Timaeus and Critias. In both dialogues the speaker is one of his relatives, the younger Critias, whose grandfather had passed on to him a family tradition about his ancestor Solon, (from whose brother Plato was directly descended). Before engaging in political activities in Athens, this famous lawgiver and sage spent some time in the temples of Egypt where not only did he gain great wisdom, but he also became acquainted with the historic records which the priests had kept since before the great deluge. Plato himself probably realized, better than anyone, that exact historical periods and geological positions cannot be taken at face value in sacerdotal traditions.

In the course of the centuries, the credibility of Plato's narrative has varied but his readers have never failed to be fascinated by it. Some have considered the whole account as straight history; others have regarded it as pure fiction, but we should not forget Plato's own statement in this context: "Listen, Socrates, to a strange tale, which is, however, certainly true." — EDS.

 From the TIMAEUS:

At the head of the Egyptian Delta, where the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which Amasis the king was sprung. And the citizens have a deity who is their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene. Now the citizens of this city are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them. Thither came Solon, who was received by them with great honor; and he asked the priests, who were the most skillful in such matters, about antiquity, and made the discovery that neither he nor any other Hellene knew anything worth mentioning about the times of old. On one occasion, when he was drawing them on to speak of antiquity, he began to tell about the most ancient things in our part of the world . . . Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children and there is never an old man who is an Hellene. Solon, hearing this, said, What do you mean? I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition; nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you the reason of this. There have been and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. . . .

The fact is, that wherever the extremity of winterfrost or of summer sun does not prevent, the human race is increasing at times, at other times diminishing in numbers. And whatever happened either in your country or in ours, or in any other region of which we are informed if any action which is noble or great or in any other way remarkable has taken place, all that has been written down of old and is preserved in our temples; whereas you and other nations are just being provided with letters and the other things which states require; and then, at the usual period, the stream from heaven descends like a pestilence and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and thus you have to begin all over again as children and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.

As for these genealogies of yours which you have recounted to us, Solon, they are no better than the tales of children; for in the first place you remember one deluge only, whereas there have been many of them; and in the next place, you do not know that there dwelt in your land the fairest and noblest race of men which ever lived, of whom you and your whole city are but a seed and a remnant. And this was unknown to you, because for many generations the survivors of that destruction died and made no sign. For there was a time, Solon, before the great deluge of all, when the city which now is Athens, was first in war and was pre-eminent for the excellence of her laws, and is said to have performed the noblest deeds and to have had the fairest constitution of any of which tradition tells under the face of heaven. Solon marveled at this and earnestly requested the priest to inform him exactly and in order about these former citizens. You are welcome to hear about them, Solon, said the priest, both for your own sake and for that of the city, and above all for the sake of the goddess who is the common patron and protector and educator of both our cities. She founded your city a thousand years before ours, receiving from the Earth and Hephaestus the seed of your race, and then she founded ours, the constitution of which is set down in our sacred registers as 8,000 years old. . . .

Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valor. For these histories tell of a mighty power which was aggressing wantonly against the whole of Europe and Asia, a power to which your city put an end. This came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which you call the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from the island you might pass through the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbor, having a narrow entrance, but the other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a continent.

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, as well as over parts of the continent, and, besides these, they subjected the parts of Libya within the Pillars of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. The vast power thus gathered into one endeavored to subdue at one blow our country and yours and the whole of the land which is within the Straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth in the excellence of her virtue and strength among all mankind; for she was the first in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being cornpelled to stand alone, after having undergone the extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjected, and freely liberated all the others who dwell within the limits of Heracles.

But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of rain all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared and was sunk beneath the sea. And that is the reason why the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is such a quantity of shallow mud in the way, and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.



I have before remarked in speaking of the allotments of the gods that they distributed the whole earth into portions differing in extent, and made themselves temples and sacrifices. And Poseidon, receiving for his lot the island of Atlantis, begat children by a mortal woman and settled them in a part of the island which I will proceed to describe. On the side towards the sea and in the center of the whole island there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the center of the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side. In this mountain there dwelt one of the earth-born primeval men of that country whose name was Evenor, and he had a wife named Leucippe and they had an only daughter who was named Cleito. The maiden was growing up to womanhood when her father and mother died; Poseidon fell in love with her and had intercourse with her and, breaking the ground, enclosed the hill in which she dwelt all around, making alternate zones of sea and land, larger and smaller, encircling one another. . . . He also begat and brought up five pairs of male children, dividing the island of Atlantis into ten portions; he gave to the first-born of the eldest pair his mother's dwelling and the surrounding allotment, which was the largest and best, and made him king over the rest; the others he made princes and gave them rule over many men and a large territory. And he named them all; the eldest, who was king, he named Atlas, and from him the name Atlantic was applied to the whole island and the neighboring ocean....

Now Atlas had a numerous and honorable family, and his eldest branch always retained the kingdom, which the eldest son handed on to his eldest for many generations; and they had such an amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be again, and they were furnished with everything they could have both in city and in country. For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided much of what was required by them for the uses of life. . . .

The palaces in the interior of the citadel were constructed in this wise: In the center was a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, which remained inaccessible, and was surrounded by an enclosure of gold; this was the spot in which they originally begat the race of ten princes, and thither the people annually brought the fruits of the earth in their season from all the ten portions, and performed sacrifices to each of them. . . .

In the next place, they used fountains both of cold and hot springs; these were very abundant and both kinds wonderfully adapted to use by reason of the sweetness and excellence of their waters. They constructed buildings about them and planted suitable trees; also cisterns, some open to the heaven, others which they roofed over, to be used in winter as warm baths; there were the king's baths and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; also separate baths for women, and others again for horses and cattle, and to each of them they gave as much adornment as was suitable for them. The water which ran off they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil; the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts which passed over the bridges to the outer circles; and there were many temples built and dedicated to many gods; also gardens and places of exercise. . . .

There were many special laws which the several kings had inscribed about the temples, but the most important was the following: That they were not to take up arms against one another, and they were all to come to the rescue if anyone in any city attempted to overthrow the royal house; like their ancestors they were to deliberate in common about war and other matters, giving the supremacy to the family of Atlas. And the king was not to have the power of life and death over any of his kinsmen unless he had the assent of the majority of the ten kings.

Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land on the following pretext, as traditions tell: For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the gods, who were their kinsmen; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, practicing gentleness and wisdom in the various chances of life and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, not caring for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtuous friendship with one another, and that by excessive zeal for them, and honor of them, the good of them is lost and friendship perishes with them. By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, all that which we have described waxed and increased in them; but when this divine portion began to fade away in them and became diluted too often and with too much of the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, then they, being unable to bear their fortune, became unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see, they began to appear base, and had lost the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they still appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were filled with unrighteous avarice and power. Zeus, the god of the gods, who rules with law and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honorable race was in a most wretched state and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improved, collected all the gods into his most holy habitation, which being placed in the center of the world, sees all things that partake of generation. . . .

Here Plato's narrative ends rather abruptly. What he might have added if
he had finished this dialogue remains an interesting speculation.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

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