Episode 28: Christopher Gill on Plato’s Atlantis

Plato pretty much invented the genre of utopia, the literary creation of an imaginary place which doesn’t exist but expresses our hopes or fears. All of his imaginary lands are puzzling, but none more so than Atlantis, the long-lost mighty kingdom which fought against primordial Athens and was finally submerged by a catastrophic earthquake. Atlantis has had a fertile and sometimes febrile influence on the minds of later thinkers, and few know much of its origin in Plato’s dialogues Timæus and Critias. In this episode we draw on expert help in remedying this situation. Professor Christopher Gill has published widely in many different areas of ancient philosophy, including the best introduction to the text of the Atlantis story.

What was Plato getting at here? Why does he divide his narrative of the Atlantis myth into two sections? Why choose the rather problematic character of Critias as narrator? Why a giant island in the middle of the Atlantic? And what were all those Atlantean canals for? In this episode we ask these questions and more, and receive answers, many of which give rise to further questions (which may have been part of Plato’s intention). As Professor Gill says at the conclusion of this rich and complex interview, ‘One never knows with Plato’.

The discussion covers, among other points:

  • The dialogic context of the Atlantis myth, and the way it is split between the dialogues Timæus and Critias,
  • A possible reason for the absence of the philosopher rulers in Socrates’ paraphrase of the Republic in the Timæus,
  • The backgrounds of the figures of Timæus, Critias, and Hermocrates in the dialogues,
  • The strange story of periodic worldwide cataclysms which the Egyptian priests tell to Solon in the Timæus,
  • The basic storyline of the Atlantis story in the Timæus contrasted with its presentation in the Critias,
  • The contrasts drawn by Critias between primeval Athens and the vast Atlantean state.

Recommended Reading

  • Brisson, L. (1995). ‘La Invención de la Atlántida’, Méthexis 8 : 167-74.
  • Görgemans, H. (2000). ‘Wahrheit und Fiktion in Platons Atlantis-Erzählung’, Hermes 128 : 405-19.
  • Gill, C. (1977). ‘The Genre of the Atlantis Story’, Classical Philology 72 : 287-304.
  • Gill, C., 2017. Plato’s Atlantis Story: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.
  • Jordan, P., 2001. The Atlantis Syndrome. Sutton, New York, NY.
  • Vidal-Naquet, P., 2007. The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth. University of Exeter Press, Exeter, trans. J. Lloyd,.

The number of modern works of Atlantean fantasy is truly staggering. One of the most influential of them, and one which spawned many a fanciful return to the lost continent, is Ignatius Donnely’s wonderful Atlantis: The Antediluvian World of 1882. The best history of the reception history of the Atlantis myth is Vidal-Naquet 2007, listed above.


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