This is another of those articles for which I’m having to suppress just a hint of party-pooping, fuddy-duddy guilt. Atlantis is actually a pretty cool legend, and some really fun stories have arisen around it. The Indiana Jones game, about stopping the Nazis from harnessing the immense power of a lost civilisation, was something I had many, many hours of fun with back when I was first discovering point-and-click adventure games.
Damn, this always happens. Excuse me while I go rummage through some of my as-yet-unpacked boxes of assorted junk to dig up some old games. I need to stop inadvertently reminding myself of cool stuff from my adolescence.
Ooh, Day of the Tentacle. Awesome.
Anyway, Atlantis. We’d better start with some background info, and any background info on Atlantis is pretty much obliged to start with Plato.
Plato was a hugely influential Greek philosopher around 2,400 years ago, and a student of Socrates. He’s probably best known for a series of writings called the Dialogues, which expound upon various philosophical notions, in the form of imagined conversations, into which he often wrote a fictionalised version of Socrates himself.
Plato’s most famous work is one of these Socratic dialogues, called The Republic. In it, the character of Socrates begins by asking some of his typically insightful and probing (but probably really annoying) questions, in this case on the subject of justice. He picks out the flaws in people’s initial ideas of what constitutes justice, and shows how difficult it actually is to define this familiar concept. It’s then demanded that he also explain why justice is actually a good thing at all, and show that people who practise it will do better than those who don’t.
He proceeds to do exactly this, in more complex and intellectual terms than I feel capable of grasping in the afternoon I’m taking to research all this while trying to look busy in the office where I’m supposed to be working. But the way he does it is by imagining a hypothetical “ideal city-state”, and examining the results of just or unjust behaviour on the society as a whole. So, this ideal state is a just a useful, imaginary construct. Socrates needs some context in which to discuss justice and the practical issues surrounding it, and to help explain it he asks us to imagine a fictional place, where his ideas can be given a more concrete, less abstract form.
It’s like if I were trying to write a treatise on the concept of irony, and I asked you to imagine a song called Ironic. This song would contain descriptions of multiple scenarios and describe them as being good examples of irony – but, ironically, there would be nothing really ironic about any of them. The song doesn’t have to really exist, and neither does Socrates’ ideal city-state – it’s just trying to make a point.
Atlantis is discussed in two later dialogues, named Timaeus and Critias after their predominant speaking characters. They were intended to be part of a trilogy, but Critias seems to be unfinished, and it’s unlikely that Hermocrates was ever written, so we’ll have to make do.
In the dialogue Timaeus, it’s the day after the above discussion from the Republic, and Socrates is yammering on again. He wants to extend his thought experiment further, and imagine his ideal state “engaging in transactions with other states”, to expand on his ruminations about justice. For some reason, this involves a digression onto the subject of the creation of the universe, but in the next dialogue, Critias, they get back on track with expounding on various philosophical ideas, using two notional cities – one ideal, one corrupted – to give structure to the arguments being made.
The example he uses for the ideal city is Athens, and the corrupted city is Atlantis. The people living there began by embracing virtue, but over time became corrupt. Zeus eventually came down to sort them all out, but the nature and extent of the divine bitchslap he delivered to the filthy Atlantean monkeys is unknown, because that part of the dialogue is lost. At some point later, the earth literally opened up and swallowed the entire island, leaving not a trace ever to be found.
This all happened, we’re told, around 9,600 BC. That might seem like quite a long time ago, and it really is. It was over 9,000 years before Plato himself told the story. That’s a long, long time for a legend to have been passed down. I mean, Plato and his dialogues already seem ancient to us, but only around a quarter of that time has passed between then and now. Think about how much would have changed in the world over nine millennia, and how much confusion and misunderstanding might have arisen over the interpretation of historical events in that time. How accurately could Plato really be expected to reproduce these facts? Hell, we don’t even know what happened to Lord Lucan.
Critias goes into a lot of detail in his dialogue, regarding the Atlanteans’ virtue (before they were corrupted), disregard for materialism, wisdom, use of the mythical metal Orichalcum, and so forth. It would be staggeringly impressive if it was really accurate, after so much time. I’m not a historian, I just play one in badly researched articles on the internet from time to time, but I’m not at all clear how this kind of information could have been reliably preserved, particularly when you consider that it wasn’t until several thousand years after Atlantis’ supposed beginnings that humans even invented writing.
In 9,600 BC, our species generally wasn’t yet Neolithic. People hadn’t yet come up with the notion of making symbols to represent words and ideas, nor that round things might be easy to move about. But Critias talks as if Atlantis were an accessible culture, easily understood and comparable to contemporary Athens, and speaks authoritatively of the nature and motives of its people, as if this were well established knowledge.
Critias, Plato, Socrates, and the rest of these guys didn’t have the benefits of modern archaeology. They were old-fashioned like that, the ancient Greeks. Their understanding of how civilisation had developed was necessarily limited, as they couldn’t make use of the centuries of detailed historical, archaeological, and geological research which has since been done. These days, we have a fair idea of the state of the world eleven thousand years ago, and how it progressed from there. Atlantis as it’s portrayed in Plato’s dialogues just doesn’t fit with that picture.
And it is only portrayed in Plato’s dialogues. Just as incongruous as the existence of the place itself is the idea that not a single record of it is known to exist – even from those millennia in which writing existed as a technology – before Plato’s account in 360 BC. Supposedly it came from some Egyptian historical records, but these have never been found. From what we know about ancient Egyptian record-keeping (Herodotus did extensive research there, for instance), it seems unlikely that any such histories would have been kept around for so long a time (in hieroglyphs adorning a column in the temple of Neith, no less) but left no trace for any historian to actually find and provide evidence of. It seems to have been recorded absolutely nowhere before Critias.
But even if these columns did exist, and did themselves describe the Atlantis story, how reliable would they be? How much stock should we really put in them? If you’ve ever been in the habit of drinking alcohol in the company of friends, you’ve probably seen how far an even moderately interesting story can be distorted and exaggerated, even over the course of just a few days. Atlantis is a tale that must have been handed down by nothing more reliable than word of mouth for thousands of years. These people must have been honest, careful, diligent, literal, fastidious, and obsessively anal beyond a degree ever observed in mankind, if the details were to have any noticeable bearing on the truth by the time someone invented a way to write them down.
But even if Plato really had heard this account somewhere, even if he hadn’t clearly been using the whole concept of Atlantis as a rhetorical device, even if he did strangely decide to report it entirely accurately and not add any kind of embellishments or dramatic license to make it more amenable to the purposes of the fictional story he was telling about a conversation that never happened… Even if all those possibilities don’t give you cause to doubt a single word of it, Atlantis still faces the little problem that it’s not there any more, and there’s nowhere it could conceivably have gone.
Atlantis was supposedly “swallowed up by the sea and vanished”. Now, we’re talking about an island several hundred miles across, “larger than Libya and Asia together”. Even if, apparently, he was only talking about Asia Minor, that’s still a big hunk of country. That’s not the kind of landmass which realistically vanishes overnight (which is how fast Atlantis was said to have become submerged). This is another subject we understand a lot better nowadays than Plato would have done. We’ve seen and measured some pretty massive tectonic events, earthquakes that must have felt like the planet really was trying to eat your country. None of them came close to being able to make many thousands of square miles of land completely disappear, including a whole lotta mountains. Seriously, where would it all go? It’s not a “mystery of the ages”, it’s geologically impossible.
Think about it in the context of story-telling, for a moment. The tale of Atlantis ends when the sea opens up and swallows this terrible and corrupted place whole. Isn’t that about the most obvious deus ex machina you could ask for? (Which might not be inappropriate, given Poseidon’s prominent role in the story, but doesn’t help its claims for realism.) Doesn’t it sound like something you’d add to a fantasy story at the end, to make it a bit more compelling by making it sound like it could maybe have actually happened? It’s basically the ancient equivalent of hand-waving it away with “A wizard did it”.
So, to recap. The claims made about Atlantis’ existence and destruction are impossible, based on the state of contemporary human civilisation and what the surface of our planet is made of. There’s no conceivable way an accurate and detailed story of the city’s goings-on could have reached Plato 9,000 years later, particularly if it was so obscure a tale that we’ve never seen it mentioned before him, in all those millennia. And it wasn’t even meant to be taken literally by the guy writing about it. The whole story was fiction. He wrote these dialogues in 360 BC, and the main character had died nearly forty years earlier.
… Can we all just stop being silly now?
Of course, there’s also a whole area of speculation I haven’t touched yet, which is of all the people who have been enlightened as to the truth behind this mystical ancient city by some kind of spirit guide, or Aztec God, or aliens, or whatever. Diana Cooper is the first example I found in a quick online search. I don’t think I’m going to do any better, or find anything more representative of this body of literature, which seems to be entirely indistinguishable from “shit we just made up”. Her description of the “Golden Times of Atlantis” on that page includes the paragraph:
You communicate directly with your angel and your unicorn and often swim with the dolphins, who impart much sacred wisdom to you.
Atlantis had unicorns, people. Why would you ever doubt it?
Maybe I’ll get around to discussing all this crap in detail later as well, but for now this article’s long enough, so I’ll settle for telling you to grow the fuck up.
More info can be found at the Skeptic’s Dictionary (entirely unaffiliated with the Skeptictionary), and SkepticWiki (which has some more thoroughly researched data than you’ll find on my blog, as well as some very nicely placed snark). And of course Wikipedia, and Wikipedia, and also some of the links cited on those pages, because I do occasionally get helplessly drawn in to the wild and crazy world of fact-checking.
(Edited 21/6/09 to correct some historical context. Apparently the technology of stone-sharpening is older than I’d given people credit for.)