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On Atlantis | On Education and Politics
One of the most interesting things about the philosopher Plato is that in the 4th Century BC he made the first recorded reference to Atlantis, the legendary island that sank into the sea. The work was originally planned to be a trilogy, but unfortunately it was never completed. The three parts are: Timaeus (completed), Critias (partially finished), and a third work that was never started.
Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates were real people who had an interest in philosophy and politics. The book Timaeus describes their dialogue with the philosopher Socrates, in which they talk about history, mathematics and science.
First, though, Critias tells Socrates a tale which was passed down to him by his grandfather, who heard it from the Athenian political leader Solon. The story came ultimately from an Egyptian priest. According to this tale, Athens had been founded by the goddess Athena 9,000 years earlier, but a great flood had destroyed the history of the city, including the knowledge of the Athenians' war against the people of Atlantis. The Egyptian city of Sais had been founded 8,000 years earlier and it escaped from the flood, being a hot, dry place, so the history of Atlantis had been preserved there.
Atlantis is described as a huge island situated near the Pillars of Hercules1 with the Mediterranean Sea to one side of it, and the Atlantic Ocean to the other side of it. The Atlanteans fought against the warriors of all the Mediterranean nations, but it was the Athenians who defeated them. After the battle, there were earthquakes and the whole of the island of Atlantis sank into the sea, taking the Athenian warriors with it.
The book Critias continues the dialogue of Timaeus, and describes the island and the war between Athens and Atlantis in more detail. The ancient Athenians are described as model citizens - beautiful, virtuous and hard working.
Poseidon was the god who founded Atlantis - he fell in love with Cleito, a mortal who lived in a mountain, and he formed the mountain into a circular island, surrounded by a ring of water, which in turn was surrounded by a ring of land. He fathered five sets of twins with Cleito and named the island (and the Atlantic Ocean) after his first-born child, Atlas. The twins and their children became the inhabitants of Atlantis.
Atlantis was a lush place, providing everything that the inhabitants needed and wanted, including plentiful food and substantial wealth. Over time, temples were constructed2, then a palace, plus bridges to the outer ring of land. Next a canal was dug from the inner island, through the outer ring, out to the sea, and docks and ships were built. Thousands of Atlanteans were trained in military ways - some were horsemen or archers and others were sailors in the fleet of 1,200 ships.
Poseidon had given the people of Atlantis a set of laws, which were inscribed on to pillars, and the kings of the island regions met by the pillars every five or six years to dispense justice if necessary. At first, the people were virtuous, but their descendants, who became more mortal with each generation as Poseidon's blood became diluted in them, started to become greedy and 'intoxicated by luxury'. Zeus decided they should be punished so that they would improve their behaviour in future.
Unfortunately, the text ends there, so it is not known what happened next and why the whole island was destroyed completely, taking the Athenian warriors with it. The story of the fabulous island that sank beneath the waves has captured the imaginations of many people ever since, though.
Atlantis the Legend
Plato's tale explains why the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is so shallow and muddy, but since his time, many other people have set out their theories about Atlantis. Some say it never existed, and was just made up by Plato for use in his philosophical teaching, and others say that it did exist and Plato was reporting historical fact.
Suggestions about the location of Atlantis range from New Zealand to Switzerland and even Antarctica. One argument was that instead of west of the Pillars of Hercules, Atlantis lay to the east and was in fact the island of Crete. It was once a prosperous island which was host to part of the Minoan Empire. Then suddenly the Empire was gone. Santorini, just north of Crete, is now a ring of islands but was once one island with a volcano in the centre. When the volcano erupted in about 1650 BC, the effect was four times as powerful as Krakatoa. The resulting tsunami that would have hit Crete could have travelled inland for over half a mile and would have destroyed towns and cities. Equally, Santorini itself, also part of the Minoan Empire, could have been Atlantis. If the fall of the Minoan Empire is the true story of Atlantis rather than Atlantis being a myth, the natural question is how Plato got the location and time so wrong. In 1969, the book 'Atlantis: The truth behind the legend' suggested there could have been a mistake during translation of some of the numbers, meaning the dates of the events were actually much more recent and, rather than Atlantis being bigger than Libya and Asia, the island could have been between Libya and Asia.
There is another theory that Ireland may be Atlantis. The claim is made by a geologist named Ulf Erlingsson in his book 'Atlantis from a Geographer’s Perspective: Mapping the Fairy Land'. Ulf says Plato's description of Atlantis matches Ireland perfectly: 'The probability is over 99.98% that Plato was describing Ireland.' He reckoned that Ireland is about the same size and shape as Plato said, plus it faces the Atlantic Ocean on one side. Rather than the island in the Atlantic and the island that sank being one and the same, Ulf suggests that the story of Atlantis mixed up two tales, linking Ireland with the Dogger Bank in the North Sea that sank under flood waves in about 6100 BC.
Whatever the truth, the island of Atlantis and Plato's descriptions of it have provided fascination for hundreds of years.