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Plato - Critias - Atlantis and Athens

Identifier

006686

Type of spiritual experience

Background

Atlantis as described by Plato [and I emphasise here that this is only about Plato's description] is a symbolic city.  It is a city state – an allegorical description of a system for political governance contrasting with that of Athens.  It was created by Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written in 360 BC.

Plato uses Atlantis as a means of contrasting the different systems of governance.  After describing the origin of the world and mankind in Timaeus and the allegorical perfect society of ancient Athens, he then describes its successful defense against an antagonistic Atlantis in Critias. 

Plato sites Atlantis on an island.  This has a number of advantages from an allegorical point of view.  Everyone in Platos’s time understood the mythological significance of an island, so immediately an island was mentioned they would know the tale was an allegory.  Next, the people would also have understood that islands can be ‘dissolved’ washed away meaning that whatever system the city of Atlantis represented, if it sunk under the waves, it was a failed system.   The number of allegorical references within the text is huge, the use of metals, the paradise gardens, palaces and also the concentric rings around the palaces – boundaries such as walls with the symbolic colours of red black and white.  Fountains, groves, mountains, caves, guardians, every allegorical and symbolic reference is included in the description. 

Within the Criteaus, the political system of Atlantis is described in some detail.  The system is a kingdom – a state of priest-kings quite probably the sort of political system that preceded the state that Greece tried to introduce which was a form of democracy.  In effect, Plato is using the dialogue and the mythical city to contrast kingdoms with democracies that are based on senates.

In the Timaeus, Atlantis and Athens are compared as two contrasting political systems.  In the dialogue, Plato first describes Athens, what it was based on politically and then how it was organised.  Socrates muses about the perfect society, described in Plato's Republic  (ca. 380 BC), and wonders if he and his guests might recollect a story which exemplifies such a society. Critias mentions an allegedly historical tale that would make the perfect example, and follows by describing Atlantis as is recorded in the Critias. In his account, ancient Athens seems to represent the "perfect society" and Atlantis its opponent, representing the very antithesis of the "perfect" traits described in the Republic.

The allegory is completed when Plato describes how kingdoms are overcome by democracies, allegorically it disappears into the 'sea', the system sank it was destroyed.  Kingdoms were defeated by democracies.  Except that in France it took a little longer than perhaps elsewhere.

B Jowett translator of Plato’s Criteus
M. Martin has written a valuable dissertation on the opinions entertained respecting the Island of Atlantis in ancient and modern times. It is a curious chapter in the history of the human mind. The tale of Atlantis is the fabric of a vision, but it has never ceased to interest mankind. It was variously regarded by the ancients themselves. The stronger heads among them, like Strabo and Longinus, were as little disposed to believe in the truth of it as the modern reader in Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe. .....  In the Middle Ages the legend seems to have been half-forgotten until revived by the discovery of America. It helped to form the Utopia of Sir Thomas More and the New Atlantis of Bacon.  It was most prolific in the seventeenth or in the early part of the eighteenth century, when the human mind, seeking for Utopias or inventing them, was glad to escape out of the dulness of the present into the romance of the past or some ideal of the future. The later forms of such narratives contained features taken from the Edda, as well as from the Old and New Testament; also from the tales of missionaries and the experiences of travellers and of colonists.
The various opinions respecting the Island of Atlantis have no interest for us except in so far as they illustrate the extravagances of which men are capable. But this is a real interest and a serious lesson, if we remember that now as formerly the human mind is liable to be imposed upon by the illusions of the past, which are ever assuming some new form.

Note that this is not my view, but it provides an interesting comment to the text.  Remember that Plato was a product of the Mysteries.

A description of the experience

Plato  - Critias

Now Atlas had a fair posterity, and great treasures derived from mines--among them that precious metal orichalcum; and there was abundance of wood, and herds of elephants, and pastures for animals of all kinds, and fragrant herbs, and grasses, and trees bearing fruit. ………… they bridged over the zones of sea, and made a way to and from the royal palace which they built in the centre island. This ancient palace was ornamented by successive generations; and they dug a canal which passed through the zones of land from the island to the sea. The zones of earth were surrounded by walls made of stone of divers colours, black and white and red, which they sometimes intermingled for the sake of ornament; and as they quarried they hollowed out beneath the edges of the zones double docks having roofs of rock. The outermost of the walls was coated with brass, the second with tin, and the third, which was the wall of the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

In the interior of the citadel was a holy temple, dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, and surrounded by an enclosure of gold, and there was Poseidon's own temple, which was covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. The roof was of ivory, adorned with gold and silver and orichalcum, and the rest of the interior was lined with orichalcum. Within was an image of the god standing in a chariot drawn by six winged horses, and touching the roof with his head; around him were a hundred Nereids,  riding on dolphins.

Also there were fountains of hot and cold water, and suitable buildings surrounding them, and trees, and there were baths both of the kings and of private individuals, and separate baths for women, and also for cattle. The water from the baths was carried to the grove of Poseidon, and by  aqueducts over the bridges to the outer circles. And there were temples in the zones, and in the larger of the two there was a racecourse for horses, which ran all round the island. The guards were distributed in the zones according to the trust reposed in them; the most trusted of them were stationed in the citadel. The docks were full of triremes and stores. The land between the harbour and the sea was surrounded by a wall, and was crowded with dwellings, and the harbour and canal resounded with the din of human voices...........

The plain around the city was highly cultivated and sheltered from the north by mountains; it was oblong, and where falling out of the straight line followed the circular ditch, which was of an  incredible depth. This depth received the streams which came down from the mountains, as well as the canals of the interior, and found a way to the sea. The entire country was divided into sixty thousand lots, each of which was a square of ten stadia; and the owner of a lot was bound to furnish the sixth part of a war-chariot, so as to make up ten thousand chariots, two horses and riders upon them, a pair of chariot-horses without a seat, and an attendant and charioteer, two hoplites, two archers, two slingers, three stone-shooters, three javelin-men, and four sailors to make up the complement of twelve hundred ships.

In the division of the earth Poseidon obtained as his portion the island of Atlantis, and there he begat children whose mother was a mortal. Towards the sea and in the centre of the island there was a very fair and fertile plain, and near the centre, about fifty stadia from the plain, there was a low mountain in which dwelt a man named Evenor and his wife Leucippe, and their daughter Cleito, of whom Poseidon became enamoured.

He to secure his love enclosed the mountain with rings or zones varying in size, two of land and three of sea, which his divine power readily enabled him to excavate and fashion, and, as there was no shipping in those days, no man could get into the place. To the interior island he conveyed under the earth springs of water hot and cold, and supplied the land with all things needed for the life of man. Here he begat a family consisting of five pairs of twin male children. The eldest was Atlas, and him he made king of the centre island, while to his twin brother, Eumelus, or Gadeirus, he assigned that part of the country which was nearest the Straits. The other brothers he made chiefs over the rest of the island. And their kingdom extended as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia.  ………… Outside the temple were placed golden statues of all the descendants of the ten kings and of their wives; there was an altar too, and there were palaces, corresponding to the greatness and glory both of the kingdom and of the temple. …………. Each of the ten kings was absolute in his own city and kingdom. The relations of the different governments to one another were determined by the injunctions of Poseidon, which had been inscribed by the first kings on a column of orichalcum in the temple of Poseidon, at which the kings and princes gathered together and held a festival every fifth and every sixth year alternately. Around the temple ranged the bulls of Poseidon, one of which the ten kings caught and sacrificed, shedding the blood of the victim over the inscription, and vowing not to transgress the laws of their father Poseidon. When night came, they put on azure robes and gave judgment against offenders. The most important of their laws related to their dealings with one another. They were not to take up arms against one another, and were to come to the rescue if any of their brethren were attacked. They were to deliberate in common about war, and the king was not to have the power of life and death over his kinsmen, unless he had the assent of the majority.

For many generations, as tradition tells, the people of Atlantis were obedient to the laws and to the gods, and practised gentleness and wisdom in their intercourse with one another. They knew that they could only have the true use of riches by not caring about them. But gradually the divine portion of their souls became diluted with too much of the mortal admixture, and they began to degenerate, though to the outward eye they appeared glorious as ever at the very time when they were filled with all iniquity.

Plato Timaeus

For in the times before the great flood Athens was the greatest and best of cities and did the noblest deeds and had the best constitution of any under the face of heaven.' Solon marvelled, and desired to be informed of the particulars. 'You are welcome to hear them,' 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 foundress of both our cities.

Nine thousand years have elapsed since she founded yours, and eight thousand since she founded ours, as our annals record. Many laws exist among us which are the counterpart of yours as they were in the olden time. I will briefly describe them to you, and you shall read the account of them at your leisure in the sacred registers. In the first place, there was a caste of priests among the ancient Athenians, and another of artisans; also castes of shepherds, hunters, and husbandmen, and lastly of warriors, who, like the warriors of Egypt, were separated from the rest, and carried shields and spears, a custom which the goddess first taught you, and then the Asiatics, and we among Asiatics first received from her. Observe again, what care the law took in the pursuit of wisdom, searching out the deep things of the world, and applying them to the use of man. The spot of earth which the goddess chose had the best of climates, and produced the wisest men; in no other was she herself, the philosopher and warrior goddess, so likely to have votaries. And there you dwelt as became the children of the gods, excelling all men in virtue, and many famous actions are recorded of you.

..........The most famous of them all was the overthrow of the island of Atlantis ………   This mighty power was arrayed against Egypt and Hellas and all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean. Then your city did bravely, and won renown over the whole earth. For at the peril of her own existence, and when the other Hellenes had deserted her, she repelled the invader, and of her own accord gave liberty to all the nations within the Pillars. A little while afterwards there were great earthquakes and floods, and your warrior race all sank into the earth; and the great island of Atlantis also disappeared in the sea.

The source of the experience

Plato

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Egg
 

Activities