Plato Made It Up

James Davidson

  • The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, translated by Janet Lloyd
    Exeter, 192 pp, £35.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 85989 805 8

Of all the many disappointments of 1977, the ITV series Man from Atlantis has to be one of the greatest. The title suggested a programme that would have something to do with the lost underwater kingdom described in great detail by Plato in the Timaeus and Critias. But the reality was Patrick Duffy with webbed hands and fluorescent green contact lenses, painfully painted on. Sole survivor of Atlantis, he used his special powers, notably the ability to survive high atmospheric pressure, to foil the evil plans of an evil-looking villain with an evil-looking beard and an evil-sounding German name: Schubert.

Even my enormous teenage appetite for the fantastical and men in swimming trunks was sated quite quickly; there was too much oceanology and not nearly enough Atlantis. So now, thirty years later, I am amazed to discover that there really is a Lost City of Atlantis. It was found in 2000 by a team of Swiss and American scientists investigating the Atlantis Massif along the mid-Atlantic ridge. When it appeared in the frame of their remotely controlled camera – named Argo – there was, by all accounts, a certain degree of excitement. The Lost City consisted of a field of white towers: hydrothermal vents, populated by tiny see-through creatures. So did this mean that Plato had been on to something? Was this yet another example of a myth becoming reality, or at least a myth with a core, a kernel, a germ, a grain of truth?

Let’s not get carried away. The scientists discovered no traces of human habitation in the Lost City, let alone a Patrick-Duffy-lookalike sub-species of homo sapiens, but it must be more than a coincidence that they discovered something deep under the Atlantic that looked to them like a ‘lost city’ in a place known as ‘Atlantis’. Perhaps some time from the ninth to the seventh century BC, some ancient Phoenicians had got blown adrift as they tried to circumnavigate Africa and someone had fallen overboard and been sucked down to the deepest depths by a freak current during a freak tsunami, and had briefly seen the white chimneys and imagined it was a lost city, his imagination somewhat disorientated by the intravenous bubbles of the bends.

Perhaps with his last gasp, this hypothetical Phoenician deep-sea-diver-despite-himself had described what he had seen to his shipmates, and they had passed the information on to the Egyptians, who wrote it up in hieroglyphs. And perhaps the Egyptians had passed it on to Solon of Athens (flourished c.600 BC), and perhaps Solon had passed it on to Critias the Elder, who passed it on to his grandson Critias the Tyrant, just as Critias’ cousin Plato insisted. After all, have scientists not discovered just such grains of truth in the stories of the Flood (the creation of the Black Sea) or of Exodus (a reddish algal bloom that might, had it occurred, have been misinterpreted as blood, and have driven out the frogs to produce a salientian plague and an explosion in the fly population; volcanic activity leading to an opportune parting of the Red Sea or of a similar-sounding stretch of water)?

No one, to my knowledge, has hitherto suggested that the lost city hydrothermal field of the Atlantis Massif is the Lost City of Atlantis – you heard it here first. But before we jump to conclusions we must contend with some alternative popular contenders. In 1909, the archaeologist K.T. Frost wrote a letter to the Times arguing that Plato’s Atlantis was the Minoan civilisation. The Minoans sacrificed bulls just like the Atlanteans and Crete has cliffs just like Atlantis. Moreover, just like Atlantis, the Minoan palace at Knossus was built on a levelled terraced hill, although, to be sure, Crete is not in the Atlantic and Knossus was never knowingly submerged.

More specifically, in 1939, the Greek archaeologist Spiridon Marinatos suggested that the destruction of Atlantis recalled the cataclysmic eruption of the Santorini volcano in the middle of the second millennium BC, burying Akrotiri ‘the Bronze Age Pompeii’ and goodness knows what else. There seems no doubt, at any rate, that there was a civilisation here, that it was cataclysmically destroyed, and that seawater was involved in its destruction just as Plato says. In 1985, on the other hand, Adalberto Giovannini suggested Atlantis was inspired by the submersion of the cities of Boura and Helike on the north coast of the Peloponnese in 373/72 BC. But there again, the Italian journalist Sergio Frau thinks Atlantis was Sardinia, beyond the Straits not of Gibraltar but of Messina.

Outside the Mediterranean, Atlantis has been found in Cádiz (‘Must we note that Cádiz still has its Plaza de toros?’); in the sunken land of Dogger Bank; in the lost Arthurian city of Lyonesse, original home, supposedly, of the Trevelyan family;[*] in Mexico, which suggestion can be traced all the way back to Francisco López de Gómara in 1552 – can it be a coincidence that the Mexica word for ‘water’ was atl?; and at the bottom of Lake Titicaca. In fact, north, south, east and west of the Straits of Gibraltar, there can scarcely be any piece of land that is now submerged but was not necessarily always submerged that has not been linked to Atlantis’s resonant name.

To all such ‘scholars … would-be scholars … mythomaniacs and charlatans’ Pierre Vidal-Naquet had one answer, the same answer for half a century: Plato made Atlantis up. That was his response to a lecture by Fernand Robert in 1956, when the speaker tentatively referred to the theory that Atlantis was inspired by the lost Minoan civilisation, and he had not changed his mind by the time of his death in 2006, shortly after correcting the manuscript of The Atlantis Story, a translation of L’Atlantide: petite histoire d’un mythe platonicien.

But if Atlantis is mere Platonic fiction, why would one of France’s most tireless and responsible public intellectuals, a man who in the 1950s had been pleased to receive a large cheque from Sartre in support of his efforts to expose and oppose the use of torture in the Algerian War, who in 1971 had joined Foucault in his Groupe d’information sur les prisons, who fiercely opposed Holocaust-deniers, such as Robert Faurisson, and also the loi Gayssot against Holocaust-denying, as well as the law passed in 2005 which demanded that teachers ‘acknowledge and recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa’, devote so much effort over so many years to it? Can it be true, as his former pupil François Hartog insists, in his fond but astute Vidal-Naquet, historien en personne: l’homme-mémoire et le moment-mémoire (2007) – that ‘with the myth of Atlantis one comes close to the heart of what “être historien” means for him’?[†]

In fact, it is not so surprising that a scholar whose Diplôme d’études supérieures had been written on ‘Plato’s Conception of History’ (‘Plato was no historian … he manifested a pronounced hostility towards history as practised by Herodotus and Thucydides’) and whose most famous essay, ‘The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebeia’, is a Lévi-Strauss-inspired analysis of the binary oppositions – dark-fair, wild-tame, hunter-hoplite, margin-centre – within the myths and practices associated (by Vidal-Naquet) with comings-of-age, should be interested in Atlantis. His first major (and in my view unsurpassed) study of the myth, published in 1964, duly focused on its binary structure: Atlantis the ‘boundless’ imperial sea power at war with a primordial land-bound lost city of Athens. Moreover, inasmuch as Plato insisted Atlantis was not a fiction but ‘fact’ drawn from Egyptian documents, and indeed suffused his account with what Vidal-Naquet calls, quoting Barthes, ‘reality-effects’ – precise measurements and detailed descriptions of Atlantis’s topography and its monuments – he raises interesting questions about the truth-effects of historical discourse, and the relationship between abstract imaginative constructions and facts on the ground. For what Vidal-Naquet found ‘striking and special’ about the story was that, as well as being a myth, it was also a contemporary political document in which Atlantis stood for Persia and also for modern thalassocratic Athens. The real war embedded in the mythical war was between a real, imperial classical Athens and an imaginary ideal anti-Athens, projected onto the field of prehistory.

What is surprising is that, having long ago worked out what Plato was up to, Vidal-Naquet should then have spent so much time and effort recording the findings of the many mythomaniacs who have tried to discover in Plato’s fiction a greater or lesser degree of fact. For although The Atlantis Story is carefully researched, wryly humorous and entertaining, it is, unlike his 1964 article, not obviously the work of an intellectual, i.e. rich in clever insights and understanding. It is by no means a study of the place of the submerged civilisation in the Western imaginaire, for instance; the concern is much more with scientists than with novelists, film-makers and 1970s television serials, a narrative history of Atlantis’s emplacement in the discourse of the real. At times his narrative rather resembles the epidemiology of a mental illness, with a powerfully positiviste plot leading up to the ‘turning point’ in 1841, when Thomas-Henri Martin, ‘a truly professional historian’ consigned Atlantis to ‘a different world, one to be found not in the spatial domain but in that of thought’, and thus ‘sounded the death-knell for Atlantomania’; only, of course, he didn’t.

It’s not that Vidal-Naquet is uninterested in exploring why the ‘malady’ took such a hold. It may have to do with politics and imperialism: a Spanish Atlantis provides Spain with a right to rule Atlantic territories. With nationalism: a Swedish Atlantis provides the Scandinavians with a glorious submerged antiquity. Or with anti-semitism: Atlantis provided a deep Gentile antiquity to predate that of Adam and the Lost Tribes of Israel. But he is not very interested in trying to understand the structures of scientific plausibility at any particular moment in history, the rules of any particular game of truth. The general tone is one of sustained bemusement and often the history resembles a catalogue of fools, dotted with exasperated exclamation marks inviting the readers to marvel and indeed laugh at their stupidity: ‘“We should not forget that Egypt was the last country to remain under Atlantan domination,” Fabre d’Olivet wrote, with his usual priceless solemnity.’ In fact, the great structuralist student of myth and society sometimes sounds rather like Richard Dawkins on believers in god.

So what we might find striking and special about Vidal-Naquet is that a scholar who spent so much time on, and ascribed so much social significance to cultural constructions, of the Other, of the marginal, of the city, should be so fiercely resistant to any kind of epistemological relativism, quite unembarrassed about making unequivocal distinctions between what is fact and what is fiction, who is a historian and who a pseudo-historian, what is history and what myth.

Undoubtedly, this attachment to history and to truth has something to do with his biography, and it is the interweaving of Vidal-Naquet’s life and works, which is not without its ironies and tensions, that most fascinates Hartog. In his first book of Mémoires, Vidal-Naquet traced the origins of his vocation – history, he said, was his ‘religion’ – to the years immediately before his parents were sent to Auschwitz. On one occasion in 1942 his father started talking to him about the Dreyfus Affair, and in particular about the travesty of the captain’s second court-martial at Rennes in 1899, by which time the true facts of the case were widely known. It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was rehabilitated. Sometime later, his father handed him Chateaubriand’s article on the historian as renderer of accounts: ‘When all tremble before the tyrant, and it is as dangerous to curry his favour as to earn his displeasure, the historian appears, charged with the vengeance of the peoples. Nero thrives in vain; already Tacitus is born inside the Empire.’ Following the disappearance and, as it emerged, death of his parents, being a historian was no mere vocation but a ‘reason to live’. It was entirely predictable that he would take a leading role in the fight against the Holocaust-deniers, the ‘assassins of memory’.

In his little history of Plato’s myth therefore the two sides of his historical activism come together: on the one hand, the analysis of the myth qua myth, a work of imagination, produced for a specific purpose in a specific historical context by an ingenious enemy of historians; on the other, the narrative of failures to recognise Plato’s hoax for what it was. Here history appears above all as work to be done and truth as something to be fought for, in need of constant subsidy over years, decades and centuries.

But perceived parallels between Atlantis and the Dreyfus Affair mean that Vidal-Naquet perhaps overemphasises the role of raison d’état in the success of Atlantomania and they provoke him to set up a binary opposition between total truth and total lies, between purely imaginative works of construction and historical events, an opposition that is neither plausible nor necessary. It is not, after all, completely impossible that the Egyptians did notice and record the submersion of Santorini, that Plato noticed the submersion of Helike or indeed of other cities, that there were traditions about a lost city or a lost continent, that information was garbled in time and translation. I would be surprised if that were so, but even if I were surprised I don’t see how that would make the slightest bit of difference to Vidal-Naquet’s argument. What could be more effective for a writer interested in reality-effects than a touch of reality itself? The most dangerously seductive myths are the ones that are sprinkled with the little-seeming grains of seeming truth.

[*] The Trevelyan family crest has a semi-submerged horse, alluding to the myth that the first of the Trevelyans was the last of the inhabitants of the sunken land of Lyonesse.

[†] La Découverte, 144 pp.,€12, October 2007, 978 2 7071 5319 7.