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  • Writer's pictureMike Parker

Plato's dialogues on Atlantis are based on minutes he took as a student.

When a friend of mine says “this is going to sound crazy, but I swear it’s true”, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. If my friend’s name is Plato (technically Critias via Plato), and what he says has profound implications for mankind, then I ought to have the wisdom to give it careful consideration before writing it off as fiction.


In this article I investigate the plausibility of Plato's Timaeus and Critias dialogues being exactly what they appear to be, which is the minutes or transcript of a meeting. I show firstly that this is reflected in the structure of the dialogues. Next I research the characters and deduce a plausible date for the meeting in 409 BC, at which time Plato would have been a young student of Socrates, who it is plausible would have been tasked by his Professor to take minutes. Plutarch tells us that Plato did his work on Atlantis as an old man and died before completing it. I make the argument that it would be much simpler for the elderly Plato to write these dialogues if they are fact and not fiction masquerading as fact. This does not mean that every detail is factually accurate, but that the dialogues themselves are likely a reasonably accurate record of what was said at a meeting that actually happened.


Introduction

For the past few hundred years we have been living through a pessimistic paradigm, where modern Philosophers and Historians have written off our foundational stories as myth. The problem is these stories are part of our identity, and without them we are lost. Thankfully some of the cities lost through the passage of time are slowly being found and restored to history. Troy was believed to be myth until it was found in Gallipoli, Turkey, during the 19th Century (British Museum). Gordion, the city of King Midas (with the golden touch), was found shortly afterwards, again in Turkey (Popular Archeology). More recently Thonis / Heracleion was discovered underwater in the Nile Delta, Egypt (Frank Goddio).


The most significant find of all would be the city of Atlantis. The lost city was, according to the popular interpretation of the story, "plunged into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean" about 12 thousand years ago; I will examine the problems with that narrative in a future article. After researching the subject for several years, I have found an astounding level of agreement between the proposed site in Mauritania (Alexander & Rosen, Corsetti) and the details in Plato's dialogues, and I will be releasing my findings through a series of articles over the coming years.


In this first article, before we get into the detail of the Atlantis story in Plato's dialogues and the comparison of details in the text with the proposed site in Mauritania, I feel compelled to counter the argument that Plato's dialogues are nothing more than fiction masquerading as fact, by demonstrating not only that it is plausible that Plato's dialogues are factual and were based on minutes of a meeting Plato took as a student in 409 BC, but that this is the simplest and most rational explanation.


The dialogues are structured like a meeting

Taken at face value, Plato's Timaeus and Critias dialogues are the transcript of a meeting between Socrates, Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates. The two dialogues are read consecutively and record discussion on the second day of their meeting.


The Timaeus dialogue seems to be complete. It begins with Socrates welcoming his guests back for the second day of the meeting, where he enquires after an absent guest, who we learn had been present yesterday but has been taken sick [17a]. As they begin discussing the agenda for todays meeting, we learn that Socrates had given his guests an assignment. He asks if they remember what he asked of them, and Timaeus replies that they mostly do but would appreciate a recap [17b]. Socrates repeats the key points from his presentation yesterday [17c] before explaining how he longs to hear a story portraying his ideal Athenian state animated in a struggle whereby they demonstrate the excellence of their education and training in their negotiations or in battle [19b]. Hermocrates says that Critias told them the perfect story for this purpose last night, and we learn that Hermocrates and the other guests are all staying with Critias [20c]. We imagine the group staying up into the small hours talking and drinking, which might explain why one of them was "taken ill"; he was hung over. Critias then gives a prelude of the story to Socrates, explaining that he believes it to be true because Solon brought it back with him from Egypt [20d]. Socrates seems eager to hear the whole thing [26e] , but Critias explains that they had planned for Timaeus to speak first [27a], who then gives a prelude to his presentation [27c] about "life, the universe and everything"; as I like to call it. We can judge the dialogue to be complete because Timaeus notes the completion of his presentation at the end of the Timaeus dialogue, which then flows seamlessly into the Critias dialogue.


The Critias dialogue begins with Timaeus handing over to Critias, keeping to the agenda they described earlier [106a]. We learn from the discussion at this point that Hermocrates will speak after Critias [108a]. Critias then begins his epic presentation about the forgotten history of the Atlantean invasion, the civilisations involved, and the subsequent natural disasters which wiped them out leaving mankind ignorant of the past [108d]. Lamentably the Critias dialogue ends prematurely.


From the transcript of this pair of dialogues we may readily identify the structure of the meeting over the period transcribed, and we can infer what happened on the previous day, and presumably happened beyond the extent of that which is minuted. We assume Plato would have written a third dialogue for Hermocrates had he lived to finish it; but more on that later. I have outlined the structure for both days of the meeting below.


DAY 1

The missing Socrates dialogue:


1. Welcome.

2. Discussion.

3. Socrates' dialogue.

4. Discussion.

5. See you tomorrow.


DAY 2

The complete Timaeus dialogue:


6. Welcome and apologies [17a]

7. Recap of yesterday’s meeting [17c]

8. Agenda for today’s meeting [19b]

a. Socrates wishes to hear a story illustrating his ideal Athenians [19b]

b. Hermocrates says Critias has the perfect story [20c]

c. Critias gives a prelude to his story [20d]

d. Discussion of the suitability of the story [26d]

e. Critias describes the agenda for today [27a]

9. Discussion

a. Socrates invites Timaeus to speak [27b]

b. Timaeus gives a prelude to his speech [27c]

c. Socrates wills Timaeus to continue [29d]

10. Timaeus’ dialogue

a. Dialogue on life, the universe and everything [27d]


The incomplete Critias Dialogue:

11. Discussion

a. Timaeus hands over to Critias [106a]

b. Critias asks for their patience in the epic he is about to deliver [106b]

c. Socrates and Hermocrates wish him luck [108a]

d. Critias says Hermocrates will speak afterwards [108c]

12. Critias’ dialogue

a. Critias calls upon the Gods for assistance [108d]

b. Dialogue on the Atlantean invasion and subsequent destruction [108e]


The missing Hermocrates Dialogue:


13. Discussion.

14. Hermocrates’ dialogue.

15. Discussion.

16. Any other business and farewell.


Reading only the top level headings, we can reduce the two epic dialogues into a digestible structure, with which we may better understand the agenda of the meeting and what Socrates hoped to achieve by organising it.


Deducing the date of the meeting as 409 BC

We can deduce a plausible date for the meeting by researching each of the characters in the Timaeus-Critias dialogues, and cross referencing their years of their birth and death, and any significant events in their lives.


Socrates - Lived from 470 to 399 BC (Britannica)


These days Socrates is revered in Philosophy. However, during his life Socrates was not a popular character in Athens and was ultimately charged with “impiety and corrupting the youth” and sentenced to death by poisoning (Britannica). In his younger days he served in the Polyponesian war against Sparta (Wikipedia).

Socrates comes across as being of distinguished age in these dialogues. He seems older and wiser, having established ideas for the ideal state, being aware of his weaknesses, and by commanding the respect of his three distinguished guests. If we deduce that he was at least 50 years old at the time of the meeting, that would put the meeting after 420 BC.


Critias - Lived from 460 to 403 BC (Oxford Reference)


Like Socrates, Critias comes across as being older, although we see from his year of birth he was ten years younger than Socrates. We can deduce that he must have been wealthy enough at this point in his life to own a home large enough to accommodate Timaeus and Hermocrates, and probably also the missing guest. Socrates describes him as no novice on the subject of the ideal state, suggesting a political involvement which is more generally associated with someone middle aged or even older, since the young lack sufficient experience. It seems likely then that he was at least 40 years old, so after 420 BC.


Socrates: “As to Critias, all of us here know that he is no novice in any of the subjects we are discussing.” Timaeus 20a, Lamb translation.

We also know that he was old enough to have inherited Solon’s poem from his grandfather who had the manuscript when he was telling the story to the boys, aged 90. If Critias was 10 at the time, that would have made his grandfather 80 years old when he was born, which split over two generations would make his father and grandfather around 40 years old when they fathered children. If we assume that his grandfather would have passed the manuscript to his son, the father of Critias, then both grandfather and father must have died for Critias to be in possession of it. If the father was born in 500 BC and lived to the same ripe old age as the grandfather, around 90 years old, then we can deduce that the father would have died around 410 BC. On the other hand the grandfather may have given the manuscript to Critias directly if he saw he was fascinated by it, or may have left it to his grandson rather than his son, we can’t tell.


It is thought Critias probably went into exile around 406 BC, before returning to become one of the Thirty Tyrants, who were collaborators with the Spartans after they conquered Athens. Critias, with the Tyrants, is said to have formed part of a ruling oligarchy in Athens. He died in 403 BC when pro democratic forces fought to restore democracy to Athens (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).


All factors considered in the case of Critias’ it seems plausible for the meeting to have occured somewhere between 415 and 406 BC.


Timaeus


Timaeus is not recognised as a historical figure by modern historians (Wikipedia). From Plato’s dialogues we get a sense that he is of a similar age to Critias, owing to his career and achievements as described by Socrates, and his vast Philosophical knowledge about life, the universe and everything.


Socrates: “For our friend is a native of a most well-governed State, Italian Locris, and inferior to none of its citizens either in property or in rank; and not only has he occupied the highest offices and posts of honor in his State, but he has also attained, in my opinion, the very summit of eminence in all branches of philosophy.” Timaeus 20a, Lamb translation.

If we assume Timaeus was born the same year as Critias in 460 BC, and that he was at least 40 years old at the time of their meeting, and probably under 60, putting the likely period for the meeting in his case sometime between 420 and 400 BC.


Hermocrates - Died 407 BC (Britannica)


Hermocrates was a political leader from Syracuse in Sicily who from 415 to 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, fought on the opposite side to Socrates to defend Sicily against conquest by Athens (Britannica). He was an Admiral during the Battle of Cyzicus in 410 BC where the Spartan Navy suffered a terrible defeat by the Athenians. He was banished from returning to Sicily, and was killed when he did return in 408/407 BC (Wikipedia).


It is unlikely that Hermocrates would be in Athens amidst his military career from 415 to 410 BC when he was fighting against them. It is more plausible that he would be forced to go there after he was humiliated in defeat and banished from Sicily. Hermocrates says in the Timaeus dialogue that he is staying with Critias [20c], who we know historically was sympathetic to the Spartans, becoming one of the Thirty Tyrants who helped them when they conquered Athens.


Socrates doesn’t have much to say about Hermocrates, although you might not expect him to be singing his praises if they fought on opposite sides during the war.


Socrates: “As regards Hermocrates, we must believe the many witnesses who assert that both by nature and by nurture he is competent for all these inquiries.” Timaeus 20b, Lamb translation.

Hermocrates doesn’t say much during the dialogues either, speaking only once in each dialogue. We know from Critias that he was due to speak after him, although we don’t know what his speech was about. If the meeting occurred after the naval defeat, we can speculate that it would have been about his experiences in War, and in keeping with Socrates request, about how the values and structure of state contributed to their success or defeat in various battles.


Plato - Lived from 428/424 to 348 BC (Wikipedia)


The exact date of Plato’s birth is not known, but is generally supposed to be 428 BC, although some sources argue that it could be 424 BC (Wikipedia). We don’t know what age Plato began studying under Socrates, but we do know that Plato's most famous student Aristotle began his studies at the age of 17 (Wikipedia).


Plato is not mentioned in his Timaeus or Critias dialogues. As a student of Socrates it is plausible that he would be present at such a meeting, but being far younger than the others, most likely just a boy, it is unlikely that he would have been invited to participate in the discussion. If he was present, then it was likely as a scribe keeping minutes of the meeting. No doubt Socrates would want a record of what promised to be such an interesting discussion, and it would be good training for his students.


Assuming Plato was present, then taking his year of birth as 424 BC, and assuming he was at least 15 years old when he started studying under Socrates, that would put the meeting after 409 BC. We know historically that Plato left Athens after Socrates’s death in 399 BC to go travelling, including to Egypt (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).


Cross referencing to find the date

Considering all of these constraints, there is only a narrow window historically in which the meeting seems plausible. Allowing an uncertainty of +/- 1 year on the quoted historical dates, and +/- 5 years on the estimated years of birth for Timaeus and Hermocrates, and using the deduced likely period for the meeting for each person, this constrains the plausible window for the meeting to be from 411 to 408 BC.


The dominant constraint comes from the life of Hermocrates, who was busy at War prior to 410 BC when he was disgraced for losing, and banished from Sicily. It is during this period, it is plausible that he fled to Athens to stay with Critias, who we know was sympathetic towards the Spartans. If the dates are accurate, and allowing him the rest of the year to settle in Athens, the most likely date for the meeting is 409 BC.


The boy scribe

Having deduced the likely date of the meeting as 409 BC, this means that Plato was only a boy at the time, aged between 15 and 19 years old, depending on the year of his birth.


It seems implausible that the boy could have minuted the Timaeus and Critias dialogues alone by writing in full sentences as we read the dialogues today. Especially when you consider he would have been writing with a quill and inkwell or similar. If Plato did have the extraordinary ability to write this quickly and accurately, then why is the Critias dialogue unfinished? Unless these pages/scrolls were lost. I note Jowett ends his transcription of Critias with “The rest of the Dialogue of Critias has been lost”.


If Plato worked alone, it is more plausible that he took notes in some form of shorthand and copied them up later. If he worked with other students, it is plausible they could have written in full sentences by staggering their transcription, with each capturing say 30 seconds of dialogue per minute. With three scribes there would be a 10 second overlap to prevent gaps in the transcription.


The image of a lone scribe taking notes for his Professor is depicted in the film Alexander, with Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Ptollemy.



Writing up his notes as an aging Professor

We learn from Plutarch that Plato was an old man when he was doing his work on Atlantis, and that he died before completing it. This offers an explanation for why the Critias dialogue is incomplete. Plato died in 348 BC, aged from 76 to 80 depending which year we take for his birth, so he was at least 70 years old when writing the Timaeus and Critias dialogues.

“Plato, ambitious to elaborate and adorn the subject of the lost Atlantis, as if it were the soil of a fair estate unoccupied, but appropriately his by virtue of some kinship with Solon, began the work by laying out great porches, enclosures, and courtyards, such as no story, tale, or poesy ever had before. But he was late in beginning, and ended his life before his work. Therefore the greater our delight in what he actually wrote, the greater is our distress in view of what he left undone. For as the Olympieium in the city of Athens, so the tale of the lost Atlantis in the wisdom of Plato is the only one among many beautiful works to remain unfinished.” Plutarch - The Life of Solon, 32, Perrin translation.

If Plato was a young student taking minutes for his Professor, whether or not he wrote them up for Socrates, he would have retained his original notes. This would give Plato the source material from which to write his dialogues as an old man.


The simplest explanation

After a career spanning five decades, Plato was in the twilight years of his life when he was writing these dialogues. At this age, most of us would be winding down, reflecting on life, contemplating the beyond, and falling asleep in our chair watching the Cricket. Yet Plato was writing about Atlantis practically to his last breath. The Critias dialogue even stops mid sentence, which makes you wonder if he keeled over whilst writing, although Laërtius tells us that Plato died at a wedding aged 81 or 84 [Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book III, 2].


Writing these dialogues must have been a formidable task for the elderly Plato. We know from Plutarch that it was too much for Solon in his later years, who abandoned his poem because of his old age, fearing the magnitude of the task [The Life of Solon 31]. When you think about the amount of work involved in writing the dialogues, it would be far simpler for Plato if they are true and based on minutes he took as a student.


Fiction masquerading as fact?

This argument, whilst commonly put for one motivation or another is the most difficult to argue. It requires the proponent to prove a negative, which is generally impossible. I know that my car keys exist when I find them, but I'll never be sure that they didn't if I don't. Likewise if the story of Atlantis is based on fact, there will be archeology somewhere waiting to be found and it can be proven, but if it is fiction and there is nothing to find we will always be left wondering if there is somewhere we haven't looked, or if we didn't look hard enough.


Writing his dialogues was a massive amount of work, especially when you consider its not just the Timaeus and Critias that Plato could have been writing during this period of his life. To construct a convincing lie, the lie has to be woven in to a body of truth, such that the audience will have some familiarity with the ideas discussed and be inclined to recognise the new information as being true likewise. Plato would need to:

  1. Research the lives of each character.

  2. Find a plausible date and place for the meeting.

  3. Portray the character of each sufficiently to convince people who knew them.

  4. Do a substantial amount of research on cosmology.

  5. Research early ideas on physics and geometry.

  6. Research or invent the idea of reincarnation.

  7. Invent a convincing pre-history for Greece.

  8. Have knowledge of climate change.

  9. Have knowledge of asteroids, earthquakes and tsunami's.

  10. Identify and research a believable location for Atlantis.

It would require Plato to have an immense body of knowledge and understanding of the world, including some things we are only just starting to understand today. Proponents of the argument, who assume that Plato had all this knowledge 2370 years ago and that he crafted it together into a believable fiction, are elevating Plato from being an ordinary whilst clearly talented man to being another Greek god. This is understandable if you are looking for someone to worship, but it's not very likely.


Or are they simply fact?

If the Timaeus-Critias dialogues are based on minutes that Plato took as a student, then this considerably reduces the amount of knowledge that the elderly Plato would have needed to write them and the amount of work he would need to have done.


If Plato was tasked with taking rough notes in the meeting, he may have also been tasked to copy them up for Socrates at the time, retaining the rough notes and any drafts for himself. If Socrates did this as an exercise for all of his students he may have got everything back, as students do today, perhaps marked "(D) Must try harder Master Plato". When Plato finished his studies, like the rest of us, he probably put all of his old "uni notes" in a box somewhere, promising himself he will write them up one day, and like the rest of us, he never found the time while he was working.


Ultimately, when Plato retired and was presumably getting his affairs in order, I imagine him finding this box packed full of his musty old "uni notes". Now he finally has the time to sort through them and write them up. This could explain not only why Plato was writing the Timaeus and Critias dialogues in the twilight years of his life, but also any other dialogues he was writing during this period.


If we set aside the nature of the content of the Timaeus-Critias dialogues for the moment, and consider only how they were written, then this is a far simpler explanation. So, we ought to consider that as remarkable as the content may be, it is probably true. This does not necessarily mean that every detail in the dialogues is factually accurate, but that the dialogues themselves are likely a reasonably accurate record of what was said at a meeting that actually happened.


Did Plato embellish the stories as Plutarch suggests? Someone probably did, either Plato, Solon or one of the two Critias' or all of the above. Plutarch was suspicious of the grandeur. I'm suspicious of the details linking a pre-dynastic Egyptian story into Greek mythology. It is plausible that Plato would seek to embellish it to make a good story, but there were plenty of opportunities for embellishment (and mistakes) long before Plato heard it. Firstly when the Priest is telling the story to Solon. Next when Solon recollects what the Priest said and attempts to translate it for the Greek audience. Solon was a politician after all, and may have been motivated to teach the Greeks a lesson through his poem. We are also told that part of the story was passed down through oral tradition from Solon to Dropides, to grandfather Critias, to Critias and finally to the meeting, where there are plenty of opportunities for embellishments and mistakes to creep in. For example, you might think a grandfather sitting by the fire telling the story to his grandson would want to make the story as detailed and captivating as possible to help his grandson imagine it. Despite all this it still seems likely that the majority would echo the story as it was told to Solon, especially as there was the poem to refer back to.


Conclusion

It is the conclusion of this article that Plato's dialogues are probably based on minutes he took when he was a student studying under Socrates, which he later wrote up into the Timaeus-Critias dialogue as an old man. By researching the history of the characters in the dialogues, I deduced that the most likely date for this meeting is 409 BC or a year or so either side of this, when Hermocrates was in exile from Sicily and Plato was old enough to be studying with Socrates.


It seems likely that the story has suffered some distortion, either through embellishment or mistakes, by the many people involved in transmission of the information from the walls or documents of an Egyptian temple to the Timaeus-Critias dialogues. However, the bulk of the story is likely to be faithful to the original, given the presence of a manuscript at the time to help preserve it.


If the story is true, as claimed in the Timaeus dialogue, then the implications are huge. Knowing that there was an advanced sea faring civilisation in that period, whose survivors spread out around the world, would change our entire understand of the ancient past. It could explain why we find similar polygonal megalithic stonework around the world. It could explain the rise of the Egyptians, the rise of the Phoenicians, the so called Sea Peoples, and so much more besides. Atlantis would become the common denominator of world history.


With so much potential to learn about our ancient past, we are compelled to diligently investigate it.

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