It is perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery of all time: Did the lost city of Atlantis actually exist? And if it did once exist, where was it located before its watery demise? Fortunately, the original account of a civilization that vanished beneath the waves contains a surprising amount of realistic detail that might be used to answer these questions. Unfortunately, not all of those clues are of equal value. Three thorny problems in particular must be dealt with to avoid embarking on a wild goose chase to the bottom of the sea (where, incidentally, Atlantis almost certainly did not end up).
Problem Number One:
Every Single Reliable Clue We Have about Atlantis comes from Plato
Deriv; Terror Antiquus by L.Bakst (1908) (Public Domain), Translation of Plato's Timaeus. (Public Domain).
The Athenian philosopher Plato was the greatest thinker in Western Civilization. He was also the original source of the Atlantis story. Nothing specific referring to Atlantis appears before his account, and anything that comes after draws from his original. For anyone hoping to find the lost city, this is usually assumed to be a good thing. If one of the most brilliant thinkers of all time wrote about Atlantis, and repeatedly described the original story as true—which he did—then it must be real, right?
Artist’s representation of Atlantis. (Source: BigStockPhoto)
Bust of Plato. (CC BY 2.5)
Not necessarily. One of the most intriguing things about Plato’s use of the Atlantis story is where it appears in his dialogues. The story comes in two parts. The first section comes at the opening of the dialogue Timaeus. This work seems to have been written as a sort of sequel to the Republic, Plato’s masterwork that covers topics ranging from government to justice to the need for philosopher-kings, and a thousand other big concepts. In the Timaeus, the character Critias is prodded to tell a story that illustrates the ideal state—a reference to a speech Socrates has just given in the Republic—and he begins to relate the tale of how “the island of Atlantis” was struck by “earthquakes and floods” and “disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
The second part of Plato’s story appears in the dialogue Critias. It is here that Plato starts to pile up the realistic-sounding details that have tantalized would-be Atlantis detectives. Critias provides the location of Atlantis—opposite the Pillars of Heracles, facing the land now known as Gades. Among other clues, he describes the concentric rings of land and water upon which the capital of Atlantis was built; the island’s red and black stone; its shiny copper-like metal (called orichalcum) and the kinds of produce grown on the island’s enormous oblong plain.
Medieval manuscript of Calcidius' Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus. (Public Domain)
While flood myths (Noah, Gilgamesh, Deucalion) were common in antiquity, none of them closely matches the Atlantis story. It’s entirely possible that Plato made the whole thing up, an opinion favored by those academics who deign to even consider the question of whether Atlantis was real.
Any number of attempts have been made over the years to decode the Atlantean language, which Plato never describes, or to search for ancient places with names that sound like “Atlantis.” In the Timaeus, Critias says that the original story came from Egypt, and that all the names had been changed during translation. Following that logic, the original name of the lost civilization Plato describes could have been almost anything except Atlantis.
Deriv; A drowned land. (Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)
Any alleged new details that have emerged in the centuries after Plato’s death, such as the claims that the Atlanteans had nuclear power or sophisticated airships or the assistance of aliens, must be rejected if a serious attempt to solve the mystery is to be made. Also, Plato never mentions the pyramids in relation to Atlantis. Sorry.
Problem Number Two:
Plato Was a Pythagorean
According to the Seventh Letter, a biographical account that was likely either written by Plato or by someone who knew him, the philosopher left Athens for several years after his mentor, Socrates was put to death. He traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean, stopping for a long time at Taras in what is now southern Italy. This city was led by the statesman and mathematician Archytas, who followed principles established by Pythagoras, best known for his 3-4-5 triangle theorem. Pythagorean influence is obvious throughout Plato’s work; the Timaeus in particular tries to find the mathematical logic in the cosmos. According to one famous account, over the entrance to the Academy, the school Plato founded in Athens, were inscribed the words “NONE BUT GEOMETERS MAY ENTER HERE.”
Detail of Pythagoras writing from ‘The School of Athens.’ By Raphael. (Public Domain)
The reason this is a serious problem for anyone trying to determine the location of the original Atlantis, if it ever existed, is that some of the most concrete details Plato gives about the vanished island are numbers: the specific widths of its circular rings of earth and water, the size of its temples, and—what is surely the number most frequently cited by potential solvers of the Atlantis puzzle—the fact that nine thousand years had passed since its destruction. Since this date (which would work out to around 9600 BCE) roughly coincides with the Ice Age melt at the onset of the Holocene Epoch, many have hypothesized that rising sea levels inundated Atlantis.
The Pythagoreans, however, did not use numbers exactly as we use them, to signify amounts. To them, numbers were living things with personalities; numerology can be traced back to Pythagoras. They saw numbers as a hybrid of physics and religion, a possible gateway to discovering the secrets of the universe.
Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. (1869) By Fyodor Bronnikov. (Public Domain)
If Plato was using numbers in a Pythagorean manner, it would help explain some of the more outlandish figures he gives when describing Atlantis, such as a military force of more than one million personnel and a massive canal that would have required excavations many times greater than those needed to create the Panama Canal.
Problem Number Three:
Plato Was a Philosopher, not a Historian
Despite the repeated reassurances from Plato’s character Critias as he is telling the story of Atlantis that “every word of it is true,” we cannot read Plato’s work literally; such a fundamentalist reading would require, for starters, a willingness to believe that Atlantis itself was created by the sea god Poseidon.
Written history was a relatively new technology in Plato’s day—Herodotus had initiated the discipline in Greece a century before—and Plato was uncomfortable with it. Up until that time, historic events such as the destruction of a civilization by natural disaster would have been passed down orally as myths (as in Homer’s Iliad). In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus, Socrates discredits writing as inferior to memory because it cannot be probed by questioning and so offers “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.”
Plato's Atlantis described in Timaeus and Critias. (Public Domain)
Too frequently, anyone trying to prove where Atlantis might have been located picks and chooses the evidence that suits his or her hypothesis and rejects anything that contradicts it. But Plato’s works—notoriously some of the most obtuse in philosophy—were written not for a modern audience raised on Indiana Jones movies but for his philosophy students at the Academy. The story of Atlantis cannot simply be taken at face value, but must be interpreted.
Are these three problems insurmountable? Perhaps not. If the Atlantis tale is indeed a treasure map, it is one that needs to be decoded first. In a future post, I’ll address some reasons to be hopeful that Atlantis—or whatever disaster originally inspired the story of Atlantis—may someday be found.
Mark Adams is author of the New York Times bestsellers Turn Right at Machu Picchu and Meet Me in Atlantis: Across Three Continents in Search of the Sunken City. Learn more at MarkAdamsBooks.com