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Plato's humor and Atlantis


Most people prefer odd stories to a reasoned and reasonable analysis. Religions are full of odd stories. There also many outside of religion. One such is Atlantis; the source, 2 dialogues of Plato. But Plato is unreliable both by his own admission and because he was taken to imitating the poets. The feud between poets and philosophers was first recorded in the saying of Empedocles (492-432 BC, from Acragas, Sicily) who accused the poets of telling monstrous lies, a fact repeated by Plato. Plato on over 2-dozen occasions in his dialogues imitated the poets, an example of ironic criticism. My favorite of those tales is in the Symposium, where Plato has to the Poet & play write Aristophanes,[i] presenting a mythic explanation for human sexuality—not too different from the tales told by Hesiod. In the first age of man the a God made man four legged with two heads and two sets of sex organs, but Zeus finding them too powerful had Apollo separate them down the middle. Depending on their prior sex (male-male, male-female, or female-female), the new two-legged version of man had their sexual preference determined. There are several mythic tales found in the Republic, some of which he admits their purpose is to make better citizens. The most clearly stated as to purpose is when he proposes teach the children of Athens that they are born of Athen’s sacred soil. They would, so Plato maintains, fight better for their state if it was believed to be their mother. Atlantis is the most famous of his mythic tales not for its style, contents, instruction, popularity of dialogue, or merit of topic, but rather noted because some.

A good indication of a position being without merit is the dearth of experts who assume that position. Consider the Atlantis myth. Its only sources are two dialogues by Plato (below).[ii] In the Skeptic, Vol. 3, 2002, is a one-page article on point. A television documentary was being done on Atlantis. The producer approached Ken Feder, of Central Connecticut State, for they wanted to interview a “reputable, university anthropologist who was of the opinion that there is some sort of historical and cultural connection between Atlantis and the native civilizations of the ancient New World” (Ken Feder, p. 11). But there weren’t any. Simply put, there is no evidence of a great civilization 11,600 years ago, neither in the New World or the Old World.

Telling of the quality of our capitalistic media is the exchange between Feder and the producer:

The producer seemed interested in my perspective but nevertheless wondered if I might be willing to tone down my skeptical musings just a bit for the camera and adopt more of a fence-sitting position about the lost continent. Of course I was unwilling to do that and I asked him what seemed to me an obvious question: “If you are doing a documentary about Atlantis, why no simply ask experts, let them express their opinions, and present those opinions honestly to the audience: Why search for a university archaeologist with a particular point of view, especially one that none of us seem to have? His response at first mystified me.

“Well,” he said, “We are doing this documentary for ABC.” . . . .

And there you have it: a television program, packaged to look like a science documentary that was, in reality, a product, most decidedly not a science, but of marketing, what amounted to a infomercial for a cartoon. [The owner of ABC is Disney, which has just come out with a cartoon movie on Atlantis in the New World.]

The point of all this is that Atlantis is a literary product of Plato, and his Greek audience, who listened to his dialogues being read, knew this. Unfortunately the typical educated American knows less than the educated Greek—they lack both the rational skills and the concentration to follow a dialogue of Plato. And their lack of reason is demonstrated by the continued acceptance of mythic tales as factual though we live in the scientific age.


[i] Aristophanes had his day (about 40 years before the Symposium was written): read his play Clouds (Arrowsmith has by far the best translation).

[ii] Those who make a religion of myths claim an Egyptian source for Plato’s tale of Atlantis. However, the Sea People in Egyptian history, turn out to be—based on the best archaeological evidence—to be Greeks from the islands. Their attempt to settle the Nile Delta was rebuffed, so they migrated to the Levant region, where they came to be known, centuries later in Hebrew lore as the Philistines. “A group of Aegean origin, the Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean world subsequent to the collapse of Mycenaean civilization at the end of the Late Bronze Age. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 591. This conclusion is based primarily on the poetry found at Ekron (Tel Miqne), Ashdod, and other sites, which is clearly Mycenaean. Other evidence is from burial practices, housing, and crafts.

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