Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Plato's Atlantis

The story of the lost continent of Atlantis starts in 355 B.C. with the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato had planned to write a trilogy of books discussing the nature of man, the creation of the world, and the story of Atlantis, as well as other subjects. Only the first book was ever completed. The second book was abandoned part way through, and the final book was never even started.

Plato used dialogues to express his ideas. In this type of writing, the author's thoughts are explored in a series of arguments and debates between various characters in the story. Plato often used real people in his dialogues, such as his teacher, Socrates, but the words he gave them were his own.

In Plato's book, Timaeus, a character named Kritias tells an account of Atlantis that has been in his family for generations. According to the character, the story was originally told to his ancestor, Solon, by a priest during Solon's visit to Egypt.

There had been a powerful empire located to the west of the "Pillars of Hercules" (what we now call the Straight of Gibraltar) on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. The nation there had been established by Poseidon, the God of the Sea. Poseidon fathered five sets of twins on the island. The firstborn, Atlas, had the continent and the surrounding ocean named for him. Poseidon divided the land into ten sections, each to be ruled by a son, or his heirs.
The capital city of Atlantis was a marvel of architecture and engineering. The city was composed of a series of concentric walls and canals. At the very center was a hill, and on top of the hill a temple to Poseidon. Inside was a gold statue of the God of the Sea showing him driving six winged horses.

About 9000 years before the time of Plato, after the people of Atlantis became corrupt and greedy, the gods decided to destroy them. A violent earthquake shook the land, giant waves rolled over the shores, and the island sank into the sea, never to be seen again.

So, is the story of Atlantis just a fable used by Plato to make a point? Or is there some reason to think he was referring to a real place? Well, at numerous points in the dialogues, Plato's characters refer to the story of Atlantis as "genuine history" and it being within "the realm of fact." Plato also seems to put into the story a lot of detail about Atlantis that would be unnecessary if he had intended to use it only as a literary device.

On the other hand according to the writings of the historian Strabo, Plato's student Aristotle remarked that Atlantis was simply created by Plato to illustrate a point. Unfortunately, Aristotle's writings on this subject, which might have cleared the mystery up, have been lost eons ago.

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