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Edith Hall on Plato's Atlantis

A critical commentary

Thorwald C. Franke
27 October 2022


This commentary is based on: The 'lost' city of Atlantis, BBC History Extra podcast, Edith Hall interviewed by Emma Mason, 01 December 2020. Listen to the podcast, or download it, here!

Citations are referenced with a timestamp in the podcast, around which the citation appears, either up to 30 seconds before, or a few minutes after, i.e. the referenced timestamps are not the precise timestamps of the citation. (The podcast starts with a variable advertisment, and the exact timestamps depend on how the time for the advertisment is counted.)


Edith Hall is a Classics professor at King's College, London, and Durham University, specialised on ancient Greek literature. Her books and articles are about ancient Greek theater, slavery, Aristotle, and the cultural history of ancient Greece in general. Edith Hall did not publish in particular about Plato, nor about Plato's Atlantis. Nevertheless, she was chosen by BBC History Extra as an interview partner on Plato's Atlantis. We have to criticize many of her statements, but she has also made some valuable observations.

Factual mistakes

Unfortunately, Edith Hall presents many theses which are factually wrong, and this, although she reread the Atlantis story on the weekend before the interview (40:42). Let us discuss this point by point.

According to Hall, the reason, why Atlantis succumbs to decadence, "is linked to the fact that they could sort of sailing around. They fell in love with commodities. They became very materialistic." (13:02) Atlantis is described as a "city that wrecks itself through getting too arrogant and too able to move around in its ships and bully other people." (23:06). – But this is wrong. The real reason for the decadence of Atlantis, according to Plato, is that the rulers of Atlantis relied completely on their divine descent, and once the divine part dwindled over the generations, they lost their divine wisdom. Primeval Athens, on the other hand, relied on education to keep up wisdom alive over the generations. Please note, that there is also no talk in Plato's Atlantis dialoges of Atlanteans sailing to other lands for trading. It is rather the opposite: The ships of other countries come to Atlantis for trading.

Edith Hall presents here the same errorneous interpretation of the decadence of Atlantis as did Maximilien-Henri de Saint-Simon, the uncle of Henri de Saint-Simon who was one of the most famous founders of the political ideology of socialism. We have reasons to assume that Henri de Saint-Simon was heavily influenced by this uncle, and therefore we can call this reading the "socialist reading" of the Atlantis story.

In this connection, it is also not fully true that, according to Hall, "Atlantis was never run by philosophers" (23:06). In the beginning, when the kings of Atlantis still had a great part of divinity in them, they certainly acted with the wisdom of philosophers because they acted with the wisdom of the gods.

Also factually wrong is the claim, that e.g. in Disney's Atlantis movie "even the details, all these beautiful details of how the fountains are set out, and how the Temple of Poseidon is made with these beautiful glittering gemstones and marbles, and all that [is] straight out of Plato." (36:53) She repeats: "Well, it's a fairly faithful reconstruction of what Plato described. Yes." (38:19) – In truth, the Atlantis in the Disney movie is far away from the original description of Plato.

According to Edith Hall, Plato "describes in the most elaborate terms an impossible society, it is physically impossible." (09:10) – Not true. Plato's Atlantis is physically not impossible, at least not in the eyes of ancient Greeks. Several scholars pointed out that Plato's Atlantis does not go beyond the borders of what ancient Greeks could accept as a realistic story, and that the sizes of buildings and armies of Atlantis do not exceed the sizes of real buildings and real armies of this time. The same is valid for the alleged age for Atlantis, which fits perfectly to the contemporary collective error about the age of Egypt, which was believed to be 11,000 and more years old. – Edith Hall even says about Plato's Atlantis: "It's not quite clear whether it is even under water or not." (09:10) Not really. It is completely clear that Plato's Atlantis was not under water (until it was destroyed and sank into the sea, of course).

Edit Hall is completely on the wrong track when she emphasizes that, according to Plato, the Atlantis story would rely only on hearsay and not on a written historical tradition. According to Edith Hall, "this has come by the memories of several old man, and there's no written record of it at all." (09:10) And: "It was never written down" (33:58) And: "We don't have recorded history until [Mesopotamian times] and Plato's very glad why he don't got that, in his hash, so he starts it up before there is any writing to explain why there is no written version" (39:29) – In truth, Plato praises the Egyptians for having written down and handed down the whole story, and also Solon makes written notes about them, which were handed down in his family to Critias, which was also Plato's family. It is important to understand that the ancient Greeks, including Plato, believed Egypt to be 11,000 years old and older. Therefore, the Atlantis story was, in the eyes of Plato, handed down in written form right from the beginning. That Plato writes of a semi-oral tradition from Solon to Critias in parallel to the written tradition, is not in contradiction to that. Critias says, that he did not only hear the story from his grandfather, but also studied the written tradition. It is not possible to describe the Atlantis story, as Plato presents it, as an unreliable tale handed down only by hearsay, since Plato puts the written tradition of Atlantis explicitly into opposition to Greek myths and their unreliable oral tradition.

As the inventor of epistemology, i.e. of finding out what is true, Plato allegedly played with this question: What is myth, what is history? (33:58) And so "he deliberately ... sets it up as a problematic source of knowledge. He doesn't say, and I found this 9,000 year old papyrus, which is signed and sealed by somebody, and tested it by it's, it's carbon dated, right, to prove that it's true. He doesn't. He says, he heard from him, and he heard from him, and he had from the Egyptian priests several hundred years ago that there was this tradition. So he sets it up for you to actually discuss whether it's a source of true knowledge or not." (35:20) – Not true. The Atlantis story is explicitly called a true story from written sources, and set explicitly into opposition to mere myths from oral tradition. There is no such epistemology game played here.

Also strange is Hall's claim that Atlantis conquered "all the lands which the Greeks did know were out west in the Atlantic. I mean, they didn't travel there, but they knew that there were islands like the Canaries and Iceland" (09:10) – Because, as she adds herself, Plato speaks of Libya and Italy as conquered lands, not of the Canaries and Iceland, i.e. Plato speaks of land within the Mediterranean sea, not of land "out west in the Atlantic".

Then, there are minor mistakes, such as that Poseidon allegedly kept Cleito "in the central palace, in the central part of the island." But there was no palace there, at the time of the foundation. – Hall also provides the impression as if Plato himself had dinner with Timaeus and Hermocrates, as if he reflected personal dinner conversations in his Atlantis dialogues (53:07). This is highly questionable and almost no classics scholar would agree with this idea. – Strange also that Edith Hall gives the real name of Plato two times with "Aristocleides", since it was "Aristocles" (57:18 ff.; 59:41). – Finally, Edith Hall says about Plato's dialogue "The Symposium" that "the entire thing is about homoerotic love." (53:07) This is not true. It is about love in general, including homoerotic love.

Fabulous Atlantis?

Edith Hall provides the impression that Plato's primeval Athens and also Atlantis are depicted by Plato as unreal and fabulous cities. We already heard her judgement of "an impossible society", see above. For Hall, Plato "describes Athens ...as an absolutely utopian ideal society full of brave and moral people." (13:02) – This is at least misleading. The word "utopian" has a double meaning. It can mean, on the one hand, a realistic plan and a realistic vision for a future city. In this way it is used by Edith Hall when she correctly says about Plato's ideal state, "It's an ideal utopia, as he saw it." (02:11), or when she says, "He's constructed a hypothetical possible future society" (19:57) But to talk of an "absolutely utopian" society means something different: Here, "utopian" means "impossible". And as we have seen above, Edith Hall explicitly uses the word "impossible". – Therefore, Edith Hall uses both meanings of "utopian" and is not decided about it. This will leave most listeners with the impression that Plato intentionally constructed and described an unrealistic utopia. But this is not the case, at least not in Plato's eyes. Only from the perspective of our modern time we can see that Plato's description, taken literally, cannot be real.

Throughout the whole podcast, Edith Hall consequently interprets the age of 9,000 years literally. But is this the correct reading? Of course not. Because, as we already pointed out, the ancient Greeks were victim to the collective error that Egypt is 11,000 years old and older. Plato himself speaks of 10,000 years in the dialogue The Laws with respect to Egypt. Therefore, Plato's 9,000 years for Atlantis point to a time after the foundation of Egypt. Since we know that in reality Egypt was founded only around 3,000 BC, this means that Plato pointed to a time after 3,000 BC. And this is true even if Plato invented the Atlantis story! But historical-critical considerations like these, which are absolutely necessary to get an appropriate understanding for what Plato is talking about, are not mentioned throughout the whole podcast.

After Edith Hall identified several features of the Atlantis story, which look impossible or implausible to her, she says: "So it's deliberately made as implausible in terms of accuracy, even though he says it's a true story." (09:10) But it is really the question, whether Edith Hall is not a victim of severe misinterpretations. She did not get it right with the written tradition, she did not get it right with the physical impossibility, she did not get it right with the collective error of the Greeks about the age of Egypt, and she confused the two meanings of utopia.

Another example are the gods in the story. It is important to realize that all ancient cities had foundation myths. And Plato still believed in gods and daimons, though he started to explore the world by rationality. Therefore, it is not a sign of fiction when gods appear as founders of cities, or when the morally good Athenians win over the bad Atlanteans in harmony with the will of the gods (05:07).

Edith Hall quickly concludes: "So it's completely untrue. I mean, I and every other classical scholar, we're all completely in agreement about that." (05:07) – This widespread agreement is not an achievement, it is a problem.

Plato the poet?

For Edith Hall, Plato is more a poet than a philosopher. About Plato and Plato's Atlantis she says: "Plato just was an amazing writer. I think he was a better writer than philosopher, you know. And I personally think this is his most ornamental and lyrical piece of distress of writing in his entire works." (07:38) And: "it's an astonishing piece of fiction writing, which ... has got very futuristic sort of elements. It's an imaginary city. So it actually reads in a way more like a place in a science fiction novel to us than a piece of serious ancient history."(05:07) – Edith Hall should have considered that Plato was very eager to strive for truth, and that he was angry about poets who invented untrue stories. How could he himself then act like such a poet? For Plato, the true poet was a truthful poet.

Edit Hall reminds of the so-called Platonic Myths, all over Plato's dialogues, "that often are myths or legends or stories told in them." (07:38) – Edith Hall is not so wrong here. But as she says herself, there are myths, and there are legends, and there are stories, which might be true. And Plato always identifies the quality of his stories. Therefore, it is important to notice that the Atlantis story from Egypt is called a true story.

Edith Hall's interpretation

The interpretation of Edith Hall owes a lot to Pierre Vidal-Naquet's interpretation, which she openly says (25:14). For her, primeval Athens and Atlantis reflect a "double Athens" (23:06): "Athens turned into, if you like, Atlantis, so we've got the good Athens and the bad Athens" (21:26) From Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Edith Hall has taken over many of her mistakes we encounter in this podcast. For Edith Hall, Pierre Vidal-Naquet "was an astonishing French classicist" who "writes so persuasively" (25:14) – The latter is a very, very problematic judgement. Because Pierre Vidal-Naquet's style is very essayistic, and tends to hide and to overemphasize this or that fact or argument. Vidal-Naquet's persuasive force does not rely on facts and on the better argument but on a rhetorical style, which Plato had judged as sophistic, this is safe to say.

Furthermore, Hall interprets the Atlantis story as a historical novel, comparing it to a modern novel about the French Revolution: "So we will try and describe historically exactly what Paris was like in 1789, but then we're going to invent all kinds of people and things that went on actually, according to our own contingent, 21st century agenda. And that's what Plato is doing with its own contingent fourth century political agenda." (36:10) – But there is a big problem with this interpretation: The literary genres in Plato's time were quite restricted. The historical novel was developed only centuries after Plato. Plato's contemporaries would not have understood to interpret the story as a historical novel, as we, from our modern perspective, are easily tempted to do. It may be an invention, but not a historical novel. If it was an invention, then it was a deception. But this is not Hall's interpretation.

Strange is also Edith Halls attempt to draw Plato's ideal state and the Atlantis story into a discussion of democracy. After Plato was in Sicily, she says, "he comes back to Athens, which is still the democracy, (and) writes this down" (15:54), i.e. he writes the Atlantis story down with anger about democracy. For Hall, the Atlantis story "is Plato's response to what he thought was wrong with the democracy." (17:23) It is a "parable about democracy" (25:14) – But how can the Atlantis story be a commentary on democracy, if there is no democratic state in it? (And when Plato came back from Syracuse, he was rather angry about the tyrant there, not about democracy?) It is fair to say that the Republic was an attempt to find a way out of the dilemma between monarchy, oligarchy, and (direct) democracy. The same is true for The Laws. But the Atlantis story has the ideal state as precondition, and there is no comparison to a democracy. The real meaning of the Atlantis story lies rather in the comparison of the two states, primeval Athens and Atlantis, and this is about the question of how to keep up wisdom in the state over generations. This is the key issue in which the two states differ.

Alternative interpretations

Edith Hall admits that there is disagreement among scholars. About her interpretation of Atlantis as double Athens, she says that "probably about half of classical scholars would agree with me, that it's a parable about [Athens]" (19:57) The other half would prefer an interpretation as "a much more general parable. It isn't tied to the Athenian experience in that way. It's about, it's got bits of, say, the Persian Empire, and it's got bits of the islands of the Blessed in it, it's got the Phaeacaeans, ... and it's got bits of ancient Egypt in it, ... every constitution deprecated in literature before, right, has fed into it. And of course, I would agree with that's in a way with the descriptive writing, but I still think it's more." (25:14) – Here, Edith Hall is expressing very valuable criticism of interpretations which want to see a combination of, so to say, almost everything in Plato's Atlantis, only to avoid the admission that there could be a unique model for Atlantis, be it a model for an invention, or be it a distorted historical tradition. Similar criticism was voiced e.g. by Gunnar Rudberg, who had Syracuse in mind as the model for an invention.

On the question of Atlantis as a real place, Edith Hall says: "A few archaeologists, archaeologically minded classicists, are still trying to find the real Atlantis. I'm trying to pin it on. I mean, there were a considerable number of floods and tsunamis and earthquakes in the period between the early Bronze Age, in fact even earlier than that, we know. So it's very possible that there are traces, of course, in Plato's writing of folk memory of islands that literally disappear. I mean, that does happen in the Mediterranean." (26:45) And: "I'm absolutely sure that several islands ... sank beneath the waves, in tsunamis, 9,000 years before. It's not implausible" (36:53) – But Edith Hall stubbornly stays with the literal interpretation of the 9,000 years, and completely ignores any kind of historical-critical approach, as e.g. put forward by John V. Luce. Therefore, it is easy for her to express the judgement that "trying to find a specific location for Atlantis is really to misunderstand Plato's project, fundamentally." (26:45)

On the basis of this perspective, it is naturally not possible for Edith Hall to find a good answer on the question why Atlantis is still so fascinating. She takes refuge to answers which look quite mystic, e.g. "There's something about a lost civilization which just seems to be endlessly fascinating to the human race. The human race wants its cultural ancestors." (39:29) – But if this was true, then there would be a huge interest in all of history. But there is none. There is an alternative answer, Edith Hall does not provide: The reason why the Atlantis story is still fascinating is simply that it looks very much like a real story about a real place. Maybe it is one?

Reception history

Most probably because Edith Hall is relying much on Pierre Vidal-Naquet, she repeats a lot of his mistakes concerning the reception history. The most prominent mistake in this respect is still to assume that Aristotle explicitly said that Plato invented Atlantis. Edith Hall: "Well, we know he did because Aristotle mentions that. He actually says, Aristotle ... says, the great Plato invented this in order to teach political philosophy." (16:36) Edith Hall repeats that Aristotle "was unequivocal that it was a myth through which he thought about political philosophy. That, he was unequivocal about that." (28:49) – We know today that this is wrong. The alleged word of Aristotle against the existence of Atlantis is not a word of Aristotle. This misinterpretation came up only at the beginning of the 19th century and was debunked in 2010 by the book "Aristotle and Atlantis – What did the philosopher really think about Plato's island empire?". Since then, more and more scholars have changed their argument in this respect, and some even started to search for other possible authors of the word against Plato's existence, since it is not Aristotle.

Edith Hall seems, by the way, to be more fascinated by Aristotle than by Plato. She says e.g. "I always believe Aristotle" (16:36), or "It's not the case that the rest of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, as sometimes has been said. I would say that to Aristotle" (01:03:42) or "his most brilliant student by far, was the unbelievably great thinker Aristotle" (02:11).

Concerning the location hypotheses in antiquity, Edith Hall screws it up completely: "But the other people in later antiquity, you know, suggested all kinds of things that it was somewhere in the mouth of the River Nile, because Egypt is a phenomenon in the story. ... sometimes it's located around the Sardinia, western Mediterranean sort of island areas. The Greeks seem to have been aware that there were different levels of depth and shallowness in the Mediterranean, so they suggested some places." (28:49) – This is not true. Plato is quite specific about the location of Atlantis, which allegedly existed directly to the west of the straits of Gibraltar, because the sinking island allegedly left behind so much mud that it was not possible anymore to sail out into the Atlantic sea. Edith Hall says this herself (05:07). Also Aristotle believed in the existence of this mud. No one in Antiquity or the Middle Ages thought of any other location. It is also not true that Atlantis was located at Mount Ararat by certain Christians (28:49). It is simply not true when Edith Hall says: "It wasn't until the Renaissance that people actually started focusing on the Atlantic." (29:55)

Like Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Edith Hall assumes that no one talked about Atlantis in the Middle Ages. But this is wrong. Numerous scholars wrote about Atlantis in the Middle Ages, and Plato's dialogue Timaeus was always available in the Latin Middle Ages. One example is Bernard of Chartres, the founder of the so-called School of Chartres. It was only in 1984 that a commentary on Plato's Timaeus, including the Atlantis story, could be attributted to Bernard as the author. And Bernard did exactly what Edith Hall said without giving names: "Some people have compared the Athens of the Atlantis stories to a sort of a prelapsarian Adam and Eve Garden of Eden." (48:59) For Bernard of Chartres, Plato's description was about the Garden of Eden, which for him as a Christian believer was a real place.

So it is not quite correct when Edith Hall says: "People were blown away by this story. I mean, you can imagine it ... They'd had not known about it because it's not in the Roman sources that had come up through the Latin way." (29:55) – More correct is this observation: "People were reading this exactly the same time as people are founding colonies in the New World. So it blew their mind and everybody said it has to be in America." (29:55) Yet the opinions were dividied whether America is Atlantis or whether it is the opposite continent, mentioned in Plato's Atlantis story.

Also quite correct is that "it wasn't the case 100 years ago" that classical scholars were "all completely in agreement" that "it's completely untrue" (05:07) But 100 years ago, calculated from the time of the podcast, would be 1920 only. The turn towards a common opinion against the existence of Atlantis happened in the second half of the 19th century when it became clear that the literalist reading of the Atlantis story does not lead to any realistic results (and they did not apply historical-critical methods, instead, until today). So it's more 150 years ago than 100 years ago.

Conclusion

Once again we witness how a serious scholar, Edith Hall, fell victim to the bad state of science concerning the interpretation of Plato's Atlantis. It is a wrong idea that Atlantis is a clear case and therefore easy to talk about. It is not. Relying on one or two well-known scholarly authors on the subject, like e.g. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, is not sufficient. The science is not settled on Plato's Atlantis. The currently prevailing invention hypothesis is more fragile than many think.

It is very valuable that Edith Hall talked about different opinions in science and voiced criticism against interpretations of Atlantis as a kind of patchwork combination of thousands of literary traditions. Also her more general insights are quite correct: "Sometimes when we like to think that we've made so much progress: we have technologically, but intellectually? No. Apart from applied science and all that entails, which is, of course, amazing, I agree, can sometimes not believe what I'm reading that it was written 2500 years ago." (01:03:42)



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