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Sarah Broadie's completely erroneous theses find acceptance with Christopher Gill

Review and assessment of this recent development of the thesis of the invention of Plato's Atlantis

Thorwald C. Franke
© September 2017

At the outset of her studies, Sarah Broadie was not concerned with Plato's Atlantis but with the study of the cosmology in Plato's Timaeus. During this time her first theses about Plato's Atlantis evolved which she later unfolded in a separate article in 2013. By her access to the topic coming from the serious topic of cosmology in the Timaeus, Broadie has a different approach to Atlantis than other Atlantis skeptics. And different to other Atlantis skeptics Broadie unfolds her approach to its logical conclusion with much consequence. Her theses are an example for how the thesis of the invention of Atlantis leads to ludicrous conclusions, if only consistently thought through to its end. And yet do Broadie's theses find acceptance.

The theses of Sarah Broadie

One of Broadie's basic theses is the claim that already Plato's contemporaries could recognize "without ado" that the Atlantis story can not be true. For this, she essentially puts forward two arguments: First the 9000 years which define the date when the events allegedly had happened back in time (Broadie (2013) p. 250 footnote 3). Here, she completely overlooks that Plato wrote in a time when Egypt was considered 11000 years old and older. On this background the 9000 years do not stand out as impossible.

Then, Broadie does everything to ridicule the way how the Atlantis story was handed down from Egypt. In order to achieve this she applies all rhetorical means – rather than argumentative means – and this repeatedly at several places of the article so that the reader is downright sworn to her line of thought (Broadie (2012) p. 130; Broadie (2013) pp. 260, 264 f.). There is no discussion of literature which does not consider the way how the Atlantis story was handed down from Egypt "ridiculous".

As far as arguments are put forward, Broadie starts with the much-discussed difference of 9000 and 8000 years in Plato's Atlantis dialogues. This, she interprets in that way that the Atlantis tradition arrived in Egypt only 1000 years after the events (Broadie (2012) p. 130). Which is wrong. The Atlantis story had been written down in Egypt at the time of the war of Atlantis against the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. Only Neith's city of Sais is said to have been founded 1000 years later. Furthermore, Broadie very much emphasizes – as usual – the oral tradition and hides the written tradition in a footnote (Broadie (2012) p. 130 footnote 30). In an other passage she opines that there was no first-hand testimony of the events in the past (Broadie (2013) p. 260). But since historical traditions are basically never first-hand testimonies since the witnesses of past times are dead, as everybody knows, this statement makes no sense. Since the tradition had been preserved in written form in Egypt, and had been brought to Greece in written form by Solon, there is by all means a very acceptable situation concerning sources – at least within the world of the dialogue.

Then, Broadie puts forward the surprising thesis that the dialogue is playing in a world in which the battle of Marathon never happened (Broadie (2012) p. 129; Broadie (2013) p. 250 footnote 3). She thinks it is not imaginable that the Athenians did just another great deed besides Marathon. Therefore Broadie concludes without further ado that there was no Marathon in the world of the dialogue, and that every reader in Plato's times had realized this. Every reader had, says Broadie, recognized Marathon in the war against Atlantis.

This thesis concerning Marathon is quite an overconfident thesis. Nothing in Plato's Atlantis dialogues points to the assumption that there was no Marathon. And there is no reason to consider Marathon such a singular event that no other great deeds were possible in Athens' past – especially in the far past according to Plato's cyclical view of history. Much more understandable is her interpretation of the war against Atlantis in respect to the Persian wars. But also concerning this there is much dissent which is not discussed by Broadie. In addition to that, Broadie opines in a later passage of her article that she follows the thesis of Bartoli and Vidal-Naquet that the battle between primeval Athens and Atlantis mirrors a battle of a good Athens against a bad Athens (Broadie (2013) p. 253 footnote 10). But where has the interpretation concerning the Persian wars gone, here? Are we expected to assume both interpretations at the same time?! And the reader is allegedly capable to clearly recognize all this?!

Broadie has not understood at all that Plato could consider possible a primeval Athens at a time 9000 years ago because of his cyclical view of history, including repeatedly occurring natural disasters, and the loss and redevelopment of cultural knowledge. Instead, Broadie just interprets the 9000 years as a ludicrously long time span, and its ludicrousness is seen as a hint to the invention of Atlantis. This becomes obvious when looking at how she depicts this time span: Broadie talks with rhetorical finesse of "hyper-archaic", "ultra-ancient", the "almost unimaginably remote event", "fantastic legend", "fantastic by real standards", or of the "once-upon-a-time wonderful city" (Broadie (2013) pp. 249, 260, 264, 265, 266, 267). This last statement shows, that Broadie has not understood that primeval Athens and Atlantis are not portrayed as wonder cities by Plato. In the works of Herodotus we find bigger buildings, bigger armies, and even Egypt is older than Atlantis.

We are now approaching Broadie's central thesis. This thesis is related to a fact which is lightheartedly brushed aside by most Atlantis skeptics. But Broadie is very serious about it since she started her thoughts from the cosmology in the Timaeus: How is it possible that Plato's cosmology in the Timaeus which has to be taken seriously without any doubt is in immediate relation with an – according to her – invented story?

Many made the attempt to explain the Atlantis story as a deception which can be recognized only by "knowing" persons. Besides the fact that it is highly problematic to impute without ado a simple deception to Plato, despite the idea of a deceptive myth or Noble Lie, and besides the fact that this interpretation of a deception fails in many respects, this interpretation has the problem that its proponents claim to belong to the "knowing" persons who can recognize the deception – and who does not recognize it does not belong to the "knowing" persons. Such a thesis is hermetically closed against criticism and is dogmatic.

Yet Broadie is not ensnared in this dogmatic subtlety. Broadie claims that it had been clearly recognizable for Plato's contemporaries that the story is not true. With this she contradicts all who see the Atlantis story as a deception. And these are many. But Broadie does not discuss this.

Broade drives directly towards another way out of the dilemma which is inevitably inscribed to every kind of invention hypothesis. She finds her way out in another ludicrous and overconfident thesis which is at the core of her article: Broadie claims that Plato intentionally wrote a story which is clearly recognizable as a wrong story in immediate relation to a very serious consideration, in order to educate the reader in his power of judgement (Broadie (2013) pp. 251, 256 f., 268). That is, the reader is expected to wonder about this, and then the reader is expected to recognize thankfully how wisely Plato arranged this all, by putting truth and fiction in a direct relation to each other, just in order to educate him, the reader. This approach could be compared to an intentional hoax in journalism, or in academic journals which aims at carrying a nonsense article through a serious peer review process (cf. e.g. the "Sokal affair" from 1996).

Yet: (a) Until Broadie no reader did ever recognize this in this way. It is indeed very difficult to recognize it, if at all. But if it is not recognizable, is Broadie on the right way? (b) Wouldn't Plato simply had made himself ridiculous before his readers with this method? Intentional hoaxes in journalism or science aim at ridiculing the publishing journal and to expose its standards as wrong. The "publishing journal" in our case is Plato himself. (c) Wouldn't Plato have risked the acceptance of his serious theses if he had put them in close relation with fictional theses without any warning? – There is no answer to these questions in Broadie's article. Even the questions are not mentioned, there.

Broadie's article culminates in the claim that Critias is a character "who is constructed as a contradiction that is unaware of itself." (Broadie (2013) p. 256) Please read this claim twice to understand it correctly. On the one hand side, Critias believes that his depiction is true, on the other hand side he behaves, without realizing this, as if the question for the truth of the historical tradition is irrelevant – according to Broadie. This irrelevance – if we correctly understand Broadie – has to be understood like the question for the truth of Plato's Phaedrus myth of Theut and Thamus, as expressed by Socrates in the dialogue Phaedrus: Not the truth of the Phaedrus myth is of importance, but its message. Whereby Socrates makes it very clear that he nevertheless believes in the truth of the Phaedrus myth. Yet this only as an aside.

So according to Broadie, Critias is unaware of the unimportance of the historicity of the Atlantis tradition, but Socrates is. The clear statement of Socrates that it is better to depict the ideal state in action on the basis of a true story instead of an invented story (Timaeus 26e) is interpreted by Broadie – of course – as irony, or more precisely: as sarcasm (Broadie (2013) p. 263). Socrates just lets Critias going on with talking and only supports him sarcastically in his erroneous belief that a true story is better than an invented one. Because to him, Socrates, this is not of importance. For Socrates it is not important, so he just lets silly Critias going on with talking: This is Broadie's interpretation. For this, Broadie reads the phrase pammega pou in the truth statement of Socrates with a sarcastic undertone. Yet the interpretation of this phrase is – how could it be otherwise – highly disputed. There could be no undertone at all in it, simply. Anyway, on this claim of irony you cannot build wide-ranging theses. Yet Broadie does exactly this.

Concerning the dialogue participant Critias, Broadie formulates her next overconfident thesis. Broade says that it would be basically of no interest which Critias is meant by Plato, because in any case the name "Critias" would evoke the memory of Critias the tyrant, even if it was not Critias the tyrant (Broadie (2013) p. 253). By this argument, she brushes aside the whole discussion around the person of Critias without putting forward any argument why this Critias evokes the memory of Critias the tyrant. The name "Critias" alone is sufficient for her. This is definitively not enough underpinning for such a daring thesis.

And now comes Broadie's second big thesis of her article. Other than many Atlantis skeptics, Broadie did not overlook Critias' sentence that he wants to transfer the citizens of Plato's ideal state to the primeval Athens of the historical tradition (Timaeus 26cd). Unfortunately, Broadie makes some additional errors in this connection. First, she interprets the sentence the wrong way round: Broadie believes that Critias is taking primeval Athens from the historical tradition as his measure, and that he does not replace the primeval Athenians by the citizens of Plato's ideal state, but the other way round, the citizens of the ideal state are replaced by the primeval Athenians (Cf. e.g. Broadie (2013) p. 262: "replaced by the citizens of ancient Athens").

She feels supported in this opinion by Critias' statement in Timaeus 25e, that Plato's ideal state comes close to primeval Athens (Broadie (2013) p. 267). First, it is correct that Critias expresses the comparison of ideal state and primeval Athens by expressing the deviations as deviations which Plato's ideal state shows to primeval Athens. But the reason for this is not, that primeval Athens would be the moral measure for Critias, but the reason for this is, that for Critias primeval Athens was known before, and while listening to the unfolding of Plato's thoughts about the ideal state, he time and again drew the comparison to primeval Athens, realizing that the ideal state came closer and closer to primeval Athens. Thus, Critias is not expressing a judgement about which of the two states is his moral measure when he is making primeval Athens his measure of comparison in Timaeus 25e. In Timaeus 26cd, Critias says it clearly: The ideal state is the moral measure, and the ideal state is inserted into the historical tradition, replacing primeval Athens – yet Broadie unfortunately interpreted it the other way round.

Furthermore, Broadie believes that Critias did not listen carefully to the unfolding of the ideal state on the day before. The reason is that Critias says on the day after that he could not remind everything which was said on the day before, but that he can remind everything what he heard about primeval Athens in his youth (Timaeus 26b). Broadie interprets this – again with strong rhetoric – as "it went in one ear and out the other" (Broadie (2013) p. 267). But this is a very exaggerated interpretation of Critias statement that he could not remind everything which was said on the day before. In addition to that, Broadie does not talk about the fact that Critias says directly following to Timaeus 25e that he could not remind everything about primeval Athens while listening to the unfolding of the ideal state. He only refreshed this memory in the evening. So, Critias did follow the unfolding of the ideal state with attention.

Then, Broadie opines that Critias is presenting the Atlantis story in an unphilosophical way, thus showing his incapability to grasp the ideal state which had been unfolded in a philosophical way (Broadie (2013) p. 266). This means that Broadie expects Critias to have inserted here and there some comments into his depiction of the Atlantis story, saying that this or that is consistent with Plato's ideal state. Yet this expectation is wrong. Here, it is really the reader who is able to recognize the consistencies very well. Furthermore, an examination had been announced for the end of Critias' talk, whether his depiction was able to show the ideal state in action: Here we could expect such comments.

Broadie has generally not understood the quality of Critias' Atlantis story in the dialogue Critias. It is not the simple retelling of the historical tradition, as she believes, but an eikos mythos developed by Critias on the basis of the historical tradition, by supplementing everything to primeval Athens – being only similar but not equal to the ideal state – which is missing to make it the full ideal state as unfolded in a philosophical way the day before. Instead, Broadie believes that primeval Athens, too, is considered to be a perfect ideal state within the world of the dialogue (Broadie (2013) pp. 258, 265-267). Yet this is wrong as we have seen.

The primeval Athens from the historical tradition is given highest praise by the Egyptian priest (Timaeus 23c: polis kata panta eunomotate), but the dialogue participants obviously do not take this completely serious, otherwise primeval Athens had no need to be supplemented to the full extent of the ideal state. Also the city of Locris of the dialogue participant Timaeus has been praised previously in the same way (Timaeus 20a: eunomotates poleos), but it is clear that this does not want to express more than only a certain approximation to the ideal state. Otherwise, Locris would have been the perfect ideal state! The reason, why primeval Athens, which had been brought into existence by goddess Athena, is not fully perfect, could e.g. be that it had been released into independence by Athena and thus had begun to slowly, very slowly become more and more imperfect. One day, even an ideal state decays, says Plato (Republic VIII 546a).

And according to Socrates' statement in the Republic it is sufficient if only a city coming close to the ideal state is found in the past or elsewhere (Cf. Republic VI 499cd, V 472e-473b). In the light of this statement it is wrong, too, that Broadie opines that it was completely irrelevant for Socrates whether such a state ever existed (Broadie (2013) p. 264). But this can only be understood, if you have understood Plato's cyclical view of history.

Since Broadie has not understood the basic quality of Critias' Atlantis story in the Critias as an eikos mythos, she only could fail in its interpretation. She also is not able to distinguish this eikos mythos from the alleged historical tradition. Broadie got ensnared in this as in other topics in an inextricable knot of errors.

Coming to the end, we just want to show one of the many small errors made by Broadie: Broadie claims that it would be strange that nobody of Solon's and Critias' family ever wanted to use the historical tradition about primeval Athens as a political argument (Broadie (2013) p. 265). But besides the fact that primeval Athens had not been the perfect ideal state, and besides the fact that the ideal state becomes only recognizable after you elaborated it in a philosophical way (at least this should have been realized by Broadie, cf. her statements on Immanuel Kant in Broadie (2013) p. 264!), we have to realize that there was indeed one member of the family who wanted to use this text as a political argument: It was Solon himself who wanted to make an epic out of it, as everybody knows. And finally, even a second member of the family is making something out of the historical tradition, namely Plato himself.

In a footnote (Broadie (2013) p. 265 footnote 30) – it cannot be otherwise – Broadie points to the idea that Solon could have made an epic out of the historical tradition, yet not that Solon indeed wanted this – which, too, is wrong, since Solon did not complete his epic, and therefore we can conclude that he began to write it, or at least had the plan to write it (Timaios 21cd).


Broadie's hypothesis is an orgy of errors. An orgy of big and small errors which support each other and are ensnared in each other. An orgy of errors which are clearly recognizable for the reader.

We are tempted to put forward the presumption that Broadie wrote her hypothesis exactly in the sense which she imputes to Plato concerning the Atlantis story: As a kind of intentional hoax, as an article which wants to be recognized as wrong by the reader. Thus, the reader can strengthen his power of judgement. If this is the case, then we have to be thankful to Broadie for awakening and sharpening our power of judgement.

Yet it has to be admitted that this is a strange way of communication, if Broadie really wrote her article as an intentional hoax. If not agreeing with the interpretation of her article as an intentional hoax, then it becomes clear once more that this interpretation does not fit to Plato's Atlantis story. So, Broadie's article is just only erroneous. In the same way as Plato's Atlantis is just only erroneous and not an invention.

Besides this, Broadie's hypothesis is of interest under the perspective that Broadie has an other approach than many Atlantis skeptics, and that she consistently thought through her approach to its end. It can be seen here, how you can arbitrarily choose or avoid this or that approach of the invention hypothesis, and to which end it leads, when the invention hypothesis is thought through consistently to its end: It leads to a chaos of errors ensnared in each other.

Acceptance by Christopher Gill

Unfortunately, we have to report that Sarah Broadie's built-on-each-other and ensnared-in-each-other errors find friendly acceptance among academic Atlantis skeptics. Christopher Gill took over in 2017 essential parts of Broadie's hypothesis into a revised edition of his thoroughly commented edition of Plato's Atlantis dialogues. Gill openly admits the great influence of Broadie on his views, and he defends Broadie's hypothesis against doubts as "powerfully argued" (Gill (2017) pp. ix, 7, and many other). Gill does not formulate any contradiction to the completely erroneous theses of Broadie.

Christopher Gill is not just anybody: It is legitimate to call Christopher Gill one of the world's leading proponents of academic Atlantis skepticism. It is sad to see on which regrettably low level academic Atlantis skepticism is currently operating. Obviously we have reached a point where we cannot longer distinguish a serious article about the invention of Atlantis from an intentional hoax.


Broadie (2012): Sarah Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2012.

Broadie (2013): Sarah Broadie, Truth and Story in the Timaeus-Critias, in: George Boys-Stones / Dimitri El Murr / Christopher Gill (ed.), The Platonic Art of Philosophy, Festschrift for Christopher Rowe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2013; pp. 249-268.

Gill (2017): Christopher Gill, Plato's Atlantis Story – Text, Translation and Commentary, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool 2017.

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