Review of: Apocalypse and Golden Age – The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought by Christopher Star 2021.
Review by: Thorwald C. Franke, Atlantis Newsletter No. 209 (15 January 2023). With thanks to the Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, who kindly offered this book for reviewing.
Bibliographical data: Christopher Star: Apocalypse and Golden Age – The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2021. 320 pages. ISBN 9781421441634. $54.95. Ä49,79. Ā£37,71.
Christopher Star's publication is dedicated to a noble purpose: It aims at identifying a long and underappreciated tradition of Greek and Roman thought about the end of the world that stretches from Hesiod to the literature of the Roman Empire. And it is true: Public perception is focussed mainly on Biblical perspectives of the subject, or it is about an uneducated understanding of Atlantis as a "lost world" from 10,000 BC which has nothing to do with Plato's real Atlantis.
Beginning with Hesiod, a long series of "apocalyptic" texts is identified and discussed. Among them are e.g. the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Each case is described in length, with original quotes, and discussed in the context of the other cases. Christopher Star was certainly successful in making visible the underappreciated tradition. Under this perspective it is not a problem that only selected examples are presented.
The book suffers from a lack of systematic ordering of the subject itself. There is a big difference, whether the world itself suffers its end in a cosmic respectively religious sense, or whether the world continues to exist and only human civilization comes to an end and starts to flourish again afterwards, or whether it is about the end of a local civilization. The author recognizes and describes these differences but discusses all these categories under the same perspective, as if this was all more or less the same. Also the discussion of the Golden Age in connection with the catastrophes is not really systematic.
It is generally the question whether some of the presented discussions have not gone too far in presenting details on each author. Because the presented detail discussions seem to be merely superficial reflections of current literature on each author. It would have been a better idea to keep this short and to concentrate on the relations of the various texts and authors which is the really innovation with this approach.
The reader would have welcomed more subheadings providing more transparency to the book. The appendix gathers all footnotes as end notes, thus printed only at the end of the book, and the numbering of the end notes starts anew with each new chapter. This is the worst case of footnote handling: The reader has to look up each end note, and always with page and number. A very cumbersome process. On the other hand, there is a very helpful Index Locorum, and a General Index. Unfortunately, the bibliography is not exhaustive. Missing is e.g. Annus Platonicus – A study of world cycles in Greek, Latin and Arabic sources by Godefroid de CallataĀˇ 1996.
This review focusses on the handling of Plato and especially Plato's Atlantis story. Unfortunately, the presented work relies on authors such as Christopher Gill and Sarah Broadie. This means repeating all the mistakes of their self-contradictory and erroneous Atlantis invention hypotheses.
Yet the problem starts even earlier, with the discussion of Plato's Politicus. Here, the author followed blindly the wrong translation of Benjamin Jowett of Politicus 268d. Thus, the Platonic Myth of Politicus is presented as a "mythological child's play" and "something fit for children" (p. 26). But this is not what Plato says. Generally, Platonic Myths are not taken as seriously as they should in this book. Only in end note 61 at the bottom of the next page (the end note itself is printed only at the end of the book!) there is a hint that the classification as a "myth" points to a certain likelihood that its meaning is true. But no reader will read this end note. It is generally a mistake to translate "mythos" just with "myth" as this book notoriously does. Of all texts declared as "mythos" by Plato, only few fit to our usual concept of "myth".
As already mentioned, the author is not systematically making a difference between various types of "ends". This may be the reason why he reads Plato as if Plato would throw away in each new dialogue what he had said about cyclical catastrophism in previous dialogues (p. 30, 38). The author has not realized that the cycles in the Politicus are overarching the cycles in the Timaeus-Critias. They do not contradict each other and there is, at least not necessarily, a change of Plato's thought. It is just another category of "end".
As for the Platonic Myth in Politicus, also for the Atlantis story it is said that it was told to a child (p. 31). What was wrong for the Platonic Myth of Politicus is valid for the Atlantis story not exclusively and not in the first place. And as so often with invention hypotheses of Atlantis, the oral tradition is overemphasized and the written tradition is simply omitted. Also omitted is the famous turn in the plot of the Timaeus from the plan of an invented story to the plan of a story based on a real story (p. 31). And the primeval Athens of Critias is seen as "in fact Socrates' ideal city" (p. 31) and as "perfect" (p. 35) though it is clearly not. Socrates is said to allegedly judge Critias's story as not fictional but true (p. 31) which is not the case. In fact, the truth of the story is never questioned but accepted by all dialogue participants from the beginning and without saying. Socrates's judgement is rather about the fact that a true story is better than an invented story (see above the omitted turn in the plot). Only in end note 67 the reader is told that Socrates calls the story of Critias a "logos". Why only in an end note?
Then it is said that traces of primeval Athens would remain to be seen, but not from Atlantis (p. 34). This is wrong, too, since a very significant alleged trace of Atlantis is the mud in front of Gibraltar, in which both Plato and Aristotle believed. Completely wrong is this statement: "Critias tells us not to bother finding the remains of Atlantis." (p. 35) There is no such statement in Plato's dialogues. As expected, the Atlantis story is depicted as Plato's invention (p. 34). But two pages later, in end note 80 (which is printed only at the end of the book), it is said: "It seems most likely that Plato himself invented the story." Why this? Why only "seems" and only "likely"? The author showed himself so convinced in the main text of his book, and now this? And why? The author must know things he did not reveal to his readers. – It is also strange that one of the masters of the invention hypothesis of Atlantis, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, is never cited concerning Atlantis in this book. He is cited only once, but only concerning Plato's Politicus (p. 28 end note 62).
And the cascade of errors concerning Plato's Atlantis continues: The memory of the names of Cecrops, Erechtheus, etc. is confused with the memory of the known Athenian kings (p. 33 f.). But according to Plato, only the names remained known, and the known Cecrops, Erechtheus, etc. were later (!) kings who took over the same names. (Only under the perspective of a real Atlantis it is allowed to ask the question whether Cecrops etc. of the time of Atlantis was in fact the known Cecrops etc.). – Following Christopher Gill, the author sees "several tropes that have become stock moves in fiction" (p. 34). But the development of Greek literary fiction with all these tropes came only much later, so it is really difficult to interpret the story in this way. No one did so in Plato's time. – The Athenian Apatouria festival is misjudged as alluding to telling deceptive stories (p. 34), which it was definitely not alluding to. – Also the claim of notoriously repeated truth assertions is put forward (p. 34), though it does not hold water. The truth of the story is asserted, but not as often and not as as triumphantly as certain adherents of the invention hypothesis would like to have, and it is furthermore important to be precise what it is which is asserted as true. Is the truth of the perfect ideal state in the past asserted? No, certainly not. – The dialogue participant Critias is considered Critias the tyrant, or if he was not the tyrant, then as an allusion to the tyrant (p. 35). But this is not an acceptable interpretation. It cannot be the tyrant since the tyrant does not comply with Plato's philosophy as does Critias the dialogue participant (yes, he does).
It is a pity that the author recounts only without discussion that primeval Athens and Atlantis allegedly existed 9,000 years before Solon's time and that Egypt did preserve all the records of these times since it was allegedly spared from all catastrophes (p. 30). This number of years is of highest interest, and there are more such numbers in ancient texts. Where do these numbers come from? On which background do we have to interpret them? Did they look as weird to the ancients as they do for us today? But the whole discussion is avoided though it is central to the topic. – Even more problematic is the omission of the complete ancient reception history of Plato's Atlantis story (p. 36). But this would have been central for the topic! All these authors who believed or doubted the Atlantis story, and why they believed or disbelieved it throughout the ages: This is the core topic of this book!
Concerning Plato's Laws, the author writes that "now the catastrophes are simply 'old stories' " (p. 37). Not true. Again it is not taken seriously that for Plato it is not just about "old stories" but about real information about the real past for real philosophical conclusions.
Then, several modern political philosophies are brought into connection with Plato's ideas (p. 39). Though this is generally legitimate, it is again unsuccessfully done due to a lack of systematic approach. It is simply not true that for Plato "the catastrophes play a helpful role in preventing the stagnation of humanity". It is not true that Plato "notes that only a finite number of discoveries can be made. Arts, culture, and technology can only be developed so far." Though the repeated catastrophes put a limit to the time of development, there is no absolute limit for the number of developed technologies. And there is also no judgement that such a limit would have any good effect. The same inventions are made again and again. – The author sees here the idea of a "cosmic filter" of Nick Bostron: The development of technology itself extincts human beings. But there is no such idea in Plato. More correct is the "Medea hypothesis", according to which the earth by its nature repeatedly extincts some of its inhabitants (end note 93). But this more correct idea is mentioned only in an end note.
Concerning Aristotle, it is wrong that Aristotle never mentions the catastrophes bringing about the demise of civilization (p. 40). In Fragment 53,2 R3 Aristotle explicitly talks of "inundation" (kataklysmos). – It is strange to say specially for Aristotle that he was against the concept of a world-wide flood (p. 40). Because this is valid for Plato, too. – Very conspicuous is that the author never discusses the scholarly claim that in the passage Strabo 2.3.6 there would be an explicit statement of Aristotle against the reality of Plato's Atlantis. Because this claim is contained in the literature the author is relying on, e.g. Christopher Gill. But it is never mentioned and never discussed in this book, although the relationship of Plato and Aristotle with respect to repeated catastrophes is of utmost importance. Again you have the impression that the author is shielding his readers from certain scholarly debates.
All in all, it would have been better if the author had avoided too many details on the subject of Atlantis and openly communicated that the interpretation of the Atlantis story is not uniform. The attempt to present an unambiguous, clear, error-free interpretation of the Atlantis story as an invention by Plato had to fail, because such an interpretation simply does not exist.