The Timaeus is Plato’s subtlest cosmology, as I have discussed elsewhere. Compared to the vision of the gods in book 10 of the Laws – a vision which is a component of his discussion of criminal justice – it soars. One tends to read the Timaeus for Timaeus’s long speech to Socrates, to overlook the introduction.
On a previous day, the dialogue recounts, Socrates has spoken of the ideal city in the Republic, the guardians without property, the women and children the property of all and none, the proto-eugenic breeding arrangements. There were three listeners who will now speak – Hermocrates, the leader of Syracuse whose speeches defending a common good, enabled the people to crush the Athenian aggression as recorded in Thucydides’s History, Critias, Plato’s cousin and the leader of the Tyranny of the Thirty, and the astronomer and cosmologist Timaeus. One other was present who is ill. He is not named. Perhaps it is the creator of this mise-en-scene Plato.
Critias tells the tale of Atlantis. His grandfather had spoken with Solon who had talked, once upon a time, with an Egyptian priest For Critias, it is an attenuated version of an attenuated version of the Egyptian’s words (a third-hand repetition). The Egyptian tells Solon: you Athenians are a young people. You do not know of the warrior civilization which preceded you. There are two ways in which civilizations are destroyed, fire and flood. For us, today, the fire is reminiscent of the volcano explosion in 1550 BC on Thira (Santorini) 50 times more powerful than Krakatoa, which cascaded fire over the sea and drowned the Minoan civilization both on Santorini and Crete in ash. The explosion also sent a huge tsunami which flooded Crete and drowned many of the survivors. Fire and water (rather than Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”). In this case, however, Critias says, the preceding Athens, no longer remembered by Athenians, was taken down by earthquake.
On Critias’s tale, Atlantis was a huge island, bigger than what the Greeks knew of Asia. On it were many kings. From it had come a great army sweeping over the known world, conquering all in its path. But the great resisters who had saved themselves as well as Egypt were the male forebears of the Athenians. They had organized themselves in just the way Plato’s “Socrates” had suggested the day before. Unlike the Athenian democracy, they lived under philosopher-statesmen or tyrants:
“You have now heard, Socrates, in brief outline, the account given by the elder Critias of what he heard from Solon; and when you were speaking yesterday about the city and the citizens you were describing, I marveled as I called to mind the facts I am now relating, reflecting what a strange piece of fortune it was that your description coincided so exactly for the most part with Solon’s account. I was loath, however, to speak on the instant, for owing to lapse of time my recollection of his account was not sufficiently clear. So I decided that I ought not to relate it until I had first gone over it all carefully in my own mind. Consequently I readily consented to the theme you proposed yesterday, since I thought that we should be reasonably well provided for the task of furnishing a satisfactory discourse – which in all such cases is the greatest task.”(Timeaus, 25e-26a)
For Plato’s students, the account is not historical. But for not so careful readers, Plato’s “Socrates” can assert that his theory of philosophical authoritarianism now has an historical (though otherwise forgotten) incarnation.
Still the sea had swallowed up Atlantis, and an earthquake had consumed that Athens:
“And one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in a like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the mud which the island created as it settled down.”(Timaeus, 25d).
Solon and other Athenians had no memory of these events.
The Arab Platonist Al-Farabi likes to tell the hidden meanings of Plato right on the surface of his commentaries. He suggests that Plato proposed to subvert Athens gradually, his followers sticking to the meanings or tales of Athens and over time, changing its laws to produce an authoritarian regime. Platonists would thus don the garments of their setting to work toward the rule of the philosopher without laws, the philosopher-tyrant. I had thought that Plato’s Seventh Letter written in part as an apology to the Athenians for his three year dalliance with the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, had shown that Plato was a loyal Athenian. He criticizes Critias, the leader of the Tyranny of the Thirty for trying to implicate Socrates (a critic of the regime) by sending him as one of 5 to arrest Leon of Salamis. Socrates went home. If the tyranny had not fallen, he would have been put to death. The speaker in the Seventh Letter is angry with the Athenians for putting to death a wise man and his friend who refused to betray them to the Tyrants, for the Athenians’ villainy and lack of honor. In any case, Plato sent out the students in his secret Academy to advise monarchs and tyrants elsewhere. He did not subvert the Athenian democracy.
But the Timaeus written for his students present and future reveals Al-Farabi’s meaning. Hermocrates does not speak. But as Thucydides relates, Hermocrates is the Pericles-like leader of Syracuse who hunted down and slaughtered the Athenians in the Syracusian quarries. His victory meant the end of the Empire. It revealed, to Plato, the defects of the democracy which he had never liked (ironically, the Athenian Stranger in the Laws means to bring some features of the civilization of Athens to backward Crete, but without mention of the democracy; he proposes an authoritarian, Republic-like regime). As my student Richard Rockwell has discovered, the cave in the Republic is the quarries of Syracuse (not just ordinary Athenian democratic politics but that crushing defeat is what Plato meant to conjure with his metaphor). Thus, Hermocrates’ presence with Socrates and Critias is, in Plato’s iconography, clear enough.
Critias hails the regime of the Republic in which the Athenians in the land of shadows, in the realm of the forgotten, achieved their greatest victory over Atlantis. Another student of Socrates, Critias’s tyranny sought to bring rule of the philosophers – without laws – to Athens itself. Of course, as this story neglects, Critias the tyrant threatened Socrates and Socrates resisted. But Plato here imagines a Critias who admires the Republic as an antidote to Hermocrates, the victor over Athenian democracy.
Socrates was a citizen of Athens who served in battle with fortitude and declined to take part in politics (a good man could not take part in politics without being threatened with death, as he related in the Apology). His questioning offered no worked out opinions about justice, in part because such opinions, democratic or aristocratic-tending, led to wanton slaughters in the Greek cities (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4). In Crito, he goes to his death with the voice of the laws of democratic Athens in his ears, as the Corybants, participants in the mystery religions (Socrates was one) hear the flutes, with overpowering force. It is doubtful that Socrates believed in the philosophical rule sketched by the “Socrates” of the Republic and the opening of the Timaeus, or which was taken up by Plato and Plato’s Critias in the Timaeus. See my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, January 2009, here, for a fuller discussion.
But Al-Farabi was right. Plato plainly wished to work in Athens the authoritarian harm which he recommended elsewhere. That is one secret of the Timeaus's story of Atlantis.