- 西洋古典學研究 (ISSN:04479114)
- vol.56, pp.14-25, 2008-03-05
The Atlantis story told by Plato in Timaeus and Critias is well known. Plato says that Atlantis, the prosperous maritime empire in primeval time, was ruined because of her corruption. He also says that primeval Athens, which defeated Atlantis, was a noble state governed by virtuous people. This story is said to be "true" (Tim. 20d) and some scholars have held that it may have some historical basis, for example in the facts of Minoan Crete. In any case, the only source of this story is Plato and we should take it to be basically Plato's invention. What is most important is to understand the meaning of this story. As to that, P. Vidal-Naquet has pointed out that by contrasting Atlantis with an imaginary noble state (primeval Athens), Plato set his ideal state against historical Athens which he criticized as a warlike maritime state. But why did Plato show his idea by the mythical past? In what context can we understand it? Ancient Greeks, who had experienced discontinuity from the Mycenaean period, regarded their distant past as the age of great heroes. Many legends of such heroes were narrated by poets and handed down by communities. On the other hand, democratic city-states, especially Athens, emphasized equality and did not recognize actual charismatic individuals. So models of virtue and various types of behaviour were not so much sought among citizens as reflected in the mythic past. Plato recognized this paradigmatic role of the mythic past. In Republic, groping for the ideal state, he emphasizes and appreciates the educative function of myth. But Plato also criticizes the stories in circulation in terms of ethics. He says human beings, unlike the gods, cannot know the truth about the past; all we can do is to make our falsehood as like truth as possible to make it beneficial (Rep. 382 c-d). Trying to present the ideal state, and appreciating a function of myth while ethically dissatisfied with circulated myths, Plato told a new story. In order to show citizens a model of the virtuous state and its antithesis, primeval Athens and Atlantis were created. Isocrates, an oratorical writer contemporary with Plato, adapts mythic discourse too. In Panegyricus and Panathenaicus he insists on Athens' leader-ship in Greece by reinterpreting the legendary achievements of Athens. As Isocrates appropriated the past for his actual political purpose, so Plato told the Atlantis story. This should be understood as a new intellectual concern in the fourth century B.C.. In this period Athens, trying to establish a new identity in the Greek World, wanted a state to serve as model. But Athens' factual past, which led to the defeat of the Peloponnesian War, could not be a model. Under such conditions it was necessary to consider how to appropriate the mythic past to make it influential as a means of education and as a model of virtue. The story of Atlantis and primeval Athens is "true" for Plato not because it is historical fact but because Plato thought such a story necessary and beneficial for actual citizens. The Atlantis story should be understood in this context.