Summaries of the Platonic dialogues: Critias

compiled by: Q Pomponius Atticus
Based on the introductions to Benjamin Jowett's Plato-translations (public domain)

PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X | PARS XI | PARS XII | PARS XIII

The Critias is a fragment which breaks off in the middle of a sentence. It was designed to be the second part of a trilogy, which, like the other great Platonic trilogy of the Sophist, Statesman, Philosopher, was never completed. Timaeus had brought down the origin of the world to the creation of man, and the dawn of history was now to succeed the philosophy of nature. The Critias is also connected with the Republic. Plato, as he has already told us (Tim.), intended to represent the ideal state engaged in a patriotic conflict. This mythical conflict is prophetic or symbolical of the struggle of Athens and Persia, perhaps in some degree also of the wars of the Greeks and Carthaginians, in the same way that the Persian is prefigured by the Trojan war to the mind of Herodotus, or as the narrative of the first part of the Aeneid is intended by Virgil to foreshadow the wars of Carthage and Rome. The small number of the primitive Athenian citizens (20,000), 'which is about their present number' (Crit.), is evidently designed to contrast with the myriads and barbaric array of the Atlantic hosts. The passing remark in the Timaeus that Athens was left alone in the struggle, in which she conquered and became the liberator of Greece, is also an allusion to the later history. Hence we may safely conclude that the entire narrative is due to the imagination of Plato, who has used the name of Solon and introduced the Egyptian priests to give verisimilitude to his story. To the Greek such a tale, like that of the earth-born men, would have seemed perfectly accordant with the character of his mythology, and not more marvellous than the wonders of the East narrated by Herodotus and others: he might have been deceived into believing it. But it appears strange that later ages should have been imposed upon by the fiction. As many attempts have been made to find the great island of Atlantis, as to discover the country of the lost tribes. Without regard to the description of Plato, and without a suspicion that the whole narrative is a fabrication, interpreters have looked for the spot in every part of the globe, America, Arabia Felix, Ceylon, Palestine, Sardinia, Sweden.

Timaeus concludes with a prayer that his words may be acceptable to the God whom he has revealed, and Critias, whose turn follows, begs that a larger measure of indulgence may be conceded to him, because he has to speak of men whom we know and not of gods whom we do not know. Socrates readily grants his request, and anticipating that Hermocrates will make a similar petition, extends by anticipation a like indulgence to him.

Critias returns to his story, professing only to repeat what Solon was told by the priests. The war of which he was about to speak had occurred 9000 years ago. One of the combatants was the city of Athens, the other was the great island of Atlantis. Critias proposes to speak of these rival powers first of all, giving to Athens the precedence; the various tribes of Greeks and barbarians who took part in the war will be dealt with as they successively appear on the scene.

In the beginning the gods agreed to divide the earth by lot in a friendly manner, and when they had made the allotment they settled their several countries, and were the shepherds or rather the pilots of mankind, whom they guided by persuasion, and not by force. Hephaestus and Athena, brother and sister deities, in mind and art united, obtained as their lot the land of Attica, a land suited to the growth of virtue and wisdom; and there they settled a brave race of children of the soil, and taught them how to order the state. Some of their names, such as Cecrops, Erechtheus, Erichthonius, and Erysichthon, were preserved and adopted in later times, but the memory of their deeds has passed away; for there have since been many deluges, and the remnant who survived in the mountains were ignorant of the art of writing, and during many generations were wholly devoted to acquiring the means of life...And the armed image of the goddess which was dedicated by the ancient Athenians is an evidence to other ages that men and women had in those days, as they ought always to have, common virtues and pursuits. There were various classes of citizens, including handicraftsmen and husbandmen and a superior class of warriors who dwelt apart, and were educated, and had all things in common, like our guardians.

Attica in those days extended southwards to the Isthmus, and inland to the heights of Parnes and Cithaeron, and between them and the sea included the district of Oropus. The country was then, as what remains of it still is, the most fertile in the world, and abounded in rich plains and pastures. But in the course of ages much of the soil was washed away and disappeared in the deep sea. And the inhabitants of this fair land were endowed with intelligence and the love of beauty.

The Acropolis of the ancient Athens extended to the Ilissus and Eridanus, and included the Pnyx, and the Lycabettus on the opposite side to the Pnyx, having a level surface and deep soil. The side of the hill was inhabited by craftsmen and husbandmen; and the warriors dwelt by themselves on the summit, around the temples of Hephaestus and Athene, in an enclosure which was like the garden of a single house. In winter they retired into houses on the north of the hill, in which they held their syssitia. These were modest dwellings, which they bequeathed unaltered to their children's children. In summer time the south side was inhabited by them, and then they left their gardens and dining-halls. In the midst of the Acropolis was a fountain, which gave an abundant supply of cool water in summer and warm in winter; of this there are still some traces. They were careful to preserve the number of fighting men and women at 20,000, which is equal to that of the present military force. And so they passed their lives as guardians of the citizens and leaders of the Hellenes. They were a just and famous race, celebrated for their beauty and virtue all over Europe and Asia.

And now I will speak to you of their adversaries, but first I ought to explain that the Greek names were given to Solon in an Egyptian form, and he enquired their meaning and translated them. His manuscript was left with my grandfather Dropides, and is now in my possession...In the division of the earth Poseidon obtained as his portion the island of Atlantis, and there he begat children whose mother was a mortal. Towards the sea and in the centre of the island there was a very fair and fertile plain, and near the centre, about fifty stadia from the plain, there was a low mountain in which dwelt a man named Evenor and his wife Leucippe, and their daughter Cleito, of whom Poseidon became enamoured. He to secure his love enclosed the mountain with rings or zones varying in size, two of land and three of sea, which his divine power readily enabled him to excavate and fashion, and, as there was no shipping in those days, no man could get into the place. To the interior island he conveyed under the earth springs of water hot and cold, and supplied the land with all things needed for the life of man. Here he begat a family consisting of five pairs of twin male children. The eldest was Atlas, and him he made king of the centre island, while to his twin brother, Eumelus, or Gadeirus, he assigned that part of the country which was nearest the Straits. The other brothers he made chiefs over the rest of the island. And their kingdom extended as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia. Now Atlas had a fair posterity, and great treasures derived from mines--among them that precious metal orichalcum; and there was abundance of wood, and herds of elephants, and pastures for animals of all kinds, and fragrant herbs, and grasses, and trees bearing fruit. These they used, and employed themselves in constructing their temples, and palaces, and harbours, and docks, in the following manner:--First, they bridged over the zones of sea, and made a way to and from the royal palace which they built in the centre island. This ancient palace was ornamented by successive generations; and they dug a canal which passed through the zones of land from the island to the sea. The zones of earth were surrounded by walls made of stone of divers colours, black and white and red, which they sometimes intermingled for the sake of ornament; and as they quarried they hollowed out beneath the edges of the zones double docks having roofs of rock. The outermost of the walls was coated with brass, the second with tin, and the third, which was the wall of the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum. In the interior of the citadel was a holy temple, dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, and surrounded by an enclosure of gold, and there was Poseidon's own temple, which was covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. The roof was of ivory, adorned with gold and silver and orichalcum, and the rest of the interior was lined with orichalcum. Within was an image of the god standing in a chariot drawn by six winged horses, and touching the roof with his head; around him were a hundred Nereids, riding on dolphins.

Outside the temple were placed golden statues of all the descendants of the ten kings and of their wives; there was an altar too, and there were palaces, corresponding to the greatness and glory both of the kingdom and of the temple.

Also there were fountains of hot and cold water, and suitable buildings surrounding them, and trees, and there were baths both of the kings and of private individuals, and separate baths for women, and also for cattle. The water from the baths was carried to the grove of Poseidon, and by aqueducts over the bridges to the outer circles. And there were temples in the zones, and in the larger of the two there was a racecourse for horses, which ran all round the island. The guards were distributed in the zones according to the trust reposed in them; the most trusted of them were stationed in the citadel. The docks were full of triremes and stores. The land between the harbour and the sea was surrounded by a wall, and was crowded with dwellings, and the harbour and canal resounded with the din of human voices.

The plain around the city was highly cultivated and sheltered from the north by mountains; it was oblong, and where falling out of the straight line followed the circular ditch, which was of an incredible depth. This depth received the streams which came down from the mountains, as well as the canals of the interior, and found a way to the sea. The entire country was divided into sixty thousand lots, each of which was a square of ten stadia; and the owner of a lot was bound to furnish the sixth part of a war-chariot, so as to make up ten thousand chariots, two horses and riders upon them, a pair of chariot-horses without a seat, and an attendant and charioteer, two hoplites, two archers, two slingers, three stone-shooters, three javelin-men, and four sailors to make up the complement of twelve hundred ships.

Each of the ten kings was absolute in his own city and kingdom. The relations of the different governments to one another were determined by the injunctions of Poseidon, which had been inscribed by the first kings on a column of orichalcum in the temple of Poseidon, at which the kings and princes gathered together and held a festival every fifth and every sixth year alternately. Around the temple ranged the bulls of Poseidon, one of which the ten kings caught and sacrificed, shedding the blood of the victim over the inscription, and vowing not to transgress the laws of their father Poseidon. When night came, they put on azure robes and gave judgment against offenders. The most important of their laws related to their dealings with one another. They were not to take up arms against one another, and were to come to the rescue if any of their brethren were attacked. They were to deliberate in common about war, and the king was not to have the power of life and death over his kinsmen, unless he had the assent of the majority.

For many generations, as tradition tells, the people of Atlantis were obedient to the laws and to the gods, and practised gentleness and wisdom in their intercourse with one another. They knew that they could only have the true use of riches by not caring about them. But gradually the divine portion of their souls became diluted with too much of the mortal admixture, and they began to degenerate, though to the outward eye they appeared glorious as ever at the very time when they were filled with all iniquity. The all-seeing Zeus, wanting to punish them, held a council of the gods, and when he had called them together, he spoke as follows:--

No one knew better than Plato how to invent 'a noble lie.' Observe (1) the innocent declaration of Socrates, that the truth of the story is a great advantage: (2) the manner in which traditional names and indications of geography are intermingled ('Why, here be truths!'): (3) the extreme minuteness with which the numbers are given, as in the Old Epic poetry: (4) the ingenious reason assigned for the Greek names occurring in the Egyptian tale: (5) the remark that the armed statue of Athena indicated the common warrior life of men and women: (6) the particularity with which the third deluge before that of Deucalion is affirmed to have been the great destruction: (7) the happy guess that great geological changes have been effected by water: (8) the indulgence of the prejudice against sailing beyond the Columns, and the popular belief of the shallowness of the ocean in that part: (9) the confession that the depth of the ditch in the Island of Atlantis was not to be believed, and 'yet he could only repeat what he had heard', compared with the statement made in an earlier passage that Poseidon, being a God, found no difficulty in contriving the water-supply of the centre island: (10) the mention of the old rivalry of Poseidon and Athene, and the creation of the first inhabitants out of the soil. Plato here, as elsewhere, ingeniously gives the impression that he is telling the truth which mythology had corrupted.

The world, like a child, has readily, and for the most part unhesitatingly, accepted the tale of the Island of Atlantis. In modern times we hardly seek for traces of the submerged continent; but even Mr. Grote is inclined to believe in the Egyptian poem of Solon of which there is no evidence in antiquity; while others, like Martin, discuss the Egyptian origin of the legend, or like M. de Humboldt, whom he quotes, are disposed to find in it a vestige of a widely-spread tradition. Others, adopting a different vein of reflection, regard the Island of Atlantis as the anticipation of a still greater island--the Continent of America. 'The tale,' says M. Martin, 'rests upon the authority of the Egyptian priests; and the Egyptian priests took a pleasure in deceiving the Greeks.' He never appears to suspect that there is a greater deceiver or magician than the Egyptian priests, that is to say, Plato himself, from the dominion of whose genius the critic and natural philosopher of modern times are not wholly emancipated. Although worthless in respect of any result which can be attained by them, discussions like those of M. Martin (Timee) have an interest of their own, and may be compared to the similar discussions regarding the Lost Tribes (2 Esdras), as showing how the chance word of some poet or philosopher has given birth to endless religious or historical enquiries. (See Introduction to the Timaeus.)

In contrasting the small Greek city numbering about twenty thousand inhabitants with the barbaric greatness of the island of Atlantis, Plato probably intended to show that a state, such as the ideal Athens, was invincible, though matched against any number of opponents (cp. Rep.). Even in a great empire there might be a degree of virtue and justice, such as the Greeks believed to have existed under the sway of the first Persian kings. But all such empires were liable to degenerate, and soon incurred the anger of the gods. Their Oriental wealth, and splendour of gold and silver, and variety of colours, seemed also to be at variance with the simplicity of Greek notions. In the island of Atlantis, Plato is describing a sort of Babylonian or Egyptian city, to which he opposes the frugal life of the true Hellenic citizen. It is remarkable that in his brief sketch of them, he idealizes the husbandmen 'who are lovers of honour and true husbandmen,' as well as the warriors who are his sole concern in the Republic; and that though he speaks of the common pursuits of men and women, he says nothing of the community of wives and children.

It is singular that Plato should have prefixed the most detested of Athenian names to this dialogue, and even more singular that he should have put into the mouth of Socrates a panegyric on him (Tim.). Yet we know that his character was accounted infamous by Xenophon, and that the mere acquaintance with him was made a subject of accusation against Socrates. We can only infer that in this, and perhaps in some other cases, Plato's characters have no reference to the actual facts. The desire to do honour to his own family, and the connection with Solon, may have suggested the introduction of his name. Why the Critias was never completed, whether from accident, or from advancing age, or from a sense of the artistic difficulty of the design, cannot be determined.
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