A whole civilization wiped out overnight by an enormous tidal wave. No written documents—historical, literary, or other—survive to tell us anything about it. Hundreds of years of human stories, growth, learning: gone. In the blink of an eye.
Thousands of years before the advent of the internet or, even, the printing press, Plato understood the importance of the written word in the process of preserving and transmitting culture from one generation and place to another. At least, that’s certainly the lesson we take away from the “Myth of Atlantis” Critias narrates to Socrates and a few other friends at the beginning of the Timaeus.
Today, we often remember Plato as that Greek philosopher who didn’t really believe in writing, and there are certainly reasons for that. In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the example of King Tut, an Egyptian, who was concerned that our memory (cultural, collective, or individual) would suffer greatly after the introduction of writing: what would be the incentive to memorize anything anymore? Writing could only mean one thing: human beings would become lazy. Even lazier than they already were. (It turns out Tut was right about at least one thing: twenty-first century readers do not tend to retain the books they read the way medieval students who consulted tomes chained up in the library did. Perhaps this is because we figure we can just go and grab our own personal copy and look a passage up when we need to…) But—as is often the case with Plato—we can’t read the Phaedrus alone to come to grips with the Greek philosopher’s take on writing. (Just as we would have a hard time figuring out what Plato had to tell us about poetry and myths by reading the Republic alone.)
The Timaeus tends to get less attention than the Republic or the Symposium in undergraduate classrooms today. And yet, it was the only Platonic dialogue available to Western readers in a complete Latin translation until very near the end of the Middle Ages. Safe to say, the Timaeus had a huge impact on the Western Intellectual Tradition; perhaps an even greater impact than, say, the Republic—at least from around 400 A.D. and 1400 A.D. In fact, the Timaeus is still so popular in Western European intellectual circles that, when Raphael paints his famous School of Athens, he depicted Plato holding the Timaeus under his arm. (Aristotle, meanwhile, holds the Ethics. The implication is clear: for Raphael, the Timaeus is Plato’s masterpiece, just as the Ethics is Aristotle’s.)
Well, enough of the background. What, exactly, does Plato tell us in the Timaeus that is so important? I’ll not touch on the extraordinary cosmological narration that takes up the biggest part of the dialogue in this post, except to say that it deals with a plethora of topics, from the formation of the world soul to the concepts of disease, and demons, and time…the list is impressive. But it’s the beginning of the dialogue in which I’m interested, because it has a good deal to tell us about why the study of “great texts” is important. So back to the Myth of Atlantis. Critias’s story makes pressing and urgent the business of creating, and reading, books.
According to Critias, Solon, the great Athenian law-giver, traveled to Egypt long ago. There, he marveled at the civilization of the Egyptians. It seemed to Solon that the Egyptians were a much older civilization than Athens because they were so learned. Imagine his surprise, then, when an Egyptian priest informs him that Athens was founded by the same goddess (Athena) one thousand years before Egypt.
The Athenians, however, don’t remember—because they haven’t written the story down. In fact, the Athenians have forgotten centuries and millennia of their glorious past because they have maintained no historical documents whatsoever. That is why they don’t recall their most important military victory of all time, over the power-hungry civilization of Atlantis, that rose up and sough to conquer the entire European continent. The Greeks fought bravely against the tyrants and pushed them back on to the island of Atlantis. But then, in the midst of the night, an enormous tidal wave swept over the entire island and all of the soldiers—Greeks and Atlantians alike—died. Nobody lived to tell the story.
Apparently, the Egyptian priests somehow got wind of the cataclysm; maybe they saw the island sink from the coast. Who knows? What Plato’s myth makes clear is that they preserved the details of the event in their temples—maybe in books, or maybe they carved it in hieroglyphs on the temple walls. “Ah Solon,” the Egyptian priest exclaims, “you Greeks are only children! You have no concept of tradition, no knowledge hoary with age.”
The implication—our “take-away lesson” from the Myth of Atlantis—is clear: without books, without reading, without writing, we can aspire only to a limited understanding of the world in which we live and our place in the intellectual tradition.
Without books, we will inevitably fail to understand our purpose in life. In many ways, in his Timaeus, Plato was the first advocate for the study of great texts. For without them, we, too, are only children.
Oooh—are those my moules-frites I see?
(K. Sarah-Jane Murray)