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IS A SENSE in which Plato's Atlantis story is the earliest example of narrative fiction in Greek literature; which is also to say it is the earliest example in Western literature. I This may seem a surprising claim. Plato's story is introduced in the Timaeus as the record of a factual event and as one which is "absolutely true." If the story is conceded, nonetheless, to be an invention, one might suppose that earlier works of literature, such as Homer's epics, have an equal claim to be considered fictional. On the other hand, it might be objected that the genre of narrative fiction (what we call the romance or novel) did not emerge in Greece until considerably later, in or around the first century B.C. A better understanding both of fiction and of the Atlantis story will, however, show my claim to be justified. If we describe a narrative as a fiction, we usually mean that it is an account of events which did not actually take place as they are described but which have been invented by the author. This, however, does not distinguish between falsehood and fiction. And, indeed, fiction is distinguishable from falsehood only by the presumptions of author and audience: the author of fiction does not intend to deceive (nor is the audience generally deceived) about the status of the narrative, It is also true (though in a different sense) that it is the presumptions of author and audience that distinguish fictional from factual accounts. For a fictional narrative in the past tense is not formally distinguishable from a narrative of past factual events; and it is only certain conventional and extrinsic signals (like the title of a book) which denote the class of the narrative. Moreover, an audience follows a fictional narrative with much the same kind of mental attention and emotional involvement as it does a factual narrative: fictional events may seem, in a sense, as real as, or more real than, factual events. Yet, at some level, the audience is aware that the fictional events are not real in the ordinary sense of the word but invented by the author; this awareness underlies






and characterizes the kind of attention, and involvement, elicited by fictional narrative. Fiction, one may say, is a kind of game, in which both participants share in a willed pretense, treating what is unreal as real, and what is invented as actual. The rules of the game of fiction are not intuitively obvious, but presuppose a degree of cultural sophistication in a society or individual: in particular, the capacity to draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. This capacity cannot be reasonably attributed to the composers of Homeric epic, nor can the poems (which are a chemical fusion of legends about the past and creative invention) accurately be classified by either term. The genre of deliberately fictional narrative (that is, the romance) did not emerge until historiography, factual recording of the past, was an established technique. Indeed, the romance seems to have grown up as an imitation of history, in which the author played the game of recounting a sequence of past events. Xenophon's Education of Cvrus (c. 360 R.C.), the first self-consciously semi-fictional history, served as a suggestive prototype for later, more cOInpletely fictional narratives. ~ It is perhaps not accidental that Thucydides' attempt in the fifth century to lay down criteria for wholly factual historiography (with none of the romantic elaborations of the Homeric epics, 1.3, 1.10, 1.22) was succeeded in thefourth century by the first philosophical accounts of the truth-status of literature; Aristotle, in fact, defines literary truth through a contrast with historical truth iPoetics, 9). The clearer delineation of fact promoted the desire to define fiction (or, at least, literary invention), as well as creating the preconditions for the self-conscious production of fiction. Plato may seem to be an enemy rather than an analyst of literature; and his discussions undeniably have a polemical tone. But, closely examined, his treatment of literature in the Republic, and of the kinds of truth and falsity it possesses, goes far towards analyzing the fictional element in literature." Furthermore, the analysis can bc seen to be continued, in actual literary practice, in his intriguing Atlantis story; roughly contemporary with Xenophori's "biography" of Cyrus, it too can be regarded as a pastiche of history used as a means of self-conscious experiment in fiction. In fact, I think Plato deliberately frames his story in such a way as to invite his readers to play the (still unfamiliar) game of fiction, to share in the willing and conscious acceptance of the false as true. Plato's first large-scale discussion of literature comes early in the Republic. The subject is the role of literature in education, and the most relevant part is the first section (377-92). He begins with the challenging claim: "The class of narratives (muthoi) is, as a whole, false, though it contains some truths" (377a). This sounds, excitingly, as though



Plato is announcing the fictional nature of imaginative narrative, while conceding it a capacity for, perhaps deeper-level, truth. Plato's view in this section is in fact not far removed from this; but this is not easily apparent. During much of the discussion, one may reasonably form the impression that Plato is not explaining the sense in which imaginative narrative, in general, is false, but is complaining about the falsity of certain, specific, narratives. For Plato complains, repeatedly, that Homer and Hesiod have told "lies" about gods and semi-divine heroes, attributing to them actions they could not have committed (e.g. 377e-381e, 391). Indeed, Plato may well seem to be falling into the same (partial) error as Thucydides, that of treating Homer as a historian of the distant past, and faulting him for the inclusion of errors and implausibilities in an account that has some pretensions to factual truth. But this is not so. In a brief but important aside, Plato makes it plain that he does not believe there can be any factually accurate account of the distant past. "In the kind of story-telling (muthologia) we have been discussing, we do not know the exact truth about events of the distant past" (382dl-2). Therefore, all muthoi about the distant past (including those retailed by Homer, Hesiod, and the tragedians, to judge from Plato's examples), are, on the literal level, "false"; they are not the factual accounts they seem to be, However, this is not the falsity of which Plato, primarily, complains. As Plato goes on to say (382d2-3), although any muthos about the distant past is factually false, we can "assimilate our falsehood to the truth as far as possible and so make it useful." In saying this, Plato does not mean that we can modify our imaginative account to correspond with the known facts of the remote past; for he has just denied that we know these facts. The criterion of truth and falsehood in such muthoi is on another level. Our narrarivcs approximate to truth and falsehood insofar as we give a more or less accurate representation of the entities about which we construct our narratives. The writer is like a portrait sculptor or painter, who achieves the "truth" by being faithful to the nature of his subject (377e), even if the narrative medium of his portraiture is imaginative or factually "false" (382d). Homer and Hesiod told "falsehoods" about the past because their imaginative narratives were not faithful to the nature of their subjects (gods and semi-divine heroes); and it is by reference to the falsity of their underlying assumptions about the nature of these subjects that Plato is able to stigmatize individual episodes as false (38De-383e). Plato, then, is not really treating Homer and Hesiod as historians and complaining that they arc bad ones. Indeed, his comment at 382d utterly rejects their claims to be treated as historians (a bold rejection, in view of the moral and theological weight traditionally given to their



picture of the divine and heroic past). Instead, he provides criteria for judging these writers which are quite different from those of historical accuracy: namely, the truth and falsity of their assumptions about the subjects they present. For in this part of the Republic-though not in Book X-Plato treats literary composition as a process in which theoretical assumptions or concepts are clothed in narrative and dramatic form (379a ff., cf. 401-2); and he insists that these underlying assumptions should be true ones. But on the literal, or surface, level, Plato accepts that narratives, at least about the distant past (and the vast majority of serious Greek literature waJ set in the distant past), are false; and with (his falsity Plato has no complaint. Indeed, he carefully distinguishes conscious and unconscious falsity at 382a-c, and it is unconscious falsity, that is, ignorance, of which he is most critical. Conscious falsity is a less defective condition, and has its uses (382c-d, 38gb). Indeed, Plato uses it himself, in the conscious construction of a "noble falsehood" about the distant past, a foundation myth for his imagined ideal state (414b-c). Now, in the conscious construction of a "noble falsehood," and, indeed, in this whole section on literature, Plato is motivated by the social and political concerns which underlie his whole Republic and not by a disinterested desire to analyze contemporary literary practice. Yet his picture of the writer as someone who, like a visual artist, gives his own representation of his chosen subject, someone whose imaginative narrative constitutes falsehood on the literal level but may stjl] convey a deeper-level truth, not only elucidates the character of the epic poetry he has most in mind but also that of the creative writer in general. Indeed, we may well feel that Plato has gone some distance towards delineating the nature of fiction (more so, it would seem, than any of his contemporaries). The one respect in which his account of the "falsity" of muthos is significantly not that of 'fiction is that he does not seem to envisage an audience which is also conscious of this falsity. Of course, his own readers (if they accept his view of Homer) will now be able to return to the epic narrative with a new awareness of its literal falsity. But Plat[)~-a( least in (he ideal slate he imaginatively constructs-does not seem interested in creating a class of readers who will be trained to detect this falsity. He seems to accept the fact that audiences (children and adults alike) genemlly accept such accounts as literally true, and thus absorb the underlying assumptions of the writer. What Plato wants to do is to ensure that writers create their falsehoods on the basis of true assumptions; then, while the literal falsity passes unnoticed, the deeper truths will be absorbed (379a ff., 40lb-d, 414b ff'.). Thus Plato here does not make the audience an accomplice to the conscious lie. In (his respect Book X (though even




more fundamentally critical of the writer) makes a significant advance. For here Plato does not maintain that the audience is deceived about the surface-level falsehood of literature (even if it is led to false conclusions about the writer). But this development in his view is obscured by the fact that in Book X Plato adopts a different set of terms: "what is" and "what appears" in place of truth and falsehood." Plato's main aim in Book X was to dispute the traditional status of Greek literature as a means of acquiring knowledge of being, particularly knowledge of moral values (598e ff.). By contrast, Plato claims that the writer, qua writer, has no knowledge of what is: neither practical skills (such as politics) which can be applied to actual situations, nor knowledge of the absolute values which can underpin and validate such practical skills. (Plato, for good historical reasons, always talks about the "poet", but I shall continue to use the generic term "writer", meaning creative writer.) The skill of the writer goes no deeper than the surface of human life, its external appearance: the writer's distinctive skill is the ability to reproduce this appearance (as though with a mirror, 596d-e), by creating an image which looks to the eye of the observe.' as the world itself looks (598b-d). Homer, qua writer, knows nothing about the real nature of human excellence (or "virtue"); what he knows how to do is to produce through words the image of a man who seems to most people to have something important and real to say about the nature of virtue (600c-60 1b). To use Plato's terms more exactly, the poet, like the painter, is an imitator (mimite~-) of the appearance (phantasmai, not of what is (598b), and a maker of images, not of anything that is (600e). The audience's observation of this "phantasrn't-wor ld, and involvement in its simulated emotions, is inherently pleasant (605c-d). This pleasure does not derive from any intellectual apprehension so gained since literature neither appeals to, nor satisfies, the reason (602e ff.). The aesthetic experience, in fact, is a "closed" experience that discloses (0 us nothing about the world of being, though our vicarious involvement with representations of emotional self-abandonment may undermine our self-control in real life (603c ff.). Plato's account of literature in Book X is yet more negative than the previous discussion. He explicitly withdraws from the writer the capacity he earlier granted him, of basing his "imitation" on an intellectual grasp of the being he imitates (600e; contrast 379a ff'., 40lb fL). Plato has his polemical reasons for this restrictive, and, in some ways, implausible view of the writer; but his second description has distinct advantages, notably in isolating the fictional qualities of the writer. Book X (unlike the earlier discussion) does not describe the writer as a maker of statements, a man in the same general category as the



historian or theologian. It describes him as a maker of images, which in two senses, "are not" (596-8), but are not, for that reason, true or false in the way factual statements about reality must be. This second description brings out the important idea of someone who creates a fantasy world which is distinct from the real world but recognizably similar to it (even if this creation is described, with some simplification, as imitation). It is worth noting, also, that Book X does not attribute to writers the same kind of deception as does the earlier part of the Republic. In the earlier discussion, Plato seems to presume that audiences actually believe the falsehoods Homer tells, in a quite literal way; that they actually believed that events happened in the way they were described by him (377e ff.). In Book X, Plato thinks that literature presents so plausible an image of what is that audiences will suppose the author understands what he seems to represent (598b ff., 601a ff.). But he does not maintain that they think that what is represented (in the theatre, for instance) is actually happening, in the ordinary sense of the word, or (in the case of epic), that it actually happened. The phantasm-world of literature has a certain emotionally powerful reality for us, but we are still, at some level, aware that this world is not identical with the one that "really is," "The best of us, when we listen to Homer or one of the tragedians representing a hero in distress, stretching out a long speech of lamentation or chanting and beating his breast-you know that we enjoy the experience, give ourselves up to it, follow it in close sympathy and seriousness, and praise as a good poet the one who most affects us in this way" (605d). In this description, the surrender to the fictional experience is a chosen involvement in a pleasurable sensation; subsequently, if not at the time, we are fully aware of the nature of the experience and commend the poet who most successfully induces it. Plato's two descriptions of the writer in the Republic are distinct and not easily reconcilable with each other. But despite their mutual inconsistency and their polemical tone, they constitute a remarkable exploration of the fictional qualities of literature, At a time when factual and fictional writing were not generally distinguished, Plato's account of the surface-level falsity of muthoi, and of the phantasm-world of the poet, went far to isolate the notion of fiction; and it did so in advance of the creation of any wholly fictional genre of literature. Plato's account of the writer is markedly negative; there are only one or two indications (401-2, 414b ff.) that what he describes is something he might himself undertake. Yet, in the prefaces to the Atlantis story, as I shall explain, there are unmistakable echoes of his own discussions; and this implies that he did, in away, set out to undertake what he




had analyzed. Indeed, even before this, in the presentation of the other narratives periodically inserted into his dialogues (usually called Plato's "myths"), we can see signs of the reflections about narrative explicitly pursued in the Republic. A number of Plato's myths concern the life of the soul after death or events in the remote past; that is, they are the type of story-telling (muthologia) described at Republic 382d, in which we do not know the exact truth of what we describe, but make up what are, on the surface-level, falsehoods, even if they are molded in the light of deeper-level truths. In the presentation of Plato's myths, written around the time of the Republic, we can see an increasing awareness on Plato's part of the ambiguity of their truth-status. Let us consider, first, the three after-life myths, in their order of composition: Gorgias, Phaedo. Republic. These narratives are similar in their content, but differ in the progressively greater detachment with which they are presented. In the Gorgias, Socrates offers what he knows Callicles will regard as only a story (muthos)-indeed, an old wives' tale (527a)-but which he maintains is a true account (alethe5 logos, 523a). A similar account is introduced into the Phaedo much more (en(atively~ "This is how the story goes" (107d)-and it is concluded in similar terms. What has been told is a story (muthos) , indeed a kind of charm for Socrates to sing to himself; belief in it is a "risk," and a risk only worth taking because of the connection of the surface-details of the story with an underlying theory of whose truth Socrates is independently convinced (114d). In the Republic, the concluding myth is cast in the form of a story attributed to an obscure narrator (Er, the son of Armenius), who claimed to have died and then returned to life (614b ff.). In the story itself, the sustained form of indirect discourse is a syntactical reminder that Socrates, the reporter of the story, is not its author. All Socrates says is that "the story has been prese rve d, and would preserve us if we believed it," though to the truth of its message (the immortality of the soul) he is more personally committed (621b-c). In these three stories, we can see an increasing acknowledgement of the fictionality of the narrative, even if its underlying truth is maintained. This distinction is made explicitly in the Phaedrus (probably written shortly after the Republic). Socrates introduces a story as "a tradition handed down from our forefathers; though they alone know whether it is true" (274e). When Phaedrus accuses him of making up this allegedly "Egyptian" story, Socrates points out that what is important is not the source of the story but the truth of its message (27Sb-c); which is, virtually, to concede its surface-level fictionality. In another story, in the Statesman, probably written after the Phaedrus but before the Atlantis story, Plato's approach is more ambiguous, as though he




is playing with the reader's credulity. At first his account is introduced as a story (muthos), indeed, a "game" for his young interlocutor to play (268d-e); and it is associated with traditional muthot about the distant past (268e ff.). But then the narrator claims \0 be disclosing actual facts (about cosmic events) which underlie and explain these muthoi (269b ff.}; and the interlocutor finds his account very plausible (270b), But, as it proceeds, this allegedly scientific explanation takes on much of the fantastic and supernatural character of traditional muthot (270d ff.). And it is gradually made plain that the whole account is itself a functional rnuthos, designed to illustrate a point in the argument (274b, 274e). In this story, which anticipates the Atlantis story at a number of points, Plato disposes us to expect a fiction, and then, as it were, plays with the reader, offering an account which might seem authentically historical (or pre-historical), but which is gradually revealed as a functional Fable." The game with the reader (played out much more fully in the Atlantis story) is a minor feature in the Statesman, But in both cases it is as though Plato, having explained the distinction between surface fiction and deeper-level truth, deliberately blurs the distinction, if only temporarily, in order to sting his reader into recognizing it f'or himself. The ambiguity in the presentation of the Atlantis story is greater than that in the Statesman, or in any previous myth. There are two introductions to the story, in the Timaeus and the Cruias, and both of them in different ways predispose us initially to expect an invented story. But in both cases this expectation is contradicted when the story is described as a historical report. Thus, at the start of the Timaeus, Socrates summarizes the institutions of the ideal state delineated in the Republic, and says he would like to hear a story which would bring out the character of his state, by representing it in a major war' (I9b-d). This prepares us for an invented fable, the narrative presentation of a philosophical theme. Surprisingly, however, Cririas pr-oposes to satisfy Socrates' request with what he claims is a historical report of a factual event. This report, he says, was preserved in his family: it was orally memorized by successive generations (20e-21a, 26b-c). Solon, a distant relative of his, obtained this report from certain Egyptian priests, whose records of the past contain accurate information about events known to the Greeks (if at all) only through myths (21e ff.}. 9000 years before, primaeval Athens defended itself heroically against the aggression of a great maritime empire, Atlantis; and the institutions and character of primaeval Athens are sufficiently close to those of Socrates' ideal state for the report of this war to be used as the illustrative story Socrates requires. Nonetheless, suitable though it is, Critias insists (and Socrates accepts) that his narrative is not a made-up story (plaslheis



muthos) but a true account (ale/hinos logos, 20d-21e, 26e). The Timaeus simply introduces a story which was to be told fully in the Critics (though in fact the project was never fully carried through)." At the start of the Critias, Critias seems preoccupied, not with the problem of recalling accurately the details of his account (as he was at Timaeus 26b-c), but with the problem of giving his narrative the illusory realism which he says audiences require (107). This concern seems more appropriate to a story-teller than a historian, and, in fact, Critias now describes himself as someone who is improvising a verbal performance (107d-e). Correspondingly, Socrates compares him, along with Timaeus, to a poet-playwright competing before an audience in a theatre; and Hermocrates urges Critias to call (like an epic poet) on the Muses for help (108a-c). Critias accedes to this urging; but he also calls 'on the mother of the Muses, Memory, and by this neat switch reassu mes his role as the reporter of a memorized history (108d), one later said to be based on a text transmitted from Solon (Ll Sa-b): This presentation of the story is ambiguous. Indeed, it is so ambiguous that it has led readers, ancient and modern, to draw two contradictory conclusions: that the story is either a philosophical fable (a pure invention), or an authentic piece of historical reportage. Some of these reactions we shall look at later; but first it is worth studying more closely the actual wording of Plato's introductions, and the implications of this wording. The prefaces of Timaeus and Critics are strongly reminiscent, in different ways, of the discussions of literature in the Republic. The Timaeus particularly recalls the earlier discussion in the Republic; the Critias recalls Book X. Socrates in the Timaeus (as in the first discussion of the Republic) treats poets as people who give a more or less faithful representation (mimesis) of their subject (1gb-d). In the Republic, he commonly compares verbal representation to sculpture or painting (377e, cf. Book X, Iwuim), and, in fact, compares his own delineation of the ideal state to the work of such an artist (472c-e). In the Timaeus, in an apparent extension of this image, he asks for artists who can, as it were, make his sculptures move (or induce motion in the creatures he has brought to life); he asks for a narrator who can illustrate the characters of his state in an imagined action (19b). Socrates needs a poet who has the capacity he desiderates for artists in the ideal state (at least, in the first part of the Republic): that of representing a purely conceptual, and moral, subject (401b-d). But he has clearly in mind the complaints he makes in the second discussion in the Republic, that poets are merely imitators of perceptible appearances: "The class of poets, being generically imitators, will imitate most easily and best the circumstances of their own upbringing; but that which falls outside each individual's native environment is difficult




for him to imitate well in action, and yet more difficult in words" (Timaeus 19d-e). But Plato does not make this remark in the wholly negative way in which he makes similar statements in Republic X. For he has provided in the Timaeus a class of interlocutors whose unique combination of philosophical wisdom and political experience enable them to represent "how philosopher-statesmen would act and speak in each situation, while they engaged in war and battle, as well as negotiation and consultation" (1ge). It must be their special knowledge which enables Socrates to entrust to them a role similar to that finally reserved for literature in Republic X, that is, the creation of "hymns to the gods and eulogies of good men" (Republic 607a; cf. Timaeus 19d, 21a, Critias 108c). Indeed, it enables Socrates to permit them also to engage in the limited "acting" role allowed in the earlier discussion in the Republic (though forbidden in Book X)~-the impersonation, in dialogue form, of good men (Republic 395c-396e, Timaeus 1ge). These sustained echoes of the Republic naturally lead us to the following conclusions, Plato seems to be indicating that he is about to experiment with the kind of consciously invented narrative that he envisages but (with the exception of the noble falsehood) does not actually attempt in the Republic (382c-d, 389b). This narrative will be a representation of a morally good subject by an author who knows the real nature of his subject (ef. 377e and 40lb-d), This narrative will be "true" to its good subject, and hence "useful," morally educative, for its audience, even if, judged by factual standards, this story will be a "falsehood" (cf. 382d). But the falsehood is not intended to deceive; for, by his introduction, with its allusions to his earlier discussions, Plato indicates, from the start, that his story is an invention. In his preface to the Timaeus, Socrates makes it plain that he wants a man who possesses the art of representation (a mimetis); he wants someone who can thus bring out the true nature of a subject most people do not understand. But, as is stressed again and again in Republic X, writers generally have a different aim in their mimesis: that of providing a plausible simulacrum of human life, which will correspond, only too closely, to his audience's ignorant preconceptions about the nature of the subject represented (598b-c, 60la-b, 602a-b), Critias, before he begins his narrative, shares this concern. He points out that language "is a means of representation (mimesis) and likeness-making, like the image-making of 'visual artists" (107b). And he is afraid that his own representation of human phenomena will be less plausible than Tirnaeus representation of celestial phenomena because the standards of the audience (based on their' familiarity with the subject) are higher. In the case of celestial phenomena, we are content with "indistinct and deceptive techniques of shading," but "whenever anyone tries to



represent human bodies, we are quick to perceive any deficiencies because of our close acquaintance with the subject, and are harsh critics of the man who does not achieve an absolutely convincing likeness" (107d). It is not fidelity to his theoretical subject that bothers Critias (that is, whether he can express the true nature of the ideal state), nor, it should be noted, fidelity to the details of his "historical" account. What concerns him is whether he can give his story the kind of surface realism that narrators of human action are expected to provide. To use slightly different terms (those of Plato's Sophist, 235-56), Socrates asks for the kind of imitator who reproduces the true lineaments of his subject regardless of whether or not its appearance corresponds with our usual impressions; whereas Cririas is the kind of imitator who is concerned, above all, with whether or not his simulated world corresponds in appearance to conventional expectations. Thus, the introductions of Socrates in the Timaeus and Critias in the Critias both evoke literary discussions of the Republic; but they evoke different discussions, with very different implications about the role of the writer. What does this indicate? That Plato set out to create a fictional narrative.jrut one stimulated by distinct-indeed, opposedconceptions of the function of fiction? We can, perhaps, see the products of this two-fold conception in the closing pages of the Critias (113-21). The description of Atlantis-its topography, flora and fauna, engineering and architecture (all of them fabulous and other-woddly)-is given with remarkably graphic and detailed realism. These details may all have relevance to Plato's underlying themes; 7 but their significance is by no means on the surface. In the final paragraph of the work, by contrast, Plato-it seems, rather hastily-reminds us of the moral skeleton of his story (the conflict between the just and the unjust state), by outlining the moral corruption and inchoate punishment of Atlantis. In the divergent tones of these two sections we may, perhaps, see Plato's two-fold literary motives at work (the philosophico-moral and the more purely fictional). It is possible that an unreconcilable tension between them explains why Plato breaks off his story in mid-sentence immediately after the moralizing paragraph. Yet the two motives need not have seemed irreconcilable when Plato conceived his story. Indeed, the attempt to combine them, to create a philosophical fable which was more realistic than any of his previous myths, which went further towards creating its own phantasm-world (like the literature Plato analyzed in the Republic), may have been the guiding conception behind the work, and one adumbrated in its two introductions. But if this is what Plato wishes to convey in his introductions, why does he combine these hints with the emphatic, and repeated, claim that the story is not an invention but an authentic historical record?



Should we suppose that the account is, in fact, a historical record; and that the preceding, misleading introductions are only devices to heighten the surprise-value of Critias' claims to historicity? This is the view taken by those who think Plato's story is based on fact; even though none of these scholars (including the proponents of the fashionable Minoan theory) has been able to discover a factual origin which convincingly matches Plato's story." But, before embracing this view, it is worth studying more closely the way Critias presents his alleged history. His prcscrrtation is highly evocative of previous Greek histories. The picture of Solon interrogating Egyptian priests about the distant past is highly evocative of Herodotus' Egyptian investigations (Timaeus, 21-22; cf. Herodotus, 2, 99 If.), just as his account of prirnaeval Athens' repulse of Atlantis recalls Athens' repulse of Persia at Marathon (Timaeus, 25b--c, Herodotus, 7, 139). Further, Critias' claims of authenticity for his account (and of the scale of the war he describes) evoke Thucydides' introduction to his history (Timaeus, 20-22, 23c, 24c; cf. T'hucydides, 1, 22-23). The overall impression of these allusions is not that Plato's narrative is actual historiography but rather a pastiche of historiography, almost a parody (since the claims to exact authenticity are combined with an implausibly vast time-scale). The historiographical style is oddly blended with an almost epic use of gods as agents in human affairs (notably, as patrons and punishers of cities). Solon's story, we may note, was seen as a suitable basis for an epic poem to rival Homer and Hesiod tTimaeus, 2lc). The more one reads Critias' summary of his story, the more it seems not the unique factual document it purports to be, but an elaborate literary collagc-c--Plato's own reworking of the theme of war, with significant allusions to previous treatments of the theme in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides (with Homer's Iliad and Hesiod's Theogony in the background). But if, as this suggests, Plato's story is not the authentic history Critias says it is, why should Plato put this claim into Critias' mouth? The claim to veracity might be seen as part of Plato's pastiche of historiography, setting the tone, as it were, for the pastiche. That Plato was, in his later years, genuinely interested in history and prehistory we can tell, not only from his speculative reconstruction of prehistoric Attica tCritias, lOge ff.), but also from the straightforwardly historical survey of Laws, III (which discusses explicitly the historical events alluded to in the Atlantis story). In the Atlantis story, Plato is, one may say, playing the game of being a historian; and the fact that it is a game is signalled by the overt claim to historical truth in a context in which we are not disposed to accept the claim." Plato, perhaps, also had a second, literary, reason for couching his narrative as a history, and as a "true" history. Critias' opening remarks




in the Critias (107) seem to proclaim Plato's interest in wnung a story that has something of the same effect on a reader as conventional literature; one that constitutes a plausible simulacrum of human behavior. As we have seen, parts of his work have precisely this quality, and seem intended to be gratuitously interesting, independent of any moral message. In Plato's day, history was the genre of writing in which the events themselves, the surface action, were put forward as intrinsically interesting and important. It was natural, then, for Plato to choose history as his formal model (as well as the primary source of his building materials); and to proclaim his model by using its distinctive claim of factual truth. There is one further literary reason (and that the most interesting) for Plato to present his work as a history, in a context where we are unlikely to believe him. I have suggested that, in the Republic, Plato explored, with penetrating originality, certain crucial elements of fietioriality in literature; and I think his own story has the self-consciousness of its status which is essential for a work of fiction] as distinct from myth or folk-tale. Plato knows the story he presents as true is false, and that its apparent reality is only that of a plausible simulacrum, a copy of reality (though it is one whose creative originality belies the narrow limitations of Plato's own description of the writer as a mere "imitator"). And he is not, despite appearances, trying to deceive his reader into accepting his false story as true; he has given the reader enough hints for him to be able to gauge the real character of the work. Why, then, does he say his story is true? I think the reason is that he is not only writing fiction but, consciously, playing the game of fiction, the game, that is, of presenting the false as true, the unreal as reaL And in his preface, he is inviting his reader to take part in the same game, to pretend (to himself) to be deceived when he is not, to take as true what he knows is false. The reader may, in fact, be deceived; but what Plato wants is a willed self-deception, a chosen suspension of incredulity for the duration of (he story. The game of fiction was not a familiar one in Plato's day, as it is to us. In fact, the complicity of the audience was the one element of fiction not explicated by Plato in the Republic (though it is not incompatible with the willed self-surrender to illusion described at 605c-d). One might suppose that Plato was, in fact, exploring this element in fiction by means of this experiment in obtaining the reader's complicity. This new element of intended complicity in the fictional game makes his work the first piece of deliberately fictional narrative in Greek literature. No doubt this was not Plato's only reason for writing his story, and for couching it in the form he did; but it was, in many ways, the most striking of his motives.




That Plato's exact intentions in his composition were not fully understood in antiquity is not surprising, given the ambiguity integral to its presentation, as well as the precocious originality of the conception. Ancient COmmentators regarded it either as an authentic history or as an invented philosophical fable; that is, they took notice of Socrates' request in the Timaeus, or of Critias' response, but did not question Plato's moti ves in combining these divergent indications about the nature of his story. Thus, in the later fourth century or e<;trlythird century, Aristotle's pupil T'heophr astus and the contemporary Platonist Crantor accepted the historicity of the story. Crantor, in fact, sent it to Egyptian priests for verification (according to Proclus' commentary on the Timaeus, 76b). Later geographers, like Posidonius (c. 135 to 50 Il.c.) and Strabo (c. 64 B.C. to 21 A.D.), were disposed to accept its truth (Strabo, 2, 102), though the elder Pliny i Natural History, 11,92) was more sceptical. On the other hand, nco-Platonist commentators like Porphyry and Iarnblichus (third to fourth century A.D.) regarded it as a spiritual and metaphysical allegory (Proclus, ibid., 76c ff.). None of these commentators, it should be noted, seems to have any access to Plato's intentions except through the texts we also possess. On the other hand, I think Plato's fictional intentions were not entirely misunderstood in antiquity. Two writers of the fourth and third centuries B.C., Euhemerus and Theopompus, created stories that are, roughly, in the same genre as the Atlantis story: that is, stories of fantastic ., . constitutions an d cI· imates set In remote an d un di iscover a bI paces. 10 e I Both stories allude to the Atlantis story, and both seem to have been more or less overt fictions. These stories may be regarded, on the one hand, (like the Atlantis story) as elaborations or the philosophicopolitical fable in the direction of fiction; and on the other, as early examples of the genre of travellers' tales, a fictional genre whose only extant instance is Lucian's avowedly false "True Story" (second century A.D.). Euhernerus and Theopompus took further steps in the experimentation with conscious and virtually explicit fiction, a class of writing which was gradually being recognized by readers. In alluding to the Atlantis story, and, to some degree, taking it as their prototype, these writers seem to acknowledge its status as an early experiment in fiction; and the recognition or these practicing writers is a partial compensation for the impercipience of Plato's other ancient readers.


I am gratef,,, for the stimulus, criticism and help I ita&'£ receiued from Julia A rmas, and from colleagues HI the llnioersity of I·faro, Norman Gulley and Bryar Reardon. in writing this article.



lOne might argue further that Plato's story is the first example of self-conscious fiction in any form in Greek literature; but this would require a fuller discussion of, for instance, fifth-century drama than I can usefully atrernpr here. 2. See further Press, 1967) B. E, Perry, The Allcient Romances (Berkeley: University of California

discussions of Plato', treatment of literature, I have found most stimulating N. Gulley, "Plato on Poetry," Greece and Rome 24 (1977): 154-69. Sec also G. F. Else, The Structure and Date of Book 10 of Plato's Rcpubli« (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1972), a suggestive though perverse book, and Iris Murdoch, The Fire and th« Sun (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). For placing Plato's discussion in its historical context, E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963) remains valuable. 4. Of course, it is unwise to distinguish too sharply between discussion of truth and discussion of being in Plato, since "what is" can often mean "what is the case" or "what is true." Nonetheless, the terminological difference here is worth noting, since it is an index of a general difference of approach between the two sections of the Republic. 5. For a sustained comparison of the two srories, see C. Gill, "Plato and Critias and the Politicus" forthcoming in Phronesis, 1979. Politics-the

::L Of recent

B. Despite the recent claims of W. Welliver, Charucter, Plot and Thought Timaeus-Critias (Leiden: Brill, 1977), there is no evidence that Plato intended to have an unfinished appearance.

in Plato's his story

7. For a convincing analysis of their significance. see P. Vidal-Naqucr, "Athencs ct l'Atlantide," Revue des Etudes Grecques 77 (1964): 420-44; cr. L. Brisson, "De la philosophic politique it l'epopee. Le 'Critias' de Platon," Revue de Mhaph),sique et de Morale 75 (1970): 402-38. 8. See, particularly, .J. V. Luce, The End of Atlunlis (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969; published in U.S.A. as LOJt Atlantis, New York: McGraw-Hili, 1969). Luce's views arc criticized by' Rhys Carpenter, American Journal of Archaeolog_~ 74 (1970): 302-303; J. M. Cook, Classical Reuieu. 84, n.s, 20 (1970): 224-25; C, Gill, "The Origin of the Atlantis Myth," Trivium 11 (1976): 1-11. 9. See further R. Weil, L' "Archeologie" de Platen (Paris: t.'lude" e! Commentaires, no. 32, 1959) and C. Gill, "The Genre of the Atlantis Story," Classical Phdolng~ 72 (1977): 287-304. 10. See). Ferguson, chap. 14. Utopias ufthe Classical Wurld (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975),