The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato’s Ideal State
Steve P. Kershaw | 428 pages | Pegasus | October 2018 | ISBN: 978-1681778594 | $27.95
The greatest compliment I can bestow on Classical scholar Steve P. Kershaw’s The Search for Atlantis (Pegasus, 2018), released last week, is that I have very little to say about it. Kershaw’s book, whose title is somewhat misleading, offers a history of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly reception of Plato’s myth of Atlantis from Classical Antiquity to today. It is decidedly not a book about hunting for Atlantis, and the author makes plain his conclusion that Plato invented the story of Atlantis as a philosophical allegory and that there is not and never was either a real Atlantis or an Egyptian myth of Atlantis for Plato to have drawn upon. I am in almost complete agreement with Kershaw, who teaches at the continuing education branch of Oxford University, and have almost nothing to add.
Kershaw is deeply read in the field of Atlantis, and as a Classicist, he is familiar not just with the ancient testimonia about Atlantis but also with ancient literature beyond the scattered references to Atlantis in the decades and centuries that followed Plato. Therefore, he does what few in Atlantis studies have done half so well, carefully laying out Plato’s own use of made-up myths and legends elsewhere in his body of work, as well as parallel accounts of fabulous cities and fictitious realms elsewhere in Greek literature prior to Plato in order to demonstrate how the story Plato tells in the Timaeus and the Critias fits within the context of ancient Greek literature, reinforcing the fictitious nature of the tale.
Two lengthy chapters translate the relevant sections of the Timaeus and the Critias, and then each subsequent chapter of the book examines successive time periods and their efforts to reinterpret and (mis-) understand Plato’s allegory. The material he covers was familiar to me and will be familiar to many of you who read this blog, but for the general reader it will be a welcome repository of information, organized chronologically to demonstrate the development of the modern conception of Atlantis from an accumulation of accretions and errors in the millennia since Plato wrote.
In describing the many (many, many, many) different hypotheses about the location of the “real” Atlantis, Kershaw does journeyman’s labor demonstrating that the modern claims we see on the History Channel and in popular books and magazines are almost all presaged or explicitly stolen from the wild speculations of the early modern period, when Atlantis theories were a dime a dozen and usually tied to imperialist or colonialist enterprises looking for historical precedent for their conquests. It is not surprising but nonetheless gratifying to see that Kershaw’s selection of early modern authors overlaps only in part those figures I have frequently cited in my own work; there are, sadly, far too many writers on Atlantis to fit in any one book.
It is also impressive that Kershaw resists the pressure from the public and publishers to make the Atlantis story “fun.” As his tale proceeds chronologically, it grows darker. The association between Atlantis and imperialism is always quite clear, and he makes no bones about the way nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers explicitly transformed the story into a racial narrative designed to justify Aryan supremacy. He devotes a chapter to the Nazis and Atlantis, and he also covers Erich von Däniken and his ilk, with their challenge to the legitimacy of science. Unspoken, but nevertheless obvious is the gradual decline of Atlantis from a subject of high culture concern to a low culture fantasy, from scholarship to the domain of cranks and madmen. He is clear that the hunt for Atlantis is pseudoarchaeology, but he is equally concerned that academia is echoing the Victorians and Nazis in trying to transform history into a postmodern test of ideology: “Yet even here there are discernible trends in certain areas of more mainstream academia that embrace the early twenty-first-century notion of ‘alternative facts’, and try to muddy the waters between history and fiction, regarding them as alternate forms of narrative, with neither of them being more or less trustworthy than the other. What matters in this way of thinking is not the weight of the evidence or the quality of the argument, but whether the ideas are psychologically and culturally useful. In other words, the material is judged by political criteria, not on the usual principles for getting at the truth.” To that end, he condemns his colleagues for failing to engage the public and denounce fake history strongly enough.
One area where we perhaps disagree is in Kershaw’s claim that Plato intended the Atlantis story to be an uproariously funny joke. He writes that in Plato’s time, Egypt was not a respected font of wisdom but a proverbial land of liars and scoundrels, so attributing the Atlantis story to ancient Egyptian wisdom would have been terribly funny to his readers. I have read enough ancient references to the hoary antiquity and ancient wisdom of Egypt to doubt whether this claim is entirely true, but I concede that most were composed long after Plato, when attitudes may have been different. I don’t believe Kershaw to be correct that Ignatius Donnelly took his inspiration for Atlantis: The Antediluvian World from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The evidence is fairly clear that Donnelly started to read the Timaeus and Critias in 1880, when forced into retirement by the loss of his congressional seat. He also read a new release that year, John Short’s The North Americans of Antiquity, whose chapter on Atlantis served as Donnelly’s direct model, including several uncredited borrowings. Kershaw is also wrong to say that Donnelly gained his knowledge from the Library of Congress; he wrote Atlantis at his home in Minnesota, where he maintained the largest private library in the Midwest.
There are some weaknesses in The Search for Atlantis. The author recognizes the parallels between Plato’s account and the Biblical Flood narrative, which so heavily impressed early modern and nineteenth century authors, but he does not address the structural parallels between the final surviving sections of the Critias and the Near Eastern Flood myth, which seems likely to have served as its literary model. He includes an unexplained appendix on Near Eastern Flood myths, but which fails to describe a clear connection to the Critias. If the author intended to cover Atlantis in pop culture by referencing Jules Verne and Francis Bacon, he might also have done well to consider the power of modern pop culture in shaping ideas of Atlantis—from the Undersea Kingdom serial to Aquaman to Disney’s Atlantis movie and the pseudohistorical blitz they orchestrated to promote it, to make no mention of the dozens of cable TV documentaries on the subject. Not all developments occur in books, and the absence of discussion of non-print sources is a significant weakness.
Additionally, the book is occasionally inelegant. It launches into its topic with little introduction or orientation, and in many sections, the author assumes a greater familiarity with historical people and facts than the general reader is likely to possess. Quotations tend to be lengthy, frequent, and not always completely relevant, giving some chapters (particularly the early ones) a bit of disconnected feel. Some chapters read more like long lists of Atlantis theories than fully developed analysis. To that end, minor figures are often over-represented, and major figures like Donnelly have surprisingly brief appearances in the book.
The sense of disconnect also arises from lapses in chronology. While the book generally moves forward through time, here and there the author chooses to follow a thread—say, Atlantis as an Egyptian legend—from its origins through the modern period, interrupting the narrative by introducing future figures too early. Due to the fragmentary nature of the material, he also refers to later authors who quoted earlier ones before they have been introduced, which can be a bit disorienting. Some of the scholarly curlicues might have been better left for footnotes, or else a thematic approach might have served some of the material more effectively.
Finally, the author is quite clearly concerned by contemporary politics, and phrases from recent political discourses and references to Internet discussions pop up more than they should. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” don’t really belong in a book on Atlantis, and the use of last year’s catchphrases and sidelong references to contemporary politics make the book feel dated even though it is new.
Ultimately, though, The Search for Atlantis is one of the best, most thorough, and most deeply researched examinations of the history of the idea of Atlantis. Despite its several notable weaknesses, I highly recommend the book for its detailed information and rational perspective.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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