One of the most important pieces of evidence alternative historians use to argue for the reality of Plato’s Atlantis is a report preserved in the fifth century BCE Greek historian Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus that an earlier philosopher, Crantor (third century BCE), had confirmed Plato’s story by checking with the Egyptian priests for his commentary on the earlier philosopher’s works. The priests claimed to have preserved the inscriptions Solon saw when the Egyptians told him of Atlantis, as recorded in Plato. As we shall see, however, a careful reading of Proclus’ report shows that there is less to this “confirmation” than meets the eye.
According to Proclus, Crantor was the first to argue for the historicity of Atlantis. This is the beginning of what Proclus says about Crantor’s commentary on Plato:
“With respect to the whole of this narration about the Atlantics, some say, that it is a mere history, which was the opinion of Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, who says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity. Crantor adds, that this is testified by the prophets [i.e., priests] of the Egyptians, who assert that these particulars [which are narrated by Plato] are written on pillars which are still preserved.” (from Book 1, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820)
Note, however, that Proclus does not say Crantor read these pillars, only that the Egyptian priests told him they exist. This is where most Atlantis believers leave off, with the alleged proof from the pillars of Egypt. But the text that immediately follows begins to make Crantor’s purpose clear. Bear with me. It’s long, and that is why it is rarely quoted:
From Proclus, Commentary on Timaeus
“Others again, say, that this narration is a fable, and a fictitious account of things, which by no means had an existence, but which bring with them an indication of natures which are perpetual, or are generated in the world; not attending to Plato, who exclaims, "that the narration is surprising in the extreme, yet is in every respect true." For that which is in every respect true, is not partly true, and partly not true, nor is it false according to the apparent, but true according to the inward meaning; since a thing of this kind would not be perfectly true. Others do not deny that these transactions took place after this manner, but think that they are now assumed as images of the contrarieties that pre-exist in the universe. For war, say they, is the father of all things, as Heraclitus also asserted. And of these, some refer the analysis to the fixed stars and planets: so that they assume the Athenians as analogous to the fixed stars, but the Atlantics to the planets. They likewise say, that these stars fight on account of the opposition in their circulation, but that the fixed stars vanquish the planets on account of the one convolution of the world. Of this opinion, therefore, is the illustrious Amelius, who vehemently contends that this must be the case, because it is clearly said in the Critias, that the Atlantic island was divided into seven circles. But I do not know of any other who is of the same opinion. Others, again, as Origen, refer the analysis to the opposition of certain daemons, some of them being more, but others less, excellent. And some of them being superior in multitude, but others in power: some of them vanquishing, but others being vanquished. But others refer it to the discord of souls, the more excellent being the pupils of Minerva, but the inferior kind being subservient to generation; who also pertain to the God that presides over generation [i. e. to Neptune]. And this is the interpretation of Numenius. Others, mingling, as they fancy, the opinions of Origen and Numenius together, say, that the narration refers to the opposition of souls to daemons, the latter drawing down, but the former being drawn down. And with these men, daemon has a triple subsistence. For they say, that one kind is that of divine daemons ; another, of daemons according to habitude, to which partial souls give completion, when they obtain a daemoniacal allotment; and another is that of depraved daemons, who are also noxious to souls. Daemons, therefore, of this last kind, wage this war against souls, in their descent into generation. And that, say they, which ancient theologists refer to Osiris and Typhon, or to Bacchus and the Titans, this, Plato, from motives of piety, refers to the Athenians and Atlantics. Before, however, souls descend into solid bodies, those theologists and Plato, deliver the war of them with material daemons who are adapted to the west; since the west, as the Egyptians say, is the place of noxious daemons. Of this opinion is the philosopher Porphyry, respecting whom, it would be wonderful, if he asserted any thing different from the doctrine of Numenius. These [philosophers] however, are in my opinion, very excellently corrected by the most divine Iamblichus.” (from Book 1, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820)
As Harold Tarrant points out in Plato’s First Interpreters, Crantor, who wanted to defend Plato against his critics, was faced with a choice. He could admit that Atlantis was fictional and thus concede to the critics that it was an exercise in allegory, but he did not wish to do this because he disagreed with the interpretations put forward and had another agenda. His other choice was to suggest that there was no higher meaning, that the Atlantis story was a mere history. The benefit of this claim—which he quite clearly made without any real evidence besides the dubious word of the Egyptian priests of his own day,* who would say anything if it benefited them, as Alexander the Great found when they conveniently declared him a god—is that it allows Crantor to make the argument in the first sentences of Proclus’ passage: that Plato wrote the very atypical (for him) Atlantis narrative as a rebuttal against critics who accused him of stealing The Republic from the Egyptians. He therefore wrote an “Egyptian” history of Atlantis as a smack in their faces.
In short, Proclus’ statement of Crantor’s belief is less proof of the existence of Atlantis—or even belief in the existence of Atlantis—as much as it is proof that Crantor wanted to deny Plato’s critics the power to interpret the Timaeus and the Critias, to define Plato’s legacy, or to take from him the glory of his crowning achievement, The Republic.
* The Egyptian priests, for example, told Herodotus some whoppers, either intentional lies or ignorant misinformation. In later years, the priests also claimed, wrongly, to Diodorus Siculus to have taught the Greeks about the ecliptic (actually a Greek discovery), about geometry (pursued independently in both countries), and about astrology (again, a Greek development via Babylon exported to Egypt). The point, of course, is that the word of an Egyptian priest carries little weight without other evidence to support it.
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