Simmias claimed to have gone to Egypt with Plato. Was this true, or did Simmias only say so in order to add bronze to his studies by claiming to have shared them with a very famous man? There are scholars who claim that Plato in fact never went to Egypt, even though the ancients took this for a fact. But it is certain that Plato was under a great impression of the great antiquity and durability of the Egyptian civilization; he often and openly expressed this humble admiration for it. But he did not believe that the most ancient civilization, the mother of them all, had its origin on the banks of the Nile. His views in this matter were far more interesting. He believed that great civilizations had arisen in other lands also, but that they then collapsed and disappeared without a trace as a result of natural disasters. Then, in their place, new civilizations arose, but without any connection to, or even awareness of what had gone before. According to him the greatness of the Egyptian civilization lay in its durability: in the fact that she has outlasted the rises and falls of all the others, herself remaining unchanged and untouched, like a rock in the middle of stormy sea.
Plato expressed this view, as was his habit, not directly, but through a dialogue which, he claimed, the Athenian Solon had had in the sixth century B.C. with a certain Egyptian priest. During his travels, Solon arrived at an Egyptian city in the Nile delta; it was called Sais and it was the site of worship of the goddess Neith. Local priests claimed that this goddess was known to the Greeks under the name of Athena; both were virgin goddesses, warlike, and represented with weapons in their hands: Athena had a helmet, a shield, and a spear while Neith held a spear and arrows. It’s pointless to argue whether these similarities were accidental: all that matters is that Athens had for centuries maintained close commercial relations with Sais; and for this reason alone, if none other, local priests gladly received Athenian guests and claimed common religious affiliation.
Solon took great interest in the antiquities of Egypt. He held many conversations with the priests, asking them about the origins of mankind; and he narrated to them ancient Greek myths. In the course of telling one, he mentioned that there had once been a great flood and that only two people survived it: Deucalion and Pyrrha; that all men alive today descend from those two; and that counting back the generations one could estimate when that great natural disaster took place. But these stories only elicited patronizing smiles from the Egyptian priests and someone said:
“Oh, Solon, Solon! You Greeks are such kids! There are no old men among you!”
Surprised, the Athenian asked:
“How must I understand your words?”
“You all have young souls because your souls do not contain any ancient views, grown out of a prehistorical tradition; nor do they contain any true knowledge hoary with great age. And why is this? Destruction has descended upon mankind many times before, and in many different ways. The greatest catastrophes came of water and fire, but there were thousands of other causes, too, less permanent in nature. Do you not tell the story of Phaeton, son of Helios, how he once drove his father’s chariot, but, unable to hold it in its proper path, set the whole earth on fire and was himself killed by Zeus’s lighting? So is the story told, as a myth, but the myth contains a kernel of truth, for only a small change in the trajectories of heavenly bodies is needed for fire to singe the surface of the earth; and such small changes of trajectories do happen, though eons apart. At such times, the residents of mountains and plateaus are more at risk than those who sit by the rivers and the sea. And for us, the Nile is then our salvation, as it is in other cases, too. But when gods purify the earth by flooding it with sea waters, then mountain shepherds have a chance to survive, while people in your coastal cities are carried off by rising rivers into the sea. In our own land, divine water never descends from heaven, but rises gradually and calmly from below; and this gives us time to protect ourselves. This is why in our land ancient institutions are preserved and all sorts of things of greatest antiquity.
“And thus whatever happens – with you, or with us, or with some other land known to us – whatever happens that is beautiful, or important, or lofty on some other account – all of that is recorded and preserved in our temples. As for your history, barely has one had the time to write it down when suddenly a flood descends from heavens, or some other natural disaster, like an ever-recurring disease – and what does it leave behind? Yes, at all times some small group of men survives, but these are invariably the least educated ones, unable to read. And so, your civilization is forever reborn; and you are like youth; you know nothing about the past of others, or even your own, because, well, you do not have it. All those myths of yours, Solon, and all your genealogies, well, they aren’t really much different from children’s fairy-tales.”
Then the priest began to tell Solon that that great flood, from which only Deucalion and Pyrrha escaped, was only the latest one and that before it waters have often flooded the earth. He then said that some ten thousand years ago the great goddess Athena-Neith created a great state with an ideal constitution and located it precisely where Solon called his home; only a thousand years later was the Egyptian state conceived by the will of the same goddess and based on the same political principles. That ancient Athenian state bravely resisted a great power which then, thousands of years ago, advanced upon Europe and Asia from the West, from the Atlantic. For there existed at that time, in the Atlantic, a great island, populated by a numerous and rich people. The ancient Athenians have pushed back their attacks and saved the peoples of the Mediterranean from Atlantid slavery. Later, a great natural disaster came, earthquakes and flooding. In the course of just one day and one night, the sea swallowed up Atlantis and the great armies of ancient Athenians disappeared in the bowels of the earth. A new epoch began and the memory of what happened had only survived in Egypt.
That story, which Solon was supposed to have heard from an Egyptian priest, served Plato as an introduction to a treatise on the creation of the universe; it was entitled Timaeus. Later, Plato returned to the subject once more, in his treatise Critias, in which he presented his ideas regarding the constitution of the ideal state using the examples of Atlantis and Athens before the flood.
All of this was of course only a poetic setting for a learned treatise. Yet, the myth of Atlantis, was not entirely free invention: it sprang up on the basis of certain facts. Greek sailors returning from the West reported with amazement the riches of the Atlantic provinces. Certain details of the story of Atlantis allow us to guess that news of the city of Tartessos, in southern Spain, had reached Greece; the city flourished between the years 1100 and 500 B.C. and then died out, perhaps due to a natural disaster; or perhaps some political catastrophe. Already Plato’s predecessors had magnified the story of Tartessos and had pushed it back in time.
Much has been written on this matter, much more perhaps than it deserves. But there is something in Plato’s myth of Atlantis which does deserve our attention: it reveals a very specific notion of human history, perhaps common to all Greeks of the time. We moderns tend to see history as a kind of straight line which constantly rises, every higher and steeper – despite temporary set backs – from the period of animal primitivism to ever fuller human command over the universe. But according to Plato, history should be seen as an oscillating wave, now rising, now falling in accordance with a certain ancient rhythm of changes in the universe: there have once been periods of greater civilization; times of downfall will certainly come; and then, in their wake, there will be new rebirths.
What kind of experiences could have given rise to this kind of view of history? To understand it, we must remember that one of the basic elements of all Greek education was ancient mythology, which recounted the story of the great Heroic Age. We already spoke about this: the present could not rise to the glory of that time: the people of that age had been more courageous, buildings, judging by their ruins, had been more impressive, and gods interacted with men nearly like equals. But that world collapsed, leaving no written record but only myths passed by word of mouth. Whole generations had lived in the wake of the fall like utter barbarians. The question naturally arose: perhaps before the Heroic Age there had once been another glorious period which had been ended by natural disasters of its own, whose only echoes are stories of floods and fires?