One of the most written about mysterious is that of atlantis. What does it mean? What is atlantis? Where is it? What influence does it have on us? Does it exist in the first place? So many questions, so many ideas.
For this essay i thought i’d go back to source and see if we can learn anything about its conception. And the beginning of the myth takes us back to that great philosopher, plato, who first wrote about it. But can we find hints in plato’s life and mind itself?
Being nothing less than the father and instigator of western philosophy, plato was born in athens in 428bc to one of the great political families of his time. His actual name was aristocles, plato being a nickname which means ‘broad and flat’, referring to his shoulders which he used to great effect as a wrestler. Indeed, it was thought that plato would be a great wrestler. But his talent was shown to be inferior and he tried being a poet, but was equally lacking in talent. Stuck for a profession, plato began to think about his future. Statesman or philosopher were uppermost in his mind, but once he had heard socrates speaking, he knew where his future lay; in philosophy – particularly in the ideas of pythagoras.
Pythagoras and forms
Pythagoras had been an enigmatic figure. On the one hand a philosopher and on the other a mystic who was believed to have performed more than the odd miracle, he is seen today as the instigator of the quasi-religious cult of the pythagoreans. Believing that behind the chaotic world of appearance there existed a harmonious world of numbers, he is seen as the father of mathematics.
Plato was fascinated by this harmonious world below the consciousness we appreciate. He developed it into his philosophy of ‘ideal forms’. To plato this fundamental realm was a world of ideas and forms. Existing in an eternal state of unchanging reality, everything that could be conceived in the conscious world already existed as an idea or form in this other world. Hence, nothing could be invented, merely rediscovered. The true reality was one of images which fed the conscious mind.
First hint of atlantis?
We can immediately see here that plato was more concerned with a world of images and symbols than with the world we experience. And it is attractive to suggest that atlantis was not a true reality of the conscious world, but a symbol within the abstract inner-world of ideas. But why would he possibly want to create such an image if it held no existence in the real world? Because, at heart, plato wanted to create this ideal form within the real world. Plato lived towards the end of the athenian war with sparta. And as athens lost the fight, he experienced the end of athenian democracy and the imposed rule of tyranny which followed. The new leaders forcing socrates to commit suicide for offending the gods, they made it difficult for plato to remain in athens, and for many years he traveled before opening his academy in 386bc.
Uppermost in his mind during his travels was a growing philosophy of the perfect state, or utopia. Dictatorship, he saw, was wrong. But democracy had also failed, resulting in defeat for athens. Hence, he devised his idealathens in this republic there were to be no possessions or marriage. Everything was owned by the state and children were removed from their mothers, educated communally, classed the state as their parent, and all citizens as brothers and sisters. All would be educated up to the age of twenty, when the less intelligent would leave and take up menial duties within the state. The remainder would carry on their education for a further ten years, where the less intelligent would be dropped to join the military. The supremely intelligent who remained would then study philosophy until the age of fifty, when they would form the ruling class of philosopher-leaders.
This political ideology bears an uncanny resemblance to the ideal state of atlantis conceived in plato’s dialogues. During his lifetime he several times attempted to bring his political philosophy to fruition in syracuse, but each time he failed to persuade the rulers. At one stage he was imprisoned for his interference, and on another occasion he was sent back to athens a slave, luckily bought at the slave market by someone who knew him, thus gaining his freedom. This would have left him frustrated. And it is easy to see the possibility that, in another attempt to create his utopia, he built a myth about a previous utopia – a great, magnificent place – that was destroyed when his philosophy was dropped, descending the citizens into corruption, a state that existed in athens in plato’s time.
The great metaphor
As we can see, the whole of plato’s life and philosophy suggests that atlantis was a metaphor for a world he was determined to have imposed. Atlantis was his political philosophy in action, complete with an object lesson in what failure of his philosophy would mean. And in creating the metaphor, he was manipulating his inner-world of ideal forms, creating an eternal ideal to be rediscovered at some time in the future. Indeed, at the centre of atlantis we find the royal city, and the very design of the city gives valuable evidence that atlantis was not so much a reality as a creation of the mind.
The royal city
At the centre of the city was a temple to poseidon. This temple existed on an island surrounded by a circular canal 600ft wide. Around this canal was a circle of land 1,200ft wide, surrounded by another circular canal also 1,200ft wide. There was then another circle of land 1,800ft wide surrounded by a third circular canal 1,800ft wide. From the central island out to sea was a further subterranean canal, and around the entire complex was a huge stone wall. This design is significant. Fundamental to plato’s philosophy was pythagorean mysticism. And throughout the ancient world our ancestors have left a symbol that defines their mysticism.
A symbol like no other
This is the mandala. Sometimes drawn as a spiral, at other times as a series of concentric circles, its circular shape represents ultimate wholeness, and the complete construction represents the point at which the microcosm and macrocosm meet – the point at which the real world interposes with the ethereal. The various rings represent the levels of consciousness that must be stripped away before meeting the god-head at the centre, and from the outside to the centre is a path the mystic must travel down to gain unity. If the reader now draws the above plan of the royal city of atlantis, you will be drawing a typical mandala with seven concentric rings, complete with the path from the outer edge to the centre, and in that centre, the temple that represents the god-head. I put it to you that, no matter what evidence may be found of a real atlantis, the original conception was a metaphor of the mystical path we must trace in the mandala – and achieved in the real world through realization of plato’s philosophy.