|© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE
|Last updated December 2, 2001
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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.
Atlas was a Giant, one of the four sons of the Titan Iapetus (a son of Uranus--Heavens--
and Gæa--Earth--, and thus elder brother of Cronus) and the Oceanide Clymene
(or Asia, a daughter of Ocean and Tethys in both cases). His brother were Menoetius
(who was so proud and rude that Zeus struck him with lightning and plunged him
into Tartarus, as he did with his father and all the Titans), Prometheus
and Epimetheus (see Hesiod's
507, sq). He took part in the fight between Giants and Gods and, as a punition,
Zeus condemned him to support the heavens upon his shoulders. He was said to
live in the far Occident, in the country of the Hesperides (who were said to
be his daughters from his wife Hesperis), near mount Atlas (which, in later
traditions, was said to be a metamorphosis of Atlas himself, changed into stone
by Perseus with the head of the Gorgon Medusa), and
this is where he was met by Heracles and picked for
him the Golden Apples while Heracles was taking his place to sustain the heavens.
With Pleione, a daughter of Ocean and Tethis, Atlas was the father of the Pleiades
In his Histories, IV, 184, Herodotus mentions a Mount Atlas so high and so cloudy at the top at all times that it is impossible to see its summit, and that the local residents, called Atlantes, present as the pillar on which the heavens rest. He adds that these so-called Atlantes are the last people whose name he knows along the westbound road from Libya to the Pillars of Heracles (the westernmost boundary of the world known to the Greeks), and he is the first writer known to us to use the name "Atlantic Ocean" for the sea past the Pillars of Heracles (Histories, I, 202). Herodotus doesn't mention the hero Atlas in his description of the Libyan mountain, but the way the story is told, with the mention of that mountain sustaining the heavens, does everything to suggests that he is implicitely offering a "rationalistic" explanation of the legend.
Plato mentions Atlas in the Phædo, 99c, in the context of Socrates' intellectual autobiography and disappointment with Anaxagoras and the physicists who think they can "come up with a stronger and more immortal Atlas more capable of holding all things together". But Atlas is above all, in Plato, the one who gives his name to Atlantis, the mythical island Critias opposes to Athens in the tale he develops in the dialogue that bears his name (see Critias, 114a, where Atlas is presented as Poseidon's first born son and the first king of Atlantis, giving it and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean his name). Plato may have had the above mentioned passage of Herodotus in mind when devising his myth of Atlantis. And his transformation of the country of Atlas into "an island larger than Libya and Asia combined" (Timæus, 24e) may well be a veiled allusion to Alcibiades' dream of conquest, as suggested by Socrates at Alcibiades, 105a-c and more clearly described by Thucydides in his Histories, VI, 15, 2, when introducing Alcibiades answer to Nicias in the assembly, and again at Histories, VI, 90, 2, from the mouth of Alcibiades himself talking to the Spartans after he had fled there to escape prosecution by Athens in relation with the affairs of the Herms and mysteries. The island of Sicily, that was to be in Alcibiades dream the first step of a conquest of the whole western world, has now assumed gigantic proportions, growing larger than Libya and Asia combined : Libya, the country in which Carthage was located and whose limit Mount Atlas marked in Herodotus' geography ; and Asia, the country of the kings (the Persian kings) Alcibiades wanted so dearly to surpass. It has moved passed the limits of the world Alcibiades wanted to conquer, as if to tell him that there is no end to such dreams of conquest and to the world at hand, and taken over the name of what was only for Herodotus the beginning of the unexplored world (Histories, IV, 185). And so, in pretending to give life to Socrates' dream of animating the city of the Republic (see Timæus, 19c and 26c-d), Critias may only be in fact giving mythical proportion to the (failed) dream of Alcibiades, supposed to have come true in a remote past, as a foundation for a renewed Athenian imperialism... Thus, in such a reading, Alcibiades and Critias, who respectively open and close the initial tetralogy as interlocutors of Socrates (Alcibiades in the dialogue that bears his name, Critias as lead speaker in the Charmides), subtly join forces in the concluding trilogy to try one last time to defuse Socrates ideal before being shut up at the center of this trilogy by Plato's interruption of the Critias as a "trial (krisis)" of the reader at the end of his journey through the dialogues : there are now those who pursue the dream of a mythical Atlantis that never existed outside Critias' speech and Plato's mind, and spend the rest of their lives looking for its "material" location or dreaming of a golden age that never was, those who imitate Critias and devise "myths" to fool the crowds into following them in their hazardous undertakings that are only meant to further their own power, and those who are willing to follow Plato along the sunny slopes of Mount Ida and proceed to the Laws to find there an example of what they should do here and now in their real world to answer the call of Zeus.