Atlantis-Scout          Contents Overview         

Christopher Gill on Plato's Atlantis 2018

A critical commentary

Thorwald C. Franke
© 18 November 2022

Review of: Christopher Gill on Plato’s Atlantis, Interview by Earl Fontainelle on The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast (SHWEP) No. 28, 08 March 2018.

Christopher Gill is professor emeritus at the University of Exeter in south-west England. His focus of research is ancient philosophy, especially ethics and psychology. During his career, Christopher Gill repeatedly published academic articles and books about Plato's Atlantis, and has thus, over time, become the leading figure concerning Plato's Atlantis in the Anglo-Saxon world, maybe comparable to the position of Pierre Vidal-Naquet in the Francophone world.

The reader acquainted with these publications knows that Christopher Gill repeatedly changed his mind on the subject of Plato's Atlantis, partly explicitly, partly silently, and maybe not always with the clear consciousness that he was just about to express an opinion which contradicts a previously expressed opinion. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to nail Christopher Gill down to one position, and therefore, it is quite interesting to see what he says in this interview, besides his publications.

The podcast's title The Secret History of Western Esotericism may sound pseudoscientific, but it is not, as it turns out. The interviewer, Earl Fontainelle, is a specialist on Neoplatonism and Plotinus, and it becomes clear in the interview that he read a book or two on Plato's Atlantis before entering the interview.

Technical note: The timestamps give a time after which, within short time, the given quote appears in the podcast. The statements in the interview were transcribed by the author of this review, and carefully polished from spoken to written language.

Christopher Gill's basic hypothesis

Right at the beginning of the podcast, Christopher Gill makes clear that for him the Atlantis story is an invention by Plato: "There are no occurrences of the myth before Plato and all later mentions of the myth in antiquity in modern times basically go back to him. So he (laughter) he made it up. Not much doubt about that." (00:01:13) We will see more about Gill's reasons for this judgement in later sections.

The main theme of both the speeches of Timaeus and of Critias is about embodiment of an idea. Both are about "what Shakespeare called giving something a local habitation of the name. It's giving the ideal a concrete, specific particular form. It's finding form for the ideal." (00:06:10) In the Timaeus it is about the cosmos, in the Atlantis story it is about the embodiment of the ideal city in the political world. Therefore, he says about the close connection of Timaeus's speech about cosmology with the Atlantis story that "it all makes fairly good sense, at least from the point of view of the Atlantis story" (00:05:36), "though that comes in as quite a surprise" (00:02:06) in this context.

Primeval Athens is "unified" and characterized by "single political institution, single place", while "Atlantis, on the other hand, is ... characterized by what you might call structured complexity." This results in a difference of stability: While "Athens remained the same. ... Atlantis changed over time." (00:30:18) Atlantis had "a political structure and a physical structure, that had the potential of corrupting them", once "the divine strain in them, which goes back to the divine parenthood of Poseidon, ... weakened." (00:34:29) So, complex structures did not help them – Gill mentions e.g. that "the kings themselves had a very lavish ritual for preventing quarrels" – while Athens relied on "virtues, especially the virtues of moderation and courage". (00:35:31) "The state was unified and it had moderation." (00:36:32)

On the question, why no philosopher rulers are explicitly mentioned by Plato in his primeval Athens, Christopher Gill says, that the philosopher rulers are about "the idea of progress towards knowledge, towards what Plato would regard as real knowledge, knowledge of the forms" (00:08:47), and that in primeval Athens "we don't have that kind of intellectual theme which gave rise to the idea of the philosopher rulers. That is the passage towards knowledge, because that's the role of the philosopher rulers there. They are led toward knowledge." (00:10:00) About primeval Athens, Christopher Gill says, "So what we have is something different here. We have these two, we have the idea which can of course, only really, strictly speaking, be an approximation, we have an idea about what the ideal would be like if it were put into practice" (00:10:00) and "What we do have is the social institutions, the social institutions of the Republic." (00:06:10) "And yet in a way, we do have philosopher rulers in the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Critias, because Socrates, when he is discussing his interlocutors, he characterizes all of them as people who have expertise in both philosophy and politics. And that's why they are good people to tell his story." (00:10:00) – It is questionable whether this reason for the missing philosopher rulers is really convincing, but at least Christopher Gill acknowledges that the dialogue participants are considered philosophers.

About Critias's presentation of the Atlantis story

As so many other Atlantis sceptics, Christopher Gill omits a crucial detail at the beginning of the dialogue Timaeus. It is the fact that the first plan how to depict the ideal city in action was to invent a story on the basis of the competence of the dialogue participants. Only after this plan is proposed, Critias comes along and proposes a real story as the basis instead, and Socrates agrees: A real story is better than an invented one. But Christopher Gill omits this detail: "So first of all, Socrates presents the republic and says, I'd like to see the republic put into action. And then we have an initial response to that by Critias, who tells him that he's got a story" (00:02:06) This misrepresentation of the course of events in the dialogue is repeated: "And then Socrates says, it would be wonderful if we could see this ideal state ... in action. ... And then Critias says, ... I have just the thing" (00:06:10)

Furthermore, Christopher Gill repeatedly says, that the Atlantis story would be "absolutely true". So e.g. there is Critias, "who tells him that he's got a story which will be absolutely just right for what he wants." (00:02:06) Or Critias, who says "Well, it's terrific that you said that, Socrates, because I have just the thing, he says, just the thing. You've kind of hit it on the mark, and Critias then comes up with this story" (00:06:10) Gill also says, that "Timaeus [mistake, meant is: Critias] is terribly keen on pointing out, ... that the story was true. It was absolutely true. He's very keen on this." (00:23:17) – Unfortunately, Critias does not say this, nowhere in the Atlantis dialogues. Quite the opposite. Primeval Athens is only an approximation to the ideal state.

Christopher Gill wants to see a deeper meaning in Critias's alleged emphasis of an "absolute truth" of the Atlantis story. He puts it into contrast with Timaeus's concept of truth, who says according to Gill, "he's going to recount the foundation, the origin of the material world, the cosmos. And he says, this story cannot be completely true because it isn't about things that are amenable to exact truth. And for Plato, of course, the things that are amenable to exact truth are the form, and they can achieve truth as this is the ontology and epistemology of the Republic ... Whereas facts, you know, particular facts, material entities, are going to only approximate, they will only have a likeness to the truth. Therefore, his story, his creation story, which is of course hugely complicated and mythical, is just presented as an eikos mythos, as a likely story. So here we have these two contrasting statements. One person who says, Oh, this factual story is absolutely true, and another person who acknowledges that his account is only likely." (00:25:31)

Christopher Gill has not seen here, that also Critias's Atlantis story is meant an eikos mythos based on a historical tradition, and it would be interesting to know what Gill wanted to say with the word "mythical". Christopher Gill even contradicts himself. For in other passages of this podcast, Christopher Gill says, "in the Atlantis story, we have an approximation or we have an instantiation of an ideal." (00:06:10) So, not an absolute truth.

According to Gill, "Socrates isn't quite so bothered about it, that is, he ... makes rather equivocal comments about this. At one point he says, 'Oh, it's probably very important that story is true'. He says, the story is pammega, it's a big thing. It's really important, that's true, I suppose, he says. ... 'I suppose' is so very ironic. Very ambivalent, not ironic." (00:23:17) – But Socrates does not say "it's a big thing" and also the translation with "I suppose" is very questionable. What Socrates really says, is that a more or less true logos is better than an invented mythos, and thus he is contrasting logos with mythos, truth with invention. Furthermore, the Atlantis story as a written historical tradition is explicitly put into contrast to orally transmitted myths. But Gill is silent on that.

About Critias the narrator of the Atlantis story

Christopher Gill is fully aware and openly admits that the dialogue participant Critias is rather not Critias the tyrant: "we're not quite sure who he is. It might have been the so-called Critias the tyrant, or it might have been his grandfather. Now, chronologically, it's his grandfather, who had the same name, who works much better. He is a more chronologically credible link" (00:12:38) The realization that it is possibly not the tyrant is later repeated in the podcast: "Well, this is (laughter) one of the standing puzzles. Of course, maybe it's not him. Maybe it's his grandfather" (00:15:10) But Gill repeats also, that allegedly "we know nothing about the grandfather" (00:12:38), and: "about whom we know nothing." (00:15:10) – This is not really true. We know at least two or three things about him. He was a politician, which is of importance in this context, and he was ostracized, which gives us a date, which is also of importance. To say repeatedly that we know nothing, is not justified.

Gill and the interviewer continue the talk under the assumption that the dialogue participant is Critias the tyrant without further ado, which is strange. But Gill has an argument for this: "But certainly that name covers the character." (00:15:10) Which means: Though it may not be Critias the tyrant, the name "Critias" allegedly invokes the memory of the tyrant. – This is an invalid modern perspective, which sees a name coined by the most famous person who had borne it, and which ignores that the ancients were used to live with repeating names. There is e.g. also a young Aristotle appearing in one of Plato's dialogues, but no, it is not "the" Aristotle, the most famous disciple of Plato, but another Aristotle, and no, this Aristotle does not invoke the memory of the other Aristotle.

So, Critias's character is painted in dark colours: "Critias was one of the many followers of Socrates. But Critias went to the bad, and Critias ... he got involved in right-wing conservative political activities. He also quarrelled with Socrates, and he tried to involve Socrates in his own political dealings and tried to to incriminate him. Socrates refused. And then he also possibly tried to pass a law against people who engaged in philosophical argument. So he's a very dark and equivocal figure." (00:13:34) Christopher Gill confirms the interviewer, that primeval Athens is "pre-democratic Athens. Exactly. ... he tells just the sort of story that the Critias, the aristocrat, the pro-Spartan ... it's a very Spartan Athens, actually, by the way, that we see in the Timaeus and also in the Critias to some extent. So he's just the sort of person, conservative, backward looking elitist who would be attracted to that kind of story and who tells it in that way with that kind of focus, focus on family, focus on nation, focus on the past as in a kind of political way." (00:16:48) – This may be true for Critias the tyrant, but not for Critias the dialogue participant. Furthermore, primeval Athens is not a "pre-democratic" Athens, but an approximation of Plato's ideal state, which is neither aristocratic nor democratic. And it is especially not the aristocractic Athens of the past but lies in the remote past before the flood destroyed everything, but also lies in the future as an ideal to be achieved. Plato's idea of history is cyclical. Christopher Gill confuses this here.

Gill even wants to see a difference in the character of the dialogue participant Critias in the Timaeus, and of the same dialogue participant Critias in the dialogue Critias: "Now, what's clear is that the Critias of the Timaeus is on a quite different wavelength from Socrates" (00:25:31) Gill sees another difference between the two characters of the same Critias concerning their perspective on the Atlantis story: "He's ... there as a kind of voice of conservatism, especially in the Timaeus. But in the Critias, he's rather different." (00:16:48; cf. also 00:15:10) – There may be indeed another narrative perspective in the two dialogues, but in the end, they together form one single story which is free of such contradictions.

Last but not least, Christopher Gill entangles himself in a big self-contradiction. As we already have see, he says: "we do have philosopher rulers in the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Critias because Socrates when he is discussing his interlocutors, he characterizes all of them as people who have expertise in both philosophy and politics. And that's why they are good people to tell his story." (00:10:00) – So, also Critias clearly is a philosopher in the context of the Atlantis dialogues. How can he then be a tyrant? And how can he then have deviated from the right path? This all does not add up to a consistent perspective.

Ridiculing the 9,000 years and other aspects

Christopher Gill acknowledges that the idea of cyclical catastrophism has a basis in Greek mythology: "the flood of Deucalion is a well-established feature of Greek myth. And of course, if you think back to the Theogony, the idea of destruction and periodic destruction is ... embedded there. I think the Greeks were aware that there were periodic floods and so forth." (00:20:06) He also acknowledges that Plato did not only have his head in the clouds of his ideal forms but had a real interest in historiography, even in the process of handing down historical information over time: "So he is quite prepared to accept that quite a lot about material reality is, you know, is poor or is subject to contingency or is affected by circumstances. So I can see why he might be attracted to it. I think that's one factor. I think the other is that Plato is interested in what you might call early historiography. He is interested in the process of transmission of the past and how we learn about it. I mean, that comes out both from the Critias and from book 3 of The Laws, which is rather in some ways a kind of sequel, I think, to the Critias story. And in the Critias, for instance, he refers to ... soil erosion, evidence of deforestation, evidence of drying up of streams. So he's interested in that. He is interested in probing the past." (00:20:06)

But then, surprisingly, Christopher Gill turns from seriousness to ridiculing everything: "[The Critias in] the Timaeus tells what is really a fantastic story that one can have an accurate description of a historical event that was 9,600 years before. I mean, no one else in Athens would have thought that was remotely possible. If you look at what fifth century historians were doing, the great founders of history, Herodotus and Thucycides, they were spending great efforts to reconstruct events which were ... either contemporary ... or ... just earlier in the same century." (00:21:54) "Now, what we have in the Atlantis story is ... presented as if, gosh, we have every detail. That's why it really you know, that's why the presentation of this by Critias in the Timaeus is so ridiculous, absurd really." (00:23:17) And also the process of handing down historical information is ridiculed: "there's a lot of sort of folderol about it, having come from his family and so on." (00:06:10)

What is Christopher Gill doing here? First, he declares a serious interest in all these things on the part of Plato, but then he ridicules it all! One reason may be that Gill has deeply not understood that the Atlantis story is not at all ridiculous. While Gill asks "no one else in Athens would have thought that was remotely possible" to "have an accurate description of a historical event that was 9,600 years before", a simple look into Herodotus's Histories would have been enough. For Herodotus writes that Egypt is 11,340 years old (and older), and nevertheless Herodotus reported events from Egypt's history – as does Plato in the Atlantis story! Gill has basically not understood that Plato was really interested in prehistory, and that it was only logical to see a window to the remote past in the much older Egypt. There is nothing ridiculous about it. And the wrong age of Egypt of more than 11,000 years is not an invention, it is an error, common in Plato's time. They just did not know that Egypt was only founded around 3,000 BC. So, in truth, since the 9,000 years point to a time after the foundation of Egypt, this points to a time after 3,000 BC. And this is even true if Plato invented it all, because this was his perspective on history. Later, Gill points to The Laws as a "more philosophical" approach than the "ridiculous" Atlantis story (00:37:41), but also in The Laws Plato speaks of Egypt being 10,000 years old and older.

The same scheme of ridiculing repeats with the size of Atlantis, which is described as "ridiculously big" (00:27:02), and with the submergence of Atlantis within a single day and night: "And then in a single day (laughter), there was a big earthquake and flood, and the Athenian army vanished beneath the earth, was swallowed up by the earth ... another, somewhat (laughter) implausible detail. And then the island of Atlantis was also swallowed up." (00:27:49) The interviewer says: "Implausible, but also bizarre." And Gill confirms by repeating: "Bizarre." (00:28:38)

But in truth, there is nothing ridiculous, implausible, or bizarre here. It is only ridiculous, implausible, or bizarre in the eyes of the modern reader, who knows more than was known in Plato's time. The modern reader knows: It cannot be that way, while for the ancients it was credible. Usually, such a situation is dissolved by historical criticism. Plato did not lie nor did he invent such things, but he were in error about them, and the modern scholar has the task to find out, what he really was pointing to, what was really meant, though the ancients themselves did not realize these errors. But Christopher Gill takes refuge in the most simplistic and most implausible argument: It's ridiculous and bizarre. But the 9,000 years are not bizarre, as we have seen, they just respresent a common error. And did not the city of Helike sink and vanish within one unlucky night? It is not bizarre that Plato believed such an event to be real.

And please note that Gill always intersperses a laughter where he declares something to be ridiculous. This is not only a comment on behalf of Gill about his own opinion, it is also a rhetorical device: By the laughter, the listener receives the message also on an emotional level that it is allegedly ridiculous. It is a method of convincing, but without arguments. Plato would not have liked it.

Other topics

On the question of the first words of Plato's dialogue Timaeus: One, two, three, and then Socrates says, Where is the fourth?, Christoph Gill just says, "To be honest. I don't really ... Now, there's just so little to go on. It is a real puzzle. So who knows?" (00:18:14) – Here, a lot speculation exists and Gill could have presented one or two hypotheses. But he does not.

As many others, Christopher Gill follows the wrong interpretation that Atlantis actively traded with other countries, and thus succumbed to decadence (but the latter is not explicitly said by Gill): "they could then transmit through this canal system, the goods and the metals, the precious metals and the agricultural goods and everything else down to the port, and so trade with it. And so this is all about exploitation, if you like, of the land and the resources and of its wealth." (00:30:18) – In truth, it is only said, that the goods are shipped to the capital, but there is no talk of trading with them, and especially no talk of Atlantean ships going to other countries for trading. To the contrary: The ships of other countries come to Atlantis for trading. Plato's message is rather, that the goods were shipped to the capital in order to be consumed there, thus creating luxurious wealth. – Christopher Gill presents here the same erroneous interpretation of the decadence of Atlantis as did Maximilien-Henri de Saint-Simon, the uncle of Henri de Saint-Simon who was one of the most famous founders of the political ideology of socialism. We have reasons to assume that Henri de Saint-Simon was heavily influenced by this uncle, and therefore we can call this reading the "socialist reading" of the Atlantis story.

When the interviewer presses Christopher Gill twice for a statement that the mixing of divine and human blood in the kings of Atlantis would mean that they "interbred with lesser races", or "Sort of philosophical eugenics.", Christopher Gill gently rejects these modern ideas with "I don't know. I don't know." (00:35:25) – This is very correct. The mixing of gods with humans cannot be interpreted as a chiffre for racism under Plato's perspective. This is only a modern perspective.

Repeatedly, Christopher Gill tells that Atlantis had a huge navy. (00:27:02; 00:27:49) – This is correct, but Atlantis was also an impressive land power. This should not be neglected. Atlantis is not modeled after the sea power of Athens in Plato's times.

When the interviewer asks for the dialogue participant Timaeus, Christopher Gill says: "No, he's almost certainly made up." And: "He's made up and he's made up to be." (00:11:49) – We can only wonder how easily Gill is saying this. It is not usual that dialogue participants are made up in Plato's dialogues, and especially not, if they have so important things to say as Timaeus.

As many others, Christopher Gill repeatedly says about the end of the dialogue Critias, that "Plato breaks off in mid-sentence." (00:02:06) And: "And then, just as the war would have begun, it breaks off, absolutely in mid-sentence, in complete surprise." (00:36:32) – But this is not really true. The text breaks off in the very moment when god Zeus should start to hold a speech. So it is not really in mid-sentence.

On the question why Plato did not finish the dialogue Critias, Christopher Gill says: "But in a way, perhaps it isn't such a surprise, because as I say, we have got the nub of what Socrates originally wanted. We've got this contrast between these two states, and we've seen where it's leading. So what's Plato spares himself (laughter) is a long and complicated and perhaps rather tedious narrative of events, which ... maybe his heart wasn't in the end, really in it. I mean, he's not an epic poet." (00:36:32) – This means, Gill follows here the idea of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, that basically everything has been said what had to be said, and the idea that carrying out the projected story would not bring about any further insights. (At the same time, Gill does not follow Pierre Vidal-Naquet's idea that Plato wanted to be an epic poet, better than Homer. But this is one of the many self-contradictions on part of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, not on part of Christopher Gill.)

Concerning the reception history, the podcast is quite silent. Gill only says, "There are no occurrences of the myth before Plato and all later mentions of the myth in antiquity, in modern times, basically go back to him." (00:01:13) – This is not wrong, except maybe Crantor's testimony, but not enough. It is inevitable to talk about the reception history. Because, most ancient authors really believed that the Atlantis story was a true story! And Christopher Gill does also not repeat anymore that Aristotle allegedly spoke out explicitly against the existence of Plato's Atlantis, as he erroneously did so often. Especially, since the interviewer is a specialist on Neoplatonism, and since the podcast is about The Secret History of Western Esotericism, it is conspicuous that there is not talk about the reception history.


This podcast is a very good occasion to study the strengths and the weaknesses of Christopher Gill's hypothesis on Plato's Atlantis. Christopher Gill certainly knows more about the topic than many, and does not fall in every trap into which so many others lightheartedly have run. Nevertheless, essential questions remain without a good answer. Let us close with the following small dialogue from the podcast: On the question of the interviewer "Do you get the feeling that Plato is putting it there as a puzzle?", Christopher Gill answers: "Of course. Plato is always doing things like that. But what the answer to the puzzle is, I'm afraid I don't know." (00:18:22)        Contents Overview
COPYRIGHT © Nov 2022 Thorwald C. Franke
Legal Notice!