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Framing Atlantis as Utopia means
failing Plato's Political Philosophy

Julia Annas and Plato's Atlantis, second attempt

Thorwald C. Franke
© 29 February 2024

In 2011, Julia Annas published her article The Atlantis Story: the Republic and the Timaeus, in which she basically said that the question for the reality of Atlantis is irrelevant to the message of Plato's Timaeus-Critias. We answered this in 2020 with our article Avoiding Atlantis means Avoiding Plato. Now, Julia Annas has again turned on Plato's political philosophy and the question of Atlantis, with her article Plato's ideal society and Utopia from 2021. This time, Julia Annas has put Plato's Atlantis at the core of an anti-conventional (and wrong) interpretation of Plato's Republic and the Laws. And it seems, that this wrong interpretation was driven by Julia Annas' attempt, to frame Plato's Atlantis as an Utopian text in the sense of Thomas More's Utopia. It is our duty to refute the mistakes she made.

Against the conventional reading

Julia Annas turns against the conventional reading of Plato's political philosophy: That Plato first developed the idea of an ideal state with philosopher rulers in the Republic, in the sense of an "utopia" which was meant to be realized. That Plato then was disillusioned in Sicily. And that Plato then wrote the Laws, in which the philosopher rulers were replaced by the law. This line of thought is rejected by Julia Annas (p. 103).

Her argument starts with a well-known aspect of Plato's philosophy: The Republic's approach is, Annas argues, not so much about the ideal state, but about justice and a just soul in a single person. And only by the parallelity of the just soul and the just state the concept of an ideal state is introduced in the dialogue. The main topic is not the ideal state, but justice (pp. 104, 107). – But against Annas' idea, we have to put forward several counter arguments: First, the argument in Plato's Republic is shifting heavily from the discussion of the just soul to the discussion of the ideal state, so that the discussion of the ideal state is not just an aside. Also the reception history has always showed this reading of the dialogue. And Plato himself relies on the Republic (respectively an unwritten variant of it), as the depiction of an ideal state at the beginning of the Timaeus.

Julia Annas also argues, that there are laws in the ideal state of the Republic, and therefore, the idea of a turn from a state ruled by philosophers to a state ruled by laws would be wrong (pp. 106 f.). – But the existence of laws in the ideal state of the Republic does not exclude such a turn. While in the Republic, the philosopher rulers are above the law, the law is the highest authority in the Laws.

An implausible chicken-and-egg dilemma

In one particular point Julia Annas agrees with the conventional reading: Plato's ideas of the ideal state are not merely a dream but meant to be realized in real life (p. 105 f.). How this fits to her idea that the considerations in the Republic are about justice and not so much about an ideal state, is not explained by Julia Annas – but this is not our point here.

Annas presents a lenghty argument that there is allegedly no way from the current state of this world to the ideal state (pp. 105-107). No reforms would help to reach this aim, she says. It would be a perfect circulus vitiosus. Relying on young people and expelling people of higher age would not help, because those, who perform this plan, have to be of higher age themselves. It would also not be possible to educate yourself to be a philosopher (p. 106), because the precondition of becoming a "true" philosopher would be the ideal state itself (p. 107). Also Plato himself would not be an appropriate philosopher to establish the ideal state: Plato allegedly never mentions the real knowledge of the philosopher rulers, and always alludes to it in metaphors, images, and appeals to imagination, says Julia Annas (p. 107).

Against Julia Annas, we have to debunk this chicken-and-egg dilemma as an artificially pumped up problem which does actually not exist in this exaggerated way. The argument reminds of Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise: How can Achilles ever reach the tortoise in a competitive race, if the tortoise is always a small distance ahead of Achilles, though smaller and smaller this distance becomes? Or more in general: How is development possible in general, if development means that new things develop which were not there before?

For Plato, the idea of the development of civilization is central. And of course it is possible, at least in principle, for a philosopher to develop into a philosopher capable of establishing an ideal state. Naturally, the shepherds directly after the last water catastrophe, as Plato imagined the cycles of history, will not be able to do it. Philosophy builds up in steps, and only after some predecessors it will be possible that a philosopher reaches the state of a philosopher capable to establish the ideal state. But there is not the least hint in Plato's works that this would be impossible in the sense of the presented chicken-and-egg dilemma.

It may be allowed to ask, how Plato could ever have conceived the idea of an ideal state, if no philosopher ever could develop to a philosopher capable of establishing an ideal state? And it is not true that Plato does not tell us the knowledge of the philosopher rulers. On the one hand side, Plato tells us a lot knowledge about politics in the Republic. This knowledge is debated until today at our universities. On the other hand side, the Republic is not about detail knowledge, and it is not appropriate to complain that detail knowledge is missing.

And concerning the images and metaphors: It is wrong to assume that Plato made use of them because he did not know what a philosopher ruler can know. When it comes to analogies like the analogy of the Cave, this is just an effective way of explaining things. It has nothing to do with unknown knowledge. And when it comes to the category of mythos, especially about the afterlife as in the Platonic Myth of Er in the Republic, then it is about knowledge which no human being ever will have, even not in the ideal state. Again, Julia Annas stumbled over an insufficient understanding of the so-called Platonic Myths.

Arbitrary cherrypicking of utopian aspects

In a surprising move, Julia Annas declares certain aspects of Plato's ideal state "utopian" in the sense of an unrealistic utopia which is not meant to be realized but meant to teach us a moral lesson, like Thomas More's Utopia. Among these aspects are the abolishing of the family and of private property, says Annas (p. 108 f.). So, while the general concept of an ideal state including the philosopher rulers is meant as a realistic political program which is to be realized, these aspects are not meant to be realized, according to Annas. Julia Annas is convinced: Plato has written here the very first philosophical utopia. It would draw upon predecessors like Hesiod's Golden Age, and Plato's aim was provocation.

But what Julia Annas is doing here is just arbitrary cherrypicking. There is no hint in Plato's works, that some aspects of the ideal state are meant this way, and others another way. Especially not these aspects. That some aspects are provoking is also not an argument since every idea of change can be (and more often than not is) a provocation for conservative minds. Is the idea of philosopher rulers not a provocation? And are arranged marriages really so provoking in a society where marriages were rarely an affair of romantic love? It is quite obvious that Julia Annas has used modern and one-sided criteria to judge about Plato's ideas, and that she is arbitrarily cherrypicking instead of putting forward reliable arguments for her choices.

In a footnote, Julia Annas reveals one more time that she has no realistic view on Plato's philosophy and the so-called Platonic Myths: About Plato's idea of the Golden Age, where daimones ruled over men, she says that this society was not perfect since there was a lack of philosophical thought (p. 109 footnote 9). But nothing could be more wrong! Of course did the daimones rule perfectly over men, according to Plato! Because they have direct access to divine knowledge. All efforts to do philosophy are just attempts to approach as close as possible to this divine knowledge. And only human beings are in need to do philosophy, since they are no gods. It is almost strange how wrong Julia Annas is, since she is no beginner and no rookie when it comes to Plato's philosophy, isn't she?

Atlantis as another utopian aspect

On the basis of this arbitrary cherrypicking of utopian aspects, Julia Annas also declares Plato's Atlantis just another utopian aspect, i.e., Atlantis is allegedly not in any way meant real, but meant only as a moral lesson (pp. 109 ff.). In addition to her cherrypicking, Julia Annas puts forward the following arguments why she thinks that the Atlantis story is an invention by Plato: Julia Annas reports Socrates' wish, which she frames with: "In other words, he wants a story about them." – But two things are wrong with this: First, the story wanted by Socrates is not just any story, but a philosophically educated story. And secondly, and most important: Julia Annas omits the turn in the plot of the dialogue, that Critias counters Socrates's wish with his offer of a real story. And Socrates agrees: A true story is better than an invented story.

Then, Julia Annas translates Critias' statement in Timaeus 25e (ὡς δαιμονίως) with "extraordinary chance" . – But she does not see that this is a very serious statement about the daimonion of Socrates. – Finally, Julia Annas claims that the primeval Athens of the historical tradition would be "exactly" like the ideal state (p. 110). – But this is obviously not the case. Both states come close, but they are not identical.

Julia Annas claims, that "indeed the Atlantis story is recognized by Plato's readers as fiction", though not always (p. 110). But Julia Annas cannot put forward any ancient author contemporary to Plato who claims this. The claim is bluntly wrong. Atlantis is also described as "fantastically rich", which it is not, at least not "fantastically".

The reason, why Plato did not finish the Atlantis story, is found by Julia Annas in the fact that Atlantis looks much more interesting than primeval Athens (p. 112 f.). So, according to her, Plato did not manage to master the fictional material. Julia Annas explicitly says: "Plato's own myths successfully reconfigure the materials of traditional myths to make ethical claims, but fiction is resistant to this." This means that Plato, according to her, was good in re-arranging existing material, but Plato was not good in inventing things, since he fell victim to his own phantasy. What a sad picture of the great mind Plato! We cannot agree with this ludicrous reason. It is not at all convincing. By the way, Julia Annas is not mentioning the names of those who put forward such claims first. And Annas' view on the so-called Platonic Myths as reconfigurations of traditional myths is poor, too. Platonic Myths are much more than that.

Julia Annas got major inspirations for this article from Glenn R Morrow's book Plato's Cretan City – A Historical Interpretation of the Laws from 1960 with which she widely agrees. But this is the very same book in which Morrow confirms that Plato's depictions of historical events were very reliable. How does this fit to the idea that the Atlantis story is just an invention?

A distorted reception history of Plato's Atlantis

Julia Annas' depiction of the reception histoy of Plato's Atlantis story starts around 1500. But this is way too late! What about the most important reception history in antiquity? Annas is silent. We only have her empty claim that contemporary readers allegedly recognized Plato's Atlantis story as fiction, see above. What follows is the usually disturbed depiction of the reception history.

Some saw in Atlantis the forerunner of the their own nations, e.g., Spain or Italy (p. 112). But Julia Annas silently omits that Spanish officials had declared Atlantis an invention by Plato. And then she talks of Italy, but the first to see a role of Italy in the history of Atlantis was Gian Rinaldo Carli 1780, which is later than Annas says, and Carli did not identify Italy with Atlantis. Then, Annas claims that the Atlantis story would have been generally accepted as fiction in the early 19th century. Wrong again, it was the late 19th century.

Then, Julia Annas comes to Atlantis in fiction and phantasy, and she points to Jules Verne. But wrong again! For Jules Verne is a science fiction author who wrote about inventions which could possibly come true one day, and also concerning Atlantis, Jules Verne is not presenting mere fiction! To the contrary: Jules Verne carefully lists the academic authors of his day who were in favour of the existence of Atlantis, and also those who interpreted Atlantis as an invention. This is not at all the phantasy about which Julia Annas was talking.

Very shortly she touches on the Minoan hypothesis, mentioning only the name of Menzies. Shouldn't Julia Annas have talked more about the interesting Minoan hypothesis? Finally, Julia Annas points to the Atlantis trilogy by Turtledove. Finally, a really fictional work.

What a distorted depiction of the reception history of Plato's Atlantis!

A nebulous and arbitrary interpretation of Atlantis

Julia Annas sees an analogy of primeval Athens with the Athens of Plato's time, and of Atlantis with the Persian Empire, and thus an analogy of the war between Atlantis and Athens to the Persian Wars. But Julia Annas sees also a clever challenge for Plato's readers: Because it allegedly turns out that primeval Athens is more like Sparta, and Atlantis is like the decadent Athens in Plato's time (p. 111). – We don't think that this confused interpretation was planned by Plato, or could be recognized by Plato's readers in his time. There is no trace of such a confused reading in the reception history in antiquity.

In a footnote, Annas sets the date of the fictional dialogue to a time before the end of the Peloponnesian War (p. 111 footnote 11). Thus, the Critias in the dialogue cannot be Critias the tyrant. Nevertheless, opines Julia Annas, the Critias of the dialogue is meant to remind of Critias the tyrant. This self-contradictory opinion finds more and more adherents among Atlantis sceptics in our days, and we can only wonder why, since it is heavily undermining the credibility of Atlantis scepticism. We can only guess: There must be secondary motivations behind this, which need Critias as a tyrant to make a certain political statement. But this means, of course, abusing Plato instead of interpreting Plato.

Three improvements in the Laws

According to Julia Annas, Plato puts forward a second attempt towards an ideal state in the dialogue The Laws. Julia Annas sees three improvements in the Laws, compared to the Republic:

The inspirations for many of her ideas are taken from Glenn R. Morrow's book Plato's Cretan City – A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Julia Annas admits that Plato says, "that humans need laws because nobody has the requisite knowledge to rule, and if he did have it, he would not be able to remain above corruption." (p. 113) Thus, Julia Annas implicitly acknowledges the conventional reading of a clear turn from the Republic to the Laws, which she had rejected above.

A solution for the chicken-and-egg problem of founding an ideal state

The solution for the insoluble chicken-and-egg problem presented above, which allegedly exists in Plato's Republic, is, according to Julia Annas, quite simple: Instead of tranforming a city, it's just founding a new city (p. 114). Immigrants are invited and have to live under laws they cannot change. So they and later generations are educated to the ideal state.

This is of course a very disappointing "solution" for the chicken-and-egg problem presented above. Because, this is no solution at all! Now, Julia Annas relies herself on the idea of gradual development, what she exluded above. And she does not tell who establishes the laws in the beginning! This is, at best, a sleight of hand, but never ever an acceptable solution for the problem presented by her above. Fortunately, the chicken-and-egg problem Julia Annas created never existed.

A combination of Sparta and Athens

Another improvement, according to Julia Annas, is the combination of Sparta and Athens. While Sparta provides the aspects of loyalty to the laws and common education, Athens provides the aspects of participation and responsibility (pp. 114-117).

But it is doubtful that this is really an improvement to the ideal state of the Republic. Because, such a combination of aspects is present already there, at least in parts. Also strange is Julia Annas' idea that the dialogue the Laws would not contain the laws themselves but only the way towards them (p. 117). Because the dialogue is full of very detailed laws. This is clearly not all about method, but these are the laws themselves, at least in part.

The leader of the dialogue The Laws, the "Athenian", has, according to Annas, the role of proposing Athenian-like laws to the Cretans (p. 116), who are Dorians like the Spartans, thus effecting the combination. Julia Annas adds: "This is one of several reasons for holding that he is not just a mouthpiece for Plato himself." – But this is not what Glenn R. Morrow says, from whom she takes all this inspiration! Morrow has the opposite opinion: "and Plato is free as nowhere else to put forward his own doctrines." (p. 74 Morrow). This difference in opinion should have been reflected somehow by Julia Annas.

Development instead of deduction

According to Julia Annas, Plato changes the method from a top-down deduction in the Republic, starting from principles, to a "changing from within" in the Laws, i.e., from a static ideal towards a stepwise development. Her argument is that the leader of the dialogue The Laws, the Athenian, tries to create awareness in his Cretan interlocutors that and why the Cretans, as Dorians like the Spartans, are already doing many things right (p. 117 f.).

Allegedly, the Athenian is very deferential towards the Cretan Cleinias, although Cleinias is intellectually inferior to the Athenian. Where the Athenian critizes Cretan laws, and when Cleinias protests, the Athenian always avoids conflict by denying his own criticism (p. 117), thus keeping Cleinas on board of the dialogue, says Julia Annas. – But this is just not true. The Athenian does not back down, to the contrary, he urges to follow the argument wherever it leads to. Julia Annas mentions two passages (p. 117 footnote 18): In 630d, the Athenian does not back down, he stays with his idea of courage as the fourth virtue (632cd). In the other passage 667a it is even more clear that the Athenian does not back down.

And the Athenian allegedly says that Cretan laws do aim at all of virtue, not just at military courage (p. 117). – But this is also not true. In all the passages given by Julia Annas (p. 117 footnote 19), the Athenian clearly says that the Cretan laws, founded by Tyrtaeus, are made for war and thus aim at courage only, not at higher virtues (628e-632d, 659c-663d, 705de). It is not true that the Athenian imputes better laws to the Cretans pretending that these were their laws, as Julia Annas claims.

Also questionable is Julia Annas' thought that the Cretan interlocutors in the dialogue are ordinary people who would not be able to understand theoretical considerations about an ideal state, like in the Republic, and who would be better in understanding an approach of developing an ideal state (p. 117 f.). The interlocutors of the Athenian are leading politicians of Crete who have the mandate to found a new colony. These are for sure no ordinary men.

We often see modern attempts to re-interpret Plato's dialogue situations, by seeing subtle psychological mechanisms at work and assuming outlandish characters of the interlocutors. Another example is Warman Welliver's interpretation of the interlocutor Critias in the Timaeus-Critias as a political moron, from 1977. These attempts usually exaggerate certain aspects and neglect others, and thus, by a lot of wishful thinking, they end up in a total disaster of an interpretation, where Plato's intentions are sometimes even turned on their head. And one scholar credulously copies from the other, so that such errors may grow into complete schools of thought. It is just terrible.


Julia Annas has failed again to present a plausible interpretation of Plato's political philosophy. Her attempt to undermine the conventional reading is wrong in many ways, if not downright ludicrous. It is certainly a good idea to rediscover what Glenn R. Morrow wrote in his book Plato's Cretan City – A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. But Julia Annas' conclusions from this book are not convincing.

In the midst of this failed attempt to interpret Plato's political philosophy is another failed attempt to interpret Plato's Atlantis story. Again, Julia Annas declares Atlantis an invention on the basis of superficial and wrong arguments, but this time embedded in her errors about the broader context of the Atlantis story. It even seems that the entire attempt to reinterpret Plato's political philosophy was driven by the desire to interpret Atlantis as an invention and mere utopia. This would be another example of how the interpretation of Plato's Atlantis as an invention has a transgressively damaging effect on the interpretation of other areas of Platonic philosophy. Be this as it may: Compared to her 2011 article on Plato's Atlantis, this is not an improvement.


Annas (2011): Julia Annas, The Atlantis Story: the Republic and the Timaeus, in: Plato's Republic – A Critical Guide, edited by Mark L. McPherran, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2011; pp. 52-64. Based on a discourse held at the 13th Arizona Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 15-17 February 2008 University of Arizona, Tucson. (Download here)

Annas (2021): Julia Annas, Plato's ideal society and Utopia, in: Pierre Destrée / Jan Opsomer / Geert Roskam (eds.), Utopias in Ancient Thought, de Gruyter, Berlin 2021; pp. 103-119. (See the text here)

Franke (2021): Thorwald C. Franke, Platonische Mythen – Was sie sind und was sie nicht sind – Von A wie Atlantis bis Z wie Zamolxis, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021.

Morrow (1960): Glenn R. Morrow, Plato's Cretan City – A Historical Interpretation of the Laws, Princeton University Press, Princeton/NJ 1960.        Contents Overview
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