Response to: In Defense of Atlantis Scepticism – Countering Thorwald C. Franke's Misleading Allegations, by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, draft PDF April 2023.
Responding: Thorwald C. Franke, Frankfurt am Main / Germany, 14 April 2023.
Professor Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, a classical philologist and expert for the Greek satirist Lucian (University of Göttingen), has once again written a text against my ideas about Plato's Atlantis. It is directed against my Internet article about "The Dark Side of Atlantis Scepticism" from 2021 (External Web Link), based on my book about the reception history of Plato's Atlantis story from 2016/2021 (External Web Link), and has the title "In Defense of Atlantis Scepticism" (External Web Link).
Besides the usual rhetorical tricks, Nesselrath works this time with several "misunderstandings". Since Nesselrath is an intellectually capable man, it seems unlikely that he really fell victim to these misunderstandings. But if he really did, what could be the reason? In this case, we are only left to guess for an ardent anti-Atlantis zeal.
The first and foremost "misunderstanding" is the claim that my article would sweepingly impute to all Atlantis sceptics without any differentiation all sorts of evil motivations, and that these evils would allegedly be "inherent in such a scepticism" (p. 1), therefore the title of Nesselrath's draft PDF: "In Defense of Atlantis Scepticism". – But in truth, my article does not do any such thing and does not attack Atlantis scepticism as such. My article only dares to draw attention to "a forgotten aspect of the Atlantis question", as the subtitle says, and to a "dark side of Atlantis scepticism", as the title says, because ... currently everybody seems to know only about the bright side of Atlantis scepticism, while every conceivable evil is attributed only to Atlantis supporters. Therefore, providing missing aspects and opening perspectives to the other side of the coin is far from any sweeping judgement. Therefore I concluded my article with these words: "What can we learn from this all? Surely not that Atlantis scepticism is wrong or that it should be condemned, only because it was and is abused for this or for that." – But Nesselrath interprets these words as "backpedal[ling]" (p. 9), thus saving his "misunderstanding".
The other big "misunderstanding" upon which Nesselrath has built his new article, is the silent assumption that my article would be kind of a poorly written scientific article. Because every now and then Nesselrath complains that I do not mention names, do not give sources, do not give evidence for my claims. But it is not a scientific article. It is an internet article, meant as a thought-provoking impulse paper. Nesselrath knows this, of course, and Nesselrath also knows that I provided all the names, all the sources, and all the evidence in my book about the reception history, which Nesselrath himself repeatedly cites (when it pleases him), and to which there is a bibliographical hint at the end of the criticized article (!) for all who want to know more.
Quite speaking is also the question of Nesselrath at the end, why my idea of Atlantis looks different than Plato's Atlantis? (p. 10) Of course, Nesselrath knows why: Because of historical criticism. Because Egypt is not 11,340+ years old, as the Greeks believed, but came into being only around 3,000 BC. etc. etc. etc. Nesselrath knows all this. But nevertheless he asks this question. Thus, Nesselrath conspicuously avoids any thought about a historical-critical reading of Plato's Atlantis story. Because, on the basis of his knowledge, the following question would be legitimate: Whether my historical-critical considerations are justified. But not, why my Atlantis looks different than Plato's Atlantis. This "innocent" question depicts a completely wrong picture of me and my ideas. It creates the impression of the usual stupid cherry picking of less educated Atlantis searchers. Maybe this was the intention?
Of course, for Nesselrath I am a "fervent believer" in the existence of Atlantis (p. 1). I am not. I dare to make arguments. Which Nesselrath dislikes. And which he cannot refute. Therefore, depicting me as a "fervent believer" comes in handy. More interesting is Nesselrath's self-description in his new article: He sees himself "an Atlantis sceptic, if ever there was one" (p. 9). This additional "if ever there was one" does indeed sound something like a "fervent belief". Only this time, it is not the possibly unfair description of an opponent, it is his self-description! Ooooops!
Repeatedly reoccurring is Nesselrath's claim that I allegedly would see the core of Plato's philosophy "in an unconditional belief in the historicity of Atlantis" (p. 2). Later, Nesselrath imputes a "limitless belief in Plato's authority" to me (p. 9), and one page later he puts forward the claim that I would have written in my book about Platonic Myths about Plato's stories of various types, that "all of these stories being based on facts and this is, of course, Franke's main concern none of them invented!" (p. 10 footnote 24). – Only nonsense. I carefully differentiate between mythos, logos and eikon, I differentiate between stories of various likelihood of being true or wrong, I differentiate between fully invented Platonic Myths, allegories, analogies, even deceptions. I discuss various types of application of invention in Plato's works. And I discuss how Plato interwove these stories of varying types to greater stories of very mixed types. But the only conclusion Nesselrath does draw from my considerations is that allegedly "all of these stories being based on facts and this is, of course, Franke's main concern none of them invented!"
And Nesselrath, like almost all Atlantis sceptics, never spends a word what it would mean if Plato intentionally connected important parts of his philosophy with intended lies and untrue inventions. It is possible. Of course. Errare humanum est. And also immoral motivations are not excluded. But is it likely?
Do deceitful philosophers produce philosophies which are able to fascinate throughout generations? Was Plato in need to justify his philosophy by inventions? Did he not believe in his own theories, e.g. in the theory of the ideal state and of repeated cyclical history? So, he invented an approximately ideal state some cycles before his time out of thin air instead of searching for one in old sources? Did Plato not even make an attempt to look for old sources? No? Really not? Is the idea that Egyptian texts may open a window into ancient times, of which the Greeks had preserved no knowledge, but the Egyptians possibly had – is also this idea a mere invention and not Plato's serious belief? And why inventing the clash of an empire with a small city state, since this just happened in reality with the Persian Wars? Is a real story not better than an invented one? This is what Plato makes Socrates say in the Timaeus. Is this not Plato's own belief? Is all this an orgy of irony and one single great satire? Plato a satirist, like e.g. Lucian? (What a coincidence that Nesselrath is an expert not for Plato but for Lucian.) All of Plato's dialogues are an intricate web of lies and ironies and deceptions and satires and inventions? Does not Occam's razor cut off all these overcomplicated explanations?
And is this the lesson of historical criticism, that we should see an intentional invention wherever we encounter an ancient story which looks strange and cannot be real, judged by our modern knowledge? Really? The Egyptian paintings mentioned in Plato's Laws which are allegedly 10,000 years old, they are inventions and irony, too, not an erroneous belief? And what about Herodotus' erroneous age of Egypt of 11,340 years? Ah, oh, we are allowed to take this serious? Because Herodotus was a historian while Plato was "only" a philosopher? Because everybody knows, that historians do never lie while philosophers always despise the truth ...? Ah oh?
I am certainly not alone in rejecting such a kindergarten version of historical-critical interpretation. And I am certainly not alone in rejecting such an idea of a deceitful Plato. It is rather Nesselrath who is quite alone with the consequences of his Lucian-like Plato. Maybe Nesselrath will find some followers among anti-rational post-modernists with this idea? My comment is: I wish you well!
Nesselrath opines that I am talking at the beginning of my article of Isocrates, but Isocrates did not write about Atlantis but about Plato's ideal state, complains Nesselrath (p. 1). Well, Plato's ideal state is integral part of the Atlantis story, and many have expressed the idea that the Atlantis story (allegedly from Egypt) is kind of an "answer" to Isocrates' accusations against Plato. A serious answer, of course, not a joke. It was only logical to draw the Atlantis story into the criticism of Plato's political thought, since it is an integral part of it, and this is what we see explicitly in Crantor's time.
Concerning Crantor, Nesselrath imputes to me the simplistic opinion that Crantor found "evidence" for Atlantis in Egypt (p. 1). But my article says that Crantor "allegedly found" evidence. Therefore, no simplistic, stupid Atlantis belief was voiced here. But Nesselrath continues with "Such details do not bother Franke in the least", although Nesselrath knows exactly that I wrote "allegedly" and that I bothered enough about the details in my book. How much does Nesselrath bother to represent my words correctly? And does Nesselrath deny that Crantor believed that he found evidence?
Concerning Celsus, Nesselrath criticizes my argumentum e silentio (p. 2), which is basically this: Though Celsus is silent on Atlantis, his arguments obviously come from Plato's Atlantis story, and this is the point. Celsus would have talked about Atlantis as such only, if he would have believed in the arguments taken from the Atlantis story, but not in Atlantis itself. – Nesselrath makes the attempt to debunk exactly this claim: that Celsus is taking his arguments from the Atlantis story: "Franke's claim that Celsus referred to the Egyptians as sources for Plato (and would thus be referring to the introductory part of the Timaeus and to the Critias) is not correct" (p. 2 footnote 4). But Nesselrath is simply wrong, plainly and utterly wrong. For Origen writes about Celsus: "And if he should put forward the dialogues of Plato (as evidence) on these subjects" and "But let Celsus have, as his authorities for the myth regarding the conflagrations and inundations, those persons who, in his opinion, are the most learned of the Egyptians" (Origen Contra Celsum I 19 f.) Of course, Celsus is drawing heavily on Plato's Atlantis story, including the Egyptians as its source. My book, which is quoted by Nesselrath here, hints to I 19 f. as the first relevant passage. Did Nesselrath "overlook" this?
Concerning Aristotle's alleged authorship of an Atlantis-sceptical sentence in Strabo 2.3.6, Nesselrath claims: "But the jury is still out on the question" (p. 3). – Which "jury"? I have put forward a clear and sufficient argument, and Nesselrath admitted once that my argument made him seriously doubt Aristotle's authorship, and Nesselrath also has no alternative arguments in favour of Aristotle's authorship, except a completely untrustworthy tradition of error from the 19th century. So why hesitating to admit the inevitable? There is no "jury" in science. Science is not organized like the Catholic Church, with Councils deciding on the truth of a statement. Hic Rhodus hic salta.
By the way, this time Nesselrath is making an argumentum e silentio on his own (p. 3), while he criticized me for doing this only a few passages before. It seems that Nesselrath generally has not realized that the judgement of an argumentum e silentio is not always a judgement of doubt and rejection, but depends on the context. The meaning of silence differs from situation to situation. Being silent generally speaks in favour of accepting something, not rejecting something, because it is the rejection which makes you speak out, while the acceptance is nothing special. But if acceptance is something special, it is the other way round. Do I really have to explain this to a classical philologist?
Nesselrath imputes a "brazen equation of the church, the inquisition and Atlantis scepticism" to me (p. 3). Not true. Nesselrath does not accept the argument, that the inquisition pushed through the teaching of the church on an age of the world of only 6,000 years, and that this, naturally, is an assault on Atlantis belief in these times, since Plato's Atlantis allegedly was 9,000 years old. It is only logical! Therefore, the idea of 9,000 moon years, i.e. months, found more adherents in this time. But Nesselrath does not accept this logical consideration, but wants to have names.
The funny thing is: Nesselrath himself will talk about two such names in the following! Nesselrath praises Juan de Solórzano Pereira for putting forward exactly this argument of the 6,000 against the 9,000 years: "... but in Solórzano's and his contemporaries' view this must have been a perfectly rational argument." (p. 4) Indeed. By the way, Nesselrath imputes to me that I would "ridicule" Solórzano's argument and Nesselrath teaches me that historical arguments against Atlantis might have been rational in their time (p. 4). As if Nesselrath did not know that I know this very well. – And then there is La Peyrère, who "dared to claim in 1655 that human beings lived even before Adam and Eve. One of his arguments was the age of Plato's Atlantis of 9,000 years. His work was immediately condemned by the church and the author put to prison.", as Nesselrath quotes my book (p. 5). Of course, La Peyrère was not condemned for believing in Atlantis as such, but because believing in Atlantis implied a disbelief in the doctrine of the church about the age of the world of only 6,000 years. But Nesselrath stubbornly pretends not to see this connection.
Nesselrath also ridicules the importance of the Atlantis question for Spanish colonial claims in America: "were there any surviving Atlantians who might have disputed Spain's claim to its American territories?", Nesselrath asks (p. 4). The answer is: Yes, of course! If the American Indians would have been survivors from Atlantis, they would have not been "discovered" by the Spanish, because Atlantis was not an unknown land, and therefore the Indians would be owners of their own land. Nesselrath systematically ignores the main argument that in these times the right of the first discoverer was the basis for colonial claims to land.
Nesselrath complains that I would focus on Solórzano's "dishonest" motivation, with quotation marks around "dishonest" (p. 5). First, I did not talk of a "dishonest" motivation. It is not a quote of my words, though it looks like one. The quotation marks indicate that Nesselrath questions the dishonesty of Solórzano's motivation. But isn't it really dishonest? Does Nesselrath really want to defend the creator of colonialist claims? Secondly, it is absolutely justified to ask the question, why a lawyer who works on the legitimacy of Spain's colonialist claims in America writes at length against the existence of Atlantis! According to Nesselrath, his opinion is just reasonable and therefore we should not focus on any deeper reason behind this opinion. Should we follow Nesselrath's rather naive approach and stop asking? Solórzano's opinions on Atlantis are closely connected to the claim that Columbus was really and exceptionally the very first and only discoverer of America, and no one, really no one else. And this in a work about Spanish colonialist claims. Let this sink in.
Concerning Sigüenza, Nesselrath again claims that I would sweepingly impute to all Atlantis sceptics to ridicule Sigüenza's honourable occupation with Atlantis (p. 5). Well, first: Do I? And secondly: Wasn't Sigüenza ridiculed time and again? Again and again and again? Why did Nesselrath never defend him? He had plenty of time to speak out, before I came along and did it.
Concerning the Göttingen Empiricists, Nesselrath repeats the claim that I would lump together Atlantis scepticism and anti-Platonism (p. 5). But in case of the Göttingen Empiricists, this is only justified. They were indeed anti-Platonists. And it is only logical that anti-Platonists are not the right persons to speak about Plato's Atlantis. The other way round it is another matter. Not every Atlantis sceptic is an anti-Platonist. – Nesselrath also says that I would not give any evidence that the Göttingen Empiricists had similar ideas to the National Socialists (p. 9). But in my article I wrote about them: "their rejection of rationalism and humanism, culminating in a ruthless Social Darwinism." Is this not evidence enough? And then there is of course my book with more information, which Nesselrath knows, when it pleases him, and which he does not know, when it does not please him.
Concerning Franz Susemihl, Nesselrath tries to justify Susemihl's claim that there was a scientific tradition of Atlantis scepticism beginning with the Göttingen Empiricists, which led step-by-step towards the consolidation of the theory that Atlantis is an invention by Plato (p. 6). This was the claim of Franz Susemihl, which I debunked in my book.
First, Nesselrath does not repeat the basic claim correctly. Nesselrath omits that it is about a tradition beginning with the Göttingen Empiricists, not beginning in antiquity. But alas. More severe is the omission of the step-by-step development of the tradition towards a consolidated scientific theory. Because this claim is not just about any tradition. For of course there was a long tradition of Atlantis scepticism, as well as a long tradition of Atlantis support. The point is not the existence of a tradition alone, but that this tradition narrowed down over time towards a consolidated scientific theory of Atlantis scepticism.
Nesselrath puts forward four scientists who wrote before Susemihl, and to whom Susemihl himself referred, and who, according to Nesselrath, constitute the tradition in question. Let us see.
(1) Karl Friedrich Hermann (p. 6). Nesselrath reports correctly, that Hermann was quite sceptical, but he omits that Hermann believed in the existence of a historical tradition handed down from Solon, though not from Egypt. Hermann also believed that Plato inserted his ideal state (primeval Athens) into this tradition. This implicitly means that Atlantis was not inserted by Plato. Furthermore, Hermann does not see much phantasy in Plato's Atlantis dialogues. Though Hermann is quite sceptical, this is at the same time not at all a neat and clear invention hypothesis concerning Atlantis, as Nesselrath would like to have it. To the contrary. This is at best a semi-sceptical hypothesis. Nesselrath knows about this from my book and from the same original source cited by him, but he is silent about it.
(2) Karl-Otfried Müller (p. 6 f.). Yes, he is a real Atlantis sceptic. But he voiced his Atlantis scepticism only in a review about a book. About a book of Humboldt, with Humboldt's Stallbaum-like idea of Atlantis.
(3) Jochen Socher (p. 7). Yes, he is a real Atlantis sceptic. But he is not a classical philologist. He is a Catholic theologian. Who also wrote sweepingly about philosophy, from Plato to Kant. Does Nesselrath really think that an expert for religious belief can be an expert for Atlantis scepticism? And Socher's main argument is as flawed as Susemihl's, i.e. the 9,000 years.
(4) Gottfried Stallbaum (p. 7 f.). But he is not at all a real Atlantis sceptic! Stallbaum believed in a historical tradition from Egypt. He believed that it might be a dark knowledge of America. He only said that Plato embellished things. Now, this is for sure not the sort of Atlantis "scepticism" meant by Nesselrath. This is rather Atlantis support.
For Nesselrath, these four are an "impressive group of prominent Atlantis scepticists" (p. 8) who constitute the wanted tradition which narrows down step-by-step towards an invention theory. – But we see something different, here:
And this has to be added:
Now, this is not a triumphant victory parade for Atlantis scepticism. To the contrary. And this is the environment, in which Susemihl put forward the cheeky claim that the scientific process had consolidated over the last decades towards Atlantis scepticism. We have to be thankful to Nesselrath that he gave us another opportunity to realize how flawed Susemihl's claim was. Susemihl's alleged scientific tradition does not exist. The currently prevailing Atlantis scepticism did not come into being in the 19th century by the stepwise consolidation of the scientific process, but by bold claims, simplistic arguments, and ridiculing dissenters. Let that sink in.
Concerning the Atlantis theories about the Mound Builders, Nesselrath imputes to me the opinion that "they were (according to Franke) basically good people because they believed in Atlantis" (p. 8) – Nonsense due to Nesselrath's "misunderstanding"! It is only that most (not all) of those who had an Atlantis hypothesis about the mounds accepted the Indians respectively their ancestors as the builders of the mounds. And this is basically a good thing, because it is the truth. Is this so difficult to understand? Was it necessary that Nesselrath "misunderstood" this, too?
Concerning the National Socialists, Nesselrath imputes to me the opinion that Atlantis sceptics would be "crypto-Hitlerites" (p. 9). No again. It is still Nesselrath's "misunderstanding".
Nesselrath also sees a "preposterous claim: According to Franke, Atlantis scepticism misrepresents the Nazis' crimes by stressing their belief in Atlantis!" (p. 9) Now, this is not at all a preposterous claim, but very serious. I can only repeat my words from my article: "By creating the pseudoscientific fetish of an alleged Atlantis belief behind the Nazi ideology, these books and docus eclipse the real reasons for the crimes of National Socialism, which were, among others, a romantic anti-rationalism, a pseudoscientific biologism and a ruthless Social Darwinism. To misguide the audience concerning the true nature of National Socialism and the true reasons for its crimes is downright irresponsible, and this irresponsibility is closely connected with a radical Atlantis scepticism which loves to see 'the Nazis' as Atlantis believers, though they were not."
Once again it turned out that Nesselrath has no arguments to counter my ideas (but a lot of rhetorics). It makes the impression of a desperate zeal to save what cannot be saved. In order to make progress, Nesselrath would have to step back first: Step back from his insults against me, and from all his rhetorics against my ideas, past and present. On a factual level, Atlantis scepticism is not dead, yet. Yes, indeed! I feel a certain obligation to defend Atlantis scepticism against Nesselrath. For Nesselrath's Susemihl-like method of pushing through Atlantis scepticism is dead. Stone dead.
By the way: All these considerations about the reception history of Plato's Atlantis story are possible only because I researched and published it. While for more than 150 years, Atlantis sceptics did not think it was necessary to do it with scrutiny, since ridiculing any kind of Atlantis belief was enough for them. Until recently, the following was written in text books by leading Atlantis sceptics: Allegedly, almost no one took Atlantis seriously in antiquity. Allegedly, almost no one talked about Atlantis in the Middle Ages. Allegedly, the crazy hypotheses about the existence of Atlantis came into being and exploded in number with the discovery of America. And allegedly, academics were always against the existence of Plato's Atlantis. But all this is not true. The Atlantis sceptics did not do their homework. But I did. Nesselrath with all his accusations and claims is already standing on the grounds of my work, whether he likes it or not. And the best is yet to come.
Thorwald C. Franke, Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis von der Antike über das Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, 2nd enhanced edition in two volumes, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021. First edition was 2016 in one volume. No English translation available yet.
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