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Atlantis explained from Plato's biography and philosophy

A great approach, but no breakthrough yet

Review of: Stefan Bittner, Atlantis wissenschaftlich analysiert, 2019. (No English translation)

Thorwald C. Franke
© October 2020


Stefan Bittner studied Philosophy, History and Theatre Studies at the LMU university in Munich as well as art studies at the University of Essen. Professionally, he has pursued a career as an educator at a grammar school (Gymnasium), and has been teaching and researching in the fields of school pedagogy, general pedagogy and educational science. He received his doctorate in 1983 on the costume and armament of the Persian army, and his habilitation in 1998 on Cicero's rhetoric as humanitarian eloquence. Bittner also has a long artistic curriculum vitae.

Thus, one can expect a lot from Stefan Bittner on the subject of Atlantis: On the one hand, he has done scientific research on ancient history and has completed his doctorate and habilitation on ancient topics, so that a high standard can be expected. On the other hand, his interests lie at right angles to those of "established" experts, so that something new and stimulating can be expected. According to his own statements, he has been involved with Plato's Atlantis for 35 years, with interruptions, from 1985 until the publication of this book in 2019.


Bittner's hypothesis

Unlike other authors, Stefan Bittner tries to explain the Atlantis story from Plato's life and teachings. For this purpose the biography of Plato is discussed and also the opinion of Aristotle is consulted.

Bittner believes that Plato made a philosophical turn after his political failure in Syracuse. Plato had – Bittner says – developed a new philosophy of nature in which God plays practically no role any more. That is why the speech of Zeus at the end of the Critias was not carried out, because a basically powerless Zeus would have been considered blasphemy. For Bittner the dialogues Timaeus and Critias are the first dialogues in which Plato's turn is expressed. The struggle of primeval Athens and Atlantis is closely related to the Timaeus and interpreted as a kind of cosmic struggle. It is not the moral failure before a god that leads to punishment by the god, but the transgression of the laws of nature leads to destruction, all by itself and without God.

Stefan Bittner tries to escape the dichotomy of pure invention vs. perfect historical truth. For this purpose he develops a doctrine of a double concept of truth. In the history of reception Plutarch is recognised as a pioneering interpreter. Although the tradition of Atlantis is supposed to be basically historical, the historical aspect is only second to the metaphorical aspect. Plato wanted to demonstrate his philosophy with the help of this story, but he also embellished it.

Bittner locates Atlantis in the valley of the river Oued Laou, the Wadi Laou in northeast Morocco, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea at a small town of the same name. In the back area of the river valley there is a hill in a river loop on which the royal castle of Atlantis was located. Bittner's Atlantis is dated around 1650 BC, i.e. near the eruption of the volcano of Thera / Santorini. Around this time the Hyksos occupied Egypt. At the same time there had been a military campaign from Atlantis towards Egypt. Later on, the Phoenicians, who allegedly had been part of the Hyksos, had significantly influenced the culture of Atlantis. The sinking of Atlantis was then caused by a flood of the valley, so that everything sank into mud. The Sea Peoples around the year 1200 BC had rather nothing to do with Atlantis.

This thesis is undoubtedly original and there are a number of aspects that makes it appealing:

Bittner's thesis pursues an interesting and comprehensive approach that aims at much more than just the localisation of Atlantis. In fact, a solution to the Atlantis question will only be achievable with such a comprehensive approach.


Criticism

The implementation of the approach has not been successful in all respects. As far as Plato's turn in natural philosophy is concerned, the assumed turn of Plato to a "godless" or at least deistically understood world is to be doubted. Although, of course, the idea that an atrocity carries its own punishment in itself, so to speak, is not wrong in Plato's sense either. Also the putting aside of Plato's theory of an "unwritten doctrine" is too smooth and too simple (Bittner pp. 88 f.). In several considerations of Plato's philosophy the question arises whether the reference to the Atlantis narrative is not too far-fetched. A lot of thought is given to the dialogues Philebus, Sophistes and Parmenides. Many dialogues, which are normally chronologically placed in time before the Timaeus-Critias, are seen here chronologically later. This interpretation is very different from "established" views. The question is whether such a major reinterpretation would not have been better discussed initially independently of the Atlantis question.

In particular, the interpretation of the history of Atlantis in close relation to the cosmology of the Timaeus is also a problem. Of course the Timaeus prepares the ground on which the humans then appear, but to interpret the war between primeval Athens as a cosmic struggle (Bittner pp. 128, 130, 145, 419) is exaggerated. This is Neoplatonic, but not Platonic. We prefer Alfred E. Taylor: "It is a false assumption that the story is a relevant prelude to the Timaeus itself" (Taylor 1928). Of course one can say that in a meaningful universe every struggle is a cosmic struggle, because microcosm and macrocosm correspond to each other. But this interpretation may only be applied "weakly", not "strongly", because Plato was concerned with a political, that is, a highly "earthly" interpretation. Moreover, it is very questionable whether the gods drove the Atlanteans into an unjust war as a punishment (Bittner p. 142), because the gods always act good, never bad in Plato's sense, as Bittner himself remarks elsewhere (Bittner p. 329).

In addition, the overshadowing of the political interpretation by the cosmic aspect and the confusion surrounding a double concept of truth creates a great deal of confusion as to what should be considered true, how and why. Bittner's interpretation thus enters into a kind of limbo between real and allegorical interpretation, which wants to do well to everyone and woe to nobody. On the one hand there is talk of reality, on the other hand the story of Atlantis is called "mythical" and 'primeval Athens' and 'Atlantis' are carefully written in single inverted commas throughout the book to keep their alleged mythical character always in the consciousness of the reader. In the end, all interpretations are found in them, and the elimination of hard contradictions between different interpretations is avoided rather than resolved. One had a similar impression, for example, when reading the Atlantis hypotheses by Rodney Castleden and Young Phyllis Forsyth, both of whom begin with an invention thesis, but then open up more and more to a real localisation; with Bittner it is the same, only the other way round. The explanations of the way Plato constructed and understood his "Platonic Myths" are also insufficient. Bittner does not really get beyond the perplexity of Plutarch and does not provide any criteria on how to distinguish real tradition from Plato's ingredients.

Just like Gunnar Rudberg, Bittner interprets the Atlantis dialogues as an expression of the rupture caused by Syracuse. But "established" science is very much in agreement on this, and we also agree, that the Atlantis dialogues by and large still reflect the political paradigm of the Republic. The real break comes with the Laws. – It is also by no means clear that the teaching that Dionysius the Younger published against Plato's will was a philosophy of nature.

The presentation of the reception history in Bittner's book is a single catastrophe. Bittner has obviously fallen victim to the extremely tendentious and often simply wrong representation of the history of reception by various Atlantis sceptics such as Sprague de Camp, Diskin Clay or Vidal-Naquet. Anyone who relies on such literature is lost. In detail: It is wrong that Aristotle was a philosophical opponent of Plato in general, and especially wrong that he explicitly opposed the existence of Atlantis. This is a collective error that came into the world at the beginning of the 19th century and was recognised and named by Thorwald C. Franke in 2010. It is also quite wrong that the criticism of the first anonymous critics first attached itself to Atlantis and only then jumped over to the Republic (Bittner pp. 40, 417) – it is exactly the other way round. It is also wrong that Posidonius interpreted Atlantis partly metaphorically, partly as "partial historicity" (Bittner p. 41). It is also wrong that Diodorus dismissed Atlantis as an invention. Diodorus had no opinion of his own about Plato's Atlantis at all, but only handed down some texts of other authors, which were interpreted with respect to Atlantis. Pliny did not deny the existence of Atlantis at all, but doubted above all its size. It is trivial that Ptolemy did not draw a continent in the Atlantic on his maps: Atlantis is said to have sunk. Numenius, on the other hand, who 500 years after Plato was the first Atlantis sceptic ever to be known by name, is almost portrayed by Bittner as a supporter of Atlantis. Also Aelianus was not against the existence of Atlantis, his opinion is not handed down. Iamblichus by no means considered the history of Atlantis to be neither real nor allegorical, but both at the same time. Also Proclus considered it to be both at the same time, i.e. among others also as real. Finally, it is also wrong that the Middle Ages were silent about Atlantis. All this could have been found in the only three years earlier published work "Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis" by Thorwald C. Franke. – Nevertheless, it is fortunate that Bittner recognized that Plutarch, with its interpretation, plays an important role in the history of reception. Very good!

Bittner's dating does not follow an acceptable methodology (Bittner pp. 242-247). Bittner goes through all "common" methods with considerable systematics and then picks out the one whose result seems most plausible to him. He plays through everything: Solar years or lunar years, solar months or lunar months, as well as the full 8000 years or only 800 years by arbitrarily deleting a zero. The most implausible method of all then convinces him: he simply crosses out a zero, and assumes months instead of years. In addition, Bittner converts the 8000 years, but not the 1000 year difference between the 8000 and 9000 years. He points the 8000 years to the year 644 BC (Sais becomes the capital of Egypt), then he adds 1000 years, and arrives at the year 1644 BC as the time of the war with Atlantis.

The historical-critical method of dating, which is advocated by Thorwald C. Franke among others, is completely misinterpreted by Bittner through several false assumptions. It is about Herodotus' statement that Egypt was founded by Pharaoh Menes in 11340 years before his time (with a certain additional time offset). The first mistake is that Bittner analogises this date with the 8000 years, although he himself had shortly before realised that these only refer to the foundation of Sais, but not to the foundation of Egypt. The foundation of Egypt still has to be analogised with a date before the 9000 years of Plato, e.g. 10,000 or 12,000 years. The second mistake is that not the year 3000 BC (for Pharaoh Menes) is used as a real analogy, but the year 3425 BC, when supposedly some dynasty was founded, which has nothing to do with Menes. And then Bittner adds another full 1000 years, i.e. the difference between the 8000 and the 9000 years, whereby the 1000 years themselves are not converted accordingly. This brings Bittner to the year 4425 B.C. and of course he does not find anything there that would correspond to the Atlantis story. Thus he rejects this method.

Concerning the lengths Bittner conjures up the length measure Akaina (ten feet) out of a hat (p. 263). As with the times Bittner does not convert all lengths consistently. This could be done in individual cases with a good reason, but such a reason is missing here. Because of this inconsistency Bittner does not place the castle hill of Atlantis in front of the sea but at in the back area of the plain (Bittner p. 271). There may be other good reasons for such a localisation of the castle hill, but this reason is not one of them.

Bittner belongs to those who believe that the Egyptian word for island would not mean island at all (Bittner p. 260). We would like to contradict this. The basic meaning is exactly that: An island. An island in the Nile, mostly probably a sandbank in the river, or a section of the delta, but exactly this: A piece of land surrounded by water. Only in the figurative sense of the word a distant land. Moreover, the characters for island and foreign country are not identical, so they must be kept strictly apart. – Oreichalkos is interpreted as chalcopyrite. (Bittner p. 268) – The statement that metals are applied to the walls "as though with plaster" (aloiphe) (Kritias 116b) is interpreted as if bitumen was applied. This is not correct. If anything, it would be "like bitumen", but not bitumen itself. (p. 270) – Plato's view that an ideal city should better have no walls at all is only found in the Laws. Primeval Athens does indeed have a wall (peribolos).

It is a little surprising when Bittner, after long philosophical preliminary considerations and many, often self-admitted uncertainties, speaks of "hard topographic search criteria" (Bittner p. 301). The argumentation for the localisation in the valley of the Oued Laou is mainly based on the climate, and on a very specific assumption about the nature of the valley, which can be criticised. This then excludes all other potential valleys in the entire western Mediterranean (!), leaving this one valley (Bittner pp. 365-367). Such an exclusion procedure is not a watertight argumentation based on positively given evidence. And there are practically no archaeological finds on site.

Finally, the Atlantes of Herodotus are used to substantiate the desired localisation. But the Atlantes of Herodotus definitely lived inland, not in a coastal plain, and have nothing to do with Atlantis. It is also wrong to use the statement from Herodotus' report on the circumnavigation of Africa commissioned by Pharaoh Necho that the sun was seen "to the right", i.e. in the north, to justify a route from Greece to Libya. (Bittner pp. 368, 369)

In the literature used, it is positively noticeable that Brandenstein and Görgemanns are included, to which the reviewer Thorwald C. Franke has drawn attention prominently on his website for many years, as well as Franke's book on Herodotus and Atlantis, which is explicitly quoted about 25 times and has also been visibly reflected beyond that, even if Stefan Bittner has developed different opinions on some points. Furthermore, some important works of Heinz-Günther Nesselrath are included. However, Franke's works on the history of reception are missing, as well as the book "Joining the Dots – Plato's Atlantis in the Central Mediterranean" by Tony O'Connell, published in 2018, and other important works by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, including some on "Platonic Myths" and, of course, the great Critias commentary of 2006. Gunnar Rudberg's hypothesis was also not taken into account, although it has close connections to Syracuse and the turn in Plato's thinking. In general, more literature on "Platonic Myths" would have been desirable, although it has to be admitted: there is a chaos in science here that has yet to be mastered.

A formal problem is, as always, the footnotes, which are not set as footnotes, but are summarised as endnotes at the end of the book. This makes working with this book much more difficult. Also, some opinions, which often differ, can only be found in footnotes. But they do not belong there.


Conclusion

Stefan Bittner's approach is much broader than usual and that is a good thing. Bittner directs the view to questions that other Atlantis proponents don't even ask themselves and is always visibly struggling for new answers. In some points he has proven his eye for the essential. A lot of important information is compiled and can serve others as a good basis and starting point for further considerations.

In the end, however, the answers given are not really convincing. Bittner touches on topics, from which a breakthrough in the Atlantis question can be hoped for, but it is not yet this breakthrough. One reason may be the still insufficient reception of literature, although Bittner has read a lot. Other authors usually read much less and therefore have a much narrower horizon than Bittner. Another reason might be the translation of ancient Greek. Bittner expresses thanks to several people for translations. So he did not make them himself. Stefan Bittner points out, however, that he made the German Graecum.

PS: The reviewer announces that he himself will publish on some of the issues raised in the coming years: On the question of the Platonic Myths. On the question of the place of the Atlantis dialogues in Plato's life. On the question of the concrete redaction and significance of the history of Atlantis. On the question of a concrete localisation and dating of Atlantis as a real place. The reviewer does not see such a close relationship of the Atlantis question to deeper philosophical questions beyond political philosophy; he remains much closer to the "established" views of science (if there are any in these questions at all).

External Web link: Bittner's book on the editor's page, with preview.
https://sites.google.com/view/stefanbittner/men%C3%BC/neueste-ver%C3%B6ffentlichung



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