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[personal profile] mtvessel
Sep 2015
Meet Me in Atlantis - Mark Adams - Text Publishing Company, 2015

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This is a travelogue in the style of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux in which a journalist meets various eccentric people who have theories about the location of Atlantis. Unlike them, however, I do not think it is intended to be funny, and I certainly didn't find it so. Indeed, there is an earnestness to the overall endeavour that made it a sometimes tedious read for an incorrigible skeptic like me. For the overwhelming view of scholars is that Atlantis is a myth invented by that wily old writer Plato to express his political and philosophical views, and nothing in this book significantly contradicts that.

Now I must confess that I really dislike Plato. His anti-democratic Republic, with its hereditary caste system maintained by "useful falsehood" and its (surprise!) philosopher-king ruler is the blueprint for pretty much every vile authoritarian state there has ever been, as Karl Popper pointed out in The Open Society and its Enemies. But the images in his writing are brilliantly memorable, so it is no surprise that the precisely delineated concentric circles of land and sea described in the Critias have lingered in the collective imagination. What is depressing is that so many intelligent people have misinterpreted this obviously allegorical text and have spent so much time, effort and thought trying to locate it in the real world. A case in point - the Critias describes the three concentric walls of the land zones as being covered in brass, tin and orichalcum (probably a reddish-gold form of bronze). The implication is that three castes of people lived in each of the zones, corresponding neatly to the three castes of the Republic.

To be fair to the Atlantis-hunters, Plato was almost certainly drawing on folk memories of real events such as the eruption of Santorini and contemporaneous disasters like the submergence of Helike in a tsunami in 373 BC, so some correspondences with actual locations are to be expected. But even so, the sheer amount of intellectual time and effort that has gone into locating Atlantis implies a depressing credulity. Plato's facts and numbers simply don't add up. It is telling that the people whom Adams interviews all have elaborate and unlikely interpretations of the elements of Plato's accounts that don't fit their theories.

And that applies to this book too. In these days when cynicism is the defining feature of journalism, the fact that Adams largely respects the views of his interviewees is, I suppose, to his credit, as is his scholarly delve into ancient Greek history. But over-credulity can be as much a sin as excessive skepticism. I can't help thinking that the couple of years that it took to write this book (and the hours that I and other readers have spent reading it) could have been more profitably spent doing something else.


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