Unfinished Platonic dialogue, sequel to the Timaeus and the Atlantis myth.

Characters and subject matter of the dialogue

The Critias was never finished. It begins where the Timaeus comes to a close and it ends mid-sentence, as Critias is trying to conclude the Atlantis myth, which he began in the introduction of the Timaeus. The setting and the characters are the same as those in the Timaeus: Socrates, Critias, Timaeus and Hermocrates are discussing in Athens around 525-520 BCE. Timaeus has just finished his narration on the formation of the universe and, as per the agreement in the introduction of the dialogue, it is now Critias’ turn to speak, having promised to relate to his companions all that he had heard from his grandfather (and ultimately from Solon and the Egyptian priests) on the conflict between ancient Athens and Atlantis.

Critias is the infamous Athenian oligarch, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, and brother of Plato’s mother. He is presented by Plato, not only here but also in the Charmides and the Protagoras where he makes an appearance, as a wise and respectable person.

It is not absolutely clear how the dialogue would have developed, had it ever been finished. The text contrasts modest and virtuous ancient Athens to powerful and lavish Atlantis, which gradually lapsed into injustice and depravity and is about to be punished by Zeus (probably by being sunk into the sea). It is very likely that an account of the conflict between the two cities would follow, given that Critias had stated in the Timaeus that he would respond to Socrates’ wish to see his ideal republic in motion (Timaeus 19c, 25d-26d) -- i.e. in history.

Issues of interpretation

The first question one is plainly faced with is why Plato selects Critias as the positive protagonist for the dialogue. One could suppose that Plato opts to stress his mental facet, since Critias indeed occupied an important place in the intellectual atmosphere of Athens in the fifth century BCE, along with the Sophists. Even if this is granted for Plato’s early dialogues, it would be hard to maintain the same for the homonymous dialogues, in which Critias is clearly presented as a politician. One probably must come to terms with the idea that Plato’s evaluation of his uncle differed from the way history came to regard him.

It is more important to ask, however, why the dialogue was not finished -- especially because its extant part seems to be quite carefully written. The customary explanation (submitted by Herman at the end of the nineteenth century) suggests that Plato abandoned the trilogy Timaeus-Critias-Hermocrates, when he decided to write the Laws, in which dialogue he incorporated all he wished to develop after the Timaeus. One could strengthen this view with the claim that the third book of the Laws bears some similarity to Critias’ account, barring what concerns Atlantis. Nevertheless, such an interpretation is simply significant of our complete ignorance regarding the way Plato composed or “published” his works. One must, therefore, admit that there is no satisfactory answer to this question, because one cannot rule out even the possibility that the dialogue was left unfinished on purpose. Yet it remains certain that the Critias, in the form it has come down to us, will keep being read as a main source for the famous Atlantis myth.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Gill, C. "The Genre of the Atlantis Story." Classical Philology 72 (1977)
  • Rivaud, A. Platon, Timee, Critias. Παρίσι, 1925.
  • Naquet, P.VNaquet, P.V. ed. . Le chasseur noir. Παρίσι, 1981.
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