Plato's Atlantis Story: Text, Translation and Commentary by Christopher Gill
Plato's Atlantis Story is a revised edition of Gill's previous volume, Plato: The Atlantis Story, originally published by Bristol Press in 1980. This revised edition includes a new interpretive introduction, comprehensive bibliography, an original translation, Greek text with commentary, a glossary of Greek terms, an index of ancient passages, and a handful of helpful figures that portray the geography of Atlantis as well as the geography of the world as conceived by the Greeks. All the bases have certainly been covered, and this wealth of resources should appeal to readers at any level of study. The nearly fifty-page interpretive introduction, however, will be of significant interest to scholars, and it will be the focus of what follows.
Gill's interpretation is principally concerned with presentation (2, 4). His strategy is to understand the Atlantis story by understanding its place in the larger composition of the Timaeus and Critias, and the upshot is an account framed in terms of Critias's progress toward the construction of an adequate account, a story about Atlantis, for sure, but one more fundamentally or philosophically about Critias's real-time intellectual improvement.
This story of improvement is based on close attention to two components of the larger composition: the relationship between the speeches given by the main characters, Timaeus and Critias, and the relationship of these speeches to what is commonly known as "Socrates's request"—that is, the agenda-setting topics assigned to the main characters by Socrates at the outset of the Timaeus.
Taking the latter first, Socrates's request is, for Gill, a request for a philosophical myth that shows the presence of the ideal in the concrete via structure. Also included is some demand for a contrast class—a structure that cannot hold the ideal and is therefore inferior. Ultimately, the state of Atlantis acts as such a foil, and one to be contrasted with the ideal-instantiating proto-Athenian society. [End Page 171]
Critias's attempt to offer an adequate account of the two competing states comes in two iterations. The first iteration, which makes up much of the prologue to Timaeus's account, is a failure, in Gill's assessment. Critias's insistence on the factuality of the Atlantis story and the excessive attention to historiography it carries with it seem to ignore the mythical component of Socrates's request. Further, the focus on proto-Athens neglects the structural component of the request and, in particular, the call for a portrait of an inferior or even opposite societal structure. The second iteration, which makes up the content of the Critias, is much improved, according to Gill. The prominent historiographical features and bias toward Athens have been tempered by a more neutral reporting on the natural, infrastructural, and political organization of both states, and in a way that acts as a clear evaluation of the competing structural components of each.
So what accounts for Critias's progress? Gill's position here is intriguing. In many of Plato's dialogues, we find a vivid dialectical exchange, a rapid give and take of question, answer, agreement, and disagreement between the characters. The larger composition of the Timaeus and Critias, by contrast, is a dialectic in slow motion. In Gill's mind, Timaeus's account of the ideal in the concrete, though couched in a lengthy monologue, still acts to ameliorate Critias's subsequent speech just as a more expeditious and personalized dialectical interrogation would.
Now consider the contrasting interpretation espoused in Gill's original volume of 1980. Three claims stand out here. First, Gill asserts that Critias's account is precisely what Socrates has asked for, first iteration included (xv). Second, rather than being an indication of misunderstanding, Critias's stress on the factuality of his account signals Plato's recognition of a cardinal convention in the burgeoning field of history—namely, conscientious concern for accuracy (xxi). Third, Gill takes the Atlantis story to be very much about fifth and fourth century Athens (xvii–xx), a contention that is nearly contradicted in the present volume with the suggestion that the Atlantis story is not "about Athens in a strong sense" (30).
So what accounts for Gill's progress? With his new interpretation, Gill appears to have left behind the predominant historical orientation of 1980 to follow the particular brand of post-Johansen (Plato's Natural Philosophy, 2004) concern with composition. As stated above, Gill's interpretation is built around interest in presentation or, more specifically, the order of presentation; and the new narrative of Critias's progress is arguably the most elegant explanation of this order to date.
In the end, I have no complaints to lodge. This fact itself could amount to the criticism that Gill is playing it safe if not for the fact that his views have changed diametrically since 1980. The new interpretation, then, represents a bold development in Gill's thought and one that is, on the whole, absolutely agreeable and certain to become canonical.