Critical Inquiry 18 (2):300-326 (1992)

I will not dwell overlong on the “meaning” of this story. But let me make two essential points. Plato tells us this story as though it were true: it is “a tale which, though passing strange, is yet wholly true.” Those words were to be translated into every language in the world and used to justify the most realistic fantasies. That is quite understandable, for Plato’s story started something new. With a perversity that was to ensure him great success, Plato had laid the foundations for the historical novel, that is to say, the novel set in a particular place and a particular time. We are now quite accustomed to historical novels, and we also know that in every detective story there comes a moment when the detective declares that real life is not much like what happens in detective stories; it is far more complicated. But that was not the case in the fourth century B.C. Plat’s words were taken seriously, not by everyone, but by many, down through the centuries. And it is not too hard to see that some people continue to take them seriously today.As for the “meaning,” following others and together with others, I have tried elsewhere to show that essentially it is quite clear: the Athens and Atlantis of ancient lore represent the two faces of Plato’s own Athens. The former, the old primordial Athens, is what Plato would have liked the city of which he was a citizen to be; the latter is what Athens was in the age of Pericles and Cleon, an imperialistic power whose very existence constituted a threat to other Greek cities. Pierre Vidal-Naquet is director of the Centre Louis Gernet de Recherches Comparées sure les Sociétés Anciennes at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. His most recent publications are the second volume of Les Juifs, la mémoire et le present , La Grèce ancienne 1: Du mythe à la raison, with Jean-Pierre Vernant , and La Démocratie grecque vue d’ailleurs . Among his works to have appeared in English are Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, with Jean-Pierre Vernant , and The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World . Janet Lloyd is a supervisor for a number of colleges in Cambridge University, where she gives classes in French language and literature. Among her more recent translations are Yves Mény’s Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, West Germany and Marie-Claire Bergère’s Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911-1937 . In progress are translations of works on Shakespeare, Pericles’ Athens, and a historical geography of France
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