11 Nov 2010

Plato's Atlantis and the modern political war of extremes

I notice Kirkus Reviews' reviewed Rodney Castleden's work, Atlantis Destroyed, which attempts to thoroughly debunk the myths regarding Plato's story of Atlantis. Putting aside certain details, I'm reasonably satisfied with the book. I feel that it's brave of any scholar to explore a topic in depth and its variety of potential relationships by respectfully laying out the supportive facts and reasoning. The reviewer gave a good review too overall but I'm drawn in by the subtlety of his jaded remarks that lie between the lines; the kind of remarks that remind me of the childish battle of absolutist extremes that plays out so often in daily life and in the hysteria-oriented media which strives to make every instance of public discourse an infuriating, hellish swamp of shallow analyses, void of resolution. When ideological extremes are allowed to take control of the podium, there can be no united intellectual advancement, just division, stupidity and hatred.

Now, in the review in question, the critic remarks on an unqualified perception of "pseudoscholarly tone", a serious accusation that requires better explanation, while subtly but effectively holding Castleden in jaded contempt for of all other authors prior to him who've abused the topic. Within the essay, another book's suspiciously advertised and compared, Richard Ellis' Imagining Atlantis, also it so happens reviewed by Kirkus Reviews. In that second review, it's explained that "Ellis leads the reader ineffably toward the firm conclusion that Plato invented Atlantis." This seems to be handled as a comparatively better position to that of Castleden, yet this conclusion comes across to me as insultingly self-evident and a lazier position.

And so I come to a larger thought about politics, both in and out of academia, that seek to polarize people to one insane extreme or another while ridiculing moderation. Certainly Atlantis is a lightning rod for cranks with ridiculous positions that seek to find meaning in anything and everything without facts. Yet we need to simultaneously be aware at all times of the cranks on the other end of the spectrum who will insist beyond sense that something simply has no meaning or relevance at all. Both sides are destructive parasites to reasoned debate. This is an ageless battle between two equally nutty camps of thought: the relativists and the nihilists.

So when an author like Ellis insists that Plato has no influences and that it's purely of Plato's own isolated creation, he is falling into the same trap as the most extreme opposition he seeks to diminish, by insisting as they do on an indefensible position. In an attempt to oppose one extreme with its equal and opposite, one must pretend that Plato's work was spontaneously created in a bubble, snuffing out all other logical considerations, even though this assertion is bluntly counter to reality. I hope we can all agree that there are simply no works ever published by anyone that are not influenced or inspired in some way by the works of others. There is no idea that's not sparked by the idea of another. Originality is ultimately an egotistical illusion, like fruitlessly scanning the ocean to pick out its individual raindrops. So the story of Atlantis can only be influenced by something other than Plato's own lonely mind.

A more moderate position on Atlantis is as follows. First off, yes, it should be quite obvious to the learned historian that Plato intended his entertaining tale to be in allusion to contemporaneous politics and his own theories on building a better civilization. This motive might even be justified as the main force in his recountal of the legend. However we must acknowledge that we have no rational basis to deny a priori other possible sources of this tale if they're based on logical considerations. For me, Plato's Atlantis can validly be seen as a lot of things without this multiplicity being self-conflicting. It's a cautionary tale; it's an illustration of Plato's views on societal progress and morality; it's also most probably a remnant of older tales based loosely on the Mediterranean history of the 2nd millennium BCE. For this topic to be treated with respect, we must avoid absolutes and blind literalism. This is a more well-rounded position; a more complex position. And sadly, moderate positions may forever be too complex to be condensed in a 30-second soundbyte and too bland for the more extremist academics to respect or understand.

1 comment:

  1. I like this. It's almost as if I wrote this.

    I agree. You see this same problem not just with regards to Atlantis, but sadly everywhere in history, literature-analysis, lingustics, and the rest of the humanities and anthropological sciences.