Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: Plato on Solon, the Egyptian priest, and Atlantis (mid-fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 9, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7109.
Ancient author: Plato, Timaeus 21a–26a (link).
Comments: In this passage, Plato (writing about 360 BCE) has Kritias relate a story he heard from the elder Kritias regarding a legendary trip of Solon (law-giver of the Athenians) to Egypt to learn from Egyptian priests. (This is imagined to take place in the seventh or sixth century BCE). At first sight, the story gives the impression of the Egyptians and the Egyptian priest in particular as a source of great wisdom. Certainly, the Egyptians are portrayed as superior record-keepers, since they have on record many things that Greeks do not know anything about. Also, there are hints that the current city of Athens is considered secondary to Egyptian civilization, with the joke being that Athenians are “young” in terms of civilization. However, the content of the wisdom that the Egyptians have preserved, the story goes, is that, in fact, there was a city that preceded Athens and that city and its people were superior to all others, including Egyptians. Floods and other disasters meant that the Athenian people no longer had record of that earlier superior civilization, but the Egyptians had preserved that information due to the fact that such disasters are imagined to not occur in Egypt.
This is where the story of the island of Atlantis comes into the picture: the city that preceded Athens entailed a superior civilization and an exceptionally courageous people who successfullly saved virtually all of humanity (including the Egyptians themselves) from the attack of the confederation of the kings of Atlantis. So overall this story relates directly to the theme of barbarian (Egyptian) wisdom, but with a subversive twist that allows at least a predecessor of the Athenian people to come out on top. It is noteworthy that Plato refers to the ideal climate of the area that became Athens as the basis of the superiority of that earlier people, which implies a similar superiority for Athenians as well.
Source of translations: H.N. Fowler, W.R.M. Lamb, R.G. Bury, and P. Shorey, Plato, 12 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain (Fowler passed away in 1955, Lamb in 1961, Shorey in 1934, Bury in 1951), adapted by Harland.
[Introduction of Solon’s story about a trip to Egypt]
Sokrates: Excellent! But come now, what was this achievement described by [the older] Kritias, following Solon’s report, as a thing not verbally recorded, although actually performed by this city long ago?
Kritias: I will tell you. It is an old tale, and I heard it from a man who was not young. For indeed at that time, as he said himself, [21b] Kritias was already close to ninety years old, while I was somewhere around ten. That day happened to be the Apatouria, which is called “Kureotis.” The ceremony for boys which was always customary at the feast was also held on that occasion, our fathers arranging contests in recitation. So while many poems of many poets were declaimed, since the poems of Solon were at that time new, many of us children chanted them. One of the members of our phratry declared that in his opinion Solon was not only the wisest of men in all else, but in poetry also he was the best of all poets. (It is not clear whether he really thought so at the time or whether he was paying a compliment [21c] to Kritias).
The old man (I remember the scene well) was highly pleased with this and said with a smile, “If only he had not taken up poetry as a hobby, Amynander, but had worked hard at it like others. And if only he had completed the story he brought here from Egypt, instead of being forced to set it aside due to the feuds and all the other problems he found here on his return. [21d] Why then, I say, neither Hesiod nor Homer nor any other poet would ever have proved more famous than him.” “And what was the story, Kritias?” said the other. “Its subject,” replied Kritias, “was a very great achievement, truly worthy to be considered the most notable of all achievements which was performed by this city, although the record of it has not endured until now due to the passing of time and the destruction of those who did it.” “Tell us from the beginning,” said Amynander, “what Solon related and how, and who were the informants who told him it was true.”
[21e] “In the Delta of Egypt,” said Kritias, “where, at its head, the stream of the Nile parts in two, there is a certain district called the Saitic. The chief city in this district is Sais, the home of king Amasis. The founder of Sais, they say, is a goddess whose Egyptian name is Neith, and Athena in Greek, as they claim. These people profess to be great lovers of Athens and in a measure akin to our people here. And Solon said that when he travelled there he was held in great regard among them. Moreover, when he was questioning their priests that were [22a] most versed in ancient lore about their early history, he discovered that neither he himself nor any other Greek knew anything at all, one might say, about such matters. On one occasion, when he wished to encourage them to talk more about ancient history, he attempted to tell them the most ancient of our traditions, concerning Phoroneus, who was said to be the first man, and Niobe. Solon went on to tell the legend about Deukalion and Pyrrha after the flood, and how they survived it and to give the genealogy of their descendants. [22b] By explaining the number of years these events covered, he tried to calculate the periods of time.
[Egyptian priest’s explanation of why Egyptian records are superior and survive disasters, but Athenians remain “young” as a civilization]
At this point one of the priests, a very old man, said, “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: there is not such a thing as an old Greek.” And on hearing this Solon asked, “What do you mean by this saying?” The priest replied, “You are young in soul, every one of you. For you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor is your understanding grey with age. [22c] And this is the cause: There have been and there will be many and diverse destructions of humankind. The greatest destructions will be by fire and water, and the lesser ones by countless other means. For instance, you have a story about how Phaethon son of Helios yoked his father’s chariot and, because he was unable to drive it along the course taken by his father, burned up all that was upon the earth and himself perished by a thunderbolt. That story, as it is told, has the form of a legend, but the truth of it lies in [22d] the occurrence of a shifting of the bodies in the heavens which move round the earth, and a destruction of the things on the earth by fierce fire, which recurs at long intervals. At such times all those dwelling on the mountains and in high and dry places suffer destruction more than those who dwell near to rivers or the sea. In our case, the Nile, our Saviour in other ways, saves us also at such times from this disaster by rising high.”
“When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a flood of waters, all the herdsmen and shepherds that are in the mountains are saved, [22e] but those in the cities of your land are swept into the sea by the streams. Yet in our country, either in the past or now, the water does not pour down over our fields from above. On the contrary, it all tends naturally to well up from below.
For these reasons, what we preserve here is reckoned to be most ancient. The truth being that in every place where there is no excessive heat or cold to prevent it, there always exists some human stock, now more, now less in number. [23a] And if any event has occurred that is noble or great or in any way conspicuous – whether taking place in your country or in ours or in some other place of which we know by report – all such events are recorded since the old days and are preserved here in our temples. Yet your people and the others are but newly equipped, every time, with letters and all such arts as civilized cities require and when, after the usual interval of years, like a plague, the flood from heaven comes sweeping down again upon your people, [23b] it leaves none of you but the unlettered and uncultured. So you become as young as ever, with no knowledge of all that happened in old times in this land or in your own.
Certainly the genealogies which you related just now, Solon, concerning the people of your country, are little better than children’s tales. For, in the first place, you remember but one flood, though many had occurred previously. Furthermore, you are ignorant of the fact that the best and most perfect descent group (genos) among men were born in the land where you now live. From them, both you yourself are sprung and the whole [23c] of your existing city, out of some little seed that chanced to be left over. But this has escaped your notice because for many generations the survivors died with no power to express themselves in writing. But, in fact, there was a time, Solon, before the greatest destruction by water, when what is now called the city of Athens was the bravest in war and extremely well-organized in all other respects as well. It is said that it possessed the most splendid works of art and the noblest civic organization of any people under heaven of which we have heard anything about.”
[Priest explains the character of the city and people that preceded Athens 9,000 years earlier]
[23d] Upon hearing this, Solon said that he was amazed and with the utmost enthusiasm asked the priest to recount for him in order and exactly all the facts about those citizens of old. The priest then said: “I will gladly tell you the story, Solon, both for your own sake and for the sake of your city. But most of all I will tell it for the sake of the goddess who has adopted for her own both your land and our land, and has nurtured and trained them. Your city was founded first, when she had received the seed of you from Ge [23e] and Hephaistos and, one thousand years later, ours was founded. The duration of our civilization as set down in our sacred writings is 8,000 years.
Regarding the citizens who lived 9,000 years ago, then, I will briefly outline to you some of their laws and their most excellent achievements: [24a] the full account in precise order and detail we will go through later at our leisure, taking the actual writings. To get a view of their laws, look at the laws here. For you will find existing here now many examples of the laws which then existed in your city. You see, first, how the priestly class is separated off from the rest. Next, there is the class of craftsmen, with each sort working by itself without mixing with the others. Then there are the classes of shepherds, hunters, and farmers, each distinct and separate. Moreover, the military class here, [24b] as no doubt you have noticed, is kept apart from all the other classes, being enjoined by the law to devote itself solely to the work of training for war. A further feature is the character of their equipment with shields and spears. For we were the first of the peoples of Asia to adopt these weapons, as the goddess instructed us, even as she instructed you first of all the dwellers in your far off lands. Again, with regard to wisdom, you perceive, no doubt, how much attention [24c] the law here has devoted from the very beginning to the cosmic order, by discovering all the effects which the divine causes produce upon human life, down to divination and the skill of medicine which aims at health, and by its mastery also of all the other subsidiary studies.
[Superiority of the city that preceded Athens]
So when, at that time, the goddess had supplied you before all others with all this orderly and regular system, she established your city, choosing the spot where you were born since she perceived there a climate appropriately blended, and how that it would bring forth men of supreme wisdom. [24d] So it was that the goddess, being herself both a lover of war and a lover of wisdom, chose the spot which was likely to produce people like herself, and this she established first. Therefore, you lived under the rule of such laws as these – in fact even better laws – and you surpassed all people in every virtue, as became those who were the offspring and nurslings of gods. Many, in truth, and great are the achievements of your city, which are a marvel to men as they are here recorded; but there is one which stands out above all [24e] both for magnitude and for excellence.
For it is related in our records how once upon a time your city withstood a mighty host which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia as well. For the ocean there was at that time navigable. For in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, “the pillars of Herakles,” there was an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together. It was possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent [25a] opposite them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance. But that over there is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.
[Defeating the invading powers of the island of Atlantis]
Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings with great and marvellous power who held sway over all the island, over many other islands, and over parts of the continent. Moreover, [25b] of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tuscany. So this host, being all gathered together, made an attempt one time to enslave by one single military campaign both your country and ours, as well as the whole of the territory within the Straits. At that time, Solon, your city displayed its courage and might in the view of the whole world. For it stood preeminent above all [25c] in bravery and military skills. Acting partly as leader of the Greeks and partly standing alone by itself when deserted by all others and after encountering the deadliest perils, it defeated the invaders and raised a trophy. By this action, it saved from slavery those who were not yet enslaved, and all the rest of us who dwell within the bounds of Herakles it set free without hesitation. But at a later time there occurred ominous earthquakes and floods. [25d] One grievous day and night the whole group of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished. As a result, the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down.”
You have now heard, Sokrates, in brief outline, the account given by the elder Kritias of what he heard from Solon. [25e] When you were speaking yesterday about the city and the citizens you were describing, I was amazed as I called to mind the facts I am now relating, reflecting what a strange piece of fortune it was that your description coincided so exactly for the most part with Solon’s account. But I chose not [26a] to speak right away because my recollection of his account was not sufficiently clear due to the passing of time. So I decided that I should not relate it until I had first gone over it all carefully in my own mind. Consequently, I readily consented to the theme you proposed yesterday, since I thought that we should be reasonably well provided for the task of supplying a satisfactory speech, which is always the greatest task.
So it was that, as Hermokrates has said, the moment I left your place yesterday I began to relate to them the story as I recollected it, [26b] and after I parted from them I pondered it over during the night and recovered, as I may say, the whole story. It is really amazing how the lessons of one’s childhood “grip the mind,” as the saying is. For myself, I do not know whether I could recall everything that I heard yesterday. Yet as to the account I heard such a long time ago, I should be immensely surprised if a single detail of it has escaped me. I had then the greatest pleasure and amusement in hearing it, [26c] and the old man was eager to tell me, since I kept questioning him repeatedly. So the story is stamped firmly on my mind like the designs that use heat to make an indelible painting. Moreover, immediately after daybreak I related this same story to our friends here, so that they might share in my rich provision of speech.