Andreas Markides reflects on the relevance of one of Plato’s most famous stories from 360 BC to our world today. The story of Atlantis reminds us to beware of “predictable surprises” and reinforces the need to strategically change behaviours by re-setting our moral compass and initiating small scale actions.
The myth of Atlantis is probably known by most people and the story is so captivating that some have even gone in search of it. However, very few have paid due attention to the word ‘’myth’’ which is very significant because that is exactly what Atlantis is – a myth!
It may surprise most people that Atlantis only existed in Plato’s imagination. One may have expected Plato to tackle philosophical questions such as ‘’what is justice?’’ and ‘’how can one lead a moral life?’’, yet with Atlantis, he appears to be indulging in science fiction.
However, there are very good reasons for Plato’s indulgence. His story is not merely science fiction and is as relevant to our world today as it was to Athens in 5 BC when he wrote it. The story goes like this:
A long time ago there used to be a land which was closest to Heaven on earth. The wealth of the kings of Atlantis was staggering, their mineral resources were excellent, there was a plentiful supply of timber, food was produced in abundance, and every kind of domesticated and wild animal including elephants lived there. Atlantis had temples, gardens, gymnasia, a hippodrome, a palace and a harbour. There was also an artificial ditch which channelled river waters from mountains to the city and into a network of canals that provided transport infrastructure as well as irrigation. There were barracks for soldiers and housing settlements for the people that lived there.
Plato defined what he considered an ‘’ideal place’’. In addition to Laws and Governance, he described the physical characteristics of this place which (he said) should have temples, orchards, a water system, a grid structure, and a number of residential units.
Image: Géza Maróti’s plan of Atlantis mock-up, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Does this attempt by Plato to define a place in its physical manifestation sound familiar to urbanists and city-makers of today?
The kings of Atlantis were just, wise, and moral. However, moral degeneration set in and the people of Atlantis ceased to ‘’be able to carry their prosperity with moderation’’. When Zeus saw this and watched with dismay the conspicuous consumption by the people of Atlantis, he decided to punish them. This led to the catastrophe which obliterated Atlantis. Since then, there have been hundreds of theories about where Atlantis may lie, including at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere in the Mediterranean or even in a Scandinavian fjord.
Image: The destruction of Atlantis (1928), Nicholas Roerich, Public domain, via WikiArt.
The question is not where Atlantis lies but why Plato wrote such a myth? The answer is simple – he was trying to warn his fellow citizens (who had achieved a great civilisation) not to rest on their laurels. He was conveying that just like the mighty Atlantis had been obliterated because of its citizens’ moral degradation, the very same thing could happen to Athens.
Does this myth have any relevance to us today? Our world is currently experiencing its ‘’Atlantis moment’’ – leaders with no moral compass, devotion to material gains and our own disregard of the natural environment. Despite repeated pleas from modern prophets (from Al Gore in the early 90s to more recently, people such as David Attenborough and even the young Greta Thunberg) we pay no heed to their warnings. We continue to fill our oceans with plastic, remain glued to our cars, hunt and kill whales to satisfy peculiar culinary proclivities, burn coal, and destroy virgin forests.
We remain stubbornly oblivious to stark warnings from our planet itself – huge forest fires, irreversible melting of ice caps and unusual floods. Will we continue to ignore these warnings in the same way that the ancient Athenians ignored Plato? Or is there a tsunami just round the corner awaiting to engulf our own Atlantis?
Image: via NOAA.
This is an abbreviated version of Andrea’s article published in The Academy of Urbanism journal Here and Now in August 2022.
Andreas Markides is experienced in the planning, design and management of major development projects, infrastructure, urban extensions and town centre regeneration schemes. He is a founding member of the Academy of Urbanism and was President of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) 2017-2018. In 2014 he acted as Planning Commissioner for the island of Cyprus. Andreas is currently chairman of Markides Associates which employs 35 transport planners and engineers in London.