Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued . . . .

There is one more Greek comparative illustration I wanted to look at before picking up with Gmirkin’s main example as I promised at the end of the previous post. I had meant to look at a section in Plato’s Timaeus before moving on so will do that here. Gmirkin had addressed the discussion related to Plato’s myth of Atlantis in his previous chapter when comparing the biblical and Greek laws and promises associated with sacred oaths. In this post I bring in the Atlantis myth in the context of Plato’s discussion of the importance of the lawgiver Solon, since Plato’s account of Solon forms part of Gmirkin’s chapter 5 on legal narratives.

Recall that two posts earlier I mentioned that Gmirkin points to the wide range of literary genres in the classical Greek writings through which interest and appreciation of law codes, constitutions and the narratives relating to their introduction and the lives of the lawgivers themselves is expressed. One more that we examine in this post is the philosophical discourse. Plato’s Laws also contains “historical” types of narratives that lead to the institution of political and legislative institutions but since (if I recall correctly) we have discussed some of those in other posts (including posts prior to the publication of Gmirkin’s book) we will focus here on fleshing out an endnote to Gmirkin’s chapter 5.

It is from Plato’s Timaeus, and the wise lawgiver Solon is said to have acquired much of his great wisdom from Egypt. So essentially it is a tale of law origins within the tale of another famous lawgiver. Wheels within wheels.


Listen then, Socrates, to a tale which, though passing strange, is yet wholly true, as Solon,

[20e] the wisest of the Seven, once upon a time declared.

Now Solon—as indeed he often says himself in his poems—was a relative and very dear friend of our great-grandfather Dropides; and Dropides told our grandfather Critias as the old man himself, in turn, related to us—that the exploits of this city in olden days, the record of which had perished through time and the destruction of its inhabitants, were great and marvellous, the greatest of all being one which it would be proper[21a] for us now to relate . . . . 


Excellent! But come now, what was this exploit described by Critias, following Solons report, as a thing not verbally recorded, although actually performed by this city long ago?


I will tell you: it is an old tale, and I heard it from a man not young. For indeed at that time, as he said himself,

[21b] Critias was already close upon ninety years of age, while I was somewhere about ten; and it chanced to be that day of the Apaturia which is called “Cureotis.”The ceremony for boys which was always customary at the feast was held also 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.

I interject here to mention that many of the poems by Solon were said to relate to the wisdom that inspired his laws.

Note, further, the importance given to presenting this newly invented tale as actually originating in hoary antiquity. Notice the rhetorical flourishes throughout that make the tale so credible. Verisimilitude is an art.

And one of our fellow tribesmen—whether he really thought so at the time or whether he was paying a compliment[21c] to Critias—declared that in his opinion Solon was not only the wisest of men in all else, but in poetry also he was of all poets the noblest. Whereat the old man (I remember the scene well) was highly pleased and said with a smile, “If only, Amynander, he had not taken up poetry as a by-play but had worked hard at it like others, and if he had completed the story he brought here from Egypt, instead of being forced to lay it aside owing to the seditions and all the other evils 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 he.”

“And what was the story, Critias?” said the other. “Its subject,” replied Critias, “was a very great exploit, worthy indeed to be accounted the most notable of all exploits, which was performed by this city, although the record of it has not endured until now owing to lapse of time and the destruction of those who wrought it.

“Tell us from the beginning,” said Amynander, “what Solon related and how, and who were the informants who vouched for its truth.”[21e]

“In the Delta of Egypt,” said Critias, “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,1—the founder of which, they say, is a goddess whose Egyptian name is Neith, and in Greek, as they assert, Athena. 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 esteem amongst them; moreover, when he was questioning such of their priests

[22a] as were 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. And on one occasion, when he wished to draw them on to discourse on 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; and he went on to tell the legend about Deucalion and Pyrrha after the Flood, and how they survived it, and to give the geneology of their descendants;[22b] and by recounting the number of years occupied by the events mentioned he tried to calculate the periods of time.

Whereupon one of the priests, a prodigiously 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 he asked, “What mean you by this saying?” And the priest replied, “You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is hoary with age.

[22c] And this is the cause thereof: There have been and there will be many and divers destructions of mankind, of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means. For in truth the story that is told in your country as well as ours, how once upon a time Phaethon, son of Helios, yoked his father’s chariot, and, because he was unable to drive it along the course taken by his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth and himself perished by a thunderbolt,—that story, as it is told, has the fashion 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 they that dwell on the mountains and in high and dry places suffer destruction more than those who dwell near to rivers or the sea; and in our case the Nile, our Saviour in other ways, saves us also at such times from this calamity by rising high. And 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; whereas In our country neither then nor at any other time does the water pour down over our fields from above, on the contrary it all tends naturally to well up from below. Hence it is, for these reasons, that what is here preserved 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 it be in your country or in ours or in some other place of which we know by report, all such events are recorded from of old and preserved here in our temples; whereas your people and the others are but newly equipped, every time, with letters and all such arts as civilized States require and when, after the usual interval of years, like a plague, the flood from heaven comes sweeping down afresh upon your people,[23b] it leaves none of you but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you become 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 deluge, though many had occurred previously; and next, you are ignorant of the fact that the noblest and most perfect race amongst men were born in the land where you now dwell, and 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.

For verily at one time, Solon, before the greatest destruction by water, what is now the Athenian State was the bravest in war and supremely well organized also in all other respects. It is said that it possessed the most splendid works of art and the noblest polity of any nation under heaven of which we have heard tell.”[23d]

A “national” boast is that one’s people has the best constitution or arrangement of legal processes of all.

Upon hearing this, Solon said that he marvelled, and with the utmost eagerness requested the priest to recount for him in order and exactly all the facts about those citizens of old.

The priest then said: “I begrudge you not the story, Solon; nay, I will tell it, both for your own sake and that of your city, and most of all for the sake of the Goddess who has adopted for her own both your land and this of ours, and has nurtured and trained them,—yours first by the space of a thousand years, when she had received the seed of you from Ge[23e] and Hephaestus, and after that ours. And the duration of our civilization as set down in our sacred writings is 8000 years.

Of the citizens, then, who lived 9000 years ago, I will declare to you briefly certain of their laws and the noblest of the deeds they performed:[24a] the full account in precise order and detail we shall 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 at the present time 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, the class of craftsmen, of which each sort works by itself without mixing with any other; then 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, it being the Goddess who instructed us, even as she instructed you first of all the dwellers in yonder lands.

Again, with regard to wisdom, you perceive, no doubt, the law here—how much attention[24c] it 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 art of medicine which aims at health, and by its mastery also of all the other subsidiary studies.

So when, at that time, the Goddess had furnished you, before all others, with all this orderly and regular system, she established your State, choosing the spot wherein you were born since she perceived therein a climate duly 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 bring forth men most like unto herself, and this first she established. Wherefore you lived under the rule of such laws as these,—yea, and laws still better,—and you surpassed all men in every virtue, as became those who were the offspring and nurslings of gods. Many, in truth, and great are the achievements of your State, 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 nobleness.

For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. 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 Heracles,’ there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and 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] over against 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 yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.

Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent; and, 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 onslaught both your country and ours and the whole of the territory within the Straits. And then it was, Solon, that the manhood of your State showed itself conspicuous for valor and might in the sight of all the world. For it stood pre-eminent above all[25c] in gallantry and all warlike arts, and acting partly as leader of the Greeks, and partly standing alone by itself when deserted by all others, after encountering the deadliest perils, it defeated the invaders and reared a trophy; whereby it saved from slavery such as were not as yet enslaved, and all the rest of us who dwell within the bounds of Heracles it ungrudgingly set free. But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods . . . . 

Shades of the glory promised Israel in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, great wealth and power above all nations as a direct reward for their noble character shaped by their incomparable laws.

Don’t misunderstand, though. I hope it is clear that we are talking about cultural influence, not direct literary borrowing. That is, the evidence points to common questions or topics of interest, a common intellectual world — as per Niels Peter Lemche’s argument. Gmirkin’s argument is that the authors of the Pentateuch were exposed to Greek writings through the Great Library of Alexandria, and as we have seen in some of the previous posts there are specific links between some of the Greek works and the Pentateuch where direct influence is apparent. Here I am fleshing out some of the references in Gmirkin’s work to see the evidence not only for direct borrowing and emulation of ideas, but for expressions of common interest in the place of laws and constitutions, that is, the sharing of a common intellectual world.

Now we can turn to the primary work of comparison . . . .



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