The Greeks are Always Young: Catastrophe and Chronology in Plato’s Late Dialogues

 

This paper investigates the complex interaction between creation, time, destruction and re-creation in Plato’s Timaeus, Critas, Statesman and Laws. All four works contain sections that are concerned with the vast nature of cosmological and geological time and the cyclical nature of human time. In each of these dialogues Plato posits that the majority of the human race has been destroyed by catastrophes. The myth of Atlantis, which is the ‘prologue’ to the creation narrative of the Timaeus (21e-25d), and presumably would have been the focus of the unfinished Critias, is Plato’s most well-known account of this phenomenon. Here, Plato suggests that geological and human time are experienced differently by Greeks and Egyptians. In the Statesman (268d-274e), periodic global catastrophes are a precursor to changes in the flow of time and human development. In the Laws (676a-681c), Plato uses global catastrophes as a heuristic to explain the repeated destruction and development of political communities.

Aside from the Atlantis myth, there has been little scholarly discussion of Plato’s catastrophe theory.[1] This paper argues that although the catastrophes are presented in different contexts, in each case Plato is exploring the nature of time. Plato sets deep time against the limited nature of human time and memory. According to Plato’s dual chronological schema, the universe puts a check on human progress. Time continually restarts for humans. Accomplishments and history are forgotten; the human race must continually rebuild, often in the exact way that it did before. This combination of linear and cyclical time allows Plato to explain how in an eternal world many intellectual and technological advances have only happened ‘recently.’ It would also prove influential for later philosophical and theological thought.

[1] G. Cambiano. 2002. ‘Catastrofi naturali e storia umana in Platone e Aristotele.’ Rivista storica italiana. 114: 694-714.