“Rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu.” – Mallarmé
Plato had a cyclic – or “spiraling” – view of history, in which the cycles bear the regular scars of catastrophe, the plural catastrophes being epochal in the root sense of articulating a dehiscence between one age and another. The most dramatic expression of Plato’s catastrophic theory of history comes with the story of Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens in the two linked dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. The Atlantis story has a pedigree, which Timaeus supplies. The statesman Critias, who narrates the legend in the two dialogues, heard it in his youth from his grandfather, who knew it in turn from his source, the famous lawgiver Solon, who got it from certain records kept by the Egyptian priestly college at Saïs in the Nile Delta. Solon visited there in early career on an embassy from Athens. The filiations of memory that permit Critias to rehearse the story are important in context because Plato, putting his notion in the mouth of an Egyptian priest, believes that one effect of the regular cataclysmic events is periodically to interrupt the record of history and reset cultural development at its degree-zero. When the earth shakes or fire falls from the sky or the oceans rise to inundate the land, civilization, painfully built up over the centuries, vanishes under the onslaught of nature; only a few mountain-dwellers or lucky, remote people survive. Since the simple, unlettered survivors take no custody of the written lore, almost every verbal trace of the smashed civilization also vanishes. The priest tells Solon that quirks of nature permit a few exceptions, and that the Nile Delta is one of them – a place unaffected by universal disasters, where continuous records chronicle humanity’s adventures going back tens of thousands of years into the past. Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens attained high civilization; their achievements, technical and political, indeed put to shame all the societies of Solon’s day, including Attic society. A scourge of earthquakes and flooding obliterated both nations and the stunned survivors managed to live at a stone-age level of material culture only.