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Solon’s Egyptian Trip: Intertextual Resonances and Platonic Irony in the Timaeus

Daniel Esses

University of California, Berkeley

This paper develops a novel interpretation of the account of Solon’s Egyptian trip in Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s purpose in having Solon travel to Egypt to acquire his fabulous story about Atlantis, I argue, is not to bolster the story’s authority and credibility, as is usually supposed (see, e.g., Joly 1982: 259-62; Capra 2010: 206-9, 213). Rather, his aim is to invite careful reflection on the story’s philosophical value. Both Solon and Egypt are venerable, authoritative sources, it appears; but there are rich intertextual resonances in Plato’s characterization of them that undercut this appearance. Reading Plato’s Solon and Egyptian priests against the backdrop of literary predecessors from within and outside the Platonic corpus, I reveal significant ironies in how these figures are portrayed. 

As a traveling wise man, Plato’s Solon recalls Herodotus’ Solon, but there are nevertheless striking contrasts between the two portrayals of the Athenian statesman. Unlike Herodotus’ Solon, whose travels postdate his legislative achievements (Hist. 1.29), Plato’s Solon visits Egypt before helping Athens as a politician (Tim. 21c-d). With this reversal, Solon’s travels take on an altogether different meaning. Whereas in the Histories Solon is an accomplished sage who shares his wisdom with the likes of Croesus of Lydia, in the Timaeus he is a student with much to learn from those he visits. Herodotus’ Solon speaks authoritatively and presciently, and a strong case can be made that his voice is closely aligned with that of Herodotus himself (Fornara 1971: 18-23; Lateiner 1989: 42, 143; Shapiro 1996). By contrast, Plato’s Solon tries to impress his Egyptian hosts with naïve genealogies, only for them to show him how mistaken he is (Tim. 22b4ff). Despite these divergences, Plato does in fact base his portrait of Solon on another figure from Herodotus: Hecataeus of Miletus. Like Plato’s Solon, Herodotus’ Hecataeus also visits Egypt to be cured of his ignorance by Egyptian priests (Hist. 2.143). This episode in Herodotus serves, at least in part, to alert the reader to the difference between Herodotus’ critical approach to history and his predecessor’s naivety (Lateiner 1989: 94; cf. West 1991: 149). Similarly, Plato’s portrayal of Solon as the Egyptians’ childlike student invites critical reflection on the putative sage’s reputation for wisdom and his authority. 

As for the Egyptian priests: since they correct Solon’s historical errors and open up a wider temporal perspective for him, they might seem at first to be unimpeachable, genuinely wise authorities. A close look at how the Egyptians set Solon straight, however, shows that they too hold some questionable views. This becomes clear if we interpret what the Egyptians say against the backdrop of Plato’s Phaedrus. I examine the Egyptians’ rationalizing deconstruction of ancient myths and contrast it with Socrates’ criticism of that procedure in Phaedrus 229e-230a. I further argue that that in their reliance on writing and self-satisfaction the Egyptian priests exemplify a type of counterfeit wisdom. This is precisely the delusion that, according to Socrates in Phaedrus 274e-275b, Thamus feared would afflict his people after they adopted writing. Plato’s Egyptian priests, then, recall not only Herodotus, but also problems surrounding myth and writing that Plato flags in the Phaedrus. To someone familiar with Plato’s earlier work, the priests’ supposed wisdom should be deeply problematic. 

Although a close look at the sources of the Atlantis story undermines its authority and credibility, this is not to say that we should be completely skeptical about the story’s value. What matters is not the content of the story, but how we interpret it. Solon and the Egyptian priests model perceptions of the story that are unbecoming of a genuine philosopher. They are examples, that is, of how we should not approach history and myth if our aim is to become wise. Most important is not what actually happened, but whether and how narratives illuminate humans’ nature and their place in the cosmos.

Session/Panel Title

Plato

Session/Paper Number

3.5

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