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John Luce

John V. Luce

John V. Luce (1920 - 2011) was an Irish classicist and vocal proponent of the Minoan hypothesis in the 1960s, author of the best-seller The End of Atlantis (1969). From 1971 to 1984, Luce was Assistant Professor of Classics at Trinity College (University of Dublin) and was also the College's Public Orator between 1972 and 2005. In 1975 he revised his idea about Atlantis, abandoning the Minoan hypothesis for the scholarly consensus Atlantis is fiction; Luce would though argue Plato modelled aspects of his imaginary Atlantis on Minoan Crete.

Background

  • B.A. Classics and Philosophy, University of Dublin.
  • M.A. Classics and Philosophy, University of Dublin.

Publications

  • Luce, J. V. (1969). The End of Atlantis. Thames and Hudson.
  • Luce, J. V. (1972). "More Thoughts about Thera". Greece & Rome. 19(1): 37-46.
  • Luce, J. V., Bolton, K. (1976). "Thera and the Devastation of Minoan Crete: A New Interpretation of the Evidence". American Journal of Archaeology. 80(1): 9-18.
  • Luce, J. V. (1978). "The Sources and Literary Form of Plato’s Atlantis" in Ramage, E. S (ed.) Atlantis: Fact or Fiction?. Indiana University Press. 49-78.
  • Luce, J. V. (1982). "Atlantis: The Making of Myth by Phyllis Y. Forsyth [Review]". Phoenix. 36(2): 174-176.
  • Luce, J. V. (1994). "The Changing Face of the Thera Problem". Classics Ireland. 1: 61-73.

The End of Atlantis

In his The End of Atlantis (US title: Lost Atlantis) Luce argues for the Minoan hypothesis, the idea that the Atlantis story is not fiction but an authentic oral tradition of Minoan Crete that Solon heard in Egypt and passed down to Plato (via Solonian oral pedigree). Plato recorded the tale, adapting it into a Socratic dialogue and embellished it:

"The overall case is that Solon aquired in Egypt a genuine, if somewhat garbled, tradition of Minoan Crete; that he did not appreciate the connection of the tradition with the Crete he knew; that he saw great poetical possibilites with the story; and that he set down its outlines on his return to Athens, giving Greek equivilents to Egyptian names, e.g. Atlantis for Keftiu, and embellishing the 'western island' with some of the historical and topographical information that he had recieved. Solon's account, and possibly also a Solonian manuscript, then descended to Plato by the route he indicates within his own family. This would explain why it was a genuine historical tradition, and yet not a part of current Greek mythology. Plato, like Solon, realized the great dramatic possibilities of the Keftiu-Atlantis story. His imagination got to work on the details. He gilded the palace architecture with touches of oriental splendour from his readings of Herodotus and Ctesias." (Luce, 1969: 140)

Luce (1969) stresses the oral nature of the story[1] to explain how discrepancies could appear between Minoan Crete and Plato's descriptions of Atlantis, for example, the Egyptian priests or Solon accidentally changed the size and age of Atlantis (by a factor of 10), while Solon intentionally added some embellishments to the story:

"Solon, or the priests, could have mistakenly multiplied some actual dates and linear measurements by ten. If the oblong plain round the palace was only 300 by 200 stadia (not 3000 by 2000), it would fit the actual dimensions of the Messara plain near Phaistos... If the priests were working with a date of 900 years (not 9000), the disappearance of Atlantis falls about 1490 BC." (Luce, 1969: 140)

Because of these distortions, Luce defends a mere core of history in the Atlantis story:

"I only emphasize the hard core of the legend as I see it, namely the tradition of a great and highly civilised island empire which had once menaced the autonomy of Greece in general and Athens in particular, and which came to an end as the result of a natural catastrophe." (Luce, 1969: 20)

The classicist Rhys Carpenter[2] (1970) also a proponent of the Minoan hypothesis, however, considered Luce to take too many details literal, for example the entire metropolis of Atlantis according to Carpenter is an Platonic embellishment, while Luce thought only a few features of Atlantis' metropolis are imaginary, or exaggerations.

Atlantis location dispute

The Minoan hypothesis proposes three variant location hypotheses for Atlantis connected to Minoan civilisation:

  • Atlantis was Crete.
  • Atlantis was Thera.
  • Atlantis' metropolis was Thera, but the plain of Atlantis, Messara on Crete.

In his The End of Atlantis, Luce (1969) identifies Atlantis with Crete like Kingdon T. Frost and rejects the others:

"I do not look for the lost Atlantis under the surface of Thera bay. Thera was in no sense the metropolis of Crete and cannot be identified with the metropolis of Atlantis." (Luce, 1969: 157)

In 1972, Luce published an article on the archaeology of Santorini, briefly criticising Angelos G. Galanopoulos' and James W. Mavor's identification of Atlantis' metropolis with Thera:

"In general, to try to superimpose Atlantis or its metropolis on the map of Thera seems to me a pointless, and potentially misleading exercise." (Luce, 1972)

Book reviews

The same year (1969) The End of Atlantis was published, Galanopoulos co-authored (with Edward Bacon) Atlantis: The Truth Behind the Legend, while James M. Mavor wrote Voyage to Atlantis. Considerable more attention was paid to Luce's book because of his academic credibility; out of the three, The End of Atlantis was usually rated the best in reviews.[3] Positive reviews for The End of Atlantis notably appeared in the classical scholarly journals Hermathena,[4] The Classical World (Buck, 1970) and Classical Review (Cook, 1970).

The Sources and Literary Form of Plato’s Atlantis

Atlantis-john-v-luce-ramage-fact

Atlantis: Fact or Fiction?

Luce's essay "The Sources and Literary Form of Plato's Atlantis Narrative" that he originally delivered at a symposium ("Atlantis: Fact or Fiction?") sponsored by the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University in 1975, later published as a book (Ramage ed., 1978) differs in many ways to his The End of Atlantis:

  • Luce (1978) no longer argues Solon acquired the Atlantis story as an oral tradition in Egypt, further denying the Solonian oral pedigree and transmission of the tale by word of mouth (by the route Plato describes, down through the family of Dropides): "The line of transmission by hearsay from Solon to Plato... I now feel, very much open to doubt". Instead Luce proposes it was Plato himself who travelled to Egypt and "gathered some historical information... by inspection of monuments and by conservation with temple-spokesman".
  • Luce (1978) argues after Plato personally inspected Egyptian reliefs and inscriptions, these "furnished Plato with the nucleus of his Atlantis theme, the idea of... an island empire of the West". Luce thus asserts Plato made up the Atlantis story, "accumulating materials rather than fabricating them", opposed to the story being an authentic oral tradition passed on to him that he embellished.[5] Rather though than Plato making up the Atlantis story out of whole cloth, he based his story on inspirations, his own experiences in Egypt and information he acquired from deciphering Egyptian monuments; these served as models to create a mental picture of Atlantis. Luce points out that Plato incorporated into his vivid description of Atlantis features from other sources, including "recognisably Libyan features" (Carthage?) and traits of Babylon and Ecbatana.
  • Luce (1978) substitutes Plato for Solon and no longer maintains the oral nature of the Atlantis tradition as described by Plato, hence he denies that Solon or the Egyptians accidentally multiplied the age of Atlantis, or its dimensions by a factor of 10, that he originally argued (like Galanopoulos) in The End of Atlantis.

Whether Plato acquired historical information about the Minoans (when in Egypt), Luce was now less certain, writing it "is to venture on less firm ground", although he still favoured the idea Plato based his Atlanteans on the Minoans and Atlantis on Crete (that he learnt about from inscriptions); Gill notes in his Plato: The Atlantis Story:

"Luce himself now gives a much more cautious statement of the theory and seems doubtful that Solon transmitted the story... Ramage (1978) add further reasons for scepticism." (Gill, 1980: xii)

Luce had by this point abandoned the Minoan hypothesis and seems have shifted greatly towards arguing Atlantis is fiction, but that Plato was inspired by Minoan civilisation when he wrote the story of Atlantis.

A sporting chance?

The End of Atlantis

The End of Atlantis

Regarding his earlier support for the Minoan hypothesis, Luce wrote:

"A reviewer of my book wrote that there is a 'sporting chance' that the Minoan hypothesis is correct. I myself have never put it higher than that." (Luce, 1978)

However, Luce's book contradicts this statement. For example, an alternative book-cover for The End of Atlantis (published by Bantam) says Luce has solved the Atlantis mystery:

"The ancient mystery of the lost continent - solved!"

Atlantis: The Making of Myth

Luce published a book review for Phyllis Y. Forsyth's Atlantis: The Making of Myth; in this review Luce now mentions he regards Atlantis to be "figurative" than literally real, that sharply contrasts to his The End of Atlantis:

"Can we get back from Akrotiri to Atlantis? No, if that means taking Thera as literally the Atlantis of Plato. Yes, if Thera can serve as Atlantis in a 'figurative sense.' By this she appears to mean that Thera was an example of an advanced civilisation suddenly overwhelmed by a natural disaster, that as such it would fit naturally into Plato's scheme... I concur, as also with her further point that Plato elaborated his picture by including elements drawn from a variety of other sources." (Luce, 1982)

While now arguing Atlantis is imaginary, Luce would develop Foryth's theory that Plato's story incorporated aspects of Minoan civilisation and that he had used Thera or Crete as a model for his abstract design of Atlantis. This viewpoint should not be confused with the Minoan hypothesis that identifies Thera or Crete with Atlantis, as a real place via folk memory; Dorothy B. Vitaliano does well to distinguish these two views when discussing Luce:

"Plato might have derived some of his ideas from Minoan Crete in one way or another, but such a derivation is far too roundabout for Atlantis to qualify as a legend which presents a distorted view of an actual event... Atlantis must be considered just another of the myths of Plato." (Vitaliano, 1978)

Notes and references

  1. "There is considerable emphasis on the oral character of the transmission" (Luce, 1969: 23) and "The information in the form that Solon imposed upon it was transmitted to Plato... orally" (Luce, 1969: 147).
  2. Carpenter, R. (1970). "Lost Atlantis: New Light on an Old Legend by J. V. Luce; Voyage to Atlantis by James W. Mavor [Review by Rhys Carpenter]". American Journal of Archaeology. 74(3): 302-303.
  3. See for example Moses Finley's remarks in "Back to Atlantis". The New York Review of Books. Dec. 4, 1969, who while criticising all three Atlantis books, only recommends Luce's.
  4. Richardson, L. J. D. (1969). "The End of Atlantis by J. V. Luce [Review]". Hermathena. 109: 65-66.
  5. In The End of Atlantis, Luce makes it clear he originally believed the Atlantis story was an oral tradition that was passed to Plato: "garbled before it reached him" (Luce, 1969: 20) i.e. "The information in the form that Solon imposed upon it was transmitted to Plato... orally" (Luce, 1969: 147); Solon acquired this story in Egypt: "The overall case is Solon acquired in Egypt a genuine, if somewhat garbled, tradition of Minoan Crete... descended to Plato by the route he indicates in his own family" (Luce, 1969: 140). It should be recognised that Luce never denied from the start that Plato "embellished the account with various details gathered from his own reading or personal experience" (Luce, 1969: 147) to fit his philosophical purposes, i.e. Plato's "imagination got to work on the details" (Luce, 1969: 140); in Luce's view these distortions bury, but do not remove the story's historical kernel of truth, and so Luce (1969: 20) argues for a core of history.