An Incident from the Childhood of Plato
“But afterwards [claimed Solon] there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”—Plato, Timaeus, trans. by Benjamin Jowett
When Plato was a boy, his family fled the heat of Athens every summer for the seashore. Their villa was one of a dozen built near a shallow bay rimmed by tamarisks and pines, and Plato had no responsibilities except to appear at the meals that his mother and her servants prepared. Otherwise he was on his own, aside from the young nurse who kept careful watch on him and often swam with him.
The boy spent most days absorbed in his physical surroundings, hunting lizards in the rocks and chasing the cicadas that sizzled among the pines, learning early on that tamarisk twigs were salty when you bit them and that pine needles were bitterly resinous. Occasionally he visited the ruined watchtower near the mouth of the bay, but he was drawn most of all, like any child would be, to the gentle surf that lapped the at the beach. Large waves broke at the bay’s entrance, but by the time they rolled up on the shore, they were child-sized, and a child might play in them safely.
Early one August afternoon, a storm rose far out to sea beyond the mouth of the bay. The sun shone brightly overhead, but the sky to the east was the color of lead. The air was still and hot, and the men in the taverna on the hill above the beach had fallen asleep over their retsina.
Plato had built a city from sand at the water’s edge, a complex circular structure of towers and moats and streets, all laid out precisely and encircled with broad tracks through which warriors might race their horses. He had proceeded without much thought, although the shape was not surprising. The bay itself was a rough circle, as was the sky. (It was held up, his had father explained, by Atlas, that rebellious Titan condemned to stand forever beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the great river that encircled the world.) The sun was a circle too, as was the moon, although it was wont to draw a veil across its face. Even his nurse’s breasts and buttocks were orbs, as he knew well from watching her when she drew off her robe to join him in the water.
The bay was lifeless that afternoon, nearly flat, and even the cicadas had fallen silent. Musing on what he might call his city, the boy noticed the stillness for the first time and looked up to see a black wall of cloud rising into the sky. Mesmerized, Plato watched its approach as, a few seconds later, it rolled across the mouth of the bay and, covering the sun, threw the beach into darkness. A wind rose up, and within no time at all, it seemed, the water had erupted in a frenzy of waves and spray. Lightning flashed across the sky, and the air and the ground began to rumble with thunder.
The nurse sprang from the water and rushed to Plato’s side, but not before a bolt of lightning flashed down to strike the tower. Stones shot into the air, paused high, high above them, then plummeted into the water. As they watched, unable to flee, one came screaming down a few cubits from them and a wall of water crashed over them and the sand city. The boy fainted.
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Plato awoke to find himself cradled in his nurse’s arms at the mouth of a cave, silence lying heavily around them. He became aware of the soft flesh in which he seemed to be enveloped, and a great surge of warmth engulfed him. He fell asleep again.
The next day, Plato’s father brought him a puppy with a splendid bronze chain around its neck, and, as any child would have been, he was delighted. But he would never forget what he had seen and felt that extraordinary afternoon at the beach.