April 1, 2022

Plato's Secret

Plato's Secret

April 1, 355 BC. The cryptic writings of Plato send generations of seekers on a quest for the truth.


Cold Open

It’s early on a spring morning in 355 BC.

On the outskirts of Athens, Greece… two men in white tunics, a teacher and his pupil, ride their donkeys to the precipice of a tall cliff. The pupil is a young studious man, serious and dedicated to his studies. The teacher is much older with a large white beard and a slope in his shoulders. This man, Plato, is one of the most renowned thinkers in all of Greece.

As Plato guides his donkey to the cliff, the pupil gets up the courage to put forward a question. 

As Plato dismounts and takes in the beautiful view, the pupil inquires, “great teacher, is the lost city of Atlantis real?”

Plato strokes his beard and thinks long and hard about how to respond. Finally, Plato answers with a question of his own: “my dear pupil, what have you heard me say of Atlantis?”

The pupil responds, “you’ve often recounted conversations of those who spoke of the mighty island kingdom and its failed attempt to conquer Athens.”

Plato asks another question, “Yes, and what befell the people of Atlantis?” The pupil responds again, “They were a moral people but they were corrupted by greed, the gods sank their great city into the sea.”

Finally, Plato asks a third question: “And what might one learn from the story of Atlantis?” Again, the pupil has  a ready answer, replying, “all manner of ideas about the divine versus human nature, and the corruption of human civilization.”

Plato smiles. His pupil is progressing quite well. So finally, he answers the pupil’s original question, saying: “Atlantis is only as real as the lessons one learns from it.”

But the pupil seems disappointed. He presses the issue, asking “Did Socrates ever speak of Atlantis?”

But at the mention of the name “Socrates”, Plato turns pale with grief. The pupil knows Plato loved his teacher, Socrates, the founder of Western Philosophy. The pupil also knows Plato rarely speaks of him, not since Socrates was sentenced to death for impious teachings. Socrates was innocent, but he accepted his fate. And instead of fleeing Athens, Socrates drank a tea made from hemlock, a highly poisonous flowering plant.

The pupil knows Socrates is a difficult subject for Plato. But still, he presses on. He tells Plato of a rumor he’s heard: that Socrates believed Atlantis was real.

Hearing this, Plato turns red with anger and barks, “only a fool would believe such a thing.”

He turns his back on the pupil and mounts his donkey and rides off. 

Throughout his life, Plato repeatedly insists that Atlantis is a myth. But his pupil, Pseftis, never believes him. Eventually, Plato grows tired of explaining the allegorical nature of Atlantis. So, for the avoidance of doubt, in the Spring of 355 BC, Plato writes the myth down in his now-famous dialogues: the Timaeus and Critias. 12 years later, Plato passes away in his sleep. Still, the legend of Atlantis lives on.

Indeed, Plato’s student, Pseftis, is never satisfied with the allegorical nature of Atlantis. He is convinced the city is real. So after Plato’s death, Pseftis will spend the remainder of his days in search of the truth. He will interview all the great philosophers, old and new. He will scour ancient texts. And eventually, he will build a ship, intent on sailing out to sea to find the ruins himself. But he will never. 

Still, the mystery of Atlantis will persist. To some, it is a metaphor. To others, it is a certainty. But whether it is fact or fiction, there is no doubt that the legend of Atlantis inspired countless generations of scientists, academics, and philosophers to find the city that Plato first wrote about on April 1st, 355 BC.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 1st: Plato’s Secret.

Act One: The Politician

It’s Election Day 1877, in a small town in Minnesota called Nininger City; over two thousand years since Plato and Pseftis rode to the edge of that cliff near Athens.

Standing on the porch of his opulent mansion, the politician Ignacious Donnely smokes tobacco from a wooden pipe. As he puffs away and stares out over his expansive property, Ignatius’ thoughts are fixed on the outcome of an election, one that’s taking place today in Minnesota.

Ignatius is a former Republican who served in Congress. But over time, his political views began to stray from the core of the Republican Party platform. Eventually, his changing views on a myriad of issues put him at odds with his fellow party members. So Ignatius left the Republican Party to strike out as an independent.

And last year, in 1876, he lost a congressional election in Minnesota’s second district. This year, Ignatius is running for Congress again. But this time, he’s confident he’ll be victorious.

For one thing, he’s moved to a different district; one that’s more friendly to independent voices. But for another, Ignatius is a gifted orator, and he's worked hard to craft a series of impassioned speeches that he hopes will carry back into Washington. 

Still, Ignatius faces stiff competition from his Republican opponent: William Washburn, a prominent and wealthy miller in Minnesota’s third district.

As he empties his pipe and starts to head inside, Ignatius hears hooves in the distance. He turns to see a rider approaching on horseback. It’s his messenger who’s come with news from the polls.

As the rider draws near, Ignatius hurries down the steps to greet him. When the messenger dismounts, Ignatius can tell immediately from the look on his face that the outcome is not what he was hoping for.

Nervously, the messenger sighs and delivers the bad news, telling Ignatius, “you've lost… again…”

Ignatius doesn’t say a word. He turns and heads inside. But moments later, when Ignatius is alone, he begins to weep tears of sadness and rage… because Ignatius is confident that his opponent Washburn has cheated.

Later, Ignatius will be able to provide some evidence of voter fraud. But his attempts to seek justice and to overturn the results of the election will be in vain. Because, perhaps, there's another reason the people of Minnesota chose not to reelect him. As one historian will later write, “Ignatius Donnelley was a nut.”

Ignatius harbors controversial ideas. He believes, among other things, that William Shakespeare is not the author of his plays; that extraterrestrial beings are likely real; and that the Great Flood mentioned in the Bible wiped out an ancient, but once thriving, civilization called Atlantis. Ignatius believes that Atlantis is not a metaphor nor a myth. He believes it’s real. And he wasn’t shy about letting the voters know it on the campaign trail. 

But if Ignatius’ controversial ideas cost him the election, he doesn’t learn his lesson. In the wake of his defeat in the 1877 election, Ignatius will put down his political ambitions, but to pick up a pen. In a fit of fury and passion, Ignatius writes a 450-page screed called “Atlantis: the Antediluvian World.”

In it, he explains that Plato’s account of Atlantis is factual and he suggests that all known ancient civilizations derived from this now-lost land. He goes on to write multiple books, but it's his treatise on Atlantis that puts him on the map. The book makes Ignatius a national celebrity and catches the eye of a literary giant, Mark Twain.

Not long after reading one of Ignatius’ books, Twain writes Ignatius asking him if he can come to Minnesota for a visit to talk about these controversial theories. Ignatius is flattered. He sends Twain an immediate reply: “I would be honored to host you. If you come, I will tell you the secret of Atlantis I have not yet published… one that will challenge all your assumptions and shed a new light on an old mystery.”

After receiving this reply, the very next morning, Twain sets out to make the journey from New York to Minnesota. But when Twain arrives several days later, he’s startled to learn that Ignatius is dead. Twain speaks to Ignatius’ doctor who explains that the man died suddenly in his sleep just last night.

Twain presses the doctor for more information. But the doctor says he doesn’t know the precise cause of death, in all respects, Ignatius was a healthy man. The doctor gives Twain the impression that he suspects foul play.

Twain is stunned. But he's left with no suspect or motive. So he returns to New York with more questions than answers, sad that Ignatius is gone, and disappointed that whatever secret he had, died with him. The mystery of who murdered Ignatius Donnely, and why, will never be solved. And the hunt for Atlantis will remain dormant… until decades later when a Harvard-educated scientist picks up where Ignacious Donneley left off.

Act Two: The Oceanographer

It’s summer 1931 in Falmouth, Massachusetts at the newly opened Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or the WHOI.

The institution’s founder Henry Bryant Bigelow sits at his desk in his office, pouring over plans for an upcoming expedition at sea. While on the voyage, Henry, a skilled oceanographer, plans to investigate the relationship between ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and the climate of North America. At least that’s what Henry is telling the expedition financiers at the WHOI. The real purpose of the expedition is to comb the ocean floor looking for signs of the lost city of Atlantis.

Henry is a brilliant man. A Harvard-educated scientist, he is well-versed in humanities. He’s read every word of Plato’s famous dialogues. He knows that most of his colleagues believe Plato invented Atlantis as part of an allegory; a myth about a moral people who lived in an advanced, utopian society; until they became greedy and ethically bankrupt, and the gods punished them with a cataclysmic event that plunged that great city of Atlantis into the sea. But Henry doesn’t believe Atlantis is a metaphor. And he’s determined to prove it.

Today, as he sits at his desk, Plato’s words swirl in his mind. In one of his dialogues, Plato wrote that Atlantis was located on an island “situated in front of the straits which are… called the Pillars of Heracles.” Henry knows these few words are essentially the only clue as to the location of Atlantis. And he knows it doesn’t give him much to go on.

But using a combination of his knowledge of Plato, his love of science, and his passion for oceanography, Henry determines that Atlantis is likely located in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Canary Islands, west of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Soon, Henry and his crew will set sail from Boston Harbor on board a 140-foot double-masted sailboat bristling with scientific equipment and a small submarine. The ship, aptly named the Atlantis, will carry Henry and his crew on a 42-day voyage at sea, where they will comb the ocean floor in search of a spot, to break through the ocean’s crust, and find the lost city hidden below.


It’s summer 1931; 42 days into Henry’s expedition.

It’s late at night. Henry stands on the deck of the Atlantis, staring over the moonlit water. His thoughts are fixed on a startling discovery made by one of his crew members; a submarine pilot named Anwir Fibbits.

Prior to their expedition, Henry fashioned Anwir’s submarine with grapplers, hooks, and borers to probe the ocean floor. And every day on their voyage, Henry sent Anwir down to the depths in search of clues that might lead them to Atlantis. And every night, Anwir returned empty-handed. Until this evening.

Hours ago, just before sunset, Anwir came back with startling news. He claims to have pierced the floor of the ocean, about ten inches below the surface and discovered the opening to a gigantic, underwater cave. Anwir wanted to keep investigating, but he was low on oxygen and forced to return.

So now, Henry has a decision to make. His expedition is only equipped to last 42 days. He should have turned back a week ago. If he stays at sea and keeps exploring, he will not have enough food and supplies to make the journey home. But if he sails away now, he’ll never know what’s inside that cave.

For Henry, it’s an easy decision. Soon, he goes below deck in search of Anwir, the only person who knows the precise location of the cave’s entrance. But when Henry steps inside Anwir’s room, he is shocked to find the submarine pilot lying face down on the floor… his body frozen as if gripped in a seizure, a spilled cup of coffee next to his body.

Terrified, Henry calls for help. The ship’s doctor tries to resuscitate, but it’s no use. Anwir is gone. And with him, the location of the cave that might have led to Atlantis. Out of time and low on options, Henry and his crew return to Boston Harbor in defeat.

Though the actual cause of death is still unknown, the murder of Anwir Fibbits will be the source of much speculation for the decades to come. And over 75 years later, one Greek scientist will launch another investigation into Anwir’s death. He will exhume the body and after conducting a series of tests, will declare that the submarine pilot was murdered by poison, ingesting a substance called conium maculatum, the active ingredient in hemlock.

Act Three: The Scientist

It’s evening of April 3rd, 2015.

An American journalist walks through the busy streets of Patras, a port city in Greece. Soon, the reporter sees his destination in the distance: an abandoned office complex in the heart of the city.

The reporter darts across the busy street to the front door of the blackened, dingy building. As he steps into the dark, he sees the man he’s here to meet: the Greek academic: Stavros Papamarinopoulos. Stavros lurks in the shadows and sips a cup of tea from a nearby cafe, 

When the reporter asks Stavros why he chose such a desolate meeting place, Stavros answers: “I don’t want anyone to know I’m talking to a journalist…”

The reporter promises discretion and soon, the interview begins.

With his first question, the reporter gets to the heart of the matter: “Is Atlantis a myth? Or is it real?”

Stavros stirs his tea before answering in a hushed tone: “What if it’s both?”

Stavros says, “Plato defined mythology. [But] He [also] differentiated between genuine and fabricated myths.” Stavros explains that genuine myths are those stories that are thought to be true but in reality are false… like the tale that George Washington never told a lie. But a fabricated myth is that which is thought to be a lie but is actually the truth.

The reporter is eager to know, “Is that what Atlantis is?”

But before Stavros can answer, his face goes slack and his eyes wide. His muscles spasm and contract, causing the cup of tea to spill out of his hand. The reporter watches with horror as Stavros drops to his knees and falls face down on the floor, dead.

The autopsy will later reveal that Stavros’ blood contained traces of hemlock. Like the other murders, his killer will never be found.

Still, the reporter refuses to give up the search for truth. Eventually, he gains access to Stavros’ papers where he uncovers a document titled “The Fabrication.”

In it, Stavros claims that Plato never died in his sleep. Instead, he insists, Plato found Atlantis and drank from the fountain of youth located there.  According to Stavros, the magical elixir trans-mutated Plato into an immortal demigod but also cursed, forced to keep the existence and location of Atlantis a secret… by any means necessary.

As Stavros tells it, Plato believed mankind wasn’t ready to know the truth about Atlantis. And he feared that in the wrong hands, the power of the ancient city might be harnessed for evil. Plato resolved to conceal the truth of Atlantis behind a fabricated myth.

Stavros goes on to explain that this was a problem for the only other living soul who knew the truth: Socrates. Plato’s teacher felt the people of Athens deserved to know the truth. And when Socrates threatened to expose the secret, Plato resorted to drastic measures.

Stavros claims Plato arranged the circumstances for Socrates' arrest and eventual death by hemlock. Stavros also suggests that Plato poisoned his student Pseftis, the politician Ignatius Donnelly, Henry Bigelow’s submarine pilot, and countless other explorers, geologists, and anthropologists who got too close to the truth. Now it seems Stavros too has fallen victim to Plato’s vigilance. 

Not long after Stavros' death, security footage from the cafe where Stavros bought his tea shows a withered old man with a large white beard, lingering too close to the beverage Stavros bought. 

But whether or not Plato is an immortal assassin, there is no doubt that he helped create the legend of Atlantis; a myth that persists even today… on April 1st, 2022.


Next on History Daily. April 4th, 1975. Bill Gates and Paul Allen formalize their partnership with the creation of Microsoft, ushering in the era of the personal computer. 

From Fox News and the BBC, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Ken Burns.

Audio editing by Les Paul.

Sound design by Jack Foley. 

Music by Hans Zimmer.

This episode is written and researched by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Executive Producers are Steven Speilberg for Amblin, and Kenneth Brannaugh for Focus Features.