Plato’s Dialogues: Cratylus

Hey, remember this series? Honestly, I’m rather proud of having kept up this web log on a regular schedule despite starting graduate school and working a full-time job. Unfortunately, though doing fairly short posts isn’t too hard, a series that demands more attention like Plato’s dialogues is significantly more difficult. I read Cratylus about a month ago. I barely remember what it’s about at this point. I’m not 100% sure who Plato is. He might’ve been a geek?

Okay, that’s only half-serious, but this series is still on, and we are indeed talking about Cratylus today. I’ll be briefer than usual on this one, for two reasons. One is that it’s becoming clear that I’m either going to write about it quickly, or it’ll never get finished. The other is that most of the dialogue is a discussion of the etymology of Greek words. Now, the etymologies aren’t the main point, exactly, but it is tedious reading about a language one doesn’t understand, so I was more interested in the conversation that took place before and after the bulk of the work. What I’ll do, then, is go through and share a few individual points that stood out to me as I was reading (fortunately, I do annotate my books somewhat, so I can find interesting passages even when a book isn’t fresh in my mind).



Early in the dialogue, Socrates and Hermogenes, his main interlocutor for most of the work, determine that names are an instrument, which we use to “give information to one another, and distinguish things.” Socrates, guiding Hermogenes in the conversation, says that when a man uses an awl he’s doing the work of a smith, when he uses a shuttle he’s doing the work of a weaver; so, when a teacher uses a name, whose work is he doing? Hermogenes isn’t sure, nor does he know who gives things names, so Socrates provides an answer, “Does not the law seem to you to give us them?” So, giving names is the work of a legislator.

Socrates’ opinion that naming is the work of the legislator reminds me of the Docrine of the Mean’s assertion that “To no one but the Son of Heaven does it belong […] to determine the written characters.” In the Confucian case, they certainly meant that the regulation of language was a prerogative of the Emperor, but Socrates doesn’t pursue this here, so I’m not sure if Plato also saw this as something the state should do, or if his point is simply that naming is analogous to legislation. I’m sympathetic to the idea, but I seem to be in the minority among anglophones, linguistic anarchists that we are. The best we can do is look to our most respected writers, which, interestingly, is what Socrates does next, as he looks to Homer and, a bit later, Hesiod to learn of the proper use of names.

This seems a bit odd given his stance on the Poet Question, as discussed in Republic and elsewhere, and he first suggested that Hermogenes look to the Sophists for further instruction. Given Socrates’ opinion of the Sophists, I’m sure this wasn’t entirely serious, and it makes me wonder if he does, in fact, hold Homer and Hesiod’s authority in such high regard.

In any case, he refers to a few points in the Iliad where Homer distinguishes between the names used for various things by men and by the gods. For example, in Book 20 Homer tells us of the river in Troy which “the gods call Xanthus, and men call Scamander,” or in Book 14, the bird which “the gods call chalcis, and men cymindis.” These would be the truest names for these things, since correct names are used by the wise more than the unwise, and of course, the gods are perfectly wise.

He then goes on to discuss the etymology first of Homeric characters’ names and then of gods and other things. I won’t go into this in-depth, but the main point, made when discussing the names of Astyanax, is this:

[W]hether the syllables of the name are the same or not makes no difference, provided the meaning is retained; nor does the addition or subtraction of a letter make any difference so long as the essence of the thing remains in possession of the name and appears in it.

In other words, in determining the meaning of a name, we should look not at superficial changes in pronunciation, but at the origin of the word, the root or etymology. Obviously, usage of words changes, so etymology can be misleading, but it can aid us in using language more precisely and makes it easier to understand sophisticated or older literature. Socrates even addresses how certain sounds convey certain ideas or feelings, which reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s explanation of why he chose certain words while starting on “The Raven.” For instance, he says that the letter ‘ρ’, (“rho,” the ‘r’ sound) “appears to me to be the general instrument expressing all motion,” and gives several examples of words where the letter is used for just that purpose.

At this point Cratylus, who’d apparently just been standing there awkwardly for about thirty pages, jumps in, and they discuss the difficulties of custom and of determining primitive names. I’m actually going to leave the dialogue there, though. As usual, my main goal is to give a sample of the dialogue, to encourage you give these a read for yourself. Next up, hopefully more quickly this time, is Ion.

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