Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.12

C.D.C. Reeve (trans.), Plato: Cratylus.   Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1998.  Pp. liii, 103.  ISBN 0-87220-416-2.  $29.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-87220-417-0.  $12.95 (pb).  



Reviewed by Robin Waterfield, St Martin, Cornwall, UK
Word count: 1903 words

It has been a good year for students of Plato's Cratylus. Sparked perhaps by Baxter's flawed (see the review by R.J. Ketchum in Ancient Philosophy 15 (1995), 211-14) but interesting book on the dialogue (T.M.S. Baxter, The Cratylus: Plato's Critique of Naming; Leiden: Brill, 1992), there have been a number of good and substantial recent articles, culminating in 1998 in three, all focusing on the etymological section of the dialogue: of particular note are David Sedley's article 'The Etymologies in Plato's Cratylus', Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998), 140-54, and Rachel Barney's 'Socrates Agonistes: The Case of the Cratylus Etymologies', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 16 (1998), 63-98. (Of non-1998 articles perhaps especially noteworthy is Rachel Barney again, on 'Plato on Conventionalism', in Phronesis 42 (1997), 143-62). And then there is this translation-with-introduction by Reeve. Not that the translation dates from 1998, strictly speaking, since it first appeared in Hackett's Plato: Complete Works, which was published in 1997; but like all the translations in that volume it lacked a proper introduction, and in this stand-alone edition Reeve has magnificently remedied this defect.

But let's start with the translation. It is, as Reeve remarks, the first translation for some seventy years. There was a time when Colin Strang was thinking of including the dialogue in the Clarendon Plato series, but sadly the project came to nothing. Reeve's translation is very good indeed, both accurate and more readable than one might have imagined was achievable for Cratylus. As always, there is a cost in achieving such fluency in translating an ancient Greek work. On the one hand, Reeve is aware that Greek word order and sentence structure are different from English (an obvious point, but one that many translators have managed to ignore), and so he breaks sentences at different points, inverts the order of clauses, and so on. This tactic has been almost entirely successful, I think, though in minor instances Reeve has gratuitously changed some order. At 391d2-3, for example, Plato wrote, 'What does Homer say about names, Socrates, and where does he say it?'; Reeve has: 'And where does Homer say anything about names, Socrates, and what does he say?' Why bother to invert the order in cases like these? Socrates' reply picks up Plato's second half of the question, 'Where does he say it?', not Reeve's second half.

On the other hand, Reeve's fluency has been gained at the expense of some of the 'smaller' Greek words. Not every kai and hode and ge has been translated. Perhaps more seriously, neither has every ekeinos (389d5) or eien (422d11) or vocative (423c1-2, 432c7). Does this betray a certain cavalier attitude, or even a certain insensitivity to Greek nuance? It is hard to say, but the idea is supported by occasional other 'slips'. At 383b4 ê d' hos has not been translated, which makes it hard to distinguish who is speaking (unless this is a printer's error: the word 'of' had dropped out just three lines earlier from between 'correctness' and 'names'). At 386a6-7 the meaning is surely 'I don't quite believe it', not 'I don't believe it at all.' At 386e7-8 Plato does not say that 'actions are included in some one class of the things that are', but that actions constitute a class of things that are. In 387a the poteron ... ê question has been retranslated as a series of non-dilemmatic statements, despite the fact that this sentence should exactly parallel that of 387b11-c4. At 388b7-8 (note that the 'b' marginal has been omitted, and occasionally throughout the translation such marginalia have been misplaced by a line) for some reason Reeve does not translate ekheis in the question, although he does in the answer. At 392b6-7 'You know, of course, the lines to which I refer' is a casual translation for Greek which plainly states 'You know, of course, the lines which contain the sentiment to which I am referring.' At 392e6-8, as a result of his changing the order of Socrates' questions, Reeve is forced to give entirely the wrong link -- 'Then' -- to Hermogenes: here it would again have been better to preserve Plato's original order. At 394a5 the exesti has been omitted or blurred. At 421d6 Hermogenes says 'At any rate, it wouldn't be at all inappropriate for you to respond that way' and then, in Reeve's translation, Socrates says, 'No, it probably wouldn't', when what he actually says is 'No, because what I'm saying is plausible.' At 425b3 Reeve does not bring out the cautionary force of with the subjunctive; likewise at 432a5. At 426b9 lege has been omitted, leading Reeve to compress the rest of the sentence. At 430d1 'to mince words' is surely a misleading translation of makhesthai en tois logois. At 431a8-9 I'm almost certain that Socrates means 'if what we've just been saying really is the case', and so that 'the case' being referred to is not Cratylus' willingness, as Reeve takes it, but the facts of the matter: Socrates is saying that he doesn't mind Cratylus' concession, as long as it concedes what is the case, since then there could be no further argument between them on this score. A line or two later, I can't see that Reeve has translated kai entautha. At 432b1 the contrast is simply between quantity and quality, so that Reeve's added 'sensory' before 'quality' is unnecessary (though see his introduction at p. l), and the kai is not epexegetic. At 434b6 prôton seems to have been omitted. At 436d3-4 Reeve translates: 'Geometrical constructions often have a small unnoticed error at the beginning, with which all the rest is (sic) perfectly consistent'; this compresses and distorts Plato's point which is that all the remaining diagrams might be perfectly consistent with one another (allêlois), but based on an original mistake. At 440c8 it is a pity to have blurred the famous saying that panta rhei.

No doubt other instances like these would have become apparent had I paid as much attention to the etymologizing section of the dialogue as I did to the surrounding pages. But I do not want to be misunderstood. Although I am saying that a greater degree of accuracy is achievable even with the goal of fluency that Reeve rightly set himself, I am not saying that the translation is bad. All the points above are minor, and they do not even add up to anything major. No Greekless reader of the translation will be misled on any point of the slightest substance (and I deliberately include here the way Reeve has translated the brief metaphysical passages as referring to middle-period transcendent forms), and therefore as a teaching tool the translation is outstanding.

The same goes for the excellent introduction. In the compass of 42 pages Reeve has given us a succinct account of just about everything that is interesting and important about Cratylus. Of course, he does not have the space to take into consideration rival views, nor would it have been appropriate for him to have done so in this context. In Reeve's treatment Plato develops an argument which is carefully thought out at both the strategic and tactical levels. There is little in the broad picture of the dialogue he paints that is original, but it is all well and clearly expressed, and that is plenty to be thankful for. Like Baxter and other recent scholars he finds that Hermogenes' theory is worth consideration. At the very least he is a foil for Cratylus: 'Hermogenes makes dubbing omnipotent; it always trumps fitting. Cratylus makes fitting omnipotent; it always trumps dubbing' (xiv). Reeve teases out both their views and explains what is philosophically interesting in them, and in Socrates' criticisms of them.

Reeve's main point, however, is that a Platonic theory of naming is recoverable from the modifications argued for both Hermogenes' and Cratylus' extreme views. There is a natural aspect to naming in that a name is strictly a name of a form; but the form, the thing itself, is prior, so that not any old name would do for it. At the same time there are conventional aspects to naming in that the name-maker has to choose which 'primary names' to assign to a given form, and also in that the name-maker also has to lay down the rules governing the correct use of names -- their correct application to the particular things of this world, especially given that these things are characterized by flux. In other words -- and I have to say that I agree with him in this respect too -- he implicitly rejects not only the view of M.M. Mackenzie ('Putting the Cratylus in Its Place', Classical Quarterly 36 (1986), 124-50) that the dialogue is thoroughly aporetic, but also the many interpretations that have found Plato siding more (it is only a matter of degree) with either conventionalism or naturalism. It may be a matter of degree, and even of which statements of Socrates' one reads as ironic or sincere, but the kind of even blend that Silverman suggests (A. Silverman, 'Plato's Cratylus: The Naming of Nature and the Nature of Naming', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 10 (1992), 25-71) seems to fit the evidence best, where both convention and nature have a part to play, not at different phases of the naming procedure, but in the case of each and every name. This is essentially the line followed by Reeve as well.

I said above that Reeve gives a succinct account of 'just about' everything that is important about Cratylus. The one respect in which his introduction does display a real weakness, to my mind, is in his comparative neglect of the etymologies. He shows that they are structured, and that the names chosen for examination are all of fundamental philosophical importance to Plato (a point also stressed by Sedley), and he agrees with Baxter that Plato was parodying the work of specific predecessors (this was the best interpretation available before Barney's agonistic version), and so that the etymologies need reading with a sense of humour. But this is not enough. It is not just that there is more interest in the etymological section than this (as especially Barney and Sedley have shown); it is also that, since this introduction will reach many non-classical students, certain modern preconceptions need to be dismissed, or else the etymological section is bound to seem even more puzzling than it already is. In other words, I think Reeve should have set it in its ancient context, and made it clear that the Greeks thought differently about the purpose of etymology than we do today. For us, the etymology of a word reveals its semantic history; for Plato (although history is relevant, since the name-maker is usually assumed to have operated in the past), the etymology of a word discloses (or may disclose, see Sedley) the true nature of the nominatum. That is why etymologies were so common within the mystical and philosophical schools: they revealed the hidden nature of things (cf. especially the Derveni papyrus, cols 14-21 passim).

All in all, this is an admirable addition to Hackett's series of translations, and one which will be warmly welcomed by ancient philosophers and students of linguistic theory. Cratylus is Plato's only sustained attempt to tackle the relationship between language and the world, and it is good to see it receiving attention of the quality Reeve affords it.

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