This study is another contribution to the on-going debate about the so-called ‘etymological’ section of Plato’s Cratylus, in which Socrates analyzes a vast number of names in order to uncover the views of the name-givers of old as part of his inquiry into the correctness of names. For a long time scholars working on the Cratylus have tended to silently pass over this part of the dialogue, both because it does not contain much by way of philosophical argument, and because the etymologies may strike the modern reader as fanciful, or even unworthy of Plato’s philosophical genius. This attitude has changed considerably in the past decades, as can be glimpsed from the recent monographs on this dialogue by T. M. S. Baxter, R. Barney, and D. Sedley,1 who all deal extensively with the etymological section. Barbara Anceschi’s study, a revised version of her 2001 dissertation submitted at the university of Heidelberg, differs from her predecessors in two respects. First, she does not discuss the etymological section as a whole, but focuses on a particular part of it, in which Socrates’ discusses the names of the gods. Second, Anceschi assumes that the key to understanding Socrates’ treatment of these divine names is provided by the famous Derveni papyrus.2 Its anonymous author, who shows no signs of having been influenced by Plato, assumes that Orpheus’ theogony is in fact a philosophical cosmology in disguise, as he seeks to demonstrate by means of an allegorical interpretation of the poem in which etymologies of divine names play an important role. Anceschi is not the first to see a connection between these two texts. Baxter, e.g., who understands the etymological section as a polemical attack on all those intellectuals who make use of etymology, identifies the author of the papyrus as one of Plato’s many possible targets. Anceschi differs from Baxter and others, though, in that she consciously reads Socrates’ discussion of the divine names solely against the background of the Derveni papyrus, leaving other texts out of consideration, while assuming that Plato’s attitude towards etymology is less polemical than is often thought.
In the first chapter (‘Sprachtheorie und Allegorese im Kratylos‘), Anceschi seeks to determine the function of the etymological section within the Cratylus as a whole by making a comparison between the theory of naming that Socrates formulates in the first section of the dialogue, which leads up to the etymological section, with the remarks about naming by the author of the Derveni papyrus. According to Socrates’ theory, names are coined by an expert name-giver so as to express the nature of the named object and next put to the test by a dialectician who acts as some sort of supervisor. Orpheus, according to the Derveni papyrus, acted as a name-giver of the gods, while the etymological activities of the anonymous commentator resemble those of Socrates’ supervisor: by explaining them etymologically, the commentator demonstrates why these names are so aptly given. According to Anceschi, Socrates in the etymological section likewise tests the quality of the names. From Socrates’ etymologies, it emerges that in the course of time the original names have been subject to change: letters have been added and taken away for aesthetic effects. The result is that the names no longer directly show the nature of their bearers as they used to do. Their meaning is no longer obvious. Anceschi calls this “the Platonic theory of the riddling nature of language” (” die platonische Theorie über die Rätselhaftigkeit der Sprache“). In order to get to the meaning of a name, one has to reconstruct the original name, as Socrates does in the etymological section. In doing so, however, one risks being led astray, because the transformed names may create a wrong impression about the intentions of the ancient name-givers. Anceschi’s observation that Plato calls attention to the problems involved in reconstructing the original form of a name in order to detect its meaning is certainly correct and well worth making. She makes, however, too much out of it when she presents Socrates’ casual remarks as the ‘theory’ that is at the heart of the Cratylus. Plato’s ultimate reason for rejecting etymology as a means of philosophical research is after all a different one. Even if names had faithfully conserved their original form, communicating unambiguously their meaning, they would still reflect the understanding of the name-giver, which, Socrates insists at the end of the dialogue ( Crat. 438a-439c), may well be wrong.
Chapter two (‘Kommentar zu den Götternamen im Kratylos‘) constitutes the core of this book. It is a full-scale commentary on Socrates’ analysis of the names of the gods ( Crat. 400d2-408d5), actually the first one since that of the Neoplatonist Proclus. Anceschi, who appears less interested in purely philological matters, provides detailed discussions of each etymology, which she summarizes helpfully in graphical presentations. One wonders why she does not deal with the etymologies of the names of Zeus, Cronus, and Uranus ( Crat. 396a-d), which Socrates had discussed earlier on. Socrates explicitly presents the discussion that starts at Crat. 400d as a continuation of that previous discussion (cf. Crat. 399d). Anceschi’s omission of this passage from her commentary is all the more remarkable, since it supports her suggestion – inspired once again by the Derveni papyrus – that the list of divine names in the Cratylus is modelled after a theogony. In Crat. 396c Socrates explicitly connects his discussion of Zeus and his ancestors to Hesiod’s theogony. Anceschi’s comments are, unfortunately, not always sufficiently thought through. An example in point is her discussion of the analysis of the name of Hestia ( Crat. 401b-e), which, as we shall see, is particularly relevant for her interpretation of Socrates’ discussion of the divine names as a whole. Socrates associates ‘Hestia’ with essia, which, he explains, is an old-fashioned form of Attic ousia. We call Hestia ‘Hestia’, because she ‘is’ ( esti). Socrates next opposes those who call ousia‘ essia‘ to those who call it ‘ ôsia‘. The latter follow Heraclitus in believing that everything that exists (i.e. ousia) is in flux. Their word for ousia, ‘ ôsia‘, which they derive from ‘ ôthoun‘ (to push), signifies that according to them nothing stands fast (i.e. ‘is’, as those who refer to ousia as essia assume), but constantly moves. Socrates connects the name ‘Hestia’ only to ‘ essia‘, not to ‘ ôsia‘. Anceschi shows herself aware of this.3 All the same, she argues that the name-givers of old who coined the name ‘Hestia’, and whom Socrates refers to as ‘ meteôrologoi‘ and ‘ adoleschai‘ were Heracliteans. Since Anceschi believes that these are Heracliteans, she argues that Plato uses these designations in, e.g., Politeia VI 488e3-489a2 to distinguish such people from true philosophers. This, however, is incorrect. In Politeia VI the designations ‘ meteôroskopos‘ (star-gazer) and ‘ adoleschês‘ are used to describe the popular opinion about true, i.e. Platonic, philosophers as intellectuals who spend their time on complicated things that are seemingly of no use.4
Much of what Anceschi has to say in her commentary is intended to prepare the ground for her overall interpretation of the passage under discussion, which she presents in the third, final chapter (‘Die philosophischen Fragen in den Götternamen des Kratylos‘). Put briefly, Anceschi argues that Socrates’ allegorical interpretations of divine names results in a sketch of Plato’s philosophy as the synthesis of Heraclitus’ and Parmenides’ doctrines. She is certainly right that Plato’s division of Greek philosophy into supporters of Heraclitus’ theory of flux and those of Parmenides’ theory of Being, which will become prominent in Theaetetus and Sophist, surfaces in some discussions, notably that of the name of Hestia. Anceschi is, moreover, right that there is a very distinct Platonic twist to some of the etymologies, as has been previously noted by, e.g., Baxter and Sedley. She overdoes things, however, when she tries to read an allegorical account of Plato’s philosophy, and more particularly of his epistemology, into these etymologies. Take, for example, the discussion of the name of Hades ( Crat. 403a-b). Socrates first offers a commonly accepted etymology of Hades according to which death is something terrible: people call this god ‘Hades’ because they are afraid of what they can’t see ( aeides). He next offers another etymology, which he clearly favours, according to which death is a good thing. Hades is called thus, because he knows ( eidenai) everything fine and beautiful. The souls of the dead remain in Hades because, once they have been set free of their bodies, they become real philosophers. Their desire to associate with the great philosopher Hades ties them to him with the strongest shackles possible. Anceschi points out that this discussion of Hades recalls the idea about death as liberation from the obnoxious body that we find in the Phaedo. So far, so good. Next, however, Anceschi surprisingly argues that the fact that the souls remain in Hades because of these shackles is intended to recall Parmenides’ Being that remains in place because of the shackles of Necessity. Her point is that Hades is the place of philosophical knowledge because it is the realm of Parmenidean Being. Hades’ shackles and their Parmenidean significance return in chapter three, in which Anceschi works out her comparison of the passage from Cratylus to the Phaedo. Anceschi is no doubt right when she points out that both Cratylus and Phaedo suggest that true knowledge cannot be obtained as long as our souls are embodied. Her final conclusion, however, that the point of the etymology of Hades in the Cratylus is that perfect names may only be found in Hades lacks any textual support.
Anceschi opposes her reading of Socrates’ explanation of Hades’ name to the latter’s analysis of Persephone’s name. Socrates claims that her name indicates that wisdom consists in the power to grasp the things as they move around ( Crat. 404b-e). Anceschi argues that this explanation refers to a Heraclitean worldview. By opposing Parmenides’ concept of wisdom to that of Heraclitus, Socrates would thus have created an epistemological dilemma, which his subsequent analysis of the name of Apollo is supposed to solve. Socrates, when analysing Apollo’s name, associates him with the Pythagorean doctrine of cosmic harmony. Even though, as Anceschi herself admits, there is no indication for this in the text, she believes that Socrates here introduces cosmic harmony as a source of knowledge that enables us to achieve knowledge even before we go to Hades. The interpretation of Hades and Persephone as two conflicting epistemologies seems less plausible in the light of Socrates’ observation that Hades associates with Persephone because they are both gods of wisdom ( Crat. 404d), while that of Apollo as representing an epistemological third way is rather far-fetched.
In conclusion, I find Anceschi’s epistemological interpretation unconvincing. Unfortunately, it partly informs her commentary on the text, thus reducing its usefulness. This is a pity, for a detailed commentary on any part of the etymological section is most welcome, and Anceschi has many helpful observations to make. One would wish that she had opted for a less speculative approach to the text.5
1. T. M. S. Baxter, The Cratylus: Plato’s Critique of Naming, Leiden 1992; R. Barney, Names and Nature in Plato’s Cratylus, New York and London 2001; D. Sedley, Plato’s Cratylus Cambridge 2003.
2. See, e.g., Anceschi p. 17.
3. Anceschi p. 65; cf. the graphical presentation on p. 69.
4. Cf. Plato Parm. 135d: the crowd will call dialectic ‘idle talk’ ( adoleschia).
5. This review was written in the framework of the research project “The Limits of Language”, financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) project number 360-30-090.