Translated by Benjamin Jowett
The Cratylus has always been a source of perplexity to the student of Plato. While in fancy and humour, and perfection of style and metaphysical originality, this dialogue may be ranked with the best of the Platonic writings, there has been an uncertainty about the motive of the piece, which interpreters have hitherto not succeeded in dispelling. We need not suppose that Plato used words in order to conceal his thoughts, or that he would have been unintelligible to an educated contemporary. In the Phaedrus and Euthydemus we also find a difficulty in determining the precise aim of the author. Plato wrote satires in the form of dialogues, and his meaning, like that of other satirical writers, has often slept in the ear of posterity. Two causes may be assigned for this obscurity: 1st, the subtlety and allusiveness of this species of composition; 2nd, the difficulty of reproducing a state of life and literature which has passed away. A satire is unmeaning unless we can place ourselves back among the persons and thoughts of the age in which it was written. Had the treatise of Antisthenes upon words, or the speculations of Cratylus, or some other Heracleitean of the fourth century B.C., on the nature of language been preserved to us; or if we had lived at the time, and been 'rich enough to attend the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus,' we should have understood Plato better, and many points which are now attributed to the extravagance of Socrates' humour would have been found, like the allusions of Aristophanes in the Clouds, to have gone home to the sophists and grammarians of the day.
For the age was very busy with philological speculation; and many questions were beginning to be asked about language which were parallel to other questions about justice, virtue, knowledge, and were illustrated in a similar manner by the analogy of the arts. Was there a correctness in words, and were they given by nature or convention? In the presocratic philosophy mankind had been striving to attain an expression of their ideas, and now they were beginning to ask themselves whether the expression might not be distinguished from the idea? They were also seeking to distinguish the parts of speech and to enquire into the relation of subject and predicate. Grammar and logic were moving about somewhere in the depths of the human soul, but they were not yet awakened into consciousness and had not found names for themselves, or terms by which they might be expressed. Of these beginnings of the study of language we know little, and there necessarily arises an obscurity when the surroundings of such a work as the Cratylus are taken away. Moreover, in this, as in most of the dialogues of Plato, allowance has to be made for the character of Socrates. For the theory of language can only be propounded by him in a manner which is consistent with his own profession of ignorance. Hence his ridicule of the new school of etymology is interspersed with many declarations 'that he knows nothing,' 'that he has learned from Euthyphro,' and the like. Even the truest things which he says are depreciated by himself. He professes to be guessing, but the guesses of Plato are better than all the other theories of the ancients respecting language put together.
The dialogue hardly derives any light from Plato's other writings, and still less from Scholiasts and Neoplatonist writers. Socrates must be interpreted from himself, and on first reading we certainly have a difficulty in understanding his drift, or his relation to the two other interlocutors in the dialogue. Does he agree with Cratylus or with Hermogenes, and is he serious in those fanciful etymologies, extending over more than half the dialogue, which he seems so greatly to relish? Or is he serious in part only; and can we separate his jest from his earnest?—Sunt bona, sunt quaedum mediocria, sunt mala plura. Most of them are ridiculously bad, and yet among them are found, as if by accident, principles of philology which are unsurpassed in any ancient writer, and even in advance of any philologer of the last century. May we suppose that Plato, like Lucian, has been amusing his fancy by writing a comedy in the form of a prose dialogue? And what is the final result of the enquiry? Is Plato an upholder of the conventional theory of language, which he acknowledges to be imperfect? or does he mean to imply that a perfect language can only be based on his own theory of ideas? Or if this latter explanation is refuted by his silence, then in what relation does his account of language stand to the rest of his philosophy? Or may we be so bold as to deny the connexion between them? (For the allusion to the ideas at the end of the dialogue is merely intended to show that we must not put words in the place of things or realities, which is a thesis strongly insisted on by Plato in many other passages)...These are some of the first thoughts which arise in the mind of the reader of the Cratylus. And the consideration of them may form a convenient introduction to the general subject of the dialogue.
We must not expect all the parts of a dialogue of Plato to tend equally to some clearly-defined end. His idea of literary art is not the absolute proportion of the whole, such as we appear to find in a Greek temple or statue; nor should his works be tried by any such standard. They have often the beauty of poetry, but they have also the freedom of conversation. 'Words are more plastic than wax' (Rep.), and may be moulded into any form. He wanders on from one topic to another, careless of the unity of his work, not fearing any 'judge, or spectator, who may recall him to the point' (Theat.), 'whither the argument blows we follow' (Rep.). To have determined beforehand, as in a modern didactic treatise, the nature and limits of the subject, would have been fatal to the spirit of enquiry or discovery, which is the soul of the dialogue...These remarks are applicable to nearly all the works of Plato, but to the Cratylus and Phaedrus more than any others. See Phaedrus, Introduction.
There is another aspect under which some of the dialogues of Plato may be more truly viewed:—they are dramatic sketches of an argument. We have found that in the Lysis, Charmides, Laches, Protagoras, Meno, we arrived at no conclusion—the different sides of the argument were personified in the different speakers; but the victory was not distinctly attributed to any of them, nor the truth wholly the property of any. And in the Cratylus we have no reason to assume that Socrates is either wholly right or wholly wrong, or that Plato, though he evidently inclines to him, had any other aim than that of personifying, in the characters of Hermogenes, Socrates, and Cratylus, the three theories of language which are respectively maintained by them.
The two subordinate persons of the dialogue, Hermogenes and Cratylus, are at the opposite poles of the argument. But after a while the disciple of the Sophist and the follower of Heracleitus are found to be not so far removed from one another as at first sight appeared; and both show an inclination to accept the third view which Socrates interposes between them. First, Hermogenes, the poor brother of the rich Callias, expounds the doctrine that names are conventional; like the names of slaves, they may be given and altered at pleasure. This is one of those principles which, whether applied to society or language, explains everything and nothing. For in all things there is an element of convention; but the admission of this does not help us to understand the rational ground or basis in human nature on which the convention proceeds. Socrates first of all intimates to Hermogenes that his view of language is only a part of a sophistical whole, and ultimately tends to abolish the distinction between truth and falsehood. Hermogenes is very ready to throw aside the sophistical tenet, and listens with a sort of half admiration, half belief, to the speculations of Socrates.
Cratylus is of opinion that a name is either a true name or not a name at all. He is unable to conceive of degrees of imitation; a word is either the perfect expression of a thing, or a mere inarticulate sound (a fallacy which is still prevalent among theorizers about the origin of language). He is at once a philosopher and a sophist; for while wanting to rest language on an immutable basis, he would deny the possibility of falsehood. He is inclined to derive all truth from language, and in language he sees reflected the philosophy of Heracleitus. His views are not like those of Hermogenes, hastily taken up, but are said to be the result of mature consideration, although he is described as still a young man. With a tenacity characteristic of the Heracleitean philosophers, he clings to the doctrine of the flux. (Compare Theaet.) Of the real Cratylus we know nothing, except that he is recorded by Aristotle to have been the friend or teacher of Plato; nor have we any proof that he resembled the likeness of him in Plato any more than the Critias of Plato is like the real Critias, or the Euthyphro in this dialogue like the other Euthyphro, the diviner, in the dialogue which is called after him.
Between these two extremes, which have both of them a sophistical character, the view of Socrates is introduced, which is in a manner the union of the two. Language is conventional and also natural, and the true conventional-natural is the rational. It is a work not of chance, but of art; the dialectician is the artificer of words, and the legislator gives authority to them. They are the expressions or imitations in sound of things. In a sense, Cratylus is right in saying that things have by nature names; for nature is not opposed either to art or to law. But vocal imitation, like any other copy, may be imperfectly executed; and in this way an element of chance or convention enters in. There is much which is accidental or exceptional in language. Some words have had their original meaning so obscured, that they require to be helped out by convention. But still the true name is that which has a natural meaning. Thus nature, art, chance, all combine in the formation of language. And the three views respectively propounded by Hermogenes, Socrates, Cratylus, may be described as the conventional, the artificial or rational, and the natural. The view of Socrates is the meeting-point of the other two, just as conceptualism is the meeting-point of nominalism and realism.
We can hardly say that Plato was aware of the truth, that 'languages are not made, but grow.' But still, when he says that 'the legislator made language with the dialectician standing on his right hand,' we need not infer from this that he conceived words, like coins, to be issued from the mint of the State. The creator of laws and of social life is naturally regarded as the creator of language, according to Hellenic notions, and the philosopher is his natural advisor. We are not to suppose that the legislator is performing any extraordinary function; he is merely the Eponymus of the State, who prescribes rules for the dialectician and for all other artists. According to a truly Platonic mode of approaching the subject, language, like virtue in the Republic, is examined by the analogy of the arts. Words are works of art which may be equally made in different materials, and are well made when they have a meaning. Of the process which he thus describes, Plato had probably no very definite notion. But he means to express generally that language is the product of intelligence, and that languages belong to States and not to individuals.
A better conception of language could not have been formed in Plato's age, than that which he attributes to Socrates. Yet many persons have thought that the mind of Plato is more truly seen in the vague realism of Cratylus. This misconception has probably arisen from two causes: first, the desire to bring Plato's theory of language into accordance with the received doctrine of the Platonic ideas; secondly, the impression created by Socrates himself, that he is not in earnest, and is only indulging the fancy of the hour.
1. We shall have occasion to show more at length, in the Introduction to future dialogues, that the so-called Platonic ideas are only a semi-mythical form, in which he attempts to realize abstractions, and that they are replaced in his later writings by a rational theory of psychology. (See introductions to the Meno and the Sophist.) And in the Cratylus he gives a general account of the nature and origin of language, in which Adam Smith, Rousseau, and other writers of the last century, would have substantially agreed. At the end of the dialogue, he speaks as in the Symposium and Republic of absolute beauty and good; but he never supposed that they were capable of being embodied in words. Of the names of the ideas, he would have said, as he says of the names of the Gods, that we know nothing. Even the realism of Cratylus is not based upon the ideas of Plato, but upon the flux of Heracleitus. Here, as in the Sophist and Politicus, Plato expressly draws attention to the want of agreement in words and things. Hence we are led to infer, that the view of Socrates is not the less Plato's own, because not based upon the ideas; 2nd, that Plato's theory of language is not inconsistent with the rest of his philosophy.
2. We do not deny that Socrates is partly in jest and partly in earnest. He is discoursing in a high-flown vein, which may be compared to the 'dithyrambics of the Phaedrus.' They are mysteries of which he is speaking, and he professes a kind of ludicrous fear of his imaginary wisdom. When he is arguing out of Homer, about the names of Hector's son, or when he describes himself as inspired or maddened by Euthyphro, with whom he has been sitting from the early dawn (compare Phaedrus and Lysias; Phaedr.) and expresses his intention of yielding to the illusion to-day, and to-morrow he will go to a priest and be purified, we easily see that his words are not to be taken seriously. In this part of the dialogue his dread of committing impiety, the pretended derivation of his wisdom from another, the extravagance of some of his etymologies, and, in general, the manner in which the fun, fast and furious, vires acquirit eundo, remind us strongly of the Phaedrus. The jest is a long one, extending over more than half the dialogue. But then, we remember that the Euthydemus is a still longer jest, in which the irony is preserved to the very end. There he is parodying the ingenious follies of early logic; in the Cratylus he is ridiculing the fancies of a new school of sophists and grammarians. The fallacies of the Euthydemus are still retained at the end of our logic books; and the etymologies of the Cratylus have also found their way into later writers. Some of these are not much worse than the conjectures of Hemsterhuis, and other critics of the last century; but this does not prove that they are serious. For Plato is in advance of his age in his conception of language, as much as he is in his conception of mythology. (Compare Phaedrus.)
When the fervour of his etymological enthusiasm has abated, Socrates ends, as he has begun, with a rational explanation of language. Still he preserves his 'know nothing' disguise, and himself declares his first notions about names to be reckless and ridiculous. Having explained compound words by resolving them into their original elements, he now proceeds to analyse simple words into the letters of which they are composed. The Socrates who 'knows nothing,' here passes into the teacher, the dialectician, the arranger of species. There is nothing in this part of the dialogue which is either weak or extravagant. Plato is a supporter of the Onomatopoetic theory of language; that is to say, he supposes words to be formed by the imitation of ideas in sounds; he also recognises the effect of time, the influence of foreign languages, the desire of euphony, to be formative principles; and he admits a certain element of chance. But he gives no imitation in all this that he is preparing the way for the construction of an ideal language. Or that he has any Eleatic speculation to oppose to the Heracleiteanism of Cratylus.
The theory of language which is propounded in the Cratylus is in accordance with the later phase of the philosophy of Plato, and would have been regarded by him as in the main true. The dialogue is also a satire on the philological fancies of the day. Socrates in pursuit of his vocation as a detector of false knowledge, lights by accident on the truth. He is guessing, he is dreaming; he has heard, as he says in the Phaedrus, from another: no one is more surprised than himself at his own discoveries. And yet some of his best remarks, as for example his view of the derivation of Greek words from other languages, or of the permutations of letters, or again, his observation that in speaking of the Gods we are only speaking of our names of them, occur among these flights of humour.
We can imagine a character having a profound insight into the nature of men and things, and yet hardly dwelling upon them seriously; blending inextricably sense and nonsense; sometimes enveloping in a blaze of jests the most serious matters, and then again allowing the truth to peer through; enjoying the flow of his own humour, and puzzling mankind by an ironical exaggeration of their absurdities. Such were Aristophanes and Rabelais; such, in a different style, were Sterne, Jean Paul, Hamann,—writers who sometimes become unintelligible through the extravagance of their fancies. Such is the character which Plato intends to depict in some of his dialogues as the Silenus Socrates; and through this medium we have to receive our theory of language.
There remains a difficulty which seems to demand a more exact answer: In what relation does the satirical or etymological portion of the dialogue stand to the serious? Granting all that can be said about the provoking irony of Socrates, about the parody of Euthyphro, or Prodicus, or Antisthenes, how does the long catalogue of etymologies furnish any answer to the question of Hermogenes, which is evidently the main thesis of the dialogue: What is the truth, or correctness, or principle of names?
After illustrating the nature of correctness by the analogy of the arts, and then, as in the Republic, ironically appealing to the authority of the Homeric poems, Socrates shows that the truth or correctness of names can only be ascertained by an appeal to etymology. The truth of names is to be found in the analysis of their elements. But why does he admit etymologies which are absurd, based on Heracleitean fancies, fourfold interpretations of words, impossible unions and separations of syllables and letters?
1. The answer to this difficulty has been already anticipated in part: Socrates is not a dogmatic teacher, and therefore he puts on this wild and fanciful disguise, in order that the truth may be permitted to appear: 2. as Benfey remarks, an erroneous example may illustrate a principle of language as well as a true one: 3. many of these etymologies, as, for example, that of dikaion, are indicated, by the manner in which Socrates speaks of them, to have been current in his own age: 4. the philosophy of language had not made such progress as would have justified Plato in propounding real derivations. Like his master Socrates, he saw through the hollowness of the incipient sciences of the day, and tries to move in a circle apart from them, laying down the conditions under which they are to be pursued, but, as in the Timaeus, cautious and tentative, when he is speaking of actual phenomena. To have made etymologies seriously, would have seemed to him like the interpretation of the myths in the Phaedrus, the task 'of a not very fortunate individual, who had a great deal of time on his hands.' The irony of Socrates places him above and beyond the errors of his contemporaries.
The Cratylus is full of humour and satirical touches: the inspiration which comes from Euthyphro, and his prancing steeds, the light admixture of quotations from Homer, and the spurious dialectic which is applied to them; the jest about the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus, which is declared on the best authority, viz. his own, to be a complete education in grammar and rhetoric; the double explanation of the name Hermogenes, either as 'not being in luck,' or 'being no speaker;' the dearly-bought wisdom of Callias, the Lacedaemonian whose name was 'Rush,' and, above all, the pleasure which Socrates expresses in his own dangerous discoveries, which 'to-morrow he will purge away,' are truly humorous. While delivering a lecture on the philosophy of language, Socrates is also satirizing the endless fertility of the human mind in spinning arguments out of nothing, and employing the most trifling and fanciful analogies in support of a theory. Etymology in ancient as in modern times was a favourite recreation; and Socrates makes merry at the expense of the etymologists. The simplicity of Hermogenes, who is ready to believe anything that he is told, heightens the effect. Socrates in his genial and ironical mood hits right and left at his adversaries: Ouranos is so called apo tou oran ta ano, which, as some philosophers say, is the way to have a pure mind; the sophists are by a fanciful explanation converted into heroes; 'the givers of names were like some philosophers who fancy that the earth goes round because their heads are always going round.' There is a great deal of 'mischief' lurking in the following: 'I found myself in greater perplexity about justice than I was before I began to learn;' 'The rho in katoptron must be the addition of some one who cares nothing about truth, but thinks only of putting the mouth into shape;' 'Tales and falsehoods have generally to do with the Tragic and goatish life, and tragedy is the place of them.' Several philosophers and sophists are mentioned by name: first, Protagoras and Euthydemus are assailed; then the interpreters of Homer, oi palaioi Omerikoi (compare Arist. Met.) and the Orphic poets are alluded to by the way; then he discovers a hive of wisdom in the philosophy of Heracleitus;—the doctrine of the flux is contained in the word ousia (= osia the pushing principle), an anticipation of Anaxagoras is found in psuche and selene. Again, he ridicules the arbitrary methods of pulling out and putting in letters which were in vogue among the philologers of his time; or slightly scoffs at contemporary religious beliefs. Lastly, he is impatient of hearing from the half-converted Cratylus the doctrine that falsehood can neither be spoken, nor uttered, nor addressed; a piece of sophistry attributed to Gorgias, which reappears in the Sophist. And he proceeds to demolish, with no less delight than he had set up, the Heracleitean theory of language.
In the latter part of the dialogue Socrates becomes more serious, though he does not lay aside but rather aggravates his banter of the Heracleiteans, whom here, as in the Theaetetus, he delights to ridicule. What was the origin of this enmity we can hardly determine:—was it due to the natural dislike which may be supposed to exist between the 'patrons of the flux' and the 'friends of the ideas' (Soph.)? or is it to be attributed to the indignation which Plato felt at having wasted his time upon 'Cratylus and the doctrines of Heracleitus' in the days of his youth? Socrates, touching on some of the characteristic difficulties of early Greek philosophy, endeavours to show Cratylus that imitation may be partial or imperfect, that a knowledge of things is higher than a knowledge of names, and that there can be no knowledge if all things are in a state of transition. But Cratylus, who does not easily apprehend the argument from common sense, remains unconvinced, and on the whole inclines to his former opinion. Some profound philosophical remarks are scattered up and down, admitting of an application not only to language but to knowledge generally; such as the assertion that 'consistency is no test of truth:' or again, 'If we are over-precise about words, truth will say "too late" to us as to the belated traveller in Aegina.'
The place of the dialogue in the series cannot be determined with certainty. The style and subject, and the treatment of the character of Socrates, have a close resemblance to the earlier dialogues, especially to the Phaedrus and Euthydemus. The manner in which the ideas are spoken of at the end of the dialogue, also indicates a comparatively early date. The imaginative element is still in full vigour; the Socrates of the Cratylus is the Socrates of the Apology and Symposium, not yet Platonized; and he describes, as in the Theaetetus, the philosophy of Heracleitus by 'unsavoury' similes—he cannot believe that the world is like 'a leaky vessel,' or 'a man who has a running at the nose'; he attributes the flux of the world to the swimming in some folks' heads. On the other hand, the relation of thought to language is omitted here, but is treated of in the Sophist. These grounds are not sufficient to enable us to arrive at a precise conclusion. But we shall not be far wrong in placing the Cratylus about the middle, or at any rate in the first half, of the series.
Cratylus, the Heracleitean philosopher, and Hermogenes, the brother of Callias, have been arguing about names; the former maintaining that they are natural, the latter that they are conventional. Cratylus affirms that his own is a true name, but will not allow that the name of Hermogenes is equally true. Hermogenes asks Socrates to explain to him what Cratylus means; or, far rather, he would like to know, What Socrates himself thinks about the truth or correctness of names? Socrates replies, that hard is knowledge, and the nature of names is a considerable part of knowledge: he has never been to hear the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus; and having only attended the single-drachma course, he is not competent to give an opinion on such matters. When Cratylus denies that Hermogenes is a true name, he supposes him to mean that he is not a true son of Hermes, because he is never in luck. But he would like to have an open council and to hear both sides.
Hermogenes is of opinion that there is no principle in names; they may be changed, as we change the names of slaves, whenever we please, and the altered name is as good as the original one.
You mean to say, for instance, rejoins Socrates, that if I agree to call a man a horse, then a man will be rightly called a horse by me, and a man by the rest of the world? But, surely, there is in words a true and a false, as there are true and false propositions. If a whole proposition be true or false, then the parts of a proposition may be true or false, and the least parts as well as the greatest; and the least parts are names, and therefore names may be true or false. Would Hermogenes maintain that anybody may give a name to anything, and as many names as he pleases; and would all these names be always true at the time of giving them? Hermogenes replies that this is the only way in which he can conceive that names are correct; and he appeals to the practice of different nations, and of the different Hellenic tribes, in confirmation of his view. Socrates asks, whether the things differ as the words which represent them differ:—Are we to maintain with Protagoras, that what appears is? Hermogenes has always been puzzled about this, but acknowledges, when he is pressed by Socrates, that there are a few very good men in the world, and a great many very bad; and the very good are the wise, and the very bad are the foolish; and this is not mere appearance but reality. Nor is he disposed to say with Euthydemus, that all things equally and always belong to all men; in that case, again, there would be no distinction between bad and good men. But then, the only remaining possibility is, that all things have their several distinct natures, and are independent of our notions about them. And not only things, but actions, have distinct natures, and are done by different processes. There is a natural way of cutting or burning, and a natural instrument with which men cut or burn, and any other way will fail;—this is true of all actions. And speaking is a kind of action, and naming is a kind of speaking, and we must name according to a natural process, and with a proper instrument. We cut with a knife, we pierce with an awl, we weave with a shuttle, we name with a name. And as a shuttle separates the warp from the woof, so a name distinguishes the natures of things. The weaver will use the shuttle well,—that is, like a weaver; and the teacher will use the name well,—that is, like a teacher. The shuttle will be made by the carpenter; the awl by the smith or skilled person. But who makes a name? Does not the law give names, and does not the teacher receive them from the legislator? He is the skilled person who makes them, and of all skilled workmen he is the rarest. But how does the carpenter make or repair the shuttle, and to what will he look? Will he not look at the ideal which he has in his mind? And as the different kinds of work differ, so ought the instruments which make them to differ. The several kinds of shuttles ought to answer in material and form to the several kinds of webs. And the legislator ought to know the different materials and forms of which names are made in Hellas and other countries. But who is to be the judge of the proper form? The judge of shuttles is the weaver who uses them; the judge of lyres is the player of the lyre; the judge of ships is the pilot. And will not the judge who is able to direct the legislator in his work of naming, be he who knows how to use the names—he who can ask and answer questions—in short, the dialectician? The pilot directs the carpenter how to make the rudder, and the dialectician directs the legislator how he is to impose names; for to express the ideal forms of things in syllables and letters is not the easy task, Hermogenes, which you imagine.
'I should be more readily persuaded, if you would show me this natural correctness of names.'
Indeed I cannot; but I see that you have advanced; for you now admit that there is a correctness of names, and that not every one can give a name. But what is the nature of this correctness or truth, you must learn from the Sophists, of whom your brother Callias has bought his reputation for wisdom rather dearly; and since they require to be paid, you, having no money, had better learn from him at second-hand. 'Well, but I have just given up Protagoras, and I should be inconsistent in going to learn of him.' Then if you reject him you may learn of the poets, and in particular of Homer, who distinguishes the names given by Gods and men to the same things, as in the verse about the river God who fought with Hephaestus, 'whom the Gods call Xanthus, and men call Scamander;' or in the lines in which he mentions the bird which the Gods call 'Chalcis,' and men 'Cymindis;' or the hill which men call 'Batieia,' and the Gods 'Myrinna's Tomb.' Here is an important lesson; for the Gods must of course be right in their use of names. And this is not the only truth about philology which may be learnt from Homer. Does he not say that Hector's son had two names—
'Hector called him Scamandrius, but the others Astyanax'?
Now, if the men called him Astyanax, is it not probable that the other name was conferred by the women? And which are more likely to be right—the wiser or the less wise, the men or the women? Homer evidently agreed with the men: and of the name given by them he offers an explanation;—the boy was called Astyanax ('king of the city'), because his father saved the city. The names Astyanax and Hector, moreover, are really the same,—the one means a king, and the other is 'a holder or possessor.' For as the lion's whelp may be called a lion, or the horse's foal a foal, so the son of a king may be called a king. But if the horse had produced a calf, then that would be called a calf. Whether the syllables of a name are the same or not makes no difference, provided the meaning is retained. For example; the names of letters, whether vowels or consonants, do not correspond to their sounds, with the exception of epsilon, upsilon, omicron, omega. The name Beta has three letters added to the sound—and yet this does not alter the sense of the word, or prevent the whole name having the value which the legislator intended. And the same may be said of a king and the son of a king, who like other animals resemble each other in the course of nature; the words by which they are signified may be disguised, and yet amid differences of sound the etymologist may recognise the same notion, just as the physician recognises the power of the same drugs under different disguises of colour and smell. Hector and Astyanax have only one letter alike, but they have the same meaning; and Agis (leader) is altogether different in sound from Polemarchus (chief in war), or Eupolemus (good warrior); but the two words present the same idea of leader or general, like the words Iatrocles and Acesimbrotus, which equally denote a physician. The son succeeds the father as the foal succeeds the horse, but when, out of the course of nature, a prodigy occurs, and the offspring no longer resembles the parent, then the names no longer agree. This may be illustrated by the case of Agamemnon and his son Orestes, of whom the former has a name significant of his patience at the siege of Troy; while the name of the latter indicates his savage, man-of-the-mountain nature. Atreus again, for his murder of Chrysippus, and his cruelty to Thyestes, is rightly named Atreus, which, to the eye of the etymologist, is ateros (destructive), ateires (stubborn), atreotos (fearless); and Pelops is o ta pelas oron (he who sees what is near only), because in his eagerness to win Hippodamia, he was unconscious of the remoter consequences which the murder of Myrtilus would entail upon his race. The name Tantalus, if slightly changed, offers two etymologies; either apo tes tou lithou talanteias, or apo tou talantaton einai, signifying at once the hanging of the stone over his head in the world below, and the misery which he brought upon his country. And the name of his father, Zeus, Dios, Zenos, has an excellent meaning, though hard to be understood, because really a sentence which is divided into two parts (Zeus, Dios). For he, being the lord and king of all, is the author of our being, and in him all live: this is implied in the double form, Dios, Zenos, which being put together and interpreted is di on ze panta. There may, at first sight, appear to be some irreverence in calling him the son of Cronos, who is a proverb for stupidity; but the meaning is that Zeus himself is the son of a mighty intellect; Kronos, quasi koros, not in the sense of a youth, but quasi to katharon kai akeraton tou nou—the pure and garnished mind, which in turn is begotten of Uranus, who is so called apo tou oran ta ano, from looking upwards; which, as philosophers say, is the way to have a pure mind. The earlier portion of Hesiod's genealogy has escaped my memory, or I would try more conclusions of the same sort. 'You talk like an oracle.' I caught the infection from Euthyphro, who gave me a long lecture which began at dawn, and has not only entered into my ears, but filled my soul, and my intention is to yield to the inspiration to-day; and to-morrow I will be exorcised by some priest or sophist. 'Go on; I am anxious to hear the rest.' Now that we have a general notion, how shall we proceed? What names will afford the most crucial test of natural fitness? Those of heroes and ordinary men are often deceptive, because they are patronymics or expressions of a wish; let us try gods and demi-gods. Gods are so called, apo tou thein, from the verb 'to run;' because the sun, moon, and stars run about the heaven; and they being the original gods of the Hellenes, as they still are of the Barbarians, their name is given to all Gods. The demons are the golden race of Hesiod, and by golden he means not literally golden, but good; and they are called demons, quasi daemones, which in old Attic was used for daimones—good men are well said to become daimones when they die, because they are knowing. Eros (with an epsilon) is the same word as eros (with an eta): 'the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair;' or perhaps they were a species of sophists or rhetoricians, and so called apo tou erotan, or eirein, from their habit of spinning questions; for eirein is equivalent to legein. I get all this from Euthyphro; and now a new and ingenious idea comes into my mind, and, if I am not careful, I shall be wiser than I ought to be by to-morrow's dawn. My idea is, that we may put in and pull out letters at pleasure and alter the accents (as, for example, Dii philos may be turned into Diphilos), and we may make words into sentences and sentences into words. The name anthrotos is a case in point, for a letter has been omitted and the accent changed; the original meaning being o anathron a opopen—he who looks up at what he sees. Psuche may be thought to be the reviving, or refreshing, or animating principle—e anapsuchousa to soma; but I am afraid that Euthyphro and his disciples will scorn this derivation, and I must find another: shall we identify the soul with the 'ordering mind' of Anaxagoras, and say that psuche, quasi phuseche = e phusin echei or ochei?—this might easily be refined into psyche. 'That is a more artistic etymology.'
After psuche follows soma; this, by a slight permutation, may be either = (1) the 'grave' of the soul, or (2) may mean 'that by which the soul signifies (semainei) her wishes.' But more probably, the word is Orphic, and simply denotes that the body is the place of ward in which the soul suffers the penalty of sin,—en o sozetai. 'I should like to hear some more explanations of the names of the Gods, like that excellent one of Zeus.' The truest names of the Gods are those which they give themselves; but these are unknown to us. Less true are those by which we propitiate them, as men say in prayers, 'May he graciously receive any name by which I call him.' And to avoid offence, I should like to let them know beforehand that we are not presuming to enquire about them, but only about the names which they usually bear. Let us begin with Hestia. What did he mean who gave the name Hestia? 'That is a very difficult question.' O, my dear Hermogenes, I believe that there was a power of philosophy and talk among the first inventors of names, both in our own and in other languages; for even in foreign words a principle is discernible. Hestia is the same with esia, which is an old form of ousia, and means the first principle of things: this agrees with the fact that to Hestia the first sacrifices are offered. There is also another reading—osia, which implies that 'pushing' (othoun) is the first principle of all things. And here I seem to discover a delicate allusion to the flux of Heracleitus—that antediluvian philosopher who cannot walk twice in the same stream; and this flux of his may accomplish yet greater marvels. For the names Cronos and Rhea cannot have been accidental; the giver of them must have known something about the doctrine of Heracleitus. Moreover, there is a remarkable coincidence in the words of Hesiod, when he speaks of Oceanus, 'the origin of Gods;' and in the verse of Orpheus, in which he describes Oceanus espousing his sister Tethys. Tethys is nothing more than the name of a spring—to diattomenon kai ethoumenon. Poseidon is posidesmos, the chain of the feet, because you cannot walk on the sea—the epsilon is inserted by way of ornament; or perhaps the name may have been originally polleidon, meaning, that the God knew many things (polla eidos): he may also be the shaker, apo tou seiein,—in this case, pi and delta have been added. Pluto is connected with ploutos, because wealth comes out of the earth; or the word may be a euphemism for Hades, which is usually derived apo tou aeidous, because the God is concerned with the invisible. But the name Hades was really given him from his knowing (eidenai) all good things. Men in general are foolishly afraid of him, and talk with horror of the world below from which no one may return. The reason why his subjects never wish to come back, even if they could, is that the God enchains them by the strongest of spells, namely by the desire of virtue, which they hope to obtain by constant association with him. He is the perfect and accomplished Sophist and the great benefactor of the other world; for he has much more than he wants there, and hence he is called Pluto or the rich. He will have nothing to do with the souls of men while in the body, because he cannot work his will with them so long as they are confused and entangled by fleshly lusts. Demeter is the mother and giver of food—e didousa meter tes edodes. Here is erate tis, or perhaps the legislator may have been thinking of the weather, and has merely transposed the letters of the word aer. Pherephatta, that word of awe, is pheretapha, which is only an euphonious contraction of e tou pheromenou ephaptomene,—all things are in motion, and she in her wisdom moves with them, and the wise God Hades consorts with her—there is nothing very terrible in this, any more than in the her other appellation Persephone, which is also significant of her wisdom (sophe). Apollo is another name, which is supposed to have some dreadful meaning, but is susceptible of at least four perfectly innocent explanations. First, he is the purifier or purger or absolver (apolouon); secondly, he is the true diviner, Aplos, as he is called in the Thessalian dialect (aplos = aplous, sincere); thirdly, he is the archer (aei ballon), always shooting; or again, supposing alpha to mean ama or omou, Apollo becomes equivalent to ama polon, which points to both his musical and his heavenly attributes; for there is a 'moving together' alike in music and in the harmony of the spheres. The second lambda is inserted in order to avoid the ill-omened sound of destruction. The Muses are so called—apo tou mosthai. The gentle Leto or Letho is named from her willingness (ethelemon), or because she is ready to forgive and forget (lethe). Artemis is so called from her healthy well-balanced nature, dia to artemes, or as aretes istor; or as a lover of virginity, aroton misesasa. One of these explanations is probably true,—perhaps all of them. Dionysus is o didous ton oinon, and oinos is quasi oionous because wine makes those think (oiesthai) that they have a mind (nous) who have none. The established derivation of Aphrodite dia ten tou athrou genesin may be accepted on the authority of Hesiod. Again, there is the name of Pallas, or Athene, which we, who are Athenians, must not forget. Pallas is derived from armed dances—apo tou pallein ta opla. For Athene we must turn to the allegorical interpreters of Homer, who make the name equivalent to theonoe, or possibly the word was originally ethonoe and signified moral intelligence (en ethei noesis). Hephaestus, again, is the lord of light—o tou phaeos istor. This is a good notion; and, to prevent any other getting into our heads, let us go on to Ares. He is the manly one (arren), or the unchangeable one (arratos). Enough of the Gods; for, by the Gods, I am afraid of them; but if you suggest other words, you will see how the horses of Euthyphro prance. 'Only one more God; tell me about my godfather Hermes.' He is ermeneus, the messenger or cheater or thief or bargainer; or o eirein momenos, that is, eiremes or ermes—the speaker or contriver of speeches. 'Well said Cratylus, then, that I am no son of Hermes.' Pan, as the son of Hermes, is speech or the brother of speech, and is called Pan because speech indicates everything—o pan menuon. He has two forms, a true and a false; and is in the upper part smooth, and in the lower part shaggy. He is the goat of Tragedy, in which there are plenty of falsehoods.
'Will you go on to the elements—sun, moon, stars, earth, aether, air, fire, water, seasons, years?' Very good: and which shall I take first? Let us begin with elios, or the sun. The Doric form elios helps us to see that he is so called because at his rising he gathers (alizei) men together, or because he rolls about (eilei) the earth, or because he variegates (aiolei = poikillei) the earth. Selene is an anticipation of Anaxagoras, being a contraction of selaenoneoaeia, the light (selas) which is ever old and new, and which, as Anaxagoras says, is borrowed from the sun; the name was harmonized into selanaia, a form which is still in use. 'That is a true dithyrambic name.' Meis is so called apo tou meiousthai, from suffering diminution, and astron is from astrape (lightning), which is an improvement of anastrope, that which turns the eyes inside out. 'How do you explain pur n udor?' I suspect that pur, which, like udor n kuon, is found in Phrygian, is a foreign word; for the Hellenes have borrowed much from the barbarians, and I always resort to this theory of a foreign origin when I am at a loss. Aer may be explained, oti airei ta apo tes ges; or, oti aei rei; or, oti pneuma ex autou ginetai (compare the poetic word aetai). So aither quasi aeitheer oti aei thei peri ton aera: ge, gaia quasi genneteira (compare the Homeric form gegaasi); ora (with an omega), or, according to the old Attic form ora (with an omicron), is derived apo tou orizein, because it divides the year; eniautos and etos are the same thought—o en eauto etazon, cut into two parts, en eauto and etazon, like di on ze into Dios and Zenos.
'You make surprising progress.' True; I am run away with, and am not even yet at my utmost speed. 'I should like very much to hear your account of the virtues. What principle of correctness is there in those charming words, wisdom, understanding, justice, and the rest?' To explain all that will be a serious business; still, as I have put on the lion's skin, appearances must be maintained. My opinion is, that primitive men were like some modern philosophers, who, by always going round in their search after the nature of things, become dizzy; and this phenomenon, which was really in themselves, they imagined to take place in the external world. You have no doubt remarked, that the doctrine of the universal flux, or generation of things, is indicated in names. 'No, I never did.' Phronesis is only phoras kai rou noesis, or perhaps phoras onesis, and in any case is connected with pheresthai; gnome is gones skepsis kai nomesis; noesis is neou or gignomenon esis; the word neos implies that creation is always going on—the original form was neoesis; sophrosune is soteria phroneseos; episteme is e epomene tois pragmasin—the faculty which keeps close, neither anticipating nor lagging behind; sunesis is equivalent to sunienai, sumporeuesthai ten psuche, and is a kind of conclusion—sullogismos tis, akin therefore in idea to episteme; sophia is very difficult, and has a foreign look—the meaning is, touching the motion or stream of things, and may be illustrated by the poetical esuthe and the Lacedaemonian proper name Sous, or Rush; agathon is ro agaston en te tachuteti,—for all things are in motion, and some are swifter than others: dikaiosune is clearly e tou dikaiou sunesis. The word dikaion is more troublesome, and appears to mean the subtle penetrating power which, as the lovers of motion say, preserves all things, and is the cause of all things, quasi diaion going through—the letter kappa being inserted for the sake of euphony. This is a great mystery which has been confided to me; but when I ask for an explanation I am thought obtrusive, and another derivation is proposed to me. Justice is said to be o kaion, or the sun; and when I joyfully repeat this beautiful notion, I am answered, 'What, is there no justice when the sun is down?' And when I entreat my questioner to tell me his own opinion, he replies, that justice is fire in the abstract, or heat in the abstract; which is not very intelligible. Others laugh at such notions, and say with Anaxagoras, that justice is the ordering mind. 'I think that some one must have told you this.' And not the rest? Let me proceed then, in the hope of proving to you my originality. Andreia is quasi anpeia quasi e ano roe, the stream which flows upwards, and is opposed to injustice, which clearly hinders the principle of penetration; arren and aner have a similar derivation; gune is the same as gone; thelu is derived apo tes theles, because the teat makes things flourish (tethelenai), and the word thallein itself implies increase of youth, which is swift and sudden ever (thein and allesthai). I am getting over the ground fast: but much has still to be explained. There is techne, for instance. This, by an aphaeresis of tau and an epenthesis of omicron in two places, may be identified with echonoe, and signifies 'that which has mind.'
'A very poor etymology.' Yes; but you must remember that all language is in process of change; letters are taken in and put out for the sake of euphony, and time is also a great alterer of words. For example, what business has the letter rho in the word katoptron, or the letter sigma in the word sphigx? The additions are often such that it is impossible to make out the original word; and yet, if you may put in and pull out, as you like, any name is equally good for any object. The fact is, that great dictators of literature like yourself should observe the rules of moderation. 'I will do my best.' But do not be too much of a precisian, or you will paralyze me. If you will let me add mechane, apo tou mekous, which means polu, and anein, I shall be at the summit of my powers, from which elevation I will examine the two words kakia and arete. The first is easily explained in accordance with what has preceded; for all things being in a flux, kakia is to kakos ion. This derivation is illustrated by the word deilia, which ought to have come after andreia, and may be regarded as o lian desmos tes psuches, just as aporia signifies an impediment to motion (from alpha not, and poreuesthai to go), and arete is euporia, which is the opposite of this—the everflowing (aei reousa or aeireite), or the eligible, quasi airete. You will think that I am inventing, but I say that if kakia is right, then arete is also right. But what is kakon? That is a very obscure word, to which I can only apply my old notion and declare that kakon is a foreign word. Next, let us proceed to kalon, aischron. The latter is doubtless contracted from aeischoroun, quasi aei ischon roun. The inventor of words being a patron of the flux, was a great enemy to stagnation. Kalon is to kaloun ta pragmata—this is mind (nous or dianoia); which is also the principle of beauty; and which doing the works of beauty, is therefore rightly called the beautiful. The meaning of sumpheron is explained by previous examples;—like episteme, signifying that the soul moves in harmony with the world (sumphora, sumpheronta). Kerdos is to pasi kerannumenon—that which mingles with all things: lusiteloun is equivalent to to tes phoras luon to telos, and is not to be taken in the vulgar sense of gainful, but rather in that of swift, being the principle which makes motion immortal and unceasing; ophelimon is apo tou ophellein—that which gives increase: this word, which is Homeric, is of foreign origin. Blaberon is to blamton or boulomenon aptein tou rou—that which injures or seeks to bind the stream. The proper word would be boulapteroun, but this is too much of a mouthful—like a prelude on the flute in honour of Athene. The word zemiodes is difficult; great changes, as I was saying, have been made in words, and even a small change will alter their meaning very much. The word deon is one of these disguised words. You know that according to the old pronunciation, which is especially affected by the women, who are great conservatives, iota and delta were used where we should now use eta and zeta: for example, what we now call emera was formerly called imera; and this shows the meaning of the word to have been 'the desired one coming after night,' and not, as is often supposed, 'that which makes things gentle' (emera). So again, zugon is duogon, quasi desis duein eis agogen—(the binding of two together for the purpose of drawing.) Deon, as ordinarily written, has an evil sense, signifying the chain (desmos) or hindrance of motion; but in its ancient form dion is expressive of good, quasi diion, that which penetrates or goes through all. Zemiodes is really demiodes, and means that which binds motion (dounti to ion): edone is e pros ten onrsin teinousa praxis—the delta is an insertion: lupe is derived apo tes dialuseos tou somatos: ania is from alpha and ienai, to go: algedon is a foreign word, and is so called apo tou algeinou: odune is apo tes enduseos tes lupes: achthedon is in its very sound a burden: chapa expresses the flow of soul: terpsis is apo tou terpnou, and terpnon is properly erpnon, because the sensation of pleasure is likened to a breath (pnoe) which creeps (erpei) through the soul: euphrosune is named from pheresthai, because the soul moves in harmony with nature: epithumia is e epi ton thumon iousa dunamis: thumos is apo tes thuseos tes psuches: imeros—oti eimenos pei e psuche: pothos, the desire which is in another place, allothi pou: eros was anciently esros, and so called because it flows into (esrei) the soul from without: doxa is e dioxis tou eidenai, or expresses the shooting from a bow (toxon). The latter etymology is confirmed by the words boulesthai, boule, aboulia, which all have to do with shooting (bole): and similarly oiesis is nothing but the movement (oisis) of the soul towards essence. Ekousion is to eikon—the yielding—anagke is e an agke iousa, the passage through ravines which impede motion: aletheia is theia ale, divine motion. Pseudos is the opposite of this, implying the principle of constraint and forced repose, which is expressed under the figure of sleep, to eudon; the psi is an addition. Onoma, a name, affirms the real existence of that which is sought after—on ou masma estin. On and ousia are only ion with an iota broken off; and ouk on is ouk ion. 'And what are ion, reon, doun?' One way of explaining them has been already suggested—they may be of foreign origin; and possibly this is the true answer. But mere antiquity may often prevent our recognizing words, after all the complications which they have undergone; and we must remember that however far we carry back our analysis some ultimate elements or roots will remain which can be no further analyzed. For example; the word agathos was supposed by us to be a compound of agastos and thoos, and probably thoos may be further resolvable. But if we take a word of which no further resolution seems attainable, we may fairly conclude that we have reached one of these original elements, and the truth of such a word must be tested by some new method. Will you help me in the search?
All names, whether primary or secondary, are intended to show the nature of things; and the secondary, as I conceive, derive their significance from the primary. But then, how do the primary names indicate anything? And let me ask another question,—If we had no faculty of speech, how should we communicate with one another? Should we not use signs, like the deaf and dumb? The elevation of our hands would mean lightness—heaviness would be expressed by letting them drop. The running of any animal would be described by a similar movement of our own frames. The body can only express anything by imitation; and the tongue or mouth can imitate as well as the rest of the body. But this imitation of the tongue or voice is not yet a name, because people may imitate sheep or goats without naming them. What, then, is a name? In the first place, a name is not a musical, or, secondly, a pictorial imitation, but an imitation of that kind which expresses the nature of a thing; and is the invention not of a musician, or of a painter, but of a namer.
And now, I think that we may consider the names about which you were asking. The way to analyze them will be by going back to the letters, or primary elements of which they are composed. First, we separate the alphabet into classes of letters, distinguishing the consonants, mutes, vowels, and semivowels; and when we have learnt them singly, we shall learn to know them in their various combinations of two or more letters; just as the painter knows how to use either a single colour, or a combination of colours. And like the painter, we may apply letters to the expression of objects, and form them into syllables; and these again into words, until the picture or figure—that is, language—is completed. Not that I am literally speaking of ourselves, but I mean to say that this was the way in which the ancients framed language. And this leads me to consider whether the primary as well as the secondary elements are rightly given. I may remark, as I was saying about the Gods, that we can only attain to conjecture of them. But still we insist that ours is the true and only method of discovery; otherwise we must have recourse, like the tragic poets, to a Deus ex machina, and say that God gave the first names, and therefore they are right; or that the barbarians are older than we are, and that we learnt of them; or that antiquity has cast a veil over the truth. Yet all these are not reasons; they are only ingenious excuses for having no reasons.
I will freely impart to you my own notions, though they are somewhat crude:—the letter rho appears to me to be the general instrument which the legislator has employed to express all motion or kinesis. (I ought to explain that kinesis is just iesis (going), for the letter eta was unknown to the ancients; and the root, kiein, is a foreign form of ienai: of kinesis or eisis, the opposite is stasis). This use of rho is evident in the words tremble, break, crush, crumble, and the like; the imposer of names perceived that the tongue is most agitated in the pronunciation of this letter, just as he used iota to express the subtle power which penetrates through all things. The letters phi, psi, sigma, zeta, which require a great deal of wind, are employed in the imitation of such notions as shivering, seething, shaking, and in general of what is windy. The letters delta and tau convey the idea of binding and rest in a place: the lambda denotes smoothness, as in the words slip, sleek, sleep, and the like. But when the slipping tongue is detained by the heavier sound of gamma, then arises the notion of a glutinous clammy nature: nu is sounded from within, and has a notion of inwardness: alpha is the expression of size; eta of length; omicron of roundness, and therefore there is plenty of omicron in the word goggulon. That is my view, Hermogenes, of the correctness of names; and I should like to hear what Cratylus would say. 'But, Socrates, as I was telling you, Cratylus mystifies me; I should like to ask him, in your presence, what he means by the fitness of names?' To this appeal, Cratylus replies 'that he cannot explain so important a subject all in a moment.' 'No, but you may "add little to little," as Hesiod says.' Socrates here interposes his own request, that Cratylus will give some account of his theory. Hermogenes and himself are mere sciolists, but Cratylus has reflected on these matters, and has had teachers. Cratylus replies in the words of Achilles: '"Illustrious Ajax, you have spoken in all things much to my mind," whether Euthyphro, or some Muse inhabiting your own breast, was the inspirer.' Socrates replies, that he is afraid of being self-deceived, and therefore he must 'look fore and aft,' as Homer remarks. Does not Cratylus agree with him that names teach us the nature of things? 'Yes.' And naming is an art, and the artists are legislators, and like artists in general, some of them are better and some of them are worse than others, and give better or worse laws, and make better or worse names. Cratylus cannot admit that one name is better than another; they are either true names, or they are not names at all; and when he is asked about the name of Hermogenes, who is acknowledged to have no luck in him, he affirms this to be the name of somebody else. Socrates supposes him to mean that falsehood is impossible, to which his own answer would be, that there has never been a lack of liars. Cratylus presses him with the old sophistical argument, that falsehood is saying that which is not, and therefore saying nothing;—you cannot utter the word which is not. Socrates complains that this argument is too subtle for an old man to understand: Suppose a person addressing Cratylus were to say, Hail, Athenian Stranger, Hermogenes! would these words be true or false? 'I should say that they would be mere unmeaning sounds, like the hammering of a brass pot.' But you would acknowledge that names, as well as pictures, are imitations, and also that pictures may give a right or wrong representation of a man or woman:—why may not names then equally give a representation true and right or false and wrong? Cratylus admits that pictures may give a true or false representation, but denies that names can. Socrates argues, that he may go up to a man and say 'this is year picture,' and again, he may go and say to him 'this is your name'—in the one case appealing to his sense of sight, and in the other to his sense of hearing;—may he not? 'Yes.' Then you will admit that there is a right or a wrong assignment of names, and if of names, then of verbs and nouns; and if of verbs and nouns, then of the sentences which are made up of them; and comparing nouns to pictures, you may give them all the appropriate sounds, or only some of them. And as he who gives all the colours makes a good picture, and he who gives only some of them, a bad or imperfect one, but still a picture; so he who gives all the sounds makes a good name, and he who gives only some of them, a bad or imperfect one, but a name still. The artist of names, that is, the legislator, may be a good or he may be a bad artist. 'Yes, Socrates, but the cases are not parallel; for if you subtract or misplace a letter, the name ceases to be a name.' Socrates admits that the number 10, if an unit is subtracted, would cease to be 10, but denies that names are of this purely quantitative nature. Suppose that there are two objects—Cratylus and the image of Cratylus; and let us imagine that some God makes them perfectly alike, both in their outward form and in their inner nature and qualities: then there will be two Cratyluses, and not merely Cratylus and the image of Cratylus. But an image in fact always falls short in some degree of the original, and if images are not exact counterparts, why should names be? if they were, they would be the doubles of their originals, and indistinguishable from them; and how ridiculous would this be! Cratylus admits the truth of Socrates' remark. But then Socrates rejoins, he should have the courage to acknowledge that letters may be wrongly inserted in a noun, or a noun in a sentence; and yet the noun or the sentence may retain a meaning. Better to admit this, that we may not be punished like the traveller in Egina who goes about at night, and that Truth herself may not say to us, 'Too late.' And, errors excepted, we may still affirm that a name to be correct must have proper letters, which bear a resemblance to the thing signified. I must remind you of what Hermogenes and I were saying about the letter rho accent, which was held to be expressive of motion and hardness, as lambda is of smoothness;—and this you will admit to be their natural meaning. But then, why do the Eritreans call that skleroter which we call sklerotes? We can understand one another, although the letter rho accent is not equivalent to the letter s: why is this? You reply, because the two letters are sufficiently alike for the purpose of expressing motion. Well, then, there is the letter lambda; what business has this in a word meaning hardness? 'Why, Socrates, I retort upon you, that we put in and pull out letters at pleasure.' And the explanation of this is custom or agreement: we have made a convention that the rho shall mean s and a convention may indicate by the unlike as well as by the like. How could there be names for all the numbers unless you allow that convention is used? Imitation is a poor thing, and has to be supplemented by convention, which is another poor thing; although I agree with you in thinking that the most perfect form of language is found only where there is a perfect correspondence of sound and meaning. But let me ask you what is the use and force of names? 'The use of names, Socrates, is to inform, and he who knows names knows things.' Do you mean that the discovery of names is the same as the discovery of things? 'Yes.' But do you not see that there is a degree of deception about names? He who first gave names, gave them according to his conception, and that may have been erroneous. 'But then, why, Socrates, is language so consistent? all words have the same laws.' Mere consistency is no test of truth. In geometrical problems, for example, there may be a flaw at the beginning, and yet the conclusion may follow consistently. And, therefore, a wise man will take especial care of first principles. But are words really consistent; are there not as many terms of praise which signify rest as which signify motion? There is episteme, which is connected with stasis, as mneme is with meno. Bebaion, again, is the expression of station and position; istoria is clearly descriptive of the stopping istanai of the stream; piston indicates the cessation of motion; and there are many words having a bad sense, which are connected with ideas of motion, such as sumphora, amartia, etc.: amathia, again, might be explained, as e ama theo iontos poreia, and akolasia as e akolouthia tois pragmasin. Thus the bad names are framed on the same principle as the good, and other examples might be given, which would favour a theory of rest rather than of motion. 'Yes; but the greater number of words express motion.' Are we to count them, Cratylus; and is correctness of names to be determined by the voice of a majority?
Here is another point: we were saying that the legislator gives names; and therefore we must suppose that he knows the things which he names: but how can he have learnt things from names before there were any names? 'I believe, Socrates, that some power more than human first gave things their names, and that these were necessarily true names.' Then how came the giver of names to contradict himself, and to make some names expressive of rest, and others of motion? 'I do not suppose that he did make them both.' Then which did he make—those which are expressive of rest, or those which are expressive of motion?...But if some names are true and others false, we can only decide between them, not by counting words, but by appealing to things. And, if so, we must allow that things may be known without names; for names, as we have several times admitted, are the images of things; and the higher knowledge is of things, and is not to be derived from names; and though I do not doubt that the inventors of language gave names, under the idea that all things are in a state of motion and flux, I believe that they were mistaken; and that having fallen into a whirlpool themselves, they are trying to drag us after them. For is there not a true beauty and a true good, which is always beautiful and always good? Can the thing beauty be vanishing away from us while the words are yet in our mouths? And they could not be known by any one if they are always passing away—for if they are always passing away, the observer has no opportunity of observing their state. Whether the doctrine of the flux or of the eternal nature be the truer, is hard to determine. But no man of sense will put himself, or the education of his mind, in the power of names: he will not condemn himself to be an unreal thing, nor will he believe that everything is in a flux like the water in a leaky vessel, or that the world is a man who has a running at the nose. This doctrine may be true, Cratylus, but is also very likely to be untrue; and therefore I would have you reflect while you are young, and find out the truth, and when you know come and tell me. 'I have thought, Socrates, and after a good deal of thinking I incline to Heracleitus.' Then another day, my friend, you shall give me a lesson. 'Very good, Socrates, and I hope that you will continue to study these things yourself.'
We may now consider (I) how far Plato in the Cratylus has discovered the true principles of language, and then (II) proceed to compare modern speculations respecting the origin and nature of language with the anticipations of his genius.
I. (1) Plato is aware that language is not the work of chance; nor does he deny that there is a natural fitness in names. He only insists that this natural fitness shall be intelligibly explained. But he has no idea that language is a natural organism. He would have heard with surprise that languages are the common work of whole nations in a primitive or semi-barbarous age. How, he would probably have argued, could men devoid of art have contrived a structure of such complexity? No answer could have been given to this question, either in ancient or in modern times, until the nature of primitive antiquity had been thoroughly studied, and the instincts of man had been shown to exist in greater force, when his state approaches more nearly to that of children or animals. The philosophers of the last century, after their manner, would have vainly endeavoured to trace the process by which proper names were converted into common, and would have shown how the last effort of abstraction invented prepositions and auxiliaries. The theologian would have proved that language must have had a divine origin, because in childhood, while the organs are pliable, the intelligence is wanting, and when the intelligence is able to frame conceptions, the organs are no longer able to express them. Or, as others have said: Man is man because he has the gift of speech; and he could not have invented that which he is. But this would have been an 'argument too subtle' for Socrates, who rejects the theological account of the origin of language 'as an excuse for not giving a reason,' which he compares to the introduction of the 'Deus ex machina' by the tragic poets when they have to solve a difficulty; thus anticipating many modern controversies in which the primary agency of the divine Being is confused with the secondary cause; and God is assumed to have worked a miracle in order to fill up a lacuna in human knowledge. (Compare Timaeus.)
Neither is Plato wrong in supposing that an element of design and art enters into language. The creative power abating is supplemented by a mechanical process. 'Languages are not made but grow,' but they are made as well as grow; bursting into life like a plant or a flower, they are also capable of being trained and improved and engrafted upon one another. The change in them is effected in earlier ages by musical and euphonic improvements, at a later stage by the influence of grammar and logic, and by the poetical and literary use of words. They develope rapidly in childhood, and when they are full grown and set they may still put forth intellectual powers, like the mind in the body, or rather we may say that the nobler use of language only begins when the frame-work is complete. The savage or primitive man, in whom the natural instinct is strongest, is also the greatest improver of the forms of language. He is the poet or maker of words, as in civilised ages the dialectician is the definer or distinguisher of them. The latter calls the second world of abstract terms into existence, as the former has created the picture sounds which represent natural objects or processes. Poetry and philosophy—these two, are the two great formative principles of language, when they have passed their first stage, of which, as of the first invention of the arts in general, we only entertain conjecture. And mythology is a link between them, connecting the visible and invisible, until at length the sensuous exterior falls away, and the severance of the inner and outer world, of the idea and the object of sense, becomes complete. At a later period, logic and grammar, sister arts, preserve and enlarge the decaying instinct of language, by rule and method, which they gather from analysis and observation.
(2) There is no trace in any of Plato's writings that he was acquainted with any language but Greek. Yet he has conceived very truly the relation of Greek to foreign languages, which he is led to consider, because he finds that many Greek words are incapable of explanation. Allowing a good deal for accident, and also for the fancies of the conditores linguae Graecae, there is an element of which he is unable to give an account. These unintelligible words he supposes to be of foreign origin, and to have been derived from a time when the Greeks were either barbarians, or in close relations to the barbarians. Socrates is aware that this principle is liable to great abuse; and, like the 'Deus ex machina,' explains nothing. Hence he excuses himself for the employment of such a device, and remarks that in foreign words there is still a principle of correctness, which applies equally both to Greeks and barbarians.
(3) But the greater number of primary words do not admit of derivation from foreign languages; they must be resolved into the letters out of which they are composed, and therefore the letters must have a meaning. The framers of language were aware of this; they observed that alpha was adapted to express size; eta length; omicron roundness; nu inwardness; rho accent rush or roar; lambda liquidity; gamma lambda the detention of the liquid or slippery element; delta and tau binding; phi, psi, sigma, xi, wind and cold, and so on. Plato's analysis of the letters of the alphabet shows a wonderful insight into the nature of language. He does not expressively distinguish between mere imitation and the symbolical use of sound to express thought, but he recognises in the examples which he gives both modes of imitation. Gesture is the mode which a deaf and dumb person would take of indicating his meaning. And language is the gesture of the tongue; in the use of the letter rho accent, to express a rushing or roaring, or of omicron to express roundness, there is a direct imitation; while in the use of the letter alpha to express size, or of eta to express length, the imitation is symbolical. The use of analogous or similar sounds, in order to express similar analogous ideas, seems to have escaped him.
In passing from the gesture of the body to the movement of the tongue, Plato makes a great step in the physiology of language. He was probably the first who said that 'language is imitative sound,' which is the greatest and deepest truth of philology; although he is not aware of the laws of euphony and association by which imitation must be regulated. He was probably also the first who made a distinction between simple and compound words, a truth second only in importance to that which has just been mentioned. His great insight in one direction curiously contrasts with his blindness in another; for he appears to be wholly unaware (compare his derivation of agathos from agastos and thoos) of the difference between the root and termination. But we must recollect that he was necessarily more ignorant than any schoolboy of Greek grammar, and had no table of the inflexions of verbs and nouns before his eyes, which might have suggested to him the distinction.
(4) Plato distinctly affirms that language is not truth, or 'philosophie une langue bien faite.' At first, Socrates has delighted himself with discovering the flux of Heracleitus in language. But he is covertly satirising the pretence of that or any other age to find philosophy in words; and he afterwards corrects any erroneous inference which might be gathered from his experiment. For he finds as many, or almost as many, words expressive of rest, as he had previously found expressive of motion. And even if this had been otherwise, who would learn of words when he might learn of things? There is a great controversy and high argument between Heracleiteans and Eleatics, but no man of sense would commit his soul in such enquiries to the imposers of names...In this and other passages Plato shows that he is as completely emancipated from the influence of 'Idols of the tribe' as Bacon himself.
The lesson which may be gathered from words is not metaphysical or moral, but historical. They teach us the affinity of races, they tell us something about the association of ideas, they occasionally preserve the memory of a disused custom; but we cannot safely argue from them about right and wrong, matter and mind, freedom and necessity, or the other problems of moral and metaphysical philosophy. For the use of words on such subjects may often be metaphorical, accidental, derived from other languages, and may have no relation to the contemporary state of thought and feeling. Nor in any case is the invention of them the result of philosophical reflection; they have been commonly transferred from matter to mind, and their meaning is the very reverse of their etymology. Because there is or is not a name for a thing, we cannot argue that the thing has or has not an actual existence; or that the antitheses, parallels, conjugates, correlatives of language have anything corresponding to them in nature. There are too many words as well as too few; and they generalize the objects or ideas which they represent. The greatest lesson which the philosophical analysis of language teaches us is, that we should be above language, making words our servants, and not allowing them to be our masters.
Plato does not add the further observation, that the etymological meaning of words is in process of being lost. If at first framed on a principle of intelligibility, they would gradually cease to be intelligible, like those of a foreign language, he is willing to admit that they are subject to many changes, and put on many disguises. He acknowledges that the 'poor creature' imitation is supplemented by another 'poor creature,'—convention. But he does not see that 'habit and repute,' and their relation to other words, are always exercising an influence over them. Words appear to be isolated, but they are really the parts of an organism which is always being reproduced. They are refined by civilization, harmonized by poetry, emphasized by literature, technically applied in philosophy and art; they are used as symbols on the border-ground of human knowledge; they receive a fresh impress from individual genius, and come with a new force and association to every lively-minded person. They are fixed by the simultaneous utterance of millions, and yet are always imperceptibly changing;—not the inventors of language, but writing and speaking, and particularly great writers, or works which pass into the hearts of nations, Homer, Shakespear, Dante, the German or English Bible, Kant and Hegel, are the makers of them in later ages. They carry with them the faded recollection of their own past history; the use of a word in a striking and familiar passage gives a complexion to its use everywhere else, and the new use of an old and familiar phrase has also a peculiar power over us. But these and other subtleties of language escaped the observation of Plato. He is not aware that the languages of the world are organic structures, and that every word in them is related to every other; nor does he conceive of language as the joint work of the speaker and the hearer, requiring in man a faculty not only of expressing his thoughts but of understanding those of others.
On the other hand, he cannot be justly charged with a desire to frame language on artificial principles. Philosophers have sometimes dreamed of a technical or scientific language, in words which should have fixed meanings, and stand in the same relation to one another as the substances which they denote. But there is no more trace of this in Plato than there is of a language corresponding to the ideas; nor, indeed, could the want of such a language be felt until the sciences were far more developed. Those who would extend the use of technical phraseology beyond the limits of science or of custom, seem to forget that freedom and suggestiveness and the play of association are essential characteristics of language. The great master has shown how he regarded pedantic distinctions of words or attempts to confine their meaning in the satire on Prodicus in the Protagoras.
(5) In addition to these anticipations of the general principles of philology, we may note also a few curious observations on words and sounds. 'The Eretrians say sklerotes for skleroter;' 'the Thessalians call Apollo Amlos;' 'The Phrygians have the words pur, udor, kunes slightly changed;' 'there is an old Homeric word emesato, meaning "he contrived";' 'our forefathers, and especially the women, who are most conservative of the ancient language, loved the letters iota and delta; but now iota is changed into eta and epsilon, and delta into zeta; this is supposed to increase the grandeur of the sound.' Plato was very willing to use inductive arguments, so far as they were within his reach; but he would also have assigned a large influence to chance. Nor indeed is induction applicable to philology in the same degree as to most of the physical sciences. For after we have pushed our researches to the furthest point, in language as in all the other creations of the human mind, there will always remain an element of exception or accident or free-will, which cannot be eliminated.
The question, 'whether falsehood is impossible,' which Socrates characteristically sets aside as too subtle for an old man (compare Euthyd.), could only have arisen in an age of imperfect consciousness, which had not yet learned to distinguish words from things. Socrates replies in effect that words have an independent existence; thus anticipating the solution of the mediaeval controversy of Nominalism and Realism. He is aware too that languages exist in various degrees of perfection, and that the analysis of them can only be carried to a certain point. 'If we could always, or almost always, use likenesses, which are the appropriate expressions, that would be the most perfect state of language.' These words suggest a question of deeper interest than the origin of language; viz. what is the ideal of language, how far by any correction of their usages existing languages might become clearer and more expressive than they are, more poetical, and also more logical; or whether they are now finally fixed and have received their last impress from time and authority.
On the whole, the Cratylus seems to contain deeper truths about language than any other ancient writing. But feeling the uncertain ground upon which he is walking, and partly in order to preserve the character of Socrates, Plato envelopes the whole subject in a robe of fancy, and allows his principles to drop out as if by accident.
II. What is the result of recent speculations about the origin and nature of language? Like other modern metaphysical enquiries, they end at last in a statement of facts. But, in order to state or understand the facts, a metaphysical insight seems to be required. There are more things in language than the human mind easily conceives. And many fallacies have to be dispelled, as well as observations made. The true spirit of philosophy or metaphysics can alone charm away metaphysical illusions, which are always reappearing, formerly in the fancies of neoplatonist writers, now in the disguise of experience and common sense. An analogy, a figure of speech, an intelligible theory, a superficial observation of the individual, have often been mistaken for a true account of the origin of language.
Speaking is one of the simplest natural operations, and also the most complex. Nothing would seem to be easier or more trivial than a few words uttered by a child in any language. Yet into the formation of those words have entered causes which the human mind is not capable of calculating. They are a drop or two of the great stream or ocean of speech which has been flowing in all ages. They have been transmitted from one language to another; like the child himself, they go back to the beginnings of the human race. How they originated, who can tell? Nevertheless we can imagine a stage of human society in which the circle of men's minds was narrower and their sympathies and instincts stronger; in which their organs of speech were more flexible, and the sense of hearing finer and more discerning; in which they lived more in company, and after the manner of children were more given to express their feelings; in which 'they moved all together,' like a herd of wild animals, 'when they moved at all.' Among them, as in every society, a particular person would be more sensitive and intelligent than the rest. Suddenly, on some occasion of interest (at the approach of a wild beast, shall we say?), he first, they following him, utter a cry which resounds through the forest. The cry is almost or quite involuntary, and may be an imitation of the roar of the animal. Thus far we have not speech, but only the inarticulate expression of feeling or emotion in no respect differing from the cries of animals; for they too call to one another and are answered. But now suppose that some one at a distance not only hears the sound, but apprehends the meaning: or we may imagine that the cry is repeated to a member of the society who had been absent; the others act the scene over again when he returns home in the evening. And so the cry becomes a word. The hearer in turn gives back the word to the speaker, who is now aware that he has acquired a new power. Many thousand times he exercises this power; like a child learning to talk, he repeats the same cry again, and again he is answered; he tries experiments with a like result, and the speaker and the hearer rejoice together in their newly-discovered faculty. At first there would be few such cries, and little danger of mistaking or confusing them. For the mind of primitive man had a narrow range of perceptions and feelings; his senses were microscopic; twenty or thirty sounds or gestures would be enough for him, nor would he have any difficulty in finding them. Naturally he broke out into speech—like the young infant he laughed and babbled; but not until there were hearers as well as speakers did language begin. Not the interjection or the vocal imitation of the object, but the interjection or the vocal imitation of the object understood, is the first rudiment of human speech.
After a while the word gathers associations, and has an independent existence. The imitation of the lion's roar calls up the fears and hopes of the chase, which are excited by his appearance. In the moment of hearing the sound, without any appreciable interval, these and other latent experiences wake up in the mind of the hearer. Not only does he receive an impression, but he brings previous knowledge to bear upon that impression. Necessarily the pictorial image becomes less vivid, while the association of the nature and habits of the animal is more distinctly perceived. The picture passes into a symbol, for there would be too many of them and they would crowd the mind; the vocal imitation, too, is always in process of being lost and being renewed, just as the picture is brought back again in the description of the poet. Words now can be used more freely because there are more of them. What was once an involuntary expression becomes voluntary. Not only can men utter a cry or call, but they can communicate and converse; they can not only use words, but they can even play with them. The word is separated both from the object and from the mind; and slowly nations and individuals attain to a fuller consciousness of themselves.
Parallel with this mental process the articulation of sounds is gradually becoming perfected. The finer sense detects the differences of them, and begins, first to agglomerate, then to distinguish them. Times, persons, places, relations of all kinds, are expressed by modifications of them. The earliest parts of speech, as we may call them by anticipation, like the first utterances of children, probably partook of the nature of interjections and nouns; then came verbs; at length the whole sentence appeared, and rhythm and metre followed. Each stage in the progress of language was accompanied by some corresponding stage in the mind and civilisation of man. In time, when the family became a nation, the wild growth of dialects passed into a language. Then arose poetry and literature. We can hardly realize to ourselves how much with each improvement of language the powers of the human mind were enlarged; how the inner world took the place of outer; how the pictorial or symbolical or analogical word was refined into a notion; how language, fair and large and free, was at last complete.