Was Cratylus Kidding?

The Platonic dialogue titled Cratylus is a long-standing puzzlement. Its theme is announced firmly and clearly in the first couple of lines; it will deal with the question whether names are natural or conventional—whether there is a truth or correctness in them which is the same for all, or whether they are a portion of the human voice that men agree to use in a certain way, and can change at will.

In addition to Socrates, the interlocutors are Hermogenes and Cratylus—though the latter is mute for the first fifty pages of the dialogue, and the former says nothing for the final fifteen pages. Hermogenes takes the view that names are simply conventional designations, Cratylus that they correspond with the nature of the person or thing to which they are applied. He adds that if they do not correspond, they are not names at all; and on this ground he has decided, much to his friend’s irritation, that Hermogenes is not properly his name but probably a name that corresponds with someone else who has more of the qualities of Hermes in him.

Is Cratylus kidding? Is he insulting his friend? Is he alluding, not very kindly, to his friend’s lack of money? Suppose fifty or a hundred people have the same name: is only one of them entitled to it? Socrates, according to Cratylus, is properly Socrates, and Cratylus just as properly Cratylus; only Hermogenes is not Hermogenes and would not be, even though everyone else in the world called him so. No wonder he asks, “What’s up?” and begs Socrates to help him out.

The fact is that neither of the two interlocutors is a very powerful spokesman for his point of view. Cratylus, when he finally gets to speak, is a little more forceful than Hermogenes, but both are generally content with the ritual responses of those who engage in discourse with Socrates: “Yes, indeed, Socrates,” and “I quite agree, Socrates,” etc. As for the position taken by Socrates, even though he does almost all the talking, it’s hard to define. Very often he is just playing with his simple-minded friends. He gets Hermogenes to admit practically all of Cratylus’ positions, then pulls the rug out from under him. He makes familiar fun of teachers of rhetoric, and gets in some by-blows against Heracleitus, to whose opinions Cratylus rather inclines. He often expresses amazement at his own profound wisdom—which encourages one to feel that there is a lot of covert satire in the dialogue, no doubt directed at persons or schools of thought long since passed out of our cognizance.

During his lecture, Socrates propounds a great many etymologies and interpretations of names that are, and have long been recognized as, childish—yet some of his ideas have been treated by philologists with great respect. One of his passing vagaries is to assign specific values to particular consonants, as for example to say that the letter “r” expresses motion and …

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