Modulating Homer’s Voice: (Mis)Quotation in Plato’s Cratylus

  Tanner, Sonja. 2022. “Modulating Homer’s Voice: (Mis)Quotation in Plato’s Cratylus.” In “Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato,” ed. Gwenda-lin Grewal. Special issue, Classics@ 22.

It is Shakespeare’s fault. Weaving a variety of alien discourses together may have become standard fare after Shakespeare, but the novelty with which Plato did this thousands of years earlier thus becomes obscured. I wish here to unearth that novelty and reexamine it for how it contributes to Plato’s Cratylus, a strange and oftentimes neglected dialogue. [1] In it, I argue, Socrates is performing the role of the oracle-monger, a role that has previously been employed for the sake of comedy, but one that is now aimed at undermining one of its own fundamental characteristics: authority. Instead, Socrates encourages a critical reception of his etymologies by slipping in and out of the role of inspired prophet, and he uses Homeric quotations both to tell a back story to this and to goad his audience into receiving his etymologies critically. The result is metatheatrical comedy which reflexively preempts what Socrates will call the worst thing of all: self-deception. If this is right, then the Cratylus and perhaps Platonic dialogues generally, bear a far closer relationship to ancient theater than previously thought.
What are we to make of Plato’s (mis)quotation in the dialogues? La Barbe and Howes suggest that misquotations in Plato were unintentional, either due to negligence or faulty memory. [2] Others have suggested misquotation is due to the existence of varying interpretations of the poets. Was Plato, as Bolling puts it, merely “a bad witness?” [3] Benardete argues for an intentional reading of at least some of these misquotations, suggesting that Plato meant to alter some verses and did so for particular purposes. [4] Tarrant suggests that we should regard inexact or misquoted text, “as intentionally written and as meant to convey either conversational informality or in some cases, eironeia on the part of Socrates, who is the speaker of nearly all of these quotations.” [5] Mitscherling offers a “principle of authorial respect” with which to proceed in this terrain, which suggests that our interpretations proceed charitably towards the author before assuming he or she is making a mistake. [6] I take Mitscherling’s principle as an eminently wise path forward, since all too often, calcified interpretations of Plato proceed on the notion that anything to the contrary must be spurious or otherwise inauthentic, thereby reinforcing themselves even if only by way of confirming the initial bias. I suggest instead that misquotations or inexact citations should be read with this principle in mind, and that if an interpretation can reasonably account for misquotations, we need not resort to assuming they were blunders. Indeed, the Homeric misquotation in the Cratylus serves to undermine Socrates’s performance therein by way of its reception.
The Cratylus offers something exceedingly rare in the fields of ancient philosophy and classics: a relatively recently-discovered papyrus discussing it. Found near the turn of the twentieth century in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, a fragmentary passage in what is thus named the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus reads, “For the Cratylus used to be sung ([προ]ή̣ιδετο) as a prelude, [bringing in] (his) teaching on correctness of names. Directly after this [dialogue] comes the Theaetetus, and following upon the Theaeteus, the Sophist and Statesman…” [7] Two things are notable about this fragment. The first is the Thrasyllan organization of dialogues into the dramatic groupings of tetralogies. Sedley notes that “a striking parallel from Diogenes Laertius may help” corroborate this. [8] According to Diogenes Laertius, “Thrasyllus states that [Plato] published the dialogues after the pattern of the tetralogy of tragedy, as the tragedians used to compete with four dramas.” [9] Much ink has been spilled as to what Thrasyllus meant, how the dialogues were arranged (if at all), and what meaning one can derive from such arrangements, and this paper does not venture into this fray. Thrasyllus’s suggestion is enough for our purposes: Platonic dialogues may have been more closely affiliated with drama and poetry than we tend to assume. Indeed, Charalabopoulos points out that the set directions at the end of the Cratylus implies that Cratylus himself is about to leave for the fields (440e4). At the beginning of the Theaetetus, one of the interlocutors, Terpsion, describes having just returned from the fields (142a1–2). [10]
The second is the startling claim made in the fragment: that the Cratylus was sung. Sedley suggests that, in the word “[προ]ή̣ιδετο: the imperfect suggests that the author purports to be describing the regular practice of the early Academy.” [11] Liddell and Scott define the word προή̣ιδετο as “to have been sung before or as a prelude.” The author of the papyrus uses musical terminology elsewhere, in a very broken passage from the first column of the first fragment, in which something (perhaps the method or course of study) is described as [ἁρ]μοστὴν. [12] We will find several musical analogies in the Cratylus itself and the incorporation of poetic quotations therein underscores the appropriateness of singing the verses. Two senses of the dialogue’s being “sung” require distinction: the first is the literal singing or performance of the dialogue before an audience, as the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus suggests of the Cratylus, and the second is Socrates’s oracular performance within the dialogue. My claim is that the latter renders the former more plausible. [13]
I propose to use this papyrus fragment as a jumping-off point for our look at quotations and misquotations of Homer in the Cratylus. Further, I propose to take the fragment as testament (if not proof) to Platonic dialogues as performance texts. While Homeric misquotations may be more immediately curious, quotations in general—even accurate ones—make for an oddly theatrical incorporation. Charalabopoulos lists three main forms of appropriating theatrical discourse: quotations, “wherein the poetic text is cited verbatim or without significant alterations”; citations, “wherein the dramatic text has been structurally incorporated into the dialogue”; and allusions, in which the “absence of the dramatic text from the texture of the dialogue serves as the distinguishing feature.” [14] Quotations from performed texts would themselves likely have been sung. Charalabopoulos thus suggests that “It is very likely that Protagoras and Socrates quoted Simonides’ poem in the Protagoras mostly by singing.” [15] Would shorter poetic quotations not have been sung as well? Indeed, if the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus is correct, the entirety of the dialogue may have been sung, fusing the quotations together yet more closely with the dialogic text in performance.
If the Cratylus was sung, Socrates’s role within it must be reexamined. At 423b–d, Socrates discusses the idea that a name is a “vocal imitation of what it imitates.” (μίμημα φωνῇ ἐκείνου ὃ μιμεῖται) I propose to take this almost literally. Socrates vocally imitates something or someone in the Cratylus. Halliwell considers that “Aristotle’s guiding notion of mimesis is implicitly that of enactment: poetry proper (which may include some works in prose) does not describe, narrate, or offer argument, but dramatizes and embodies human speech and action.” [16] For Aristotle, “Homer is cited as an example of the mixed mode of poetic mimesis, which combines narrative and enactment.” [17] This fuels Nagy’s claim that poetry must be understood as performance. [18] While Nagy and Halliwell focus these claims on Aristotle, might they not also be true of Plato? And where poetry is infused into philosophical dialogue by way of quotations, does the dialogue itself not take on these performative characteristics?
Misquotations occurring in a dialogue about the power of words or names already enhances their significance. But even direct and “accurate” quotation is remarkable. Quoting poets, or incorporating “alien discourses” as Nightingale puts it, would already be novel or comic. [19] It may also constitute a mixture of media. As Charalabopoulos writes, “When a character utters a passage from a play it looks as if the normal flow of the Platonic dialogue has been temporarily suspended and an ‘alien’ type of discourse is granted a place where it may be performed.” [20] Given the varying modes of delivery, “it makes sense to suppose that the character assumes for a while the role of an extempore actor and delivers the tragic verses accordingly.” [21] From Hesiod and Homer through Pindar, “…Greek nondramatic poetry…reached its public through performance.” [22] Incorporating poetic material is not characteristic of tragedy, which strives to maintain the boundaries of the world it enacts. Such ruptures are characteristic, rather, of comedy.
The comedy at work in Plato’s dialogues is a peculiar sort, and only comes to be named later. It is metatheatre, and it is already evident in the works of Plautus, Terence, and Aristophanes. Charalabopoulos defines metatheatre to include the Platonic dialogue, calling it “the evocation of theatrical discourse in the framework of dialogic text and its impact on/significance for the generic identity of the dialogue.” [23] Features characteristic of metatheatre include the aside, role-playing, soliloquies, prologue and epilogue, eavesdropping, play-within-play, and improvisation. Metatheatre focuses attention upon itself as theater or on itself as comedy. Internal references thus might occur in which the play is discussed as a play, or acting qua acting, and to other trappings of the stage, such as costumes, choruses, and other direct references within plays to the devices such as the ekkyklema and mēchanē that create the illusion of the plays themselves. [24]
An immediate objection arises: Platonic dialogues are written texts, and any attribution to them of being performed as would be a play must simply be mistaken. There is ancient evidence, however, that suggests the contrary. Plutarch’s Sympotic Questions (711b–c) provides support for this suggestion, for instance, in his description of the dramatic performance of Platonic dialogues as a sort of dinner theater. [25] A fragment of Ophelio, likely spoken by a slave, recommends the appropriate accoutrements at symposia to be “…Lyban pepper, incense, and a crazy book by Plato.” [26] While the notion that Platonic dialogues might have been performed may seem a radical suggestion, there is evidence, beyond the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, internal to the Cratylus that renders this plausible.
In keeping with the musical suggestion of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, musical themes recur within the Cratylus. Hermogenes remarks to Socrates: “What intricate names you come up with, Socrates! When you uttered the name ‘boulapteroun’ just now, you looked just as if you were whistling the flute-prelude of the Hymn to Athena (ὥσπερ τοῦ τῆς Ἀθηνάας νόμου προαύλιον στομαυλῆσαι)!” [27] (417e–418a). The word στομαυλῆσαι means to “mimic a flute with the lips” and προαύλιον refers to a prelude performed on the flute. [28] Hermogenes’s comment is one based on what it would look like if Socrates were saying or singing aloud. It refers to a performance. The comparison Hermogenes makes of Socrates to a flautist is not unprecedented. In the Symposium, Alcibiades compares Socrates to a statue of Silenus, whose aulos-playing is brought about with words only to marvelous effect (215b–216d). Alcibiades suggests that Socrates has a siren-like song, playing music that has the power to bewitch those hearing it akin to the power of Marysas (215b–c). But Socrates is ambivalent, at best, about that bewitching effect. Protagoras, for instance, has just such an effect in the eponymous dialogue, transfixing and effectively stupefying (κεκηλημένος) his audience (Protagoras 328d). Unlike the sophist’s followers, Socrates is able to avoid stupefaction. [29] Here in the Cratylus, he offers us his antidote—a song whose power to bewitch is regularly and overtly undermined.

The language of the Cratylus is already suggestive of performance, using both deixis and unusual diction. Such deictic language includes, for Elam:

…references by the speakers to themselves as speakers, to their interlocutors as listener-addressees and to the spatio-temporal coordinates (the here-and-now) of the utterance itself by means of such deictic elements as demonstrative pronouns and spatial and temporal adverbs. It is important now to note that the drama consists first and foremost precisely in this, an I addressing a you here and now. [30]

Indeed, the Cratylus begins with deictic language: “Shall we let Socrates here join our discussion?” [31] (383a). For Elam, “Deixis…is what allows language an ‘active’ and dialogic function rather than a descriptive and choric role: it is instituted at the origins of the drama as the necessary condition of a non-narrative form of world-creating discourse.” [32] Such language carves out a world in which performance occurs but it also suggests what sort of a performance it is.

After inviting him into his conversation with Cratylus, Hermogenes says to Socrates: “So, if you can somehow interpret Cratylus’s oracular utterances, I’d gladly listen” (384a, my emphasis). Socrates’s answer will be a performance of such oracular utterances, a channeling of the oracular persona, which Hermogenes himself will have to interpret. Socrates then begins with a proverb and a joke:

…there is an ancient proverb that ‘fine things are very difficult (χαλεπὰ)’ to know about, and it certainly isn’t easy to get to know about names. To be sure, if I’d attended Prodicus’s fifty-drachma lecture course, which he himself advertises as an exhaustive treatment of the topic, there’d be nothing to prevent you from learning the precise truth about the correctness of names straightaway. But as I’ve heard only the one-drachma course, I don’t know the truth about it.

The proverb Socrates cites uses a form of χαλεπός, a word occurring twelve times within the Cratylus. [33] Beyond his joke about only having heard the “one-drachma course” and his subsequent lack of knowledge, Socrates here anticipates a contrast between things being difficult and the ease with which Socrates will proceed.

The language and diction Socrates uses support his performance as a religious figure of sorts. Using stylistic analysis, Tarrant suggests that the high rate of hiatus, articles, prepositions, and the decreased use of negatives align Socrates’s voice in the Cratylus (396c–422b) with that of religious teachers. [34] The oracular voice is defined by authority and linguistic ambiguity. [35] Kindt suggests that, “The divine voice differs from human language in its reliance on the enigmatic.” [36] Because of this ambiguity, oracular knowledge is “…not absolute, but dialogical.” [37] It requires interpretation through dialogue. Like oracles, Socrates exploits ambiguity in his etymologies. Ewegen writes, “As Socrates’ extended etymological comedy has shown, words, when submitted to arbitrary reinterpretation, can be made to mean anything (414d)… Yet it is precisely through becoming aware of this obfuscating capacity of language that one exceeds it. [38] This is at the heart of what Socrates is up to in the Cratylus.
Religious terminology abounds in the Cratylus. Hermogenes’s initial complaint is that Cratylus issues “oracular utterances” (μαντείαν, 384a) needing interpretation. Socrates describes the breathing-upon (ἐπιπνοίᾳ) of Euthyphro at 399a and Cratylus repeats this as being “inspired (ἐπίπνους) by Euthyphro” at 428c. Socrates uses the term ἐνθουσιῶν (396d), seemingly confirming his performance to appear divinely inspired. Socrates’s changes in language and register are not lost upon his interlocutors. Hermogenes exclaims about Socrates’s apparent wisdom, “Indeed, Socrates, you do seem to me to be exactly like a prophet who has suddenly been inspired to deliver oracles” (ἀτεχνῶς γέ μοι δοκεῖς ὥσπερ οἱ ἐνθουσιῶντες ἐξαίφνης χρησμῳδεῖν; 396d). At 428c, Cratylus too remarks upon Socrates’s unusual manner, again describing Socrates as an oracle-monger inspired by the Muses: χρησμῳδεῖν, εἴτε παρ᾽ Εὐθύφρονος ἐπίπνους γενόμενος, εἴτε καὶ ἄλλη τις Μοῦσα πάλαι σε ἐνοῦσα ἐλελήθει. That the dialogue concerns itself with the correctness of names, or language, underscores the importance of language used within. The dialogue is a logos about logos, and what it shows through Socrates’s performance is both the deception that logos is capable of, and the self-deception which magnifies this issue. However, it is through Socrates’s performance that interlocutors and audience are offered the opportunity to remedy the uncritical reception with which such performances are often received. For this, Socrates will turn to poetry.
The turn to poetry occurs only after a turn to the sophists falls flat. Socrates and Hermogenes discuss Protagoras and the sophists to the apparent dissatisfaction of Hermogenes, and then Socrates says “Well, if that doesn’t suit you, you’ll have to learn from Homer and the poets.” Hermogenes then asks, “And where does Homer say anything about names, Socrates, and what does he say?” (391c–d). Thus, Socrates turns to the literary tradition. In addition to numerous mentions of Hesiod, inspired Homeric poetry is alluded to at 402a, 402b, 407a, 408a, 410c, 415a, and 417c. Socrates’s turn to the literary tradition ought to immediately raise suspicions. After all, this is the same Socrates who allegedly banishes poets from the ideal city in the Republic and who, in the Apology, appears to blame comic poetry, and Aristophanes particularly, for earlier and more “dangerous” (Apology 18c) accusations than even those ultimately fatal charges issued by Meletus and Anytus. [39] Why give the poets and more specifically, the very comic poets named in these earlier accusations, such privileged attention? For this, we turn to Socrates’s use of Homeric (mis)quotation.

Socrates’s Use of Homeric (Mis)Quotation

Socrates’s inspired language is a change of register or voice in the Cratylus. Socrates is modulating Homer’s voice. Socrates misquotes or, to use Benardete’s term, “tortures,” a passage from Homer at 392e1. [40] There, Socrates attempts to answer Hermogenes’s question as to what Homer says about names with etymologies of Hector’s and Astyanax’s names. Socrates misquotes Andromache, who tells the weeping Trojan women: “οἶος γάρ σφιν ἔρυτο πόλιν καὶ τείχεα μακρά.” Homer, instead, reads, “οἶος γάρ σφιν ἔρυσο πύλας καὶ τείχεα μακρά.” [41] (Homer Iliad 22.507) Socrates has changed the word for “gates” (πύλας) with the word for city (πόλιν) and has replaced the second person ἔρυσο with the third person ἔρυτο. LaBarbe suggests the latter as voluntary and, given his lack of attention to it, insignificant: “Platon a voluntairement changé ἔρυσο en ἔρυτο.” [42] I will return later to the substitution of a second person verbal form for what was a third person form in Homer. The more important question for LaBarbe concerns the former: “Il n’est pas en seul manuscrit de la vulgate où l’un des deux mots ait été écrit pour l’autre.” [43] These two possibilities in his discussion do not leave room to consider an intentional, and potentially meaningful, substitution by Plato. Benardete claims that Socrates “would replace πύλας with πόλιν… to lead up to his identification of ἄστυ and πόλις… He would further wish to make his line a self-evident etymological explanation of Astyanax, which it would not immediately look like if it lacked the word ‘city.’” [44] I think Benardete is likely correct, but wish to ask to what effect. Need this be merely an informal, conversational change of terms—one which does not disrupt the dactylic hexameter, or might there be another purpose to this? A skeptical response, after all, could point out that this is merely one word in one quotation in the Cratylus that serves as a misquotation. The skeptic, however, would be wrong.
While there is technically only one Homeric misquotation in the Cratylus, Socrates misreads Homer elsewhere in it. In the extended passage Socrates is quoting from above, Andromache laments Hector’s death, referring to her son as “Astyanax,” and claiming the Trojans all call him this name because of his father’s defense of Troy. [45] Indeed, elsewhere Hector is said to call his son by his preferred name: “Him Hector was wont to call Skamandrius, but other men (οἱ ἄλλοι) Astyanax; for only Hector guarded Ilios” [46] (Homer Iliad 6.402–403). For Levin, the revision of Hector’s privileging of the name “Astyanax” (while Hector really prefers “Skamandrius”) by Socrates “shows that, far from simply repeating his literary sources, Plato is adapting them to his own philosophical ends.” [47] Socrates appears unconcerned with reading the literary tradition differently.
But Socrates is not done with this misreading. Socrates then extrapolates falsely that if the men of Troy prefer to call him “Astyanax” then it must be the women of Troy who call him “Skamandrios.” Elsewhere, Socrates had contrasted the Trojans with the gods (391e). [48] Further, since the “Trojans were wiser than their women,” Socrates asks whether Homer must not “…have thought that ‘Astyanax’ was a more correct name for the boy than ‘Skamandrios?’…” (392c–d). [49] This clearly contradicts the above quotation, wherein Andromache calls her son “Astyanax,” rather than, as Socrates reads Homer to indicate, “Skamandrios,” as Trojan women allegedly do. Must we see this as a mistake on Socrates’s part—a simple and isolated error perhaps, or might there be a reading that makes sense of this?

Even within the Cratylus, such (mis)quotation is not isolated. Not only does Socrates (mis)quote Homer, he (mis)quotes Hesiod as well. In discussing the etymology of “daemons,” Socrates cites Hesiod’s Works and Days:

αὐτὰρ ἐπειδὴ τοῦτο γένος κατὰ μοῖρ᾽ἐκάλυψεν,
οἱ μὲν δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ ὑποχθόνιοι καλέονται,
ἐσθλοί, ἀλεξίκακοι, φύλακες θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων.

Cratylus 398a

Hesiod’s text instead reads:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τοῦτο γένος κατὰ γαῖ᾽ ἐκάλυψε,—
τοὶ μὲν δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ ἐπιχθόνιοι καλέονται
ἐσθλοί, ἀλεξίκακοι, φύλακες θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων.

Hesiod Works and Days 121–123

Cooper notes the differences between this and Hesiod’s text to be “minor variations.” [50] While it is not the purpose of this paper to delve into this Hesiodic (mis)quotation, the fact that a second (mis)quotation occurs in the same dialogue bears noting. Were it merely a “minor variation,” one would expect to find the same variation in another dialogue where Socrates (mis)quotes the same text. However, as Howes puts it, “Plato differs not only from Hesiod but also from himself.” [51] In the Republic, Socrates quotes the same passage as:

οἱ μὲν δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ ἐπιχθόνιοι τελέθουσιν,
ἐσθλοί, ἀλεξίκακοι, φύλακες μερόπων ἀνθρώπων;

Republic 469a [52]

This citation accords more closely with Hesiod’s text, with the exception of Hesiod’s word καλέονται, the Doric for calling something by a name, which Socrates substitutes with the Ionic τελέθουσιν, meaning coming into being. Hesiod’s claim about what daemons are called, likely the word that renders the passage appropriate for citing in the Cratylus, is dropped in the Republic. While there may have been variations in ancient versions of texts in circulation which Socrates could have been quoting, the mere fact that Socrates does not even concur with his own variation here suggests otherwise. Socrates appears to be manipulating passages for his own purposes, but with this we are back to the question of what these purposes may be.

Socrates’s use of Homeric (mis)quotations and citations inserts into the discussion a standard of verifiability and truth. Much as Socrates makes intentional mistakes in the Euthydemus to perform a refutation of the sophists’ denial of false speaking (Euthydemus 287d–e), so here he intentionally gets Homer wrong to suggest the possibility of false speech. [53] Even if there are varying interpretations of Homeric texts, which could account for the (mis)quotation at 392e1, variant interpretations cannot account for the Homeric citation at 391e, where Socrates falsely induces a gendered naming that Andromache clearly contradicts elsewhere. Greek interlocutors and a Greek audience familiar with Homer would stand warned to expect other mistakes. That this occurs within a performance of an inspired, oracle-monger further qualifies it.
Socrates achieves a similar warning by incorporating another Homeric quotation into the structure of the text. He says, “Then for god’s sake let’s leave the subject of the gods, because it frightens me to talk about them. But ask me about anything else you like, ‘until we see what the horses’ of Euthyphro ‘can do’”(407d). [54] This citation of Homer ought to make any Greek wary, for Socrates is quoting Aeneas in conversation with Pandarus, and the question is whether the ‘horses of Euthyphro’ are powerful and agile enough to let these Trojans escape the Greeks and return to their citadel. As Tarrant points out, however, Homer reprises this very passage after these wondrous horses are captured by the Greeks, when Diomedes repeats Aeneas’s words to Nestor (Homer Iliad 8.105–107). [55] The horses of Euthyphro may have served Euthyphro well, but like the Trojan horses, they fall into “enemy hands.” [56] Tarrant sees in this an indication that, “the weapons of Euthyphro are now about to be employed against him.” [57] For Tarrant, Socrates uses Euthyphro’s framework until 407d, but not thereafter. Tarrant reads this as a signal from Socrates that invites a “suspension of judgement” regarding whether Socrates is truly inspired and poetic or whether he is merely a charlatan. [58] Which sort of character is Socrates?
An accurate quotation from the Iliad suggests an answer. Socrates requests of Hermogenes, “…don’t demand too much precision (ἀκριβολογοῦ), in case ‘you enfeeble my strength’…” (415a). The quote is from Iliad 6.265, wherein Hector refuses an offer of wine from Hecuba. As wine would blunt Hector’s might, so would precision or τέχνη tamp down Socrates’s prophetic performance. Should the Greek audience not be hoping for such enfeeblement of the Trojan hero? Indeed, Socrates follows up the quote by saying “Now that τέχνη is out of the way, I’m about to come to the summit (κορυφὴν) of our inquiries.” Socrates says “while my strength lasts, let’s not stop using it. Don’t you stop, either, but keep asking your questions” (420e). Socrates’s etymological strength appears to find an antidote in precision.
The character of Socrates’s performance is not lost upon his interlocutors. Hermogenes remarks in response to Socrates’s etymologies: “you do seem to me to be exactly (ἀτεχνῶς) like a prophet who has suddenly been inspired to deliver oracles (ἐνθουσιῶντες ἐξαίφνης χρησμῳδεῖν)” (396d1–2). While the rare, perispomenon adverb ἀτεχνῶς can translate to “exactly” or “really,” it more literally means “without τεχνή,” a pun that can easily be read to expose the lack of methodology with which Socrates proceeds and to which he has already alluded. [59] Socrates concurs, and cites the inspiration (ἐνθουσιῶν) of Euthyphro of Prospalta for his “superhuman wisdom” (δαιμονίας σοφίας). This otherwise rare word occurs five times in the Cratylus (395e, 396a, 396d, 402a, 440c). Since he refers to naming as ἡ τέχνη ἡ ὀνομαστικὴ (423d), this is not an insignificant pun here. To take the pun seriously, Socrates is precisely “without τεχνή” in his etymologies. There is no precision or art in Socrates’s etymologizing, nor ought we to think these etymologies to be any more than playing with words. Instead, we ought to be critical of what Socrates does with words.
Socrates is performing a role, singing the part of an oracle-monger or soothsayer. There is poetic precedent for this sort of a scene, and it lies in Old Comedy. Tarrant writes that “the incongruity of having a venal religious expert employ an inspired (or mock-inspired) voice also offers a source for humour within comedy.” [60] Two such comic examples occur in Aristophanes’s Peace (1052–1126) and Birds (959–991), both of which feature an oracle-monger or religious expert using a mock-inspired voice to comic effect. [61] Aristophanes’s Birds features a χρησμολόγος who enters, offering many strange oracles until Peisthetairus offers one back in which he threatens to beat (ύπτειν) the imposter (ἀλαζὼν), to much comic effect (Birds 959–991). In Peace, an oracle-monger (Hierocles) is drawn by the smell of roasting meat, and assumes an “oracular manner” in offering advice on how to prepare the sacrifice. He does, however, let down the act at times (1063–1072), prompting Trygaeus to mock his manner. What ensues is an oracular contest of sorts, in which each tries to out-prophesy the other. Besides questioning Hierocles’s oracles, Trygaeus quotes Homer twice. When Hierocles moves towards the meat from the sacrifice, Trygaeus responds with a most oracular and enigmatic, “We cannot give you any until the wolf unites with the sheep” (1113). Trygaeus beats him and threatens more, sending Hierocles (the ἀλαζὼν) running (1126). Trygaeus exposes Hierocles for the ἀλαζὼν he is by comically performing his role.
Socrates does something similar in the Cratylus, but by the time Plato is writing the dialogue, such comic roles have become tropes, and well-worn ones at that. Recycling these tropes then becomes something akin to telling jokes today beginning with “A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a bar…” We know the set-up and we recognize it as a joke. Indeed, the joke becomes its own subject matter. Will the audience laugh at what is to come yet again, or will the audience instead laugh at its own self-awareness?

Socrates’s Etymological and Metatheatrical Tricks

Socrates shows us how to respond. Repeatedly doubting his own “inspired wisdom”, Socrates warns those listening to be on guard. Socrates quite remarkably says to Hermogenes, “you had better watch out in case I trick you” (φύλαττε γάρ με μή πῃ παρακρούσωμαί σε; 393c). The warning stands for the dialogue’s readers too. Socrates does not rest at warning his audience against being tricked by him. He takes the further, thoroughly metatheatrical step of articulating how these tricks may be brought about. Socrates articulates the rules of play, saying that, “…if a letter is added or subtracted, that doesn’t matter either, so long as the being or essence of the thing is in control and is expressed in its name” (393d). Further on, Socrates now shows how much leeway this rule provides him. These rules can be bent so as to deceive: “…if we can add whatever we like to names, or subtract whatever we like from them, it will be far too easy to fit any name to any thing” (414d–e). Like the magician revealing the hat’s false bottom to her audience, Socrates is exposing his own tricks to his.
Throughout his etymologizing, Socrates remarks about his capability in doing so. These remarks usually undermine his and his audience’s confidence in his etymologizing. From the start, Socrates sets his own bar low, saying, “My dear Hermogenes, I don’t have a position on [the correctness of names]. You have forgotten what I told you a while ago, namely that I didn’t know about names but that I would investigate them with you” (391a). When Hermogenes agreeably offers, “That seems right to me,” Socrates responds with, “It does? You understand it, Hermogenes? For I don’t understand it yet myself.” To this, Hermogenes responds by acknowledging his own ignorance: “Then I certainly don’t” (392e). It becomes difficult to trust Socrates’s etymologies when he so clearly distrusts them himself.
Socrates repeatedly wonders aloud whether his etymologizing is nonsensical. He introduces this possibility, saying, “But perhaps you think I’m talking nonsense, and that I’m wrong to suppose that I’ve found a clue to Homer’s beliefs about the correctness of names” (393b). Later, he offers an explanation, and then immediately follows up with, “Does that seem likely—or am I talking nonsense?” (397d). “Now, maybe what I’m about to tell you is nonsense” (ἴσως μέντοι οὐδὲν λέγω). “I’ve got a whole swarm of wisdom in my mind!” (ὠγαθέ, ἐννενόηκά τι σμῆνος σοφίας). [62] “It sounds completely absurd (γελοῖον), yet is seems to me to have something very plausible about it” (401e–402a). When Hermogenes compliments him, with “I say, Socrates, you are making great progress!,” Socrates responds with, “I think I’m driving my apparent wisdom pretty hard at present” (πόρρω ἤδη οἶμαι φαίνομαι σοφίας ἐλαύνειν). [63] Hermogenes agrees with, “You certainly are,” to which Socrates replies, “You’ll be even more certain in a second” (410e). These are peculiar utterances, made all the more so because they appear to be running commentary on his own performance.
Metatheatricality offers a name for such utterances—they are asides. Like many comic asides, they are not heard by others present, or at least, the speaker continues without responding. For instance, when Socrates comments, in what may be a furthering of the imagery of a chariot-rider seeking revelation on the road, “Notice how I go off course, when I get on the flat” (οὐ γὰρ ἐπισκοπεῖς με ὥσπερ ἐκτὸςδρόμου φερόμενον ἐπειδὰν λείου ἐπιλάβωμαι; 414b), Hermogenes proceeds without reaction. Such asides are “ad spectatores,” or for the sake of the spectators. [64] Not only do asides deem some interlocutors the spectators of the action, and thus contribute to the dialogues as performance texts, like the parabasis of a comedy, they also address this audience directly.
Having introduced doubt as to the validity of his etymologies through asides, Socrates now strengthens his own allegations against himself. After warning of possible deception at 397b, Socrates says that some names “are wholly inappropriate.” And “some may even be the work of a more than human power” (397b–c). Further, he says explicitly, “Listen then, and perhaps I’ll be able to deceive you (ἐξαπατήσαιμι) into thinking that I haven’t heard the remaining ones either” (413d). As the asides already suggest, the warnings stand for the dialogue’s readers too.
Socrates is not content to express doubt at his own performance, offer running commentary thereon in a series of asides, and warn his listeners not to be tricked, he even refers to the way in which he brings about such trickery. Socrates says, “So either Euthyphro’s muse (μοῦσα) has abandoned me or this really is very hard (παγχάλεπον). But notice the device (μηχανὴν) I use in all such puzzling cases (ἀπορῶ)” (409d). This passage is akin to theatrical performers referring to the use of a μηχανὴ on stage, the very device used to bring about the performance’s illusions. In a very peculiar echo of this, Socrates later adds a clause saying, “Unless you want us to behave like tragic poets, who introduce a deus ex machina whenever they’re perplexed” (ὥσπερ οἱ τραγῳδοποιοὶ ἐπειδάν τι ἀπορῶσιν ἐπὶ τὰς μηχανὰς καταφεύγουσι θεοὺς αἴροντες; 425d). The device in question is resorting to foreign dialects or tongues to explain the meaning of a word, and not only does Socrates point this out here, he uses it elsewhere. After all, says Socrates, the Greeks have “adopted many names from foreign tongues” (409d). When experiencing aporia, the tragic poet introduces a mechanism to lift the situation out of perplexity. At 406a, he uses an answer referring to “dialects other than Attic.” Later, Socrates suggests that, “One way of giving the semblance of an answer (ὥστε δοκεῖν τὶ λέγειν) has been suggested already.” Hermogenes asks, “What way is that?” Socrates answers, “To say that a name has a foreign origin when we don’t know what it signifies. …Names have been twisted in so many ways…” (421c–d). Socrates elsewhere takes refuge in claiming that a word (σοφία), “is rather obscure and non-Attic” (412b). He has warned us already against falling for such tricks even when he sets out to employ these tricks himself.
Socrates offers his own self-appraisal of the etymologies. After Hermogenes pushes Socrates to etymologize the names of other divinities, Socrates qualifies what he is doing: “…there is not only a serious way of explaining the names of these divinities, but a playful one as well. You’ll have to ask others for the serious one, but there’s nothing to prevent us from going through the playful one—even the gods love play” (406b–c). Indeed, Socrates’s etymologies range from playful to downright comical. [65] Ewegen deems the etymologies “some of the most comedic moments in the Platonic corpus.” [66] For instance, Socrates tells us that, since the moon’s “light is always both new and old (σέλας νέον καὶ ἕνον ἔχει ἀεί), the right name to call it is ‘Σελαενονεοάεια’, and this is the one that has been compressed into ‘Σελαναία’.” Hermogenes responds by exclaiming, “And a dithyrambic name it is too, Socrates!” (409b–c). Hermogenes’s description of it as a dithyramb, a wild hymn or poem sung in honor of Dionysus, supports the possibility of this passage, and perhaps too, the dialogue as a whole, being sung. [67] Socrates’s etymologies are exuberant, self-reflexive comedy. [68]


This paper began with the assumption that, if an interpretation can reasonably account for misquotations, we need not resort to assuming they were blunders. It has been argued that Socrates offers a performance in the Cratylus that models the critical reception with which we ought to receive such performances. The Cratylus is a dialogue about logos, or a logos about logos. Logos, as Ewegen argues, is necessarily dual-natured, capable of both truth and falsity. [69] The resulting ambiguity is entirely in keeping with Socrates’s performance as oracle-monger. The Cratylus illustrates the dual nature of logos. The dialogue itself is “an exercise in comporting oneself correctly toward language.” [70] Such self-critical and self-aware performance, employing asides and deictic language, exemplifies metatheatrical comedy. If that is the case, we have a reasonable account for why Socrates might intentionally use misquotations, and so, we have good reason not to resort to the assumption that Plato was merely mistaken in misquoting Homer. In the Cratylus, Socrates uses Homeric (mis)quotation against the authority conferred on Homer and other inspired voices, including Euthyphro, Hesiod, and oracle-mongers such as the one he is acting as.
Inasmuch as Socrates has attempted to show that the things we name exist independently from their names or even our beliefs about them, Socrates proclaims failure later in the dialogue. He will conclude that “the name-givers really did give [names] in the belief that everything is moving and flowing, and as it happens things aren’t really that way at all, but the name-givers themselves have fallen into a kind of vortex and are whirled around in it, dragging us with them” (439c). He will extend this to knowledge itself: “Indeed, it isn’t even reasonable to say that there is such a thing as knowledge, Cratylus, if all things are passing on and none remain. …For if [knowledge] were always passing on, there would always be no knowledge” (440a–b). The dialogue may leave these questions unanswered, and the possibility of knowledge, dubious, but it does not leave the interlocutor or reader empty-handed.
It is critical to note that Socrates is performing a role, that he is modifying his speech accordingly, and that the role in question is one for which the quotation of poetry would be a natural fit. (Mis)quotation—whether in the form of the actual misquotation of Homer by Socrates in the Cratylus or in his mistaken interpretation thereof—then prompts us (and readers, listeners) to consider the quotations’ veracity. To return to the question as to why Socrates employs the very poetic tradition that he treats so suspiciously in dialogues such as the Republic and the Apology, the metatheatrical comedy of the Cratylus suggests an answer. By actively and self-reflexively encouraging a critical stance towards his own comic performance as a soothsayer, Socrates implies a critique of poetry that lies instead in its reception. Socrates thus modulates Homer’s voice through the very acts of quoting and misquoting him. In doing so he encourages interlocutors and readers alike towards a critical reception of his performance, a reception which can then be extended to other oracular, inspired, and poetic accounts.
We return, at last, to the second part of Socrates’s (mis)quotation at 392e. If this reading is right, it may also offer a reason why Plato seems to have substituted a second person verbal form (ἔρυσο) for a third person form (ἔρυτο) in the (mis)quotation at 392e, a putative mistake so slight as to be elided by translators. [71] Instead of an insignificant mistake, as LaBarbe implies, this may be an intentional and direct address of the audience. Reading something like “you save” rather than “he saves”, it appears to misquote Homer for the sake of directly addressing someone. Once again undermining his performance, Socrates says, “Today, we’ll use this wisdom and finish our examination of names, but tomorrow, if the rest of you agree, we’ll exorcise it and purify ourselves, as soon as we’ve found someone—whether priest or wise man—who is clever at that kind of purification” (396e–397a). This reading of the Cratylus suggests that they need not look very far for someone to purify them, for Socrates has played this role, and the way in which he has done so suggests that it is those hearing him who may be suited to “purify” ourselves through critical reception.
It thus becomes possible to support, if not prove, both aspects of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus—the Thrasyllan organization into dramatic tetralogies, and its claim that the Cratylus was sung. In the Symposium, Alcibiades attributes to Socrates a siren-like song, playing music with the power to bewitch those hearing it, akin to the power of Marysas. The difference, Alcibiades claims, is that Socrates does this with words instead of an aulos (215b–c). Socrates’s oracular performance in the Cratylus, its comparisons with music, and the regular (mis)quotation of poetry therein suggest, if not prove, that the dialogue itself may have been performed. That the Cratylus may have itself been literally sung dramatizes Alcibiades’s description, but with one important distinction: Socrates offers the antidote to such enchantment here in the Cratylus by offering a song whose bewitching power is regularly and overtly undermined by none other than himself. Socrates misquotes Homer modulating Homer’s voice in part to do so. Through metatheatrical comedy and playing the modulated flute of logos, Socrates is teaching a new, critical way of listening.

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[ back ] 1. S. Montgomery Ewegen’s book (Ewegen 2014) is a welcome addition to its scholarship.
[ back ] 2. Labarbe 1949 and Howes 1895.
[ back ] 3. Bolling 1955:82.
[ back ] 4. Benardete 1963.
[ back ] 5. Tarrant 1951:62.
[ back ] 6. Mitscherling 2005:295.
[ back ] 7. Charalabopoulous 2012:193.
[ back ] 8. Sedley 2009:70. Diogenes Laertius (3.57) reports on Thrasyllus’s tetralogies: πρώτην μὲν οὖν τετραλογίαν τίθηςι τὴν κοινὴν ὑπόθεςιν ἔχουςαν. παραδεῖξαι γὰρ βούλεται ὁποῖος ἂν εἴη ὁ τοῦ φιλοςόφου βίος.
[ back ] 9. Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers 3.56.
[ back ] 10. See Charalabopoulos 2012:179n77.
[ back ] 11. Sedley 2009:69.
[ back ] 12. Sedley 2009:65.
[ back ] 13. It could be objected, regarding this first sense, that if a dialogue were intended to be sung before an audience, it would have been written entirely in meter. However, Plato’s novelty could have led him to experiment with a partially-prosaic form for performance (akin to most contemporary musicals, which contain dialogue and songs), much as it led him to incorporate a variety of forms into the dialogues. Neither the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus nor any of the other suggestions made above necessarily tie the dialogues’ performance to authorial intention. It remains possible that their performance was taken up by slightly later audiences. However, this possibility implies that audiences in later antiquity saw in the dialogues something that could be performed, and this implication leads back to the main claim of this paper. I am grateful to Gwenda-lin Grewal for this point.
[ back ] 14. Charalabopoulos 2012:60–61.
[ back ] 15. Charalabopoulos 2012:62.
[ back ] 16. Halliwell 1986:128, as quoted by Nagy 1996:4.
[ back ] 17. Halliwell 1986:128.
[ back ] 18. Nagy 1996.
[ back ] 19. Nightingale 1995:134–171.
[ back ] 20. Charalabopoulos 2012:61.
[ back ] 21. Charalabopoulos 2012:61.
[ back ] 22. Herington 1985:5.
[ back ] 23. Charalabopoulos 2001:152.
[ back ] 24. For the latter, see Slater 2002:1–21.
[ back ] 25. Charalabopoulous 2012:197–226. See also Tanner Forthcoming-B.
[ back ] 26. Athenaeus 2.66d. I am grateful to William Strigel for the reference. See also Tanner Forthcoming-B.
[ back ] 27. The full passage reads: ποικίλα γέ σοι, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἐκβαίνει τὰ ὀνόματα. καὶ γὰρ νῦν μοιἔδοξας ὥσπερ τοῦ τῆς Ἀθηνάας νόμου προαύλιον στομαυλῆσαι, τοῦτοτὸ ὄνομα προειπὼν τὸ ‘βουλαπτεροῦν’.
[ back ] 28. This is a particularly odd thing for Hermogenes to say, coming as it does shortly after Socrates mocks those who “think nothing of the truth, but only of the sounds their mouths make,” what more literally translates to “the shape of their mouths” (τὸ δὲ στόμα πλάττοντες; 414c–d). The latter is Sachs’s translation, as cited in Ewegen 2014:138. Hermogenes is doing exactly what Socrates warned against by commenting not on the truth of Socrates’s suggestion, but rather the shape of his mouth when he said it.
[ back ] 29. Tanner Forthcoming-B.
[ back ] 30. Elam 1980:139.
[ back ] 31. The Greek reads: βούλει οὖν καὶ Σωκράτει τῷδε ἀνακοινωσώμεθα τὸν λόγον; (383a).
[ back ] 32. Elam 1980:139.
[ back ] 33. The twelve uses occur at 384b, 384c, 398c, 398e, 405e, 406d, 412c, 416a, 416b, 419b, 419d, and 428d.
Tarrant 2013.
[ back ] 35. Kindt 2017.
[ back ] 36. Kindt 2017:227.
[ back ] 37. Kindt 2017:228.
[ back ] 38. Ewegen 2014:144.
[ back ] 39. Arguments for why this need not actually be the case can be found in Elias 1984, Levin 2001, and Tanner 2010, each of whom offer positions recognizing a less antagonistic relationship between philosophy and the arts.
[ back ] 40. Benardete 1981:132.
[ back ] 41. The assumption made here is that the version of Homer we have today is the (only) one Socrates had access to. While there may have been variants, the example of Andromache’s address of her son, to be discussed shortly, would seem to cut across any such variants.
[ back ] 42. LaBarbe 1949:265.
[ back ] 43. LaBarbe 1949:266.
[ back ] 44. Benardete 1963:174–175.
The passage continues: “But now, seeing he has lost his dear father, he will suffer ills full many—my Astyanax, whom the Trojans call by this name for that thou alone didst save their gates and their high walls” (Homer Iliad 22.506–507). The Greek is: [ back ] νῦν δ᾽ ἂν πολλὰ πάθῃσι φίλου ἀπὸ πατρὸς ἁμαρτὼν Ἀστυάναξ, ὃν Τρῶες ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν: [ back ] οἶος γάρ σφιν ἔρυσο πύλας καὶ τείχεα μακρά.
[ back ] 46. The Greek reads: τόν ῥ᾽ Ἕκτωρ καλέεσκε Σκαμάνδριον, αὐτὰρ οἱ ἄλλοι Ἀστυάνακτ᾽: [ back ] οἶος γὰρ ἐρύετο Ἴλιον Ἕκτωρ.
[ back ] 47. Levin 1997:47.
In the passage in question, Socrates asks, “Do you know where he says that the Trojan river that had single combat with Hephaestus is ‘called ‘Xanthos’ by the gods and ‘Skamandros’ by men?” (391e). The allusion is to Homer Iliad 21.332–380.
Socrates says, “Now you know, don’t you, that Homer tells us that Hector’s son was called ‘Astyanax’ by the men of Troy? But if the men called him ‘Astyanax’, isn’t it clear that ‘Skamandrios’ must be what the women called him?” Hermogenes: “Probably so.” Socrates: “And didn’t Homer also think that the Trojans were wiser than their women?” Hermogenes: “I suppose he did.” Socrates: “So mustn’t he have thought that ‘Astyanax’ was a more correct name for the boy than ‘Skamandrios’?” (392c–d).
[ back ] 50. See n. 21 at Cratylus 398a. Cooper translates this as “Since this race has been eclipsed by fate, they are called sacred daemons; They live on earth and are good, warding off evil and guarding mortal men.”
[ back ] 51. Howes 1895:163.
[ back ] 52. Bloom translates this to read “They become holy demons dwelling on earth, Good, warders-off of evil, guardians of humans endowed with speech.”
[ back ] 53. See Tanner 2017 and Tanner Forthcoming-A.
[ back ] 54. The Greek reads: περὶ δὲ ἄλλων ὧν τινων βούλει προβαλλέ μοι, ‘ὄφρα ἴδηαι οἷοι’ Εὐθύφρονος ‘ἵπποι.’
[ back ] 55. Tarrant 2013:516–517.
[ back ] 56. Tarrant 2013:517.
Tarrant 2013:517.
[ back ] 58. Tarrant 2013:522.
[ back ] 59. See Woodruff 1987 and Tanner Forthcoming-A. The full passage reads: καὶ μὲν δή, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἀτεχνῶς γέ μοι δοκεῖς ὥσπερ οἱ ἐνθουσιῶντες ἐξαίφνης χρησμῳδεῖν.
[ back ] 60. Tarrant 2013:509.
[ back ] 61. Tarrant 2013:509.
[ back ] 62. Socrates uses the same word here as he does in the Meno, where he seems highly critical of Gorgias’s swarm (σμήνη) of virtues (Meno 72a–d).
[ back ] 63. This appears to be a paraphrase or inexact quote of Plato’s own Euthyphro, or depending on when these dialogues were written, vice versa, wherein Socrates says πόρρω που ἤδη σοφίας ἐλαύνοντος (Euthyphro 4b1–2). While there appears to be some historical allusion to Euthyphro in such imagery, “the exact significance may have been lost with time” (Tarrant 2013:512).
[ back ] 64. Bain 1977:87–88. Bain names two kinds of asides: the “eavesdropping aside,” and the “aside in conversation.” Those addressed here are of the latter type. The “aside in conversation” is one in which “two people are in conversation (or at least have acknowledged each other’s presence) and one of them breaks off the conversation to comment apart from his interlocutor who shows no sign of hearing him (or, if he does hear, of understanding what the man is saying).” Eavesdropping asides are those in which “someone who is eavesdropping comments on what he sees and … the victim takes no note of his remarks” (Bain 1977:105–106). For a discussion of how this is exemplified in the Euthydemus, see Tanner Forthcoming-A.
[ back ] 65. David Sedley argues to the contrary that the etymologies ought to be taken seriously in that Plato meant them as such, even if they today constitute more of an unfortunate mistake on his part. He warns that we ought not to project modern assumptions onto the Cratylus, wherein we think the etymologies were meant to be funny because we find them funny. He supports his claim that the etymologies were sound by arguing, “the dialogue as a whole never calls that soundness into question” (Sedley 1998:141). I am attempting to show here, as I do elsewhere and contrary to Sedley, that that soundness is very much called into question by the dialogue. See Tanner 2017:83–112.
[ back ] 66. Ewegen 2014:121.
[ back ] 67. This is not the only time Socrates is described as dithyrambic. In the Hippias Major, Socrates imagines his questioner (who turns out to be himself) exclaiming to Socrates in classic, Old Comedy fashion, “’Tell me Socrates,’ you can be sure he’ll say, ‘do you think it’s wrong for a man to be whipped when he sings such a dithyramb as that, so raucously, way out of tune (οὕτως ἀμούσως πολὺ ἀπῇσας) with the question?” (Hippias Major 292c) Not only is Socrates describing his own speaking as a musically-embellished, choral ode, but his internal questioner is threatening to beat him with a stick (βακτηρίαν; 292a) for this, as are many a stock, Old Comedic character. See also Tanner Forthcoming-C.
[ back ] 68. I do not wish to imply that the “wildness” or “exuberance” of such dithyrambic expression somehow constitutes grounds for dismissal or disparagement. Indeed, if the main claims of this paper are correct and metatheatrical comedy is not only at play in the dialogue, but has philosophical meaning, then being “wild” or “exuberant” need not denigrate something to superficiality.
[ back ] 69. Ewegen 2014:94.
[ back ] 70. Ewegen 2014:144.
[ back ] 71. Cooper translates it as “he alone defended their city and long walls.”