“Cratylus” by Plato

There are two intertwining themes in this dialogue. On the one hand, Socrates discourses on the origins and mutations of words, and whether names exist by convention or by nature; otoh, since names express the essence of the things signified, he delves into the names of Gods and heroes, making a long and elaborate parody of those who posit motion as the true attribute of well-being, only to deliver the punchline near the end.

Name as an Imitation

“All objects have sound and figure, and many have colour. The art of naming is not concerned with imitations of this kind, the arts which have to do with them are music and drawing, but expresses the essence of each thing in letters and syllables.”

Language vs. Painting

“Just, as in painting, the painter who wants to depict anything sometimes uses purple only, or any other colour, and sometimes mixes up several colours, as his method is when he has to paint flesh colour or anything of that kind–he uses his colours as his figures appear to require them; and so, too, we shall apply letters to the expression of objects, either single letters when required, or several letters; and so we shall form syllables, as they are called, and from syllables make nouns and verbs; and thus, at last, from the combinations of nouns and verbs arrive at language, large and fair and whole; and as the painter made a figure, even so shall we make speech by the art of the namer or the rhetorician, or by some other art. … This was the way in which (not we but) the ancients formed language, and what they put together we must take to pieces in like manner, if we are to attain a scientific view of the whole subject, and we must see whether the primary, and also whether the secondary elements are rightly given or not, for if they are not, the composition of them … will be a sorry piece of work, and in the wrong direction.”

Image and Name Refer to the Thing

“I should say rather that the image, if expressing in every point the entire reality, would no longer be an image. Let us suppose the existence of two objects: one of them shall be Cratylus, and the other the image of Cratylus; and we will suppose, further, that some God makes not only a representation such as a painter would make of your outward form and colour, but also creates an inward organization like yours, having the same warmth and softness; and into this infuses motion, and soul, and mind, such as you have, and in a word copies all your qualities, and places them by you in another form; would you say that this was Cratylus and the image of Cratylus, or that there were two Cratyluses?

Admit that one name may be correctly and another incorrectly given; and do not insist that the name shall be exactly the same with the thing; but allow the occasional substitution of a wrong letter, and if of a letter also of a noun in a sentence, and if of a noun in a sentence also of a sentence which is not appropriate to the matter, and acknowledge that the thing may be named [i.e., signified], and described, so long as the general character of the thing which you are describing is retained.”


“For lord (ἄναξ) and holder (ἕκτωρ) mean nearly the same thing, indicating that they are names of a king; for surely a man is holder of that of which he is lord; for it is clear that he rules it and possesses it and holds it.”

“For seeing that all things in the world are in motion (pheromenon), that principle which embraces and touches and is able to follow them, is wisdom.”

“There is nothing worse than self-deception–when the deceiver is always at home and always with you”


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