Physics and Tragedy: On Plato’s Cratylus

"Physics and Tragedy: On Plato's Cratylus," Ancient Philosophy 1, no, 2 (1981): 140-172. Reprinted in The Argument of the Action, 2000.


The Cratylus seems to be a caricature of a Platonic dialogue. It gives us Socrates as seen in the distorting mirror of an alien inspiration. It begans as a farce and ends as a tragedy: Socrates finally invokes the “ideas” like so many dei ex machina in order to be saved from the perplexities of the Heraclitean flux. The suddenness of their invocation merely underlines the difficulty we experience throughought the dialogue of guaging its tone correctly. The dialogue seems to shift constantly between the playful and the serious; and though such a mixture no doubt characteries every Platonic dialogue, the units with which it deals, names, are so small that it seems to be composed of nothing but a jumble of minute tesserae, some of which are in themselves as brilliant as any argument in Plato, while most are as desperately forced as the patter of a standup comic. The Cratylus has the look of a Platonic dictionary. It throws light on every other dialogue and leaves itself in the dark. Socrates’ question to Polus, All the beautiful things – colors, for example, and figured, sounds, and pursuits – are you looking at nothing on each occasion that you call (kaleis) them beautiful?” gets deepened if one recalls Socrates’ etymology here of kalon; but this etymology like all the rest seems to do nothing to deepen the argument of the Cratylus. It is, however, the thesis of this paper that not only does the profusion of etymologies deepen the argument but that it doing so it adumbrates the Platonic understanding of tragedy. The problematic relation between “goatsong” and “tragedy” is the paradigm for the linguistic as well as the nonlinguistic problem of the original and the derivative.