Wednesday, July 15, 2015


S. Montgomery Ewegen, Plato's 'Cratylus': The Comedy of Language. Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. Pp. xvii, 227. ISBN 9780253010445. $36.00.

Reviewed by Anna Novokhatko, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (

Version at BMCR home site


Plato's use of comic techniques has not been sufficiently investigated. Jill Gordon's monograph on literary devices and dramatic structure in Platonic dialogues (1999) dealt with drama and irony in its analysis of the relationship between Plato's philosophy and the genre of dramatic dialogue.1 However, the analysis of comedic tools in Plato's dialogues is still wanting and every new work in this field contributes to covering this gap. Despite the fact that the bibliography on the Cratylus is colossal, Ewegen's particular approach is novel, welcome and brave. As will be argued below, however, his approach does not take sufficient account of real fifth- and fourth-century BCE comedies. Thus Ewegen's discussions of both "comedy" and indeed "language" are insufficiently rooted in the scholarly and performative setting that constituted Plato's world.

Ewegen's monograph on Plato's 'linguistic' dialogue Cratylus consists of an introduction, eight chapters and a conclusion, offering a number of approaches for understanding Cratylus. The overall argument of the work is that reading Plato's dramatic dialogue as a scientific treatise within the framework of the philosophy of language leads to a failure to understand the playfulness of Plato's text; it is through the comic that Plato's philosophical intentions need to be understood. In emphasizing the comedic, Ewegen builds on John Sallis in his Being and Logos: The Way of Platonic Dialogue (1975), with which Ewegen's text is in continuous conversation.2 It is through comedy that the Cratylus stages its true philosophical purpose, beginning with a joke and undertaking its bizarre task (an investigation of the true nature of names) through humour. Ewegen thus reads the whole dialogue through its playful and performative aspect ("the Cratylus as a whole shows logos to be the way by which the human relates to Being" (p. 182)). Dialogue itself is the most performative genre of prose. The participants discuss logos, language being both the participant and the main subject of the dialogue. Self-reflexivity as one of the main characteristics of comedy corresponds to the self-reflective character of language in the Cratylus. Ewegen examines traditional complex dichotomies imagined in performance such as being and opinion, human and divine, truth and falsity, stability and flux, nature and convenience, and most importantly, and innovatively, comic and tragic logos (see especially chapter 7, below). The reader, according to Ewegen, may perceive such dichotomies as if they were characters in theatre.

One of the most attractive perspectives offered by Ewegen is in his reading of the dialogue through its opening lines. These offer a clue to understanding the structure and thematic input of the work as a whole (chapter 1, pp. 17–29). The first words are considered programmatic: the opening word of the dialogue boulei ('you wish') is taken up later in Plato's text when an etymology of the word is offered and leads to a framing of Plato's generic concept of desire. "By emphasizing boulomai, the text brings the limits of human wishing to the fore" (p. 23). Thus, 'classical' conflicts such as that between nature (physis, 383a) and convention (nomos or synthêkê, 384d) in name-giving are examined as a conflict between 'wishing' and 'being' within the term boulomai. The conflict between nature and agreement is discussed as a conflict between 'being' and opinion or the stability of 'being' (Cratylus' position) and the fluctuations of 'becoming' (Hermogenes' position supported by Protagoras, Homer and Heraclitus).

Another verb from the first sentence is anakoinoô ('gather-up-in-common' is the suggested translation). The sense of communion, the gathering or sharing of many logoi into one common logos is also central to the main disagreement of the dialogue between Cratylus and Hermogenes as organized by Socrates, who gathers his interlocutors around the dual nature of logos. Ewegen argues that through an engagement of the lower (human and false) part of logos Socrates seeks to awaken them to the upper (divine and true) part.

However, if the opening sentence is considered a programmatic model for the whole text, the absence in it of a discussion of deixis is surprising. The name Socrates is introduced into the text through the clear deictic indication Sokratei tôide. Unfortunately this indication has been omitted in the translation provided by the author. One would expect a discussion of this tôide in the context of the use of the comedic in the dialogue and in the philosophy of language more generally.

The author's decision to structure his work round the dialogue itself, closely following Plato's text, is rewarding. This is a reading in the primary sense of the word. In what follows, I focus closely on a number of what I found to be the most engaging chapters before turning to remarks on the project as a whole.

In the second chapter ("Marking the limits", pp. 30–49) the limitation inherent in naming is analysed. Through names, beings become delimited or defined and their dramatic setting is established: transition from the city into the country, from the nomos to the physis. The placing at the boundary between city and country is viewed as representative of the conflict between Hermogenes and Cratylus. The radically liminal character of the text and the possibility of transgressing its limits, dramatically presented through the tension between country and city, and human and divine, is underlined by the figure of Hermes (the god of borders, thresholds and crossings who pervades and guides the dialogue). This investigation of the character of Hermes, who invented speaking (hos to eirein emesato 408a–b), is informative. It includes the etymology of the name, the relationship of Hermes with logos through the ambiguous nature of logos (its dual capacity for both truth and falsity), of Hermes with hermeneutics (discovering beings through logos, the importance of reinterpretation in understanding the name Hermes), the erotic power of Hermes (in old Attic spelling heroes and eros 398d), of Hermes with physis (his mother Maia, a nymph-goddess of vegetable fertility linked to the earth).

In the fourth chapter, on "The nature of nature" (pp. 59–74), the figure of Protagoras and his orthoepeia-doctrine as employed in theCratylus is regarded as a repetition of Socrates' refutation of Protagoras in the Theaetetus . The arrival of Protagoras in the Theaetetus represents a certain interpretation of nature (physis), which is also at play within the Cratylus. Socrates is again engaged with the radical relativism of Protagoras, Hermogenes not being free from the Protagorean worldview, this time concerning an understanding of the nature of words.

The seventh chapter, "What words will", is dedicated to the discussion of etymologies (394e–421c, pp. 121–154), and here the dichotomy tragic/comic is employed par excellence. A way of overcoming the tragic view is seen to involve a certain engagement of the comic view of logos. Socrates examines a long series of explicitly playful etymologies which make up the comedy of the Cratylus. Ewegen argues that the etymologies with their comic mischief and excessive wordplay represent some of the most comedic moments in the Platonic corpus. The descending order of the etymologies (daimones – heroes – anthropos) marks the tragic character of the logos. Socrates brought both sides of the debate to a head and defeated the tragic view. He resisted the tragic understanding of logos and has overcome it through a comic reinterpretation of words. Thus words, when submitted to arbitrary interpretation, can be made to mean anything (414d): that is, they can be used to obscure the truth rather than clarify it. It is precisely through becoming aware of this (comedic) capacity of language to obscure that it can be surpassed.

The fifth chapter entitled "Technological language" (pp. 75–97) raises a number of questions. The chapter should rather be titled "Technological analogies for name-giving". Ewegen analyses Socrates' undermining of Hermogenes' position that naming is a matter of human agreement and custom. The analogy of a tool is introduced and developed: by designating a name (onoma) as a kind of tool (organon) Socrates has both limited its ability to disclose a being in its natural unity and its ability to operate independently of the will of the human being. Ewegen argues that the technological view of language (carpenter, weaver etc. and thus the giving of names to a technician) binds the human being to the realm of opinion, human beings themselves remaining slaves to their wills, to their opinions, and thus to the realm of disguise, not unlike prisoners in a cave, who are slaves to false images without even knowing that they are images. Linguistic (or referred to language) issues are however not discussed.

In his conclusions Ewegen sets out what he considers to be the hub of Plato's argument ("The comedy of Cratylus" pp. 182–190): the need to remain within the ambiguous (human rather than divine) nature of language. The moment one believes oneself to have accessed the truth of beings through words is the moment play ceases to be play. It becomes overly serious, and sets itself up for failure. Only the playful engagement of logos comports correctly to the circle of logos in which human beings always find themselves, the gods too being philopaismones (406c). One can read the Cratylus as the necessity of reinterpretation, and simultaneously the exploration of the extraordinary manner in which reinterpretation, despite its apparent commitment to flux and indecision, contributes to a glimpse of the stability of being. In striving to be like Hermogenes, eager for inquiry, there is the hope that "the true nature of logos come to light" (p. 190).

If there is a problem with this stimulating monograph, it is that the title presupposes engagement with comedy, not as an abstract notion, "a comedic aspect", but as a concrete set of discourses. Sicilian, Old Attic and fourth-century BCE comedy were undoubtedly employed and examined by Plato. However, mistakes are made almost every time Ewegen mentions Greek comedy, thus revealing a lack of necessary preparation in the field of comedy. Comic texts should be cited according to Nigel Wilson's OCT edition or recent Oxford commentaries (for the Aristophanic comedies), the PCG edition of Rudolf Kassel and Colin Austin (for comic fragments), etc. This is especially important when manuscript readings are mentioned. The consequence of not doing so is that unnecessarily misleading ideas, such as Hermes appearing at the end of Aristophanes' Clouds (p. 37 with n. 31, cf. Dover 1968 ad loc.), cloud the discussion. There are of course other comedies such as Aristophanes' Peace where Hermes does appear.

A number of other errors reveal the need for engagement with philological work more generally. These include the dating of Euboulos' comedy Astytoi, which should be dated to the second or third quarter of the fourth century BCE (cf. p. 210, n. 13), or the dialogue Hipparchus, which should probably be dated to the fourth century BCE (cf. p. 198, n. 30).

Finally, some scholarship in the field of Plato's engagement with the genre of comedy has been ignored by Ewegen altogether. The programmatic articles on Plato's relationship with comedy by Greene (1920) and Brock (1990) would have provided an important background for any discussion of the use of comedy in Cratylus.3 Plato's works have also been discussed in Stephen Halliwell's recent monograph on Greek laughter (Cambridge, 2008).

To conclude, Ewegen's monograph is a stimulating examination of an understudied issue. The project is an essential one, and Ewegen is good in demonstrating how the comic/tragic dichotomy can contribute to a deeper understanding of other tensions within the text. More studies like these are needed: studies that make use of philosophical debate in order to contribute to a broader philological understanding of Platonic dialogue.


1.   J. Gordon, Turning toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), esp. chapters 3 and 5.
2.   See the review of Sallis's monograph by K. Robb in JHP 16 (1978), 343–4.
3.   W. C. Greene, "The Spirit of Comedy in Plato", HSCP 31 (1920), 63–123, esp. pp. 86–7, and R. Brock, "Plato and Comedy" in: 'Owls to Athens': Essays on classical subjects presented to Sir Kenneth Dover, ed. E. M. Craik (Oxford, 1990) 39–49, with further bibliography. See in particular Brock's argument on the Cratylus being "consistently humorous", displaying "sheer comic high spirit", and on "the first three-quarters of the Cratylus" being "conducted thoroughly tongue-in-cheek" (Brock 1990, 45).

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