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Plato’s Cratylus: Esoteric Etymology and the Language of the Gods
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In the Cratylus Socrates lays down the western canon’s first exploration of the question of linguistic meaning as such; this dialogue is at the roots of the sciences of linguistics and semiotics. But that’s not primarily why we are interested in it here at the SHWEP. We want to explore the idea of a realist position on language – the notion that nouns can or even must somehow express the nature of their referents in a fundamental way – and the way in which Socrates approaches that position, namely through a long series of pseudo-etymologies (or ‘semantic etymologies’, to use the terminology of Bronkhorst 2001) which are presented as a process of hermeneutic revelation of esoteric knowledge hidden within the words.
In the process of unveiling all these secret meanings, Socrates elaborates a number of related themes, all of which are of great relevance to the history of western esotericism:
- A wisdom-tradition of ancient nomothetes or ‘lawgivers’, who founded languages based on their knowledge of the Forms and access to divine inspiration,
- A ‘higher language’ used by the gods themselves but unknown to humans, and
- The idea of a most basic linguistic level, possibly corresponding to the primordial human language or Ursprache, wherein linguistic elements like phonemes have essential meanings of their own on an elemental level.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Cratylus ‘finally decided that speech was not needful, but just moved his finger’: Arist. Metaph. 1010a 12-13. Cratylus’ critique of Heraclitus (fr. 41 Bywater) on the possibility of stepping in the same river twice: ibid. 13-15.
- Diogenes Laërtius on Plato’s teachers: VP III.6.
Our introduction to alphanumeric hermeneutics and cosmology can be heard here.
- Bligh Bond, Frederick and Lea, Thomas Simcox. Gematria. Research into Lost Knowledge Organization; Distributed by Thorsons, London/Wellingborough, [1st ed. re- printed] , 1977.
- Harold N. Fowler, editor. Plato VI: Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias. Number 167 in Loeb Classical Library. William Heinemann/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, London/New York, NY, 1926.
- Pamela Mensch, trans. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.
- Juan Acevedo. Alphanumeric Cosmology from Greek into Arabic. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2020.
- Johannes Bronkhorst. Etymology and Magic: Yāska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the Riddle of Semantic Etymologies. Numen, 48(2):147–203, 2001.
- Franz Dornseiff. Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie. Number 7 in Studien zur Geschichte des antiken Weltbildes und der griechischen Wissenschaft. Teubner, Leipzig, 1922.
- Michael Muhammad Knight. The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2007.
- Jetske C. Rijlaarsdam. Platon über die Sprache. ein Kommentar zum Kratylos. Bohn, Scheltema and Holkema, Utrecht, 1978.
- Anika Strobach. Plutarch und die Sprachen. Ein Beitrag zur Fremdsprachenproblematik in der Antike. Number 64 in Palingenesia. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1997.