CJ Online Review: Ademollo, The Cratylus of Plato

posted with permission:

Francesco Ademollo, The Cratylus of Plato: A Commentary. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xx + 538. Hardcover, £85.00/$140.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76347-9.

Reviewed by R. M. Dancy, The Florida State University

Plato’s Cratylus is about names, with Socrates as the lead speaker. There are two main theories under discussion, usually referred to as “naturalism,” according to which names do their naming through a natural connection such as resemblance between them and what they name, and “conventionalism.” The dialogue has received a good deal of attention in recent years, and will undoubtedly receive a lot more. There has been some disagreement as to whether Socrates comes out a naturalist or a conventionalist; most participants go for the latter.

For any serious study of the dialogue, this book is indispensible. It is a running commentary on virtually every line of the dialogue; all that is left out is a few passages containing etymologies (the gist of these passages is reported). Everything commented on is translated; often Greek text is included. Despite the translation, the book will be difficult for the Greekless, since a great deal depends on the interpretation of the Greek. And the translation, although unquestionably an improvement on existing ones, could not be detached for separate use, as Ademollo acknowledges, e.g. on p. 118:

… it is hard to devise a translation of the terms νόμος and νομοθέτης in our dialogue that will both sound convincing and mirror the fact that the latter contains the former. I have rendered νόμος as ‘custom’ and νομοθέτης as ‘lawgiver’ throughout; but that, strictly speaking, makes Socrates’ argument unintelligible.

And it should be added for the benefit of the Greeked that occasionally it will be very handy to have the 1993 OCT by your side, since even where the Greek is quoted, line numbers are not included within the text, and Ademollo refers to the text using them. But this is not insurmountable even without having the text available. (E.g., on p. 157 Ademollo, having given a translation of 393a1–b6, says “The heart of the passage is at lines a5–b1,” but there is nothing in his translation marking these lines; still, you can tell from what he goes on to say which part of the passage is in question.)

Ademollo provides a bibliography including hundreds of entries in various languages and a very serviceable index.

As far as I can tell, there is not an issue of any importance for the understanding of the Cratylus that is ignored. Very little is taken for granted, and by and large, Ademollo’s readings are convincing. They are hardly uncontentious, but they can never be rejected lightly.

Ademollo opts, quite persuasively, for the conventionalist reading (pp. 423–4 et passim). But not everything is quite so persuasive. For example, Ademollo ascribes to Socrates what he calls (p. 3) “the ‘Redundancy Conception’ of correctness” of names:

(R) ‘N’ is a correct name of X =df ‘N’ is a name of X.

This may look toothless. But Ademollo takes it to entail that

There are, strictly speaking, no degrees of correctness: as one name cannot be more of a name than another, so one name cannot be more correct than another.

This thesis is ubiquitous in Ademollo’s book. He cites a passage he takes to confirm (R) (see the index s.v. “correctness of names, Redundancy Conception of”). But one must note that (R) runs against the views of some of the best interpreters of the Cratylus, e.g. David Sedley (see pp. 151–2), and also seems to run against a number of passages in which Socrates is apparently saying that one name is more correct than another (e.g. 391e–392d, where the dispute with Sedley sets in). Ademollo explains some of these passages as “cases in which he [i.e., Socrates] adopts an innocuous façon de parler devoid of any serious theoretical significance” (p. 151; also p. 3). This dismissal is not altogether convincing; I have no doubt there will be dissent in the literature to come.

Ademollo claims that the theory of flux (everything in the universe is in constant change), which Socrates takes to underpin the naturalist reading of the correctness of names, and rejects, is entirely a matter of motion in space (pp. 210–15), and that context-relativity, which figures in other dialogues such as the Theaetetus as fitting in with the theory of flux, has nothing to do with it (p. 233). This needs more support than Ademollo supplies.

As for the etymologies that play such a large (and to a modern reader often tedious) part of the dialogue, Ademollo quite plausibly argues that they are intended seriously (pp. 237–41). But as to the question what their serious purport is, he opts for saying that they function in the way that Plato’s myths do. Obscurum per obscurius? Anyway, it is less than fully persuasive.

Occasionally a little too much time is spent on details that don’t seem to cut much ice. E.g., there is a long discussion (pp. 107–10, including a photograph of a vase painting) concerning the proper translation of κερκίς; Ademollo contends, quite possibly correctly, that the standard “shuttle” is wrong, and opts for “pin-beater.” But having commented that “students of Plato are curiously loath to acknowledge” the mistranslation, it turns out that it makes no real difference to the argument of the dialogue, and Ademollo summarily drops it.

But none of these cavils counts against the overall value of what is in fact an extremely good book; it sets a high standard for philosophical and philological commentary.

Dido’s Legacy

Interesting feature from Tunisia Live:

Her story ends in suicide, caught up in the flames of a funeral pyre. Scholars of ancient literature know it well, Virgil’s tragic tale of a lustful Queen of Tyre, in the epic poem the Aeneid. But less well-known is the legend, passed down in oral form, of a heroine who through courage and determination founded a city to rival Rome, and who refused to let herself be subject to men, even at the cost of her life.

Dido, or Elissa, as she is known in the legend, was said to be a Phoenician princess who fled Tyre when her brother, the king, murdered her husband. Rather than bemoaning her lot, she took her companions and set sail for North Africa. When she reached Tunisia, she used her wit to gain control of the area of Carthage by getting locals to promise her whatever she could fit within the hide of an ox. She cut the ox’s throat and had her traveling companions cut the hide into thin strips, placing them around the perimeter of the city.

Dido founded Carthage, populating it by organizing the marriage of her male companions and a group of virgins from Cyprus. But when a Berber ruler demanded that she marry him or he would wage war on her city, she killed herself in the heat of battle rather than be subjected to his authority.

In contrast, the Roman tale promoted the image of imperial Rome and cast Dido as a slighted woman who couldn’t live without her man. Aeneas, after escaping Troy, falls in love with Dido. But the god Jupiter tells him he must leave to fulfill his destiny. Dido, crazed with love, curses the Trojans just before she stabs herself in the heart. According to the Aeneid, Aeneas would go on to found Rome.

Many scholars agree that Rome used Dido and Aeneas’ ill-fated love story to justify their actions during the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome. Some have even suggested that Dido’s desire for Aeneas symbolized a twisted view that the colony desired the colonizer, desired domination.

In modern-day Carthage, Tunisia, Dido’s name is attached to everything from restaurants to beauty parlors to wine. A search for “Didon Tunisie” (French for Dido Tunisia) reveals a dental surgery company and a hotel as the first hits. Dido has become a cultural icon in Tunisia, comparable to Joan of Arc in France.

But there is a difference. Dido, also known as Elissa, is part of the heritage of a country where patriarchy is the cultural norm. The fact that as a woman, she founded one of Tunisia’s most important cities, is significant.

Nejet M’Chala, a Tunisian professor of literature says that today Elissa represents “feminine wisdom and inventiveness, care for the other…a creative empowered woman.” Children read her story at school, she says, and learn what it means to be “a courageous, smart woman.”

“Today women identify with Dido as an icon of self-determination and freedom…She is the icon of basic human rights.”

In his 1980’s novel “Elissa La Reine Vagabonde” (Elissa the Vagabond Queen), Franco-Tunisian writer Fawzi Mellah gives the tale of Dido a breath of new life by using the story to comment on modern Tunisia. On page 71, he speaks of Dido’s desire for the new city she would build, “A fragile, maternal land. Not a fatherland (who was it who invented that absurd term?). It was a motherland that I desired; If need be, I would invent it.” Some have interpreted Mellah’s words as his way of voicing his own disapproval at the patrimony and marginalization of women in the public sphere in his home country.

In 2010, Jeune Afrique wrote an article about women in Tunisia. It compared Dido to all the women in Tunisia that have come after her, “who have shone in the sky of this country,” to make Tunisian women “the freest, the most educated and most active of the Maghreb region – of the Middle East.”

But after the Revolution, women’s rights groups have kept a close watch on how the female population is treated in the new Tunisia. Activists and politicians like Ahlem Belhadj, the President of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, say that Tunisia’s struggle for equality is not over.

In this confusing modern era, Dido, and her story of bravery and creativity, becomes even more relevant. As M’Chala explained, Elissa represents equality in both society and politics. It’s this story, and its message, that has lasted through the ages, inspiring generations in the country she chose to call home.

Classics Feel Good Story of the Day

From the Gothamist:

Columbia University sign in subway station in NYC
Columbia University sign in subway station in NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An immigrant from the former Yugoslavia who has worked as a janitor for Columbia University for 20 years has finally earned his bachelor’s degree in classics, with honors. The Daily News reports that while you were concerned with catching up on Boardwalk Empire and content to remain in the same, midlevel job because “the economy just isn’t right yet,” Gac Filipaj toiled day and night, first taking classes to learn English then courses in the classics department at the Ivy League university. “Only half my dream come true,” Filipaj says, with an earnestness that kills a million photos of cats drawn in steamed milk. “Today, one ought to have a master’s or a Ph.D.”

Filipaj took advantage of Columbia’s tuition benefit for its employees and took classes in the morning then cleaned the school from 2:30 to 11 p.m., hitting the books right around when you usually finished your last jalepeno popper and drained a BL Lime at trivia night at some bar whose name you’ll forget in 8 months. “He just loves what he’s learning,” dean of students Phil Mendoza says.

“I think I’m going to stay at Columbia,” Filipaj says of his future. The janitor took two days vacation to celebrate his achievement, which is the same amount of time you took off to “recuperate” from your eight-day trip to Cabo. “If I can get a job better than cleaning, good. If not, there is nothing shameful about that work.”

As for whether his story is unique, Filipaj seems sheepish.“If my story and the fact at this age I am graduating helps people to think about getting an education, it’s for a good cause.”

In a followup article in the same paper (which also includes a video interview) Filipaj notes:

Asked what the most difficult part of his academic and professional journey has been, Filipaj declines to mention the pressure of financially supporting his family back home while he betters himself with highly refined, esoteric knowledge, or the bizarre duality of cleaning bathrooms and studying while his classmates were playing Halo and overdrafting into their parents’ checking accounts. “The most difficult thing is ancient Greek—it’s just a killer! Latin is a little bit easier, at least for me.

… I can sympathize with a lot of that …