Socrates Agonistes: The Case of the Cratylus Etymologies

Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 16:63-98 (1998)
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Are the long, wildly inventive etymologies in Plato’s Cratylus just some kind of joke, or does Plato himself accept them? This standard question misses the most important feature of the etymologies: they are a competitive performance, an agôn by Socrates in which he shows that he can play the game of etymologists like Cratylus better than they can themselves. Such show-off performances are a recurrent feature of Platonic dialogue: they include Socrates’ speeches on eros in the Phaedrus, his rhetorical discourse in the Menexenus, and his literary interpretation in the Protagoras. The paper compares these cases to work out the ground rules, purposes and implications of the Platonic agôn, and the Cratylus etymologies in particular.

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Rachel Barney
University of Toronto, St. George


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