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Open Access Living by the Cratylus Hermeneutics and Philosophic Names in the Roman Empire

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Living by the Cratylus Hermeneutics and Philosophic Names in the Roman Empire

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This paper is about an aspect of philosophic life, showing, in the case of one Platonic dialogue in particular, that the texts that later Platonists employed in a quasi-scriptural capacity could influence their lives in important ways. The Cratylus was seen as addressing the question of how names could be regarded as 'correct', raising the role of the name-giver to the level of the law-giver. It begins with the question of how a personal name could be correct. The ancient text that offers us most evidence of the philosophic manipulation of proper names is Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, which makes it quite clear that the revision of individuals' names, and in particular the giving of a Greek name to those of non-Greek origins, had become a regular practice. The name, it seems, was intended to capture something of the actual nature of the individual in question. There is evidence that the practice goes back to the age of Lucian, and specifically to the circle of Numenius, whose own name is also that of a bird. His religious dialogue Hoopoe suggests that there was something special in bird-names; Lucian's Gallus reincarnates Pythagoras as a bird, while his Death of Peregrinus has the eponymous sham philosopher ultimately adopting a bird-name too. Curiously, the final name that Porphyry bears also closely recalls the name of a bird. This may be explained as the apt naming of one who rose to the highest philosophic vision in accordance with the 'flight of the mind' passage in Plato's Phaedrus.


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