Tackling conventions: Plato’s Barbarians between Language and Ontology



Plato, Barbarian, Language, Dialectics


A remarkable ancient attempt to conceptualize the “barbarian” is provided by Plato’s Statesman. Here (262c10 ff.) the Stranger from Elea gives some examples in order to show to Socrates the Young how a philosophical “division” should not be made. Provided that the objective of any division is to “bump into Ideas” (μᾶλλον ἰδέαις ἄν τις προστυγχάνοι, 262b7), each and every “part” (τὸ μέρος) resulting from the analysis of a concept is expected to match an eidos, an Idea: τὸ μέρος ἅμα εἶδος ἐχέτω (262b1). Therefore, according to the Stranger, it would be irreparably wrong to divide the human race roughly into the Greeks and the Barbarians, for the latter “are countless in number and have no relation in blood or language to one another (262d4 ff.)”. In other words, they might be considered as a “part” of the human race, but this turns out to be nothing more than a mere linguistic classification, since ontologically speaking there is no real eidos to match the word “barbarian”. As the Stranger from Elea puts it, “it is only because of this single name [i.e. barbarian] that they expect it to be a single [real] species as well (διὰ ταύτην τὴν μίαν κλῆσιν καὶ γένος ἓν αὐτὸ εἶναι προσδοκῶσιν, 262d5-6)”. So, here Plato provides us with a sharp criticism of a widespread Greek conception as to what “barbarian” should be thought to mean. In the end, the mistake “most people in this country” (καθάπερ οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν ἐνθάδε διανέμουσι, 262d1) make is to fail to distinguish between a rough linguistic custom and a philosophical division, which is grounded only on the “ideal” (and hence “truest”) reality.