In the latter half of The Republic, book 5, Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the difference between knowledge of things things that exist and ignorance about things that don't exist. They suppose that opinions, being different from both ignorance and knowledge, must pertain to things neither existing nor nonexistent. The following excerpt from the conversation ensues:

Socrates: Then what remains to be discovered is the object which partakes equally of the nature of being and not-being, and cannot rightly be termed either, pure and simple; this unknown term, when discovered, we may truly call the subject of opinion, and assign each to their proper faculty,—the extremes to the faculties of the extremes and the mean to the faculty of the mean.

Glaucon: True.

This being premised, I would ask the gentleman who is of opinion that there is no absolute or unchangeable idea of beauty—in whose opinion the beautiful is the manifold—he, I say, your lover of beautiful sights, who cannot bear to be told that the beautiful is one, and the just is one, or that anything is one—to him I would appeal, saying, Will you be so very kind, sir, as to tell us whether, of all these beautiful things, there is one which will not be found ugly; or of the just, which will not be found unjust; or of the holy, which will not also be unholy?

No, he replied; the beautiful will in some point of view be found ugly; and the same is true of the rest.

And may not the many which are doubles be also halves?—doubles, that is, of one thing, and halves of another?

Quite true.

And things great and small, heavy and light, as they are termed, will not be denoted by these any more than by the opposite names?

True; both these and the opposite names will always attach to all of them.

And can any one of those many things which are called by particular names be said to be this rather than not to be this?

He replied: They are like the punning riddles which are asked at feasts or the children's puzzle about the eunuch aiming at the bat, with what he hit him, as they say in the puzzle, and upon what the bat was sitting. The individual objects of which I am speaking are also a riddle, and have a double sense: nor can you fix them in your mind, either as being or not-being, or both, or neither.

Could someone please explain the riddle at the end of that excerpt to me?


1 Answer 1


The riddle is given, together with its answer, in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus of Naucratis:

And a similar [riddle] is that of Panarces, mentioned by Clearchus, in his Essay on Griphi [riddles], that “A man who is not a man, with a stone which was not a stone, struck a bird which was not a bird, sitting on a tree which was not a tree.” For the things alluded to here are a eunuch, a piece of pumice-stone, a bat, and a narthex¹. And Plato, in the fifth book of his Laws², alludes to this riddle, where he says, that those philosophers who occupy themselves about minute arts, are like those who, at banquets, doubt what to eat, and resemble too the boys’ riddle about the stone thrown by the eunuch, and about the bat, and about the place from which they say that the eunuch struck down the bat, and the engine with which he did it.

¹ “Νἀρθηξ, a tall umbelliferous plant, (Lat. ferula) with a slight knotted pithy stalk, in which Prometheus conveyed the spark of fire from heaven to earth.” — L. & S. Gr. Eng. Lex. in voc. νἀρθηξ.

² This is a mistake of Athenaeus. The passage referred to occurs in the fifth book of the De Republica.

Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae X.76. Prose translation and notes by C. D. Yonge (1854), The Deipnosophists: or, Banquet of the learned, of Athenaeus, London: Bohn, p. 714.

Athenaeus was writing in the 3rd century CE; Clearchus of Soli was a pupil of Aristotle who wrote a treatise Περὶ γρίφων (On Riddles), now lost, in the 3rd century BCE.

The bat riddle has philosophical content. The first two elements expose a problem with definition by properties: if you define ‘man’ by a list of properties including ‘possesses testicles’ then this goes wrong for eunuchs; if you define ‘stone’ by a list of properties including ‘sinks in water’ then this goes wrong for pumice. Plato’s attempt at a solution to this problem was the theory of forms. The last two elements of the riddle expose a problem in classification of living things by their shared characteristics: the class of ‘winged vertebrates’ is unsatisfactory because it includes bats as well as birds; the class of ‘tall plants’ is unsatisfactory because it includes giant fennel as well as trees. This problem is solved by the theory of evolution, which distinguishes homologies (shared characteristics resulting from common descent) from analogies (shared characteristics resulting from independent adaptation to similar environments).

  • Great find! Thanks! Also, it's interesting to frame the problem of "the one and the many" in terms of the efforts of scientists. I suppose that in all fields, scientists are doing excellent work identifying the characteristics of types of things, and distinguishing between distinct and nondistinct characteristics of a type of thing. So, the answer to the problem may not be in "forms" but in the accumulation of all "type-distinct" characteristics of a thing. Jan 21, 2019 at 19:17

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