Acatalectic and Acacaleptic
Bill Long 4/17/05
These two terms are near neighbors in the OED, but they suggest fully different realities. Both, of course, have classical Greek roots, the former being more at home among the poets while the latter is popular among certain philosophers.
Acatalectic is a denial or negation of catalectic (flash!), and the latter term literally meant "having the last foot incomplete." Poets, for a variety of reasons, would not always use an equal number of feet in each line. There would be a "standard" number of syllables, such as in the dactylic hexameter or iambic pentameter, but then it could be altered by the mere stroke of the pen. Such alteration would make the reader pause on the last syllable (if a foot was missing) or perhaps rush past the syllables, if an extra foot was added. Thus, an acatalectic line is one which is metrically complete. According to the OED, acatalectic is "not wanting a syllable in the last foot; complete in its syllables: also subst. ‘A verse, which has the complete number of syllables, without defect or superfluity.’" A catalectic verse was termed by the 16th century rhetorician George Puttenham "maimed" because it is missing a syllable in the last foot. A hypercatalectic line, on the other hand, has an extra syllable.
An example of each appears in the following tercet. Count the syllables and look to the last word of the line.
"Hamlet cries his mother's tainted.
Gertrude nearly falls down, faint.
Hamlet's father swears, unsaintly, he."
The first line is an example of acatalectic verse, the second is catalectic while the third is hypercatalectic.
Moving to Acataleptic
Whereas acatalectic refers to the poetic verse, acataleptic refers to a person who believes in acatalepsy. To cut right to the chase, acatalepsy is derived from the Greek word meaning "incomprehensibility." The OED calls it a "term of Sceptic philosophers; the correlative of agnosticism, which is said of the mental faculty, while acatalepsy is the property of the unknown object." Thus, the OED tries to make a distinction between the faculty of the person and the object itself. The Stoics used the term "catalepsy" to signify the capacity of apprehension or comprehension which people possessed. In contrast to them, the Sceptics thought that knowledge was acateleptic--incomprehensibility was the order of the day.
Thus the word acatalepsy is a term derived from epistemological debates in ancient Greek philosophy. On the one side were arrayed the most significant names and schools of philosophers: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, all believing that there was some basic truth in the universe that could be understood or grasped. These were the dogmatists. On the other hand were the sceptics, the descendants of Diogenes and the Cynics, who were thought to have held one or the other of the following positions: either (1) the things that the dogmatists believed were knowable were basically incomprehensible (classic scepticism) and that became your philosophical position, or (2) those basic doctrines were incomprehensible but you kept searching for a truth. In any case, by the time the Middle Platonist Academy had come about under Arcesilaus and Carneades in the 2nd century B.C., scepticism had broken out of its rather narrow association with the uncouth Cynics and had become more mainstream: the Platonists now had more than a small sceptical streak in them.
Scepticism and Peace of Mind
One reason the dogmatists were so popular in antiquity was that they claimed to give people secure and true knowledge about ultimate reality. The Stoics, especially, developed the concept of "imperturbabilty" (ataraxia), a feeling that should accompany the thought that God's providence is really working out all things to the good of the universe. Surprising as it might seem, the Sceptics were also interested in this same ataraxia. The leading Sceptic writer, Sextus Empiricus, sheds some light on the relationship between skeptical conclusions and peace of mind by invoking an anecdote which apparently descends from Pyrrho's time (Pyrrho was the founder of Scepticism in the 4th century B.C, giving the alternative name of Pyrrhonism to it--even though we do not have much information about the historical Pyrrho) in Alexander's court.
The anecdote tells how Apelles, Alexander's court painter, was so frustrated by his inability to paint the froth on a horse's mouth that he threw his sponge at his painting, accidentally producing the effect he wanted. “So, too, the Skeptics were hoping to achieve ataraxia by resolving the anomaly of phenomena and noumena, and, being unable to do this, they suspended judgment. But then, by chance as it were, when they were suspending judgment the ataraxia followed, as a shadow follows the body.”
In our own time the debate continues between those who believe, sometimes stridently so, that they have an insight into the ways of God in the universe and others who disclaim any such understanding. My experience has been that those who maintain that things can be understood are, in general, not as smart as those who say that things are incomprehensible. Or, is that just the irony of life?
Actually, the OED gives us even one more word, similar to both of the preceding, but only attested in 19th century England and then, probably mercifully, dropping out of sight. It is the word acatallactic. It is derived from the Greek word for "exchange," and acatallactic was used by Ruskin and a few others 150 years ago to mean "against exchange" or "against political economy," but even this brief description does not shed too much light on it. Perhaps that is why it never really caught on.
Thus, as you study, look for acatalectic verses; consider ideas and decide whether they are acataleptic or cataleptic, and know that you are following in the steps of distinguished predecessors as you think these thoughts.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long