|Image of a rhapsode from a Greek vase,|
c.480 BCE. Source: British Museum.
You can read Ion online in an English translation by the 19th century scholar Benjamin Jowett via Internet Classics Archive (the version I use here, also available as an audiobook), or in the 1925 translation by W.R.M. Lamb via Perseus Digital Library.
The main question posed by Ion is: do critics know what they are talking about?
In ancient Greece, poetry was more recited in public than read in private. The poet composes the text, and the rhapsode interprets it, in both senses: deducing and teaching its meaning, and performing it for an audience. There is no precise equivalent for a rhapsode in our culture, but note they are reciters of verses, not actors, and perform for money. Ion ought to be worth talking to, as he is good at what he does: he has just won first prize at the festival of Asclepius in Epidaurus, and is puffed up with his success. After opening with a bit of flattery (530b), Socrates interrogates the rhapsode on the nature of interpretation, poetry and knowledge. The dialogue runs roughly like this:
- What knowledge does Ion have of the art of literary criticism?
- Is the poet or the rhapsode divinely inspired?
- If so, is Ion out of his mind when he performs?
- Is the rhapsode-critic qualified to judge Homer’s subject matter?
The dialogue is sometimes misunderstood. Socrates is not interested in discussing Ion’s ability in recitation, nor primarily in the nature of poetry as such. His interest lies in Ion as what we would call a literary critic – someone who lectures on the poet’s meaning. This focus is explicit in his introductory speech:
Socrates: To understand [Homer], and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.
Ion. Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many. (530c-d)
The subject here is not how well Ion recites Homer, but how well he ‘speaks about’ Homer. When Ion offers to recite for him, Socrates brushes the opportunity off, for his skill in performance is not the matter in hand.
Socrates learns that Ion’s literary commentaries are limited to Homer, whom he considers ‘better’ than other poets, and takes him to task. All poets deal with similar subject matter, the philosopher argues, therefore to know whether a poet is better than others, Ion must be able to judge how well all poets speak. Comically, Ion responds that talk of other poets sends him to sleep. Socrates concludes:
He argues that when one has knowledge of an art, one can comment on what is good and what is bad, and challenges Ion to identify any painter, sculptor or musician who could only judge a single fellow artist. Ion cannot, and Socrates offers an explanation. If Ion’s literary criticism were an art (or craft, or skill) and he had mastered it, he would have knowledge of it as a whole. He does not, therefore criticism is not a form of knowledge: not a generally applicable science.
Socrates contends that the rhapsode-critic does not have expertise in the way a physician or arithmetician does. Ion’s lectures on Homer come from somewhere else, outside himself, namely divine inspiration. The philosopher illustrates his idea with a simple, effective metaphor, which he uses to explain the whole creative process:
The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet... This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. (533d-e)
The Muse, or goddess of the arts, inspires the poet, then the afflatus continues into the rhapsode and on into the audience, like magnetism through iron rings.
Socrates’ metaphor of divine inspiration.
Plato asserts that ‘all good poets... compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed’ (533e). Remove the magnet, and the chain of iron rings would fall apart. Here Plato is discussing more than criticism. He is putting forward a theory of poetic creation itself. Again:
Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only. (534b-c)
This explains why Ion is able to win prizes for reciting Homer despite being unable to perform other poets. He and Homer alike have no ‘art or knowledge’; they don’t need any. Everything comes from the Muse through ‘divine inspiration’. Good poems (as opposed to bad ones) come from the gods, and the poet is merely their interpreter. Ion seems flattered by the association of the poets and the gods, which was a familiar idea in Greece, and nods to everything Socrates says, only to be accused of having even less knowledge than the poet. Criticism has no scientific value: the rhapsodes are merely ‘interpreters of interpreters’, a lower link in the chain of possession.
Socrates is denying Ion any art or agency in his ‘speaking about Homer’. But there is worse to come. Socrates turns his attention to Ion’s role as a reciter, and argues that when Ion is reciting he is not in his right mind.
Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem? (535b-c)
When he is reciting, Ion plays on the emotions of his audience, driving them to pity and wonder. But Socrates severely criticises second-hand feelings of this sort. He has already compared poets to Corybants: priests who worshipped the goddess Cybele with music and ecstatic dancing. In Socrates’ view, if you feel roused to tears or exultation by some event that isn’t really happening, you are not in your right mind.
There is no invention in [the poet] until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him. (534b)
This is surely a damning verdict coming from a philosopher – a lover of wisdom and rational thought. Disdainfully Socrates demands:
What are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him; – is he in his right mind or is he not? (535d)
Ion agrees that such a man is not in his right mind. His excuse for inciting emotion in his audience is cynical:
If I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives. (535e)
If the audience cries during his dramatic recitals he will be paid for a job well done; if they laugh, he will not.
Now Socrates changes tack to address a broader issue: does the critic have knowledge? The issue again is not about poetry as such, or Ion’s recitals, but whether Ion is qualified to be a critic of Homer’s poetry: ‘On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part... Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge?’ (536e)
Socrates challenges Ion on a range of ‘arts’ portrayed by Homer and argues that each ‘art’ is a distinct body of knowledge best known by the experts in that field. We consult a physician about medicine, a charioteer about chariot-racing, a prophet about divination, a spinner about spinning wool. In each case, Ion concedes that the relevant expert, not the rhapsode-critic, is best qualified to judge Homer’s lines about that art.
The one area in which Ion is qualified is in rhapsody, so Socrates homes in on this point:
Do you, who know Homer so much better than I do, Ion, select for me passages which relate to the rhapsode and the rhapsode’s art, and which the rhapsode ought to examine and judge of better than other men. (539e)
There are none, so the struggling Ion provides a few examples of other arts the rhapsode should know about:
He will know what a man and what a woman ought to say, and what a freeman and what a slave ought to say, and what a ruler and what a subject. (540b)
Socrates argues these away. It seems there must always be someone who knows better than the critic – forcing the conclusion that Ion has no worthwhile knowledge of his own. Finally he tries to buck Socrates’ onslaught by claiming that thanks to reading Homer he does at least know how to be a great general. But then he has to explain why he does not serve as one: he says it’s because his fellow Ephesians are vassals of the Athenian empire and have no need of one, and the Athenians and Spartans have enough generals of their own. Socrates has no trouble exposing this weak argument. He concludes:
After all your professions of knowing many glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. [541e-542a]
Plato thinks people can only do one thing well (see for example the discussion in Book III of The Republic where in the ideal city ‘each does his own work, and that only’), hence his disapproval of Ion who has to touch on many different areas of knowledge. Ion’s skills, like the creativity of the poet, actually come from the gods via Homer, not his own resources.
Having dismissed literary criticism, Socrates wraps up by taunting Ion with a choice:
If, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired? [542a]
Ion would much prefer to be thought inspired. Socrates allows him this, and the dialogue ends.
Plato’s usual approach in his dialogues is to portray Socrates, the seeker of wisdom, questioning someone about their knowledge of a particular area and exposing the shortcomings of what they think they know. This cross-examination, known as an elenchus, often ends with the participants feeling wiser but able to assert anything, a stalemate known as an aporia.
Ion however seems to draw some definite conclusions about criticism and poetry. The dialogue explores a theme we see elsewhere in Plato and wider philosophy: the theme of knowledge. The Greeks talked of episteme, meaning theoretical knowledge, and techne, meaning practical know-how or craftsmanship. They are the origins of our words epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge) and technology (knowledge of techniques for doing things). In Ion Socrates concludes that Ion ‘speaks of Homer’ without any ‘art or knowledge’: with neither techne nor episteme. He also concludes that there is no techne of poetry. The Greek word τέχναι or techne (pronounced TEKH-nay) is usually translated as ‘art’, but in the sense of a craft or skill.
Socrates assumes that knowledge of the world is divided into distinct arts/sciences/disciplines in which a person may be expert and may therefore ‘speak well’, i.e. speak authoritatively. Not only is the expert able to apply the rules of their art, they are aware of those rules and can explain them, and can thus serve as a judge of whether others also have knowledge or instead are being deceitful or incompetent.
Plato questions what this means for critics and for poets. Poets write about a wide range of things. Given that each discipline is distinct, who knows best about, say, chariot-racing? Do you ask the critic, who offers an interpretation of a passage in Homer on chariot-racing, or do you ask a charioteer? Plato is trying to argue that the rhapsode-critic cannot be relied upon to ‘speak well’ about poems, and extends this criticism to poetic creation, too. Poets and rhapsodes alike do not have expertise in a field of knowledge and must therefore be relying upon something outside of them, namely divine inspiration. All they are qualified to do is to entertain by arousing emotion, and even this expertise is attacked by Plato. People ought to seek knowledge in a calm, rational way whereas poets and rhapsodes encourage the opposite. For Plato, this is irrational and even dangerous.
Given Homer’s high status in ancient Greece, Plato is going heavily against the cultural grain. The ancient Greeks looked to Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus and other classic poets for insights into love, war, virtue, the nature of the world, and so on. They thought the poets had a broad range of knowledge, a certain wisdom that you could learn from. Socrates himself praises Homer at the beginning as ‘the best and most divine’ of good poets; but he goes on to undermine him during the discussion. Plato’s Ion presents us with possibly our earliest theory of art, and already it is controversial. He is presenting us with, in context, a new way of thinking about poetry.
However his main purpose in the dialogue is to ask whether there are any firm principles of literary criticism, and on this question, his answer is ‘no’. The critic has no distinct knowledge. His inspiration comes through the poet, and has no ‘scientific’ basis.
There are several problems with Plato’s arguments.
Firstly, he fails to appreciate the nature of poetry. His character Socrates assumes every art or discipline works the same way, and that poetry must be an area of knowledge in the same way that medicine or fishing are areas of knowledge. This is simplistic. Poetry may embrace all sorts of subject matter while staying true to its own particular laws. Whether or not Homer has accurately conveyed information about how to ride a chariot is of little importance when we judge his poem as a work of art; we are much more concerned with qualities such as mood, rhythm and characterisation. This is why we have the term ‘artistic licence’: works of art follow their own rules, and it has always been acceptable for a poet or artist to adjust reality for creative effect. For example, one may have various criticisms of the Star Wars movies, but only a pedant would dismiss them on the basis that it is impossible for starships to make a noise in outer space. Aristotle would later acknowledge this in the Poetics:
There are not the same standards of correctness in poetry as in political theory or any other art. (1460b)2
Plato wants to judge poems as catalogues of verifiable facts, and loses poetry in the process.
Moreover, we actually have no reason to doubt that Homer wrote accurately about chariot-racing, ancient combat, and so on. Most of us are not familiar with such activities today, but Homer was held in high esteem by a culture that did know them intimately. Homer could have based his accounts upon the observation or testimony of experts. Plato does not raise this as a possibility, let alone explain why it would not be acceptable.
As for Ion, there is no need for him to have personal expertise in every subject raised in Homer’s poetry, as Socrates demands. Being an expert charioteer, physician etc has nothing to do with his craft as a critic, which lies in interpreting the supplied text. His field of knowledge would be the craft of composing poetry, but Socrates does not acknowledge that such a field exists. Perhaps this is because he dismisses poetry as the production of divine inspiration rather than the skill of the poet him- or herself. But he makes a distinction between good poets, who are inspired, and bad poets, who are not, citing the case of Tynnichus the Chalcidian who appears to have written plenty of bad poetry and is only remembered for one good, ‘inspired’ poem. Even if we accept the claim that Tynnichus had little involvement in writing that poem, he presumably applied rules of poetic composition when creating his forgotten work, seeing as the gods were not doing it for him, i.e. rules must exist. It is a poor inquiry that makes no effort to study them. It’s true that Socrates says earlier, ‘there is an art of poetry, I take it, as a whole, is there not?’ (532c), which Ion affirms. But the context suggests he is talking about Ion’s art of criticising poetry rather than the poet’s art of composing it, and the later section of the dialogue shows that Socrates is sceptical about whether such an art exists.
When poets are inspired by the gods, Plato assumes, it means we have no agency. He does not consider the possibility that divine inspiration and human skill might go hand-in-hand.
|Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: |
Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry,
Further, Socrates dismisses Ion and his enthused audience during recitals as ‘not in their right mind’, but emotion is an essential part of how we respond to poetry. Socrates mentions the examples of ‘the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognised by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam’ (535b). If we cannot respond emotionally to these characters, there is little point in poetry or theatre at all. Only good art can bring a story alive in the most affecting way – therefore, arousing our emotions is a merit, not a problem. Again, Plato is rejecting the whole point of both rhapsody and poetry.
After all this, it is unsurprising that, as Socrates himself observes in another work, the Apology, the poets are against him.3
A different criticism of the dialogue is that Plato makes life easy for himself in a couple of ways. If Ion could critique any poet, instead of only Homer, Socrates would fail in his initial argument. Socrates himself refers to painters, sculptors, and musicians who are not guilty of Ion’s shortcoming of being fixated on one artist, and takes it for granted that they, not Ion, represent the norm. For example:
Socrates: And did you ever know any [painter] who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticising other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and had no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?
Ion: No indeed, I have never known such a person. (532e-553a)
Yet Plato makes his character Ion ‘such a person’. It is fine for him to single out critics for this dialogue, but how are they different?
It also helps Socrates that Ion, despite being a prize-winning rhapsode and presumably a first-rate artist, is not a worthy adversary in philosophy. (Goethe referred to Ion’s ‘unglaubliche Dummheit’ or ‘unbelieveable stupidity’4.) His only challenge to Socrates is his feeble claim about being a good general, forced upon him by the attack on the value of Homer’s knowledge, but easily refuted by the veteran debater. Although Plato has some fun at the rhapsode’s expense, the dialogue is not really about whether Ion is a good or bad rhapsode or whether rhapsodes are foolish, so Plato could have allowed Socrates a sharper opponent who could discuss how he interprets poetry. My suspicion is that the characterisation of Ion simply reflects Plato’s poor opinion of artists, who are after all mere interpreters of interpreters, imitators of imitators.
In sum, Ion offers little insight into either poetry or the art of criticism.
Rather than concluding that Plato has simply written a poor piece of philosophy, we should consider the possibility that he does not intend his arguments to be water-tight. The dialogue may be intended as a kind of conversation or discussion piece to stir Plato’s students into thinking about these problems for themselves.
It may also be that the dialogue is not entirely serious. After all, the poets themselves say they are inspired by gods: the muse is evoked by Homer at the opening of the Iliad (‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles’), by Hesiod in his Theogeny (‘From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing’), and by Archilochus in one of his surviving fragments (‘I am the servant of Lord Enyalios, / and skilled in the lovely gift of the Muses’). Socrates is taking the poets’ own claims of divine inspiration and turning it on them and the rhapsodes to demonstrate they know nothing. The ancient Greek audience would have known that and perhaps been amused by it, and enjoyed seeing Socrates taking a fool down a peg or two.
Well, perhaps. But at the time poets and rhapsodes may have been more popular than the ‘gadfly’ of Athens. And Plato is dismissive of poets elsewhere in his work. In the Apology, which portrays Socrates’ self-defence when on trial in 399 BCE for corrupting the young, Socrates says:
When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.5 (22a-c)
This echoes Socrates’ views in Ion. And Plato’s savaging of Ion for being merely an interpreter of an interpreter foreshadows his famous arguments in The Republic, where he accuses artists of having no knowledge because they represent the world at two removes. If Plato is merely being mischievous, why does he assert this position again and again?
Ion’s fatal weakness is its reliance upon superstition. Socrates concurs with the belief asserted by the poets themselves: their gift comes from divine inspiration. Homer’s evocation of the Muse in the Iliad (c.800-725 BCE) is nearly three thousand years old, which makes the theory of divine inspiration the oldest known theory of creativity. The obvious problem, however, is that despite thousands of years of trying, theology has never been able to prove that gods exist, either the Olympian variety or any other. From a contemporary materalist perspective, no credible theory of art can be built on superstition: remove the gods, and Plato’s explanation of literary criticism and poetic creativity falls apart, leaving nothing in its place. Even if we give Plato the benefit of the doubt, claiming that poetry comes from the gods does not tell aesthetics very much. It is like trying to sidestep our ignorance of why matter exists by stating that God created it: it just raises other unanswerable questions, such as why God exists, what existed before, what he created matter from, and so on. Plato doesn’t try to explore the curious mechanism of divine inspiration any further in his work, but then, one cannot explore something that does not exist. This is an anachronistic point, as most ancient Greeks would have assumed the gods to be real, but there is no escaping it from our perspective.
In conclusion, the dialogue Ion is fascinating as a historical document, but has little value as a piece of theory, as it fails to tell us anything useful about criticism, poetry or art as a means of knowledge.
The line notation system used for Plato is known as Stephanus referencing, after the definitive 1587 edition of his complete works. This is why the referencing for Ion starts, oddly, at 530a.
1. A.E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (1928).
2. Aristotle, Poetics, Chapter 25, 1460b. Translation by T.S. Dorsch.
3. Plato, Apology. At Socrates’ trial, one of his accusers is ‘Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets’.
4. Goethe, Plato, als Mitgenosse einer christlichen Offenbarung (1796).