Well, my friends – humanists, scientists, poets, theorists, and thinkers of every variety and persuasion! – it is now time to look at the next segment of Plato’s Ion, and we will take it up with Socrates’ second long speech about the “magnet” simile. We’re going to see a big difference this time, in Ion’s reception of the idea of “divine inspiration” (rather than a mental acuity) as the power that fuels the poets’“art.” Why do you think he reacts so differently this time?
Socrates Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these God sways the souls of men in any direction he pleases, causing each link to communicate the power to the next. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer; and when anyone repeats the words of another poet you go to sleep, and know not what to say; but when anyone recites a strain of Homer you wake up in a minute and your soul leaps within you, and you have plenty to say; for not by art (techne) or knowledge (episteme) about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession, just as the Korybantian revelers too have a quick perception of that strain only which is appropriated to the god by whom they are possessed, and have plenty of dances and words for that, but take no heed of any other. And you, Ion, when the name of Homer is mentioned have plenty to say, and have nothing to say of others. You ask, “Why is this?” The answer is that your skill in the praise of Homer comes not from art but from divine inspiration.
Ion That is good, Socrates; and yet I doubt whether you will ever persuade me that I praise Homer only when I am mad and possessed; and if you could hear me speak of him I am sure you would never think this to be the case.
Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask….
For myself, I can’t help but wonder whether Ion’s change of heart – you remember that last time he said “your words, Socrates, touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret for us the voice of the gods” – does not come about from the sudden realization that he himself is in danger of being deprived of the ike he so happily plumes himself on possessing. (In addition, Socrates has dropped the rhetorical brilliance and has emphasized the ludicrousness of the metaphor, and the haplessness of the lower “danglers,” this time around.) Let’s continue, though, because Socrates is now going to bring his theory of the formal ike to a powerful consummation.
Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask. On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part?
Ion There can be no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you. [Note that Ion, however ineffectually, is trying to assert a poetic “wholeness” on every part of which he is equipped to speak well.]
Ion There is no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you.
Socrates Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge? [Literally, “not on those things, which Homer says, about which you are not knowing?”]
Ion And what is there in Homer of which I have no knowledge?
Socrates Why, does not Homer speak in many passages about arts (technes)? For example, about driving; if I can only remember the lines I will repeat them.
Ion I remember, and will repeat them.
Socrates Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse race in honor of Patroclus.
Ion “Bend gently,” he says, “in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may appear to graze the extremity; but have a care not to touch the stone.”
Socrates Enough. [This “enough” from Socrates is my favorite line in the entire dialogue. So ends Ion’s one and only chance to perform as a rhapsode!] Now, Ion, will the charioteer or the physician be the better judge of the propriety of these lines?
Ion The charioteer, clearly,
Socrates And will the reason be that this is his art or will there be any other reason?
Ion No, that will be the reason.
Socrates And every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work [ergon]; for that which we know by the art of the pilot we shall not succeed in knowing also by the art of medicine?
Ion Certainly not.
Socrates And this is true of all the arts – that which we know with one art we shall not know with the other…?
Here is the climax of the theory of the ike: “and every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work,” for that which we know (how to do) by one art we will not know (how(to do) by another. Here is a different translator, spelling out the elliptical Greek here, by writing that to every art “is apportioned a power of knowing” that is peculiar to itself. So we are talking about the way in which we know a genuine ike because it confers a power for doing – “a certain ergon” – upon the one who possesses it.
This is where I think we can really see that to translate the Greek “episteme” fundamentally as “knowledge” is very misleading, given our modern connotation of knowledge as consisting of discrete and concrete little pieces of “fact” (sort of like what we memorize for the SATs). An episteme or a techne – any Greek ike – is fundamentally a skill, or a power to act. It confers the ability to do a certain kind of work with arête or formal excellence. And whatever that work may be – piloting a boat, driving a chariot, practicing medicine, or doing geometry – it is a power of knowing. It is a mode of human thought, or “a way of knowing.” And it comes into play and is visible to our eyes, whenever the activities associated with a formal kind of thing are called upon.
[Theoretical aside from jlb: This is why I think the saddest thing, and one of the most alienating aspects, of education in the modern centuries has the narrowing of human thought to ratiocination. This is a powerfully elitist move, and it has disenfranchised most human beings from the life of thought. They still practice their ways of knowing, of course; they simply get no credit for doing so. See Ruth Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. I would go so far as to say that the steadily building resentment of the non-elite has done much to produce the cultural phenomenon of the “red states” versus the “blue.”]
Now it would seem, wouldn’t it, that we have just seen Ion perform his “art” with our very own eyes? He has fluently recited from memory a few lines from the Iliad – in an abruptly truncated performance, as we have noticed. But he is given no opportunity to display the rest of his “power of knowing,” if indeed he has such power.
Socrates steps right in and shows Ion how he ought to “interpret” the lines he has just performed – from the point of view of dialectical (“philosophical” or “rational”) inquiry into the arts and sciences. Socrates want Ion to identify the subject-matter in question in the lines, and then to name the kind of expert who would know “the propriety” of these lines best. Does anyone else besides me think this is really, really, entertaining and funny?
To prepon, the question of propriety, fittingness, or the appropriate, belonged to ike of course, along with orthtotike, because for the Greeks it was a question intrinsic to knowing how to do any kind of action well. (See how much Greek you’ve learned? And with acquisition of any language comes the “power of knowing,” the power of thinking, that is conferred by that language.)
Never forget that for the classical Greek mind, the meaning of logos or ratio (ratio is the Latin translation of logos and gives us “rationality”) was always — first of all — formal elegance, proportionality, and balance between parts, before it became the term used “technically,” in connection with the new philosophical way of life, the practice of the newly rigorous kinds of purposeful thinking and speaking maintained in the disciplines.
Ion will acquiesce without a qualm in these reductive “disciplinary” or “philosophical” interpretations of each successive poetic passage, in our next segment. Entirely gone will be Ion’s brief flicker of a notion of some kind of a poetic wholeness, of which he is master, so that he can claim in this respect to speak equally well on all passages of a Homeric poem.
[Theoretical aside from jlb: If philosophy is a way of using language more rigorously and more according to the logos — or “logically,” then is poetry inherently anti-philosophical? Is rigorous dialectical thinking limited to the transparent or expository or “pointing” way of using of language? This is the origin of the age-old quarrel between poetry and philosophy that still bedevils our academy in the current wars between cultural studies and the hard sciences. Does language secure itself and its truth in the concrete empirical things to which it points, or does it create and construct its own fictional “worlds”? This is quite a contretemps. And Plato placed it at the very heart of the Western philosophical project. And he did so — in this dialogue! So do you think that literary theory is not crucial to Western thought?]
So, we must ask, who here has a power of knowing-how-to-do the “work” of rhapsodike? Not Ion. Socrates, on the other hand, will take over from here on out, in performing the passages of Homer from memory, and these passages will grow longer and longer and longer as the dialogue draws near its end. Socrates will even take over Ion’s own part in the conversation, performing both Ion’s role and his own in front of Ion, who becomes the audience at Socrates’ performances.
Who, then, understands what he is doing, here? Who wins the ironical contest of rhapsodes, which is the dialogue called Ion?
And yet, Socrates’ practice of Homeric “interpretation” is very strange indeed. He simply, flat-footedly, interprets each epic passage as though it were an expository description of some subject-matter always belonging to some other art, and serving no telos within the narrative beyond that. This is a reductionism of the most extreme kind. It denies to the poet the power of using language in a manner different from that of the new dialectician – in spite of the fact that every Greek on the Street knew perfectly well that poietike is a “productive art,” and that what the poiet (“maker”) makes is precisely a poiema, an elegant “made-thing,” which is also called a poiei-sis, or the making that results from an active and purposeful process of making that kind of thing. (Click here for more on these Greek words.)
But Ion never resists Socrates’ imposition of his own distinctly strange practice of “rhapsodike” upon its own practitioner. The argumentation of the dialogue is over. The rest of it will be composed of Socrates’ increasingly extreme and quite hilarious high jinx as he takes over the role of rhapsode from Ion, reciting from memory passages of Homer that grow increasingly lengthy, and then discoursing about the subject matters of each passage and pointing to the ikes that would rightfully “speak well” of them. It’s almost, in a way, a near parody of the new project of the liberal arts and sciences that Plato is contemplating. This will lead us into the funniest denoument in all of the Socratic dialogues, and then Ion will go (innocently?) on his way. (But the laughter of the gods may be ringing in our ears….)
And yet, based simply on the Greek words themselves if nothing else, it is perfectly apparent, isn’t it, that a poet possesses the power of knowing how to do a certain work, and that the poet’s ergon is the making of poems, and that this is done out of language. Furthermore, this is precisely what Plato’s greatest student Aristotle will say about the art of poetry in his famous treatise, the Poetics. Aristotle will also say that poietike is not to be judged by the standards of politike (the ike directed toward the public good), because the art of poetry is a different art and therefore it has a different telos. This is an application of Socrates’ theory of the ike to poietike at last! (And poietike will have a different orthotike, and a different to prepon or fittingness. Nonetheless, Aristotle argues that an excellent poiesis can serve an important, formative, civic function, as we’ve seen, by exercising, purging, and restoring balance in the emotional life of citizens.)
So we have a very strange sight going on before us here in Ion. It’s a compellingly important aporia. A “sticking point” or “impasse” – the kind of “wonder”-producing stumbling block or contradiction or anomaly that Aristotle says in the Metaphysics is the place where philosophy always truly begins. (Think of those few small anomalies in the later 19th century, in black body radiation and in electro-magnetism, that no one suspected would give rise, through wonder-ing, to the philosophical brilliance of Einstein’s dialectical reconstruction of the Newtonian physical universe. “It seemed to me” that the thoery of electro-magnetism “ought to be symmetrical,” he explained! You see how this is the very same Western thought, however we try to get away from it….)
So we see before us Socrates practicing the new lucidity (it belongs to Plato surely) of the philosophical way of life, theorized as a pursuit of formal knowing through the ikes, with a view toward the good (practice of) life and the civic good of the polis. Socrates has set forth an account (a logos) of all the formal features that might identify a genuine ike, as opposed to mere sham and pretense, according to a certain trajectory of thought, and it has much to commend it. He has done all of this in language, and it is a strikingly new kind of rational or proportionate or reasonable employment of language. It is a careful talking–back-and-forth that works its way deeper into the formal structure of that which is to be known. It is dialectic. It is the new language of thought and inquiry that will be practiced from now on in the West, all through Roman and medieval Christian philosophy and theology and by among the Renaissance Christian humanists as well.
But there is a problem here. Surely Socrates has a “power of knowing,” conferred on him by the art of dialectical analysis, but he has chosen to enact and put-to-work his dialectical art in relation to the distinctly odd case of poietike. Is there an art of poetry? Is poetry a mode of thought that equips one with a lucid understanding of a formal kind of thing and confers the power of knowing how to do well all the actions associated with it? Granted, Ion cannot make poems, but can he interpret them, and can he explicate the poet’s activities of making, according to the Form-al nature of the epic?
Apparently not. Ion never brings up anything like this. But then, he is never allowed to, either. Socrates insists on challenging and then routing poetry out of the arena of thought, by treating it as though it uses language in exactly the same expository or diegetical manner in which other disciplines use language.
But those other disciplines are not concerned with kinds of things that are made out of language. They use language instrumentally, to discuss and formalize and communicate the results of their disciplinary thinking and knowing. There are precisely two arts that do not use language in the standard dialectical manner: rhetoric and poetry. And Plato notoriously has problems with both of them. (It is commonly thought that Plato resented any rival to the dialectic he pursued so earnestly, and that he thought that non-dialectical language was false or pseudo-language, that it could never be “true.” This is of course how the British scientific rationalists read Plato, and why Nietzsche at times furiously reviled what Socrates and Plato had come to represent.)
However, in the Republic, every other argument against poetry in Ion is developed further, except this one. This one, which adroitly sidesteps the whole issue of the poem as one whole kind of thing, and instead reduces language to its ostensible or “pointing” function – this argument or approach is altogether dropped. Instead, Plato’s Socrates there affords us a fine technical analysis of the non-expository or “mimetic” use of language. In fact, it is this analysis (Rep 3) that will provide the technical apparatus Aristotle will use in his own treatise to validate calling poetic “making” a high mode of thought, one that is “philosophical” in its own right.
So what is going on here? Well might you ask!
Right now, it seems to me, we are reading Ion on its own ostensible or “pointing” level, as though its words are transparent and refer us directly to the things they are talking about; as though this dialogue is itself a piece of extended dialectical “talking about.” And it is.
But language can also be something that is fashioned into building blocks and then into a built-thing, and this seems to be forgotten in the Ionian dialectic. (Whited out, erased.)
There is also a lot of playing around going on here with the art of rhetoric, and this will be seen best in the next segment of Ion, which I like to call “the contest of rhapsodes.” (It’s an entirely one-sided contest, after which Socrates will also assume the role of the judge of rhapsodes, at the very end of the dialogue.) In fact, at the end of our next segment, Ion will make his one solitary stab-in-the-dark of a theoretical assertion about the art of poetry, and it will actually concern the art of rhetoric, not poetry at all. But heck, that’s close enough, especially for Ion! Rhetoric, after all, is essential to the poet in practicing the poet’s own art. If, that is, poetry has its own art….
So next time, we’ll look at the rhetorical structuring that is going on in the language of the Ion – and that becomes especially manifest in the next segment – in addition to the Ion’s ostensible dialectical argumentation. And so we’ll finish up everything next time, except for the amusing conclusion.
Then we will have acheived our telos, we will have had our story told, the story that is Ion, and the fun can really begin! Then I can explain poststructuralism, when we can begin to look at the Ion as itself an elegant structure of poietike. And that’s where the Platonic fireworks will really begin, where we will be in a position to see the always-already of “deconstruction,” if you will, and where the question of “what Plato means” and the depth of Plato’s analysis of the problem of truth, can really emerge for our dialectical engagement.