Plato's Dialogues: Ion

Last month we talked about Homer, so it’s good timing that Plato is now giving us a chance to talk to Homer’s greatest interpreter, Ion. Who’s Ion? He’s a rhapsode and Socrates’ interlocutor in his shortest dialogue called, well, Ion. We know he’s the greatest because he says so himself, after telling Socrates about winning a contest in Epidaurus:

I judge that I, of all men, have the finest things to say on Homer, that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever lived, had so many reflections, or such fine ones, to present on Homer as have I.

Well, he’s still more humble than our man Hippias, who claimed to be the best at everything, and Ion even admits that interpretation of Homer is the only thing he’s great at (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly). Still, Ion is a likeable guy, and Socrates is amiable with him throughout the dialogue. It’s hard not to like his almost childlike enthusiasm for Homer; for instance, at one point Socrates wants to quote a few lines from the Iliad to illustrate a point, but Ion jumps in, “No, let me do it, for I know them.” He’s like a boy who just learned a new skill and wants to show it off. Anyway, you may recall from Gorgias that Socrates does not consider rhetoric to be an art. Here, he makes an even more startling argument, that poetry isn’t an art, either. Rather, it’s divine inspiration. He compares rhapsodes like Ion to iron rings attached to a magnet. The Muse is the magnet, and transfers its magnetic power to poets, through the poets to the rhapsodes, and through the rhapsodes to the audience. As one point of evidence, Socrates refers to one Tynnichus of Chalcis, an apparently bad poet but who wrote one particularly excellent and beloved lyric. As he explains:

By this example above all, it seems to me, the god would show us, lest we doubt, that these lovely poems are not of man or human workmanship, but are divine and from the gods, and that the poets are nothing but interpreters of the gods, each one possessed by the divinity to whom he is in bondage. And to prove this, the deity sang the loveliest of all lyrics through the most miserable of poets.

As for the rhapsodes like Ion, Socrates asks, “When you chant these [passages from Homer’s epics], are you in your senses? Or are you carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy conceive herself to be engaged in the actions you relate […]?” Ion answers that he is, indeed, quite carried away and moved emotionally by the stories he recites.

Now, Ion is perfectly happy to accept Socrates’ position that artists like himself are divinely inspired, and there is of course an element of “inspiration” to composing poetry, but there’s also a good deal of craftsmanship. You do have one-hit-wonders like Tynnichus, but for the most part, poets are fairly consistent in quality, and poets tend to improve as they hone their skills. This is because poetry certainly does involve craftsmanship and thus is an “art” in the way Socrates uses the term. This is most obvious in the case of someone like Edgar Allan Poe, but Ezra Pound also discusses poetry in a similar way in ABC of Reading, for example. As for performers like Ion, the same thing holds true. There’s an element of inspiration, sure, but performance is also a learned skill.

One thing I’m not sure of is what exactly Socrates means by calling poets inspired, or how this squares with his criticisms of them. I assume that he’d consider good poems, that is, good in both craftsmanship and moral value, inspired, but bad poems the work of men alone. What of poems of mixed value, though? Socrates does seem to have a respect for much of Homer’s work for example, but in Republic expresses concern with his portrayal of the gods. So were some passages of Homer’s epics inspired and others not? Did the Muse intentionally introduce impiety? In fact, few major works are both perfectly beautiful and perfectly good, which fits with what we’d expect of a human work. He might also, of course, be mostly humouring Ion here, or raising a possibility but, since Ion immediately accepts this view of poetry and rhapsody, doesn’t pursue this line of reasoning.

In any case, they soon move on to another topic. Ion claims that he can interpret any part of Homer’s epics, but Socrates points out that Homer covers many topics, as wide as warfare, charioteering, fishing, and construction. Surely, the best interpreter of these parts of the epics would be, e.g., the general, the charioteer, the fisherman, and the builder, but Ion, more an artist than an artisan or logician, insists on being master interpreter of everything Homer touches on, though he’s none of these things.

I will go ahead and say that all of these arts are very much beside the point in the Iliad and Odyssey, and any other work of literature, for that matter. This point may be clearest in science fiction. It’s nice when an SF author gets his science completely correct and plausible, but few of us read these stories to learn about science and we’re perfectly willing to suspend disbelief as long as the author doesn’t do anything too crazy. Returning to Homer, his portrayal of how chariots were used in war is sketchy, but this makes no difference whatsoever. For that matter, he frequently portrays the heroes giving speeches in the middle of a battlefield, but very few readers care about the plausibility of this; we’re perfectly happy to give Homer his poetic license because this is a good way to represent the characters’ interior states which, as I said when discussing Republic, must be represented in poetry by these sorts of actions if they’re to be adequately represented at all.

Returning to Ion and Socrates, though, near the end of the dialogue Ion does claim to be good at one more thing which he claims to be a kind of rhapsody. The two had just been discussing how the arts presented by Homer are best judged by the relevant artisans.

SOCRATES: But when you know of military matters, do you know them because you are competent as a general, or as a rhapsode?
ION: I cannot see a bit of difference.
SOCRATES: What, no difference, you say? You mean to call the art of the rhapsode and the art of the general a single art, or two?
ION: To me, there is a single art.
SOCRATES: And so, whoever is an able rhapsode is going to be an able general as well?
ION: Unquestionably, Socrates.
SOCRATES: And then, whoever happens to be an able general is an able rhapsode, too.
ION: No, I do not think that holds.

Now, he doesn’t make it, but Ion has a bit of case here. One part of generalship is that of inspiring one’s troops, which would involve speaking to them in an attempt to move them as a rhapsode would. The common ground, essentially, is that both are a kind of rhetoric. Of course, Ion’s idea falls apart when one considers other aspects of generalship, regarding things like logistics and manoeuvre. We also run into the difficulty, presented in Gorgias, that rhetoric itself isn’t an art at all, but a form of flattery. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly here, I’m sure Socrates would also consider rhapsody a form of flattery, as he does rhetoric. As I said when discussing that dialogue, though, there is something to be said for plain speech even in poetry, as opposed to mere ornament.

The dialogue ends shortly after this, but we’re left with a few questions. Is rhapsody an art? If so, what is its end or purpose? To answer that adequately, we need to go back a step, because rhapsody is the performance of poetry, so we must first answer these questions regarding that art, craft, form of flattery, or whatever it turns out to be. However, this takes us beyond what’s discussed in Ion, so we’ll return to this topic next week. The next dialogue we’ll read will be Euthydemus.