Tag: Plato

Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Two weks ago we and Socrates met with Ion, a rhapsode and Homer’s greatest interpreter (in his own opinion). One question we touched on was whether poetry and rhapsody are arts, to which Socrates answered “No.” Rather, it’s a form of divine inspiration, which definition Ion was happy to roll with. However, that doesn’t seem to be true, for there certainly is an element of craftsmanship and skill involved with writing and reciting poetry, despite the occasional one-hit-wonder. Furthermore, even individual works, especially long ones like epics, are of mixed quality or at least mixed goodness. The Iliad, for instance, is a work of immense skill throughout, but at times portrays the gods in an impious manner, which seems very odd if it’s the work of inspiration by the gods. (As an aside, I am aware that all this isn’t Socrates final opinion on the subject, and that at least some of what he had to say was essentially said for Ion’s sake).

If poetry and rhapsody are arts, though, then what sort of art are they, and what is their end or purpose? We need to begin by defining some terms.

First, note that when Plato says “art” he’s using it in a broad sense. I won’t get into the Greek because I’m not familiar with that language, but since I’m writing for anglophones anyway we’ll proceed in my native tongue. In English we use “art” both to refer to any application of a learned skill, even in industry, as well as to production of a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. So, poetry is an art in that it’s an application of a learned skill (metrical writing) in a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes.

Yes, I’m keeping it simple by defining poetry as “metrical writing.” Writers of free verse may be artists and authors of literature, but at least for our purposes they’re in a separate, though related, category. What is the purpose of poetry? I would answer that it is the creation of a work of beauty. So, what is beauty? Again, let’s keep it simple and follow this short article on St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the subject. Beauty is something that “elevate[s] man to the infinite,” in other words, toward God (don’t worry, we’ll flesh this out more shortly). We can see that it’s closely related, then, to goodness and truth, and for a work to be truly beautiful it must be good and true, as well. “Goodness” in this context, of course, does not mean merely inoffensive, but uplifting in some way, which often does involve a portrayal of evil in some manner. “Truth” will not usually be literal truth, but can also be allegorical.

So, we now have an idea of what poetry is, and what its purpose is. Rhapsody is the art of reciting poetry in an effective manner. Both have as their purpose focusing man’s mind on the transcendent, the good, true, and beautiful.

Socrates, no doubt, wouldn’t let me go that easily. Since this is a one-man show, though, I’ll have to raise my own objections, and the obvious one is this: does poetry actually do these things? If so, how? There have been many claims that it does; I’ve discussed Confucius’ previously, and also touched on Ben Jonson’s in that same article. We might also point to Scripture’s inclusion of many poems, most notably the Psalms but also throughout many of its other books. As far as appeals to authority go, then, we’re looking good, but that’s not quite enough. Confucius and Jonson are fallible, and Scripture’s poems aren’t just poems, but also prayers.

Regarding that last point, the Bible’s form and content aren’t arbitrary, and given the value of plain speech, it seems to me significant that the sacred authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thought it most appropriate to set the Psalms, hymns, and so on in verse. Most of Scripture follows a simple style, often too simple for modern tastes, so when it uses poetry we may safely assume that this is because there’s something about poetic form that’s especially appropriate or effective on the reader that suits the author’s purpose. If poetry is the creation of a work of beauty, and beauty raises one’s mind to the transcendent, then this is as expected. The Psalms, etc., are written to do precisely that, and so they use a form that amplifies the effect of what they attempt to do.

If that’s the case, though, then shouldn’t all of Scripture, and for that matter pretty much everything else, also be written in verse? Not necessarily. The primary purpose of the historical and didactic books is to convey information. For example, the authors of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell us the narrative of the kingdom of Israel, while St. Paul in his Epistles tells us how we ought to live (primarily, of course – obviously, the same book can have multiple purposes and work on more than one level). This can be done in verse, but this type of information is best related in as straightforward and easy to follow a manner as possible. Additional ornament, though it may beautify the work, may also distract from the main points. Of course, this also applies to non-Scriptural works of history, philosophy, and so on, which typically are best presented in prose.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

Over at Thermidor 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.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Cratylus

Hey, remember this series? Honestly, I’m rather proud of having kept up this web log on a regular schedule despite starting graduate school and working a full-time job. Unfortunately, though doing fairly short posts isn’t too hard, a series that demands more attention like Plato’s dialogues is significantly more difficult. I read Cratylus about a month ago. I barely remember what it’s about at this point. I’m not 100% sure who Plato is. He might’ve been a geek?

Okay, that’s only half-serious, but this series is still on, and we are indeed talking about Cratylus today. I’ll be briefer than usual on this one, for two reasons. One is that it’s becoming clear that I’m either going to write about it quickly, or it’ll never get finished. The other is that most of the dialogue is a discussion of the etymology of Greek words. Now, the etymologies aren’t the main point, exactly, but it is tedious reading about a language one doesn’t understand, so I was more interested in the conversation that took place before and after the bulk of the work. What I’ll do, then, is go through and share a few individual points that stood out to me as I was reading (fortunately, I do annotate my books somewhat, so I can find interesting passages even when a book isn’t fresh in my mind).

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedo

After working through the Republic, we return once more to the events around Socrates’ trial and execution with Phaedo, which covers the death of Socrates. Like the Symposium, this one is narrated second-hand, this time by Phaedo, who was present for Socrates’ last moments and is telling his friend Echecrates about it. Incidentally, we have another rare mention of Plato himself, when Phaedo says that most of Socrates’ circle of friends was present but that “I believe Plato was ill.” Plato had been present at his trial, which gave it more of an air of authenticity than most other dialogues, so it’s interesting that he removes that for this one. How much we should read into this, though, I’m not sure.

In any case, one of the first things Phaedo mentions is that Socrates had spent his last few weeks on Earth writing poetry, specifically based on Aesop’s fables. He explains that he has, throughout his life, had recurring dreams where he’s told to “practice and cultivate the arts,” which he had always interpreted to mean philosophy. However, since the trial it had occurred to him that it may actually have been referring to poetry, so just in case he had misinterpreted his calling, he’s taken up writing some hymns and other verse. Socrates and his interlocutors don’t spend much time on this, but assuming this is true, one wonders how history would’ve been different if Socrates had pursued poetry instead of philosophy. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been as well-remembered now, since he was about as successful in philosophy as it’s possible to be, and he mentions that he struggled to write verse. Still, it’s an interesting side point to the dialogue.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Republic

My friends, the eternal snows appear already past, and the first clouds and mountains seem the last. In the list of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic is at the centre of it all, being the halfway point of the reading order I’m using, as well as Plato’s most famous work and, arguably, most important (going by reputation and my observations so far, of course). This also means that it is, arguably, the most important work by the most important philosopher in the history of Western civilisation, so, hey – no pressure on us amateurs trying these towering Alps. Let’s trust in what we’ve learned so far, though, and soldier on.

So, Republic is by far the longest and most wide-ranging dialogue so far, with only Protagoras even in the same ballpark; the rest weren’t even in the same league, and hardly even playing the same sport. Now, though Socrates and friends cover many different topics, it is worth keeping in mind that the central question is “What is justice?” Many people get caught up in debating the utopian society Socrates and the others imagine and discussing the various aspects of that, and though that can be interesting it’s worth remembering that it’s meant as an aid for identifying justice in the individual. Since defining justice in the individual is difficult, they decide that it may be easier if they work at a larger scale, and so begin building this city. One occasionally sees arguments over whether Plato really intended this city to be ideal or what, because there are a few seemingly crazy ideas connected to it, but everything about it, I feel safe saying, is meant as an allegory for some aspect of the soul.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Since I’m among the brave few who dislike the Symposium, I was a little disappointed at first that most of Phaedrus covers the same subject, love. However, it also covers a couple other things that I find much more interesting, and it’s also back to having just one interlocutor for Socrates. Rather than the more-or-less hostile exchanges that characterised the dialogues with the Sophists, though, this conversation is much more amiable, similar to some of the earlier dialogues like Lysis and Laches. Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus isn’t a debate, but a conversation between two friends while out for a walk, albeit at a much higher level than any conversation I’ve ever had.

One interesting observation comes early on. Socrates happened to cross paths with Phaedrus while the latter was out taking a walk, and they happen to cross a river near the point where Boreas was said to have seized Orithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believed the myth to be true, and he says this:

I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.

Recall that Socrates will later be charged with corrupting the youth, and encouraging impiety. Yet, apparently there were “men of science,” which I take to be an ironic phrase roughly equivalent to calling the New Atheist twats “brights” or “fedoras,” who spent a good deal of time in trying to explain myths surrounding the gods rationally. Socrates, though, says that he accepts the common beliefs around these myths. That doesn’t mean he has no doubts, of course, but he focuses on other, more important matters first.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Symposium

Guys, I’m not gonna lie to you: if I hadn’t already committed to discussing every dialogue, I’d punt on the Symposium. I know, it’s probably Plato’s second-most famous dialogue, after the Republic, and love seems like as universally interesting as a topic can be, but it just didn’t grab me as every other work has so far. It is the first so far to have some storytelling to it; even the dramatic Apology is essentially just a record of one speech. I’m sure Plato chose the form carefully and with a purpose in mind, but I’m not really here for storytelling and much prefer philosophy written in the more straightforward style of, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I’ve been receptive to the dialogues so far because, with only one or a few interlocutors, they feel almost like a single author developing an idea slowly, but with purpose. The Symposium, though, starting with someone asking for a second-hand account of the event in question, a series of loosely-connected speeches by multiple people, and an interruption by yet another group of people, making it oddly chaotic. Again, probably intentional, but not at all how I want to read this sort of material.

To get into the dialogue itself, though, one weird thing about Symposium is that it’s essentially all a double narration. Apollodorus is our primary narrator, and he’s been asked by a friend to talk about a discussion of love that had taken place some time earlier between a number of people at a party celebrating Agathon’s recent victory in a competition for a tragedy he’d written. Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, though, and furthermore this was a few years ago. Rather, he’d heard about it from Aristodemus, who had attended. We could hardly have a more unreliable account, then, and I could only guess why Plato decided to relate the dialogue this way.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

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