Do poets know what they are talking about? That’s the question at the center of the dialogue known as Ion, from the name of the main character (other than Socrates) to appear in it. This — after last week’s introduction — is the first actual installment of our discussion of the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders, so let me give you a preview of how it’s going to work.
Each post from now on will summarize one of the seven dialogues in the book, beginning with a very short introduction, followed by a section-by-section analysis with selected quotes. Obviously, for a more in-depth treatment of individual dialogues readers are invited to read Saunders’ book. We will conclude each installment with a brief discussion of the main topic, above and beyond what Socrates says. I advise readers to look at the Socratic character with sympathy, in order to appreciate what Plato wrote and learn something, quite regardless of the fact that, obviously, philosophy has made progress in the intervening 24 centuries, so that a modern philosophical take on the specific subject matter would be different.
In the Ion, Socrates’ position is that poets have no idea what they are talking about, and do their thing in a state of madness. Peculiarly, though, Ion is not actually a poet, but rather a rhapsode, that is someone who went around gorgeously attired, chanting the works of Homer or other poets. What makes Ion (the character) interesting, however, is that he was one of those rhapsodes who also lectured on the subject matters covered by Homer, presenting himself as a teacher of human relationships and conduct, as well as a repository of technical information, on topics ranging from sailing to military command. That is why Ion is Socrates’ target here, because he makes claims to knowledge. So what we are about to witness is a demolition job, aimed at showing that rhapsodes — and by implication poets — are not, in fact, teachers of moral skills.
This discussion, in a sense, is still with us today, as one does often hear that literature in general, and (some) poetry in particular, are capable of providing insights into the human condition that are beyond the reach of empirical investigation or dialectical approaches (such as the sort of philosophy practiced by Socrates). Notice also, while following along, that when Socrates says that Ion is “possessed” by the Muses, there is an interesting sense in which he is talking about what we today refer to as intuition, as distinct from explicit knowledge. See this book review of mine on the allied topic of divination in the ancient world, and how it was considered both a type of skill and an inner sense tapping into hidden (i.e., subconscious) knowledge.
The dialogue begins with Socrates pointing out a peculiar flow in Ion’s alleged skills: apparently, the fellow is able to expound only on technical matters as presented by Homer, but by no other poet. If Ion possesses an actual skill, it certainly appears to be a rather strange one.
SOCRATES: It’s obvious to everyone that you are unable to speak about Homer with skill and knowledge – because if you were able to do it by virtue of a skill, you would be able to speak about all the other poets too. … So have you yet seen anyone who is an expert at demonstrating which paintings of Polygnotus, son of Aglaophon, are good and which are bad, but can’t do the same for the other painters? (532c-e)
Socrates then goes on to suggest that Ion does not possess a skill, but rather taps in some sort of strand of inspiration (from a Muse), and since there are several such strands, that explains why he can speak about Homer but not about other poets.
SOCRATES: This fine speaking of yours about Homer, as I was saying a moment ago, is not a skill at all. What moves you is a divine power, like the power in the stone which Euripides dubbed the ‘Magnesian,’ but which most people call the ‘Heraclean.’
(533d, the reference is to the phenomenon of magnetism, which was known to the Greeks.)
SOCRATES: Or don’t you think I’ve got it right, Ion?
ION: By Zeus, I think you have. Somehow or other your words touch my soul, Socrates, and I do believe good poets interpret these messages from the gods for us by divine dispensation.
SOCRATES: So you rhapsodes in turn interpret the words of the poets, don’t you?
ION: You’re right in that, too.
SOCRATES: So your role is to be interpreters of interpreters?
SOCRATES: One poet depends on one Muse, another on another. Our description of this is ‘he is possessed … Starting from these first rings, the poets, one man dangles from another and catches the inspiration – from Orpheus in one case, Musaeus in another; but most are possessed by Homer. You’re one of them, Ion: you are possessed by Homer … You say what you say about Homer not in virtue of skill or knowledge, but through a divine dispensation and possession. (536a-c)
Socrates then pushes the argument further, suggesting that the only people able to make a judgment about the sort of technical things Ion talks about when declaiming Homer (e.g., sailing, military operations, etc.) are those who are expert in the respective fields, because they possess actual skills. By implication, what Ion says about morality is also not to be trusted, but needs to be subjected to the expert opinion of those who have mustered that particular skill, i.e., philosophers.
As is often the case, however, the conclusion of the dialogue is aporetic, meaning that there is no firmly established positive account, only a negative one. We have not learned what poetry is, only that it is not a skill. But the implication is important, because the reader will have to conclude that if he wants to learn about sailing, military campaigning, or — most importantly as far as Socrates is concerned — ethics, he better not listen to poets.
(Referring to Homer describing chariots)
SOCRATES: Now, in these lines, Ion, which will know better whether Homer’s description is correct or not – a doctor or a charioteer?
ION: A charioteer, of course.
SOCRATES: Because he possesses this particular skill, or in virtue of something else?
ION: No, because he has the skill.
SOCRATES: So in the case of the lines you quoted, will it be you or a charioteer who knows better whether Homer puts the matter well or not?
ION: A charioteer.
SOCRATES: Presumably because you are a rhapsode, not a charioteer.
SOCRATES: Then again, will a rhapsode know better than a doctor what sort of thing is appropriately said by someone in charge of a sick person?
ION: No, not that, either.
Here Ion attempts to recover, stating that he does know what he is talking about, and as a consequence in the course of his performances, whenever he is talking about war he says what would be appropriate for a general to say.
SOCRATES: Well then, in the name of the gods, Ion, since you are the best among the Greeks at both activities, at being a general and at being a rhapsode, why do you traipse round them as a rhapsode, but not as a general? Or is it your view that the Greeks are in sore need of a rhapsode crowned with a golden crown, but have no need of a general at all? (541b-c)
(Please notice the Socratic sarcasm here, and at the end of the next bit.) In the end, Ion has to concede Socrates’ point, which leads him to suggest that having divine inspiration is actually better than having a skill:
ION: There’s a lot of difference [between skill and inspiration], Socrates: it’s a much finer thing to be thought divine.
SOCRATES: Well then, let’s grant you this finer status in our eyes, Ion: as a eulogist of Homer you are not skilled, but divine.
The modern take: So, what should we think of poets as purveyors of technical or ethical knowledge? Obviously, today we would separate the two issues entirely. I doubt any contemporary poet would seriously claim to have knowledge of sailing just because he wrote a poem that mentions boats, or of war strategy because he wrote about armed conflict.
Poetry is normally celebrated on aesthetic grounds, and so is literature more broadly. But there is also a sense in which (some) modern poets do claim a special insight, if not into ethics, at least into the human condition — which for the Greco-Romans amounted to the same thing. Clearly, that insight does not come from systematic empirical evidence (i.e., science) or dialectical-critical reflection (i.e., philosophy). It is, rather, intuitive, and intuition is not magic or divine (contra what Socrates might or might not have really believed), it is the result of unconscious processing of information about our experiences on the part of our brains. So, if a poet, or author, has had a significant amount of personal experience dealing with human beings under unusual or dramatic situations, then that person may, in fact, have developed intuitions that she is able to convey by way of prose or poetry.
My personal take is that literature is indeed a vehicle to improve our understanding of others at a personal, emotional level. Contra Plato, I wouldn’t ban it from Massimo’s Republic. But I do maintain a certain degree of skepticism about both literature and poetry as forms of knowledge (outside the aesthetic domain), because it is anecdotal knowledge, and it is conveyed in a way that immediately lends itself to emotional manipulation. And now it is time for me to leave you and go back to reading the two novels I’m currently going through: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica Geniale, I’m reading it in Italian) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
(next: the Laches, in which Socrates inquires into the best education we can give to our kids)