Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 2, the Ion and whether poetry can teach moral skills

Homer

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?

ION: Surely.

(535a)

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.

(537b-c)

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.

ION: Yes.

(538b)

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.

(540b-c)

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.

(542a-b)

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)

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Categories: Ancient philosophy, Book Club

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87 replies

  1. Since we are talking about literature and philosophy and the extent to which literature might provide knowledge of a kind, this interview with Iris Murdoch, by far the most successful philosopher/writers of literature crossovers in history (and yes, I mean that), this is worth watching.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. BTW, the image from last weekend’s reading list is anachronistic: Socrates sitting with a large bound book in his lap. The codex form of book-binding would not be invented for centuries yet, all books at the time were scrolls. Due to the limits of the format, something like the Homeric corpus would have been split into tens of scrolls, when copied by hand and stored in a museion. There was no way for Socrates to “leaf through pages” looking for descriptions of various technical professions. He would have done it from memory on the spot (unless of course the dialogue itself is a fictional rewriting in the style “yes, that’s what I should have said as a comeback!”).

    Unlike our modern world, where knowing-how to use a search engine is a prerequisite for just about any knowing-that, reading and writing was not considered important. What is interesting is that the brain configuration that we call dyslexia surely did occur in the population, but would not be discovered without forced literacy (and if found, would probably be considered “amathia”).

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  3. Re: the Murdoch interview:

    In the opening segment, Murdoch describes a very traditional view of the difference between philosophy and literature. But beginning at 15:51, she begins speaking of their similarity. Specifically, she says, “they are both truth seeking, truth revealing activities.”

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  4. DM

    “So if a dislike of poetry is not a fault (it’s not a case of “your loss”), then do you see dislike of math or science as different from your dislike of poetry? If so, why?”

    I suppose for me, science and math can’t be replaced, they’re unique to how contributing how you know things and experience the world. Maybe I can’t exactly replace the type of appreciation that people claim to get from poetry, but I think one can probably more easily do so from other forms of art like music and literature.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. brodix,

    “Could you recommend any writings, by philosophers, on the abortion debate? How much is it solutions, versus commentary?”

    I’m not sure of the distinction you make between solutions and commentaries here, from a philosophical perspective it’s a matter of analysis, with an eye to possible solutions. A good starting point is this article, which includes several primary references:

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/abortion/

    DM,

    “So if a dislike of poetry is not a fault (it’s not a case of “your loss”), then do you see dislike of math or science as different from your dislike of poetry? If so, why?”

    Good question. First of all, let me qualify my statement about poetry. I like certain long poems, beginning with Homer and continuing with Dante and Shakespeare. What does not speak to me is a lot of modern poetry, and short poems in general (there too, with exceptions: Neruda, for instance).

    In answer to your question, my poetically oriented friends reject altogether the very idea that science or math may be worth looking into it, while I have read a significant amount of poetry in my life. So my take is that it is one’s loss if one rejects things without giving it a fair shake.

    Dan,

    thanks for the video, but in the future please remember to shorten YouTube urls, or they show up as obnoxious large images.

    “she says, “they are both truth seeking, truth revealing activities.””

    Well, yes, if one understands “truth,” “seeking” and “revealing” broadly enough. But then so is almost everything else human beings do. Seems to me that there still are a lot of differences between literature and philosophy. Also, and most crucially, philosophers train specifically to seek truth (using the methods of their own profession, different from those of scientists), while writers rely on their personal experience and their personal filtering of other people’s experiences. That is, their techne, as Socrates would put it, does not lie in the business of truth (general, universal) seeking.

    miles,

    “the image from last weekend’s reading list is anachronistic: Socrates sitting with a large bound book in his lap.”

    Yes, but it’s a classical painting of Socrates and Alcibiades, too good to pass. I wasn’t striving for historical accuracy, but for aesthetic effect.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was raised in an emotionally and culturally deprived environment. My mother taught us nothing about ethics (except that masturbation was “bad”), and expected our moral training to be provided by the Catholic Church. But all I learned from the Church was guilt.

    Then when I was 12 I had a teacher encouraging me to read and allowing me to choose any book from the school library. It took me three months to get through Cooper’s The Deerslayer, but having gotten the knack for it, only a month each to read The Iliad and The Odyssey (WHD Rouse trans.). Everything I learned of the basics of ethical behavior comes from these three books, but primarily Homer. By the time I at last encountered anything like moral philosophy, in 8th grade – primarily Plato and Voltaire – I already had a sense of the grounds of many of the issues discussed there.

    I often think (and truly believe) that had it not been for Cooper and Homer, given the emotional pain and vacuity of my family life, I would have ended up a petty criminal – or a violent one.

    Did any of my siblings actually follow that trajectory? Yes, actually, my eldest sister. Occasional prostitute, junkie, drug-pusher, she aided her burgler-junkie-gun-nut husband in the protracted sexual and physical abuse of their 5 children.

    She never read Homer. In fact she hated reading, and wouldn’t allow it of her children, until the husband died and she began undergoing a series of intense religious conversions, during which she at last read the Bible – and determined that no other book should be read, as containing ‘dangerous’ ideas.

    Would her life have been different if she had read Homer – or any books, for that matter? I don’t know But I like to think so, simply because of the impact books had on my life.

    We’re talking about literature as an aid to learning ethics, right? No one suggests that literature can supplant the adult study of philosophy of ethics. But I have any ethics at all because of Homer. I’m sorry, but while my antipathy toward Plato really developed during my graduate studies, there is a personal element here. Certain Dialogues I quite like – the Symposium is a truly beautiful piece of comically flavored drama – a poetic work both entertaining and edifying. But while I learned something of moral philosophy from Plato, he never taught me ethics – Homer did.

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  7. So, finally, the question is not whether literature contributes to our ethical development, but how,does it contribute? That is an interesting discussion – and has been for at least 500 years (but having it’s precursors in the Ancient world, such as Aristotle’s Poetics). But in the Ion, Plato has Socrates suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that discussion. There’s something profoundly misguided in that – and more than a little prudish.

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  8. Massimo,

    I did not mean to criticize the choice of picture. I just mentioned it to illustrate the point that literature was not a very accessible form of art at the time. I am resubmitting the original comment since it seems to have gotten lost between the bits somewhere:

    By the way, the image from last weekend’s reading list is anachronistic: Socrates sitting with a large bound book in his lap. The codex form of book-binding would not be invented for centuries yet, all books at the time were scrolls. Due to the limits of the format, something like the Homeric corpus would have been split into tens of scrolls, when copied by hand and stored in a museion. There was no way for Socrates to “leaf through pages” looking for descriptions of various technical professions. He would have done it from memory on the spot (unless of course the dialogue itself is a fictional rewriting in the style “yes, that’s what I should have said as a comeback!”).

    Unlike our modern world, where knowing-how to use a search engine is a prerequisite for just about any knowing-that, reading and writing was not considered important. What is interesting is that the brain configuration that we call dyslexia surely did occur in the population, but would not be discovered without forced literacy (and if found, would probably be considered “amathia”).

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Massimo,

    Thank you. It is a very good coverage of all aspects of the conflict.
    It does seem several of the points I keep raising would help to clarify the basis of the conflict.
    Such as there are no ideals, but tensions between naturally opposing elements. That might help to both validate opposing desires, while keeping them in the broader context.
    Also the issue of time, as a process of potential coalescing into actual, might better explain why all possible outcomes cannot happen, rather than the narrative assumption of destiny for all lives.
    Not to mention understanding good and bad as fundamentally a biological positive and negative, with the moral right and wrong as emergent from and dependent on that underlaying fact.
    Otherwise it seems to come down to splitting hairs. Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t really change the nature of the debate, just clarify it for those willing to take the time to consider all the various factors.
    Those holding to moral absolutes will continue to see any deviation as evil, but it would be helpful for those potentially influenced by the seeming clarity of absolutist beliefs to have a broader framework.

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  10. ej,

    “in the Ion, Plato has Socrates suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that discussion. There’s something profoundly misguided in that – and more than a little prudish”

    I think that’s uncharitable. Socrates nowhere says that, he only says that poets do not have special expertise on the matter. Which so far as I can tell, it’s true. Don’t forget that the Greeks did think that one can learn from moral values poetry and drama, but more in the way of a demonstration of already existing knowledge than in the way a philosopher would explore the subject.

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  11. Massimo wrote:

    “Well, yes, if one understands “truth,” “seeking” and “revealing” broadly enough. But then so is almost everything else human beings do. Seems to me that there still are a lot of differences between literature and philosophy.”

    = = =

    Murdoch gives a pretty substantial and persuasive account of the sense in which they seek truth in a similar fashion. Indeed, there is one point in the conversation, where she in a remarkable way characterizes literary failings — like sentimentality — as varieties of falsehood, in the philosophical sense of the term.

    Of course your last sentence is correct, and she doesn’t deny it. Indeed, through the first half of the conversation, she insists on it quite strongly.

    = = =

    Massimo wrote:

    “Also, and most crucially, philosophers train specifically to seek truth (using the methods of their own profession, different from those of scientists), while writers rely on their personal experience and their personal filtering of other people’s experiences.”

    = = =

    To a large extent, yes, but as Magee points out — and Murdoch concurs — this is not always the case and there are prominent examples where it is not. “Tristram Shandy” is one and “Gullivers Travels” is another. And these are not marginal or obscure works.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. I’m still not convinced on the lack of special ethical insight from any literature. After all, some philosophers — Camus, Sartre — fall close to being known as much as litterateurs as philosophers, especially the former. And, outside of poetry, again, Tolstoy, known first as an author, became almost a quasi-theologian with dashes of ethical philosophy through and beyond his later works.

    Or, on the issue of seeking for truth? Let’s take Hobbes. I don’t regard him as a “seeker of truth” as much as an “arguer for stances.” Kind of like … well, you can fill in the blank.

    And, is Hobbes, or an ancient practitioner of elenchus, alone? Pascal is considered a philosopher as well as a mathematician. Pascal’s Wager, among other things, is surely not a seeking for truth. I think if we look through the history of philosophy, we could find many other philosophers who are, at least on occasion, “arguers for stances” rather than “seekers of truth.”

    (Beyond that, if I’m a Straussian economist, I argue that the “noble lie,” while not truth, is wisdom.)

    Of course, to square the circle, I could then say, maybe we should talk about Platonic Ideas for philosophy and philosophers. But, per modern philosophy, that would be a self-referential statement/issue, at least to some degree.

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  13. Socratic,

    “After all, some philosophers — Camus, Sartre — fall close to being known as much as litterateurs as philosophers, especially the former”

    I believe the key there is in the word “philosophers.” Camus, and especially Sartre, chose to express some of their ideas by way of fiction, just like Plato himself did. That’s not the same as writing poetry or fiction if one hasn’t thought carefully about certain issues. Again, literature can be a mean to present philosophical thought, but one has to do the thinking first.

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  14. I’d say my formative experience was a front row seat to the proverbial generation gap. My parents were of the WW2 generation, my father and a couple of uncles fought in it, while my older siblings were early to mid baby boomers. Consequently everyone seemed to see themselves in the right and the fights were constant.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Dan,

    To a large extent, yes, but as Magee points out — and Murdoch concurs — this is not always the case and there are prominent examples where it is not. “Tristram Shandy” is one and “Gullivers Travels” is another.

    Could you elaborate the reference to Tristram Shandy? I’ve read at least one view on this marvelous masterpiece that sees it as a celebration of the random, the contingent and – yes – the pleasure of writing.

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  16. And, of course, per my Straussian reference above … a certain ancient Greek philosopher-author first touted the “noble lie” in his description of the ideal society.

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  17. My moral underpinnings came from my family, both immediate and extended. One side had houses filled with books, novels and poetry, the other side I never saw a book, except for piano sheet music. I don’t know if anybody from either side could even name a philosopher.

    But I can’t see that one side had any greater moral insight than the other.

    When I reached puberty I entered a place where neither family, literature nor philosophy seemed to be of any help or to have expressed any interest and so I was on my own.

    Literature may be a form of truth seeking but so is every activity. Driving a furniture van around London, making furniture in a factory, sorting vegetables in a supermarket, delivering telegrams, serving customers in a bank, writing software, looking after information systems were all truth seeking activities in their way for me.

    If literature is of any help, it is of a flawed kind of help. The novelist whose day job is an advertising executive is not likely to be someone for whom the pursuit of truth is a passion. Literature can also be a process of propogating unrealistic dreams and delusions, you have to be able to tell the difference. Philosophers like Roger Scruton can say things of such profound stupidity that you wonder how he remembers how to breathe from minute to minute. Even scientists can go from science to personal metaphysical unsubstantiated opinion and it is not easy to tell where the border is (as my Dad called it, the “Kepler Limit”).

    In the end the truth seeking is what we each do (if we wish), in collaboration with each other or alone, with help from science, philosophy and literature, or sometimes just out at sea on our own.

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  18. Just a sidebar here when mentioning philosophers and literary figures (like Sartre and Camus) in the same breathe. Granted there’s no accounting for taste, but Sartre’s literary work is at best mediocre. And he may perhaps be singled out as time passes for being mediocre in both disciplines. Camus is the better literary practitioner, though neither, in my opinion, had or continues to have the literary influence of their contemporary Beckett.

    There’s a misbegotten aspect of having one’s cake and eating it too in this OP. There is no question that some literary practitioners are driven by ethical or socio-political aims/issues, i. e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Pilgrim’s Progress. But, then, you won’t find many who consider these pieces of the stature of Homer’s (Homers’) epics.

    In my previous comment my rejection of your overstated characterization of “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.” This construction is puzzling to me for a number of reasons. Here are two. First, I think you meant “only” anecdotal knowledge. That would clearly be a mistake though, since skilled practitioners of literary art clearly don’t “only” rely on personal experience or anecdote (why call it knowledge?) but are influenced and learn from their predecessors as do those who practice disciplines in other than aesthetic domains. Secondly, why must literary art “immediately lend[s] itself to emotional manipulation”? It doesn’t necessarily. Take Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I doubt upon reading it you would immediately feel emotionally manipulated.

    And I would say that it is troubling and misguided to believe that Socrates/Plato makes a compelling case in this weak dialogue. Ion is a powder puff, essentially a pretentious entertainer. Suffice it to say he is no Parmenides vis-a-vis Socrates. And were it the case that Ion were the sole surviving document of Plato, it would be hardly worth a footnote.

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  19. Literature may be a form of truth seeking but so is every activity. Driving a furniture van around London, making furniture in a factory, sorting vegetables in a supermarket, delivering telegrams, serving customers in a bank, writing software, looking after information systems were all truth seeking activities in their way for me.

    = = =

    This is clearly not what Murdoch is talking about, if you actually watch the discussion.

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  20. ej: “Then when I was 12 I had a teacher encouraging me to read and allowing me to choose any book from the school library. It took me three months to get through Cooper’s The Deerslayer, but having gotten the knack for it, only a month each to read The Iliad and The Odyssey (WHD Rouse trans.). Everything I learned of the basics of ethical behavior comes from these three books, but primarily Homer. ”

    I had a similar experience at the same age; I think 12 is a good age for transformation. I mentioned it in a comment a while back: for me, the books were “Tom Brown’s School Days” and “Van Loon’s Lives.” I doubt that authors have anything like an adequate notion of how their books might act on the adolescent brain.

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  21. Per my ‘bank shot’ abut the originator of the ‘noble lie,’ sometimes, in my opinion, etymology does matter. Philosophy, after all, is love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) and not love of truth (φιλαλήθεια or similar). Often a love for wisdom also involves a love for truth, but not necessarily. (And, I mean the ‘necessarily’ in its philosophical sense as well as its everyday associationist sense.)

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  22. I will listen to the Murdoch piece tonight, but I am not sure how she can be meaning “truth seeking” in a different way. Not a different kind of truth I assume, so a different sense of “seeking”? Surely looking for the path to truth in different ways can still be classified of different kinds of truth seeking.

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  23. Massimo.
    I think I’ve made my case as completely as I can in the present format. However, to this detail:
    “’in the Ion, Plato has Socrates suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that discussion'(…) I think that’s uncharitable. Socrates nowhere says that.”

    If poets have
    -no meaningful knowledge
    -no art
    -no skill
    And can only pretend to instruct their audience in anything, then what is there to discuss? The whole ‘divine madness’ argument (and Socrates is not talking about what we call ‘intuition’) only leaves the possibility of a theological discussion, and obviously those practiced in religious morality will provide better education than one can acquire from any poem (which is how Platonism feeds into Neo-Platonism and then into Christian heuristics, no?)

    If I do treat Plato/Socrates uncharitably in this matter, I have explained why. This is a personal grudge. I might add that if Plato/Socrates is exactly right, then my professional training in literary criticism and rhetoric should never have happened. I kinda begrudge that too. (I tend to read Plato on poetry the way you read scientismists on philosophy. Poetry and fiction can be very hard work, as can literary theory and criticism. The notion that we pursue these professions because ‘divinely inspired’ or because – intuition – is, frankly, insulting.)

    “Don’t forget that the Greeks did think that one can learn from moral values poetry and drama, but more in the way of a demonstration of already existing knowledge than in the way a philosopher would explore the subject.” Of course – but I suggest that this might be exactly what Plato/Socrates would like to put an end to.

    The unanswered question is whether Socrates felt certain poems as sacred texts. I read an ambivalence here. Clearly he knows his Homer – but as an artifact of poetic creation, or as history and religious text? that’s not clear. What is clear is that he doesn’t think Ion, or any rhapsode or interpreter not religiously trained is truly inspired – that is all pure sarcasm. That is not treating Ion fairly (he’s only doing his job after all), and opens the charge of strawmanning, whatever actual points Socrates may make, depending on one’s interpretation of the text.

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  24. Robin,
    the problem with your ‘advertising agent novelist argument; is that it evades the place of literary criticism and its social importance in this discussion. We all make both aesthetic and ethical judgments of the books we read, as well as just judgments of taste. But aesthetic and ethical judgments that carry weight in the general public go beyond mere matter of taste – they require a certain training, must be argued in the language expected of such judgments, must demonstrate a knowledge of the history of literature and of contemporary literary and intellectual trends.

    There are reasons why we have been discussing Homer and not just the pornographic graffiti found on the walls of some ancient Roman ruins. The graffiti has undeniable historical interest – but nothing about it interests us as literature.

    If you like a novel by an advertising agent that you want discussed publicly among litterateurs, then either acquire the training and experience to put yourself in a position from which you can do so – or find a publication on the margins willing to publish ‘against the establishment.’

    If on the other hand you want to claim that it is ‘all just a matter of taste,’ then you have a problem – because then there is no public discussion to have concerning any literature. You will read the books you like, I will read the books I like – so what? So if we do not share any taste, then we have nothing to discuss.

    But if you and I share tastes, and we share this with others, then in public discourse, there will be those who have thought longer and more deeply, and with greater research into the issues involved, who will influence that discussion.

    All anecdotal evidence is on the same footing. But by that same token, no anecdotal evidence can negate another.

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  25. ej, wtc,

    I guess I had the opposite experience. When I was that age, I was obsessed with the World Wars and read everything I could get my hands on, about them. From there, I went to reading about politics and history in the broader spectrum, along with becoming a news junkie. The sense of civilization and life as a thin veneer over the abyss has always been strong. Thus the desire to understand how it is sustained, against everything working against it.

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  26. Thomas,

    “There is no question that some literary practitioners are driven by ethical or socio-political aims/issues, i. e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Pilgrim’s Progress”

    But that isn’t the question. The question is whether poetry arrives at moral truths. Nobody doubts that it can be a vehicle to portray them.

    “That would clearly be a mistake though, since skilled practitioners of literary art clearly don’t “only” rely on personal experience or anecdote”

    They don’t? You think poets do systematic research or engage in philosophical reflection before writing a poem? That seems unlikely to me.

    “why must literary art “immediately lend[s] itself to emotional manipulation”? It doesn’t necessarily”

    Nor did I say that it does. But it is obviously more easy to use to manipulate people than dry scientific or philosophical papers.

    “I would say that it is troubling and misguided to believe that Socrates/Plato makes a compelling case in this weak dialogue”

    I’m not suggesting the Ion is the best of the Platonic dialogues. It clearly isn’t. But I find interesting how uncharitably a number of people here have read it. Hey, fodder for good discussion, as this thread clearly demonstrates.

    ej,

    “The whole ‘divine madness’ argument (and Socrates is not talking about what we call ‘intuition’)”

    Did you read the article I linked to about that? I think that’s exactly what Socrates is talking about, though obviously he wouldn’t put it that way.

    “This is a personal grudge. I might add that if Plato/Socrates is exactly right, then my professional training in literary criticism and rhetoric should never have happened. I kinda begrudge that too.”

    That explains the uncharitable reading, though of course it doesn’t excuse it.

    “Clearly he knows his Homer – but as an artifact of poetic creation, or as history and religious text? that’s not clear.”

    That’s an interesting question, though it seems to me to be marginal to the central discussion. Even if Socrates believed that Ion is truly divinely inspired (again, in ancient Greece that was often how they made sense of what we call intuition) what Ion does still does not count as knowledge in the philosophical sense of the term.

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