Ion scholarship

 
 
Guthrie (1962)
Section 1. Although many scholars in the past have regarded it as spurious, Guthrie reports that today few doubt that it is Plato’s own work, written somewhere between Socrates’ death in 399 and 391, most probably between 394 and 391. This is followed by an explanation of the term ‘rhapsode’ and the Homeridae.

 

Section 2. The dialogue itself, written in a direct, dramatic form, is summarized. Little exception can be taken to the summary (which occupies about a third of the whole twelve or so pages), but to translate  as “Your words go straight to my heart” rather than “For somehow you touch my soul with your words” seems to sacrifice important accuracy for a stilted colloquialism. Plato does not use the word ‘soul’ carelessly or casually.

In a footnote, Guthrie remarks that “It is hardly worth pointing out all the fallacies committed by S. in this little work . . . .”

 Section 3. The longest section of Guthrie’s account of the Ion occupies six or so pages and is devoted to Comment: poetic inspiration in the Ion. According to him

[t]he amount of attention accorded to this opusculum, only a few
pages long and certainly no more than half serious, is of course
accounted for by the importance attached to anything which will
throw light on Plato’s attitude to poets and poetry. Here we have
his first words on a topic to which he returns in some of his
greatest works, and on which his apparent ambivalence has led to
a variety of theories, notably that of a Plato divided against
himself, an ‘anti-Platon chez Platon’.
It is the old disagreement between philosophy and poetry. Guthrie remarks that

[t]he first thing to strike a modern reader must be the total
incomprehension of the nature of poetry shown by Socrates
in the questions through which he tries to elicit the requirements
of a good critic. He approaches a poem as if it were a textbook
of practical instruction in some craft or mode of life, to be judged
only by an expert in the particular practice described. Aesthetic
criteria are never mentioned . . . .

Guthrie observes that although we can criticize from our own point of view, to understand Plato we must know what was expected of a poet at that time. In general, the poet’s function was primarily didactic, and up to the fifth century moral and political advice was commonly offered in metrical form. The Platonic Protagoras even says that the poets in the past had the same educational mission as the Sophists, and Guthrie quotes Havelock to the effect that poetry was not literature, not an art form, but a necessity (although Guthrie does not really take account of the conditions in an oral culture).

The poet appealed to the Muses, but not for inspiration, only as a higher authority with greater wisdom. The Muse is not in the poet as Dionysius is in the bacchants, with whom Plato compares the poet (534a). The suggestion that the poet is divinely inspired, possessed, and ‘out of his mind,’ may be original with Plato, for it cannot be found earlier than Democritus; or Plato might have borrowed the idea from Democritus. Historical probability is that the “mystical explanation of poetry on the lines of Dionysiac possession” did not appear until the fifth century.

Guthrie sees this as related to the problem of the One and the Many, and their mysterious relationship and their strange kind of identity.

To the Pre-Socratic philosophers it appeared as the relation
between the one everlasting substance of the cosmos and its
manifold and changing phenomena, whereas the Dionysiac
worshipper sought the identification of the many separated
ls with the One divine being in the experience of
enthusiasmos, the spirit of the god entering into each one.

[NOTE: Homer was not “memorized by grown men like Niceratus (Xen. Symp. 4.6)” as Guthrie asserts; Niceratus is a grown man when he reports what his father had made him do as a boy]

Plato criticizes Homer and the poets without distorting how they were currently perceived. His objections were based on the fact that the poets did not understand the technical matters on which they wrote, and they told of actions of both gods and men that were not morally edifying.

How serious was Plato in his theory? Those who argue for respect for poetic inspiration omit references to phrases like “not in his senses” and “the god having taken away their wits”; and no mention is made of Tynnichus—a story “only intended for our amusement.” Moreover, politicians are given “divine dispensation” in the Meno, which cannot be taken as a view seriously held by Plato and Socrates. The magnet metaphor includes the poet, the rhapsode, and the citizens, and in later dialogues the poet is said to be mad (see the Phaidros) and also, because of the madness, needs to be legally controlled (Laws 719c-d).

The Ion is above all a Socratic dialogue, amusing us by displaying
the bland perversity of its hero when faced with one whom he
thinks pretentious and stupid . . .
I would tentatively suggest that in the theory of divine
possession he saw a possible defence of his own susceptibility to
their charm (which he confesses at Rep. 607c), sufficient at least
to account for the extremely respectful and honorific conge
accorded to a poet in the Republic (398a).
Here we may leave this light-hearted little piece, whose
concern with poetry has probably led us to give it more serious
attention than is good for the enjoyment that Plato intended it
to afford.

The conge, or unceremonious dismissal, is (in the Lindsay translation) as follows:

Then apparently if there comes to our city a man so wise that
he can turn into everything under the sun and imitate every
conceivable object, when he offers to show off himself and his
poems to us, we shall do obeisance to him as a sacred, wonderful,
and agreeable person; but we shall say that we have no such man
in our city, and the law forbids there being one, and we shall
anoint him with myrrh, and crown him with a wreath of sacred
wool, and send him off to another city, and for ourselves we shall
 a more austere and less attractive poet and story-teller,
whose poetry will be to our profit, who will imitate for us the
diction of the good man, and in saying what he has to say will
conform to those canons which we laid down originally when
we were undertaking the task of educating the soldiers?

To summarize Guthrie’s view, the dialogue is an early Socratic dialogue (it being assumed that we know what that means—apparently a light-hearted exposure of a pretentious and pompous idiot and his opinions), in which Plato suggests the “inspiration” theory to account for the success and appeal of the poet and rhapsode. The suggestion is not really thought through, is not serious, and is only attended to because of what it has to say about poets and poetry.

Much of this may be found in other commentators and translators, both earlier and later, as will appear below.

 

Schleiermacher (1812)

Schleiermacher begins his brief introduction to the Ion as follows:
Socrates proves two things to the Athenian (sic) rhapsodist:
First, that if his business of interpretation and criticism is a
science or an art, it must not confine itself to one poet, but
extend over all, because the objects are the same in all, and
the whole art of poetry is one and indivisible. Secondly, that it
does not belong to the rhapsodist generally to judge of the poet,
but that this can only be done in reference to every particular
passage by one who is acquainted, as an artist and adept, with
what is in every instance described in these passages. Now it
will be at once manifest to every reader that it cannot have
been Plato’s ultimate object to put a rhapsodist to shame in
such a manner.

The reason is the lowly status of the rhapsodist who “enjoyed no such influence upon the morals and cultivation of the youth of higher rank.” The rhapsodist must be looked on only as “the shell,” while the true kernel of the dialogue is the art of poetry.

The real object and purpose of the dialogue is the nature of the art of poetry, but there lacks any real instruction about this, and the Phaidros (which Schleiermacher dates before the Ion) has already dealt with it; because of the obscurity and deficiency of “the execution” the only tenable theory contained in the work must be rejected.

But some parts are in the spirit of Plato, while others have weaknesses “such as we could scarcely ascribe to him in his earliest stages.” Possibly one of Plato’s pupils composed the dialogue after a hasty sketch by Plato, or it was written by Plato but remained an “imperfectly executed essay.” It cannot be determined whether the Ion is a prelude to some greater work, unexecuted, on the art of poetry, or a playful polemic based on parts of the Phaidros. Sooner could it be maintained that publication of the work was unintentional, but there is no evidence for this.

In any case, this little dialogue, betraying as it does so many
suspicious features, and devoid of any particular philosophical
tendency, could hardly lay claim to any other place but this
which we assign to it.

In a Supplement in a later edition, Schleiermacher condemns the work as not genuine:

But Bekker marks this and the following dialogues more
decisively as ungenuine, and, in so doing, has my full assent.

Thomas Taylor/Floyer Sydenham (1804)

Most of the translations are due to Taylor, and many of the notes were written by Sydenham, but Taylor edited the whole.

On the Ion, it is written:

. . . the main drift and end of this Dialogue, which is by no
means so slight and unimportant, as merely to show that
enthusiasm, or the poetic fury, is characteristic of a true poet;
but makes a part of the grand design of Plato in all his writings,
that is, the teaching of the true wisdom: in order to which,
 every kind of wisdom, falsely so called, commonly taught in
the age when he lived, was to be unlearnt. The teachers, or
leaders of popular opinion, among the Grecians of those days,
were the sophists, the rhetoricians, and the poets; or rather,
instead of these last, their ignorant and false interpreters. Men
of liberal education were misled principally by the first of these:
the second sort were the seducers of the populace, to whose
passions the force of rhetoric chiefly is applied in commonwealths:
but the minds of the people of all ranks received a bad impression
from those of the last-mentioned kind, To prevent the ill influence
of these, is the immediate design of the Io[n]; and the way which
the philosopher takes to lessen the credit of their poems is not
by calling in question the inspiration of the poet, or the divinity
of the Muse. Far from attempting this, he establishes the received
hypothesis, for the foundation of his argument against the
authority of their doctrine: inferring, from their inability to
write without the impulse of the Muse, that they had no real
knowledge of what they taught: whereas the principles of
science, as he tells us in the Philebus (16c-17d), descended
into the mind of man immediately from heaven; or, as he
expresses it in the Epinomis (976d-977b), from God himself,
without the intervention of any lower divinity.

Plato, “of all polite writers among the ancients the most polite,” is too respectful to attack the poets, those “sacred persons, the anointed of the Muses,” directly, so he does it indirectly by focusing on the rhapsodes, their interpreters.

Socrates, having derided “the personal arrogance and ignorance” of Ion, concludes with some ironical sarcasm at the expense of Ion’s countrymen, the Ephesians, who were “sunk in Asiatic luxury and effeminacy.” They valued themselves highly, first, on account of their descent from the Athenians (noted for both wisdom and valor) and, second, on their opulence and magnificent life style. The latter was, in reality, a source of shame; and they had “degenerated from their ancestors” and were “void of those virtues which raised them” to greatness.

Grote (1867)

George Grote, after his monumental History of Greece (1846), produced Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (1867) in which a chapter of fourteen pages is devoted to the Ion. He is more sympathetic than earlier (German) commentators and says outright:

I hold it [the Ion] to be genuine, and it may be comparatively
early; but I see no ground for the disparaging criticism which
has often been applied to it.

Given the two functions of the rhapsode as reciter and expositor, Socrates examines Ion in the former:

. . . . considering Homer, not as a poet appealing to the emotions
of hearers, but as a teacher administering lessons and imparting
instructions. Such was the view of Homer entertained
by a large proportion of the Hellenic world. . . .

Plato takes no account of—or declares war upon—those who arouse “chords of strong and diversified emotions”, either as childish delusions or as mischievous stimulants, which tend to overthrow the sovereign authority of reason.

The central point of the dialogue is the comparison with the Magnet. It is an expansion of a judgment found elsewhere in Plato (cf. Apology, Meno):

The contrast between systematic, professional procedure,
deliberately taught and consciously acquired, capable of being
defended at every step by appeal to intelligible rules founded
upon scientific theory, and enabling the person so qualified to
impart his qualification to others—and a different procedure
purely impulsive and unthinking, whereby the agent, having in
is mind a conception of the end aimed at, proceeds from one
intermediate step to another, without knowing why he does so
or how he has come to do so, and without being able to explain
his practice if questioned or to impart it to others—this contrast
is a favourite one with Plato. The last-mentioned procedure—the
unphilosophical or irrational–he conceives under different aspects:
sometimes as a blind routine or insensibly acquired habit,
sometimes as a stimulus applied from without by some God,
superseding the reason of the individual. Such a condition Plato
calls madness, and he considers those under it as persons out of
their senses. But he recognizes different varieties of madness,
according to the God from whom it came . . . .

Of course, privileged communications from gods to men were “acknowledged and witnessed everywhere” as a constant phenomenon of ancient Greek life. Socrates himself was guided by his daimon. But Plato, in the Ion and elsewhere, contrasts the prophet and the poet (and rhapsode) with reason and intelligence.

Ion wants to exhibit his rhapsodical powers to Socrates, but is never permitted to do so. Socrates has preliminary questions which need answering, and also requires an intelligible description of the subject. These Ion cannot provide.

If as a practitioner he executes well what he promises (which is
often the case), and attains success—he does so either by blind
imitation of some master, or else under the stimulus and guidance
of some agency foreign to himself—of the Gods or Fortune.

Jowett (1895)

Jowett, whose influence—of mixed value—on British Platonic scholarship is immense, published his translation of the complete dialogues in 1871 (followed by further editions in 1875 and 1892).

He opens his analysis of the Ion in the following way:

The Ion is the shortest, or nearly the shortest, of all the writings
which bear the name of Plato, and is not authenticated by any
external testimony. The grace and beauty of this little work
supply the only, and perhaps a sufficient proof of its genuineness.
The plan is simple, and the dramatic interest consists entirely in
the contrast between the irony of Socrates and the transparent
vanity and childlike enthusiasm of the rhapsode Ion.

There follows Jowett’s summary of the dialogue. He then goes on with his analysis:

The Ion, like the other earlier Platonic Dialogues, is a mixture
of jest and earnest, in which no definite result is obtained, but
some Socratic or Platonic truths are allowed dimly to appear.
The elements of a true theory of poetry are contained in
the notion that the poet is inspired. Genius is often said to be
unconscious, or spontaneous, or a gift of nature: that genius is
akin to madness is a popular aphorism of modern times. . . .

Jowett then alludes to the views in the Protagoras (316d et seq.) in which the poets are claimed as the original Sophists; certainly Ion belongs to the realm of imitation and of opinion and he, even more than the Sophists, is incapable of appreciating the commonest logical distinctions. His great memory contrasts with his inability to follow the steps of an argument.

The old quarrel between philosophy and poetry, which in the
Republic leads to their final separation is already working in the
mind of Plato, and is embodied by him in the contrast between
Socrates and Ion. Yet, as in the Republic, Socrates shows a sort
of sympathy with the poetic nature. . . .

Jowett concludes by suggesting that the unknown Ion must have belonged to the allegorical school of interpreters, since he claims to have surpassed two others considered to be of that school, Metrodorus of Lampsakus and Stesimbrotos of Thasos.

William Chase Greene (1918)

In 1918, the Harvard Studies in Classical Philology published a translation of W.C. Greene’s doctoral dissertation “Plato’s View of Poetry”; originally written in Latin with the title Quid de poetis Plato censuerit, it occupied some seventy-five pages and took into account the whole Platonic corpus. Some specific sections were devoted to the Ion and are here summarized.

In a preliminary survey, Greene asks:

When one remembers how far divergent are the views of the most
eminent scholars on this point [Plato’s view of poetry], it seems
pertinent to ask why such differences of opinion with regard to
the same author are possible.

He finds the answer in the fact that commentators have often concentrated on one dialogue (the Republic or Phaidros, for example) to the exclusion of others. All of the Platonic writings must be considered, and many remarks about poetry and inspiration and imitation are no more intended to be regarded as Plato’s ultimate views than are the ironical and dialectic obiter dicta and excursus of his logical discussions.

The origins of the good life and a stable political order are to be found in religion and poetry, rather than in science or history:

Both the Eleusinian mysteries and the Orphic religion
encouraged adherents to believe that through initiation and
their presence at certain rites they could win blessedness.
Yet the act of initiation or of participating in rites was not
an intellectual act; according to the testimony of Aristotle,
“the initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain
emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind.”

Greene quotes extensive passages from the Ion

. . . because they exhibit the traditional view of poetic inspiration
which Plato was coming to weigh. Some suppose that Plato is
here seriously upholding this view; others contend that the
dialogue was written expressly to ridicule and discard it.
Neither interpretation, I think, is right. Plato is here weighing
the common Greek notion that attributes the inspiration of
the poet to an external influence. Just as the Greeks tended
to find a myth in order to account for whatever they happened
to believe, and to find ancestors for everything, in the same
way, recognizing that poetry is obviously a different thing
from a man’s ordinary expression, they assumed that some
one else must have suggested it to him—a Muse or a god. So
the poet was not his normal self; he was , or the
victim of . Plato does not in the Ion discard
this notion.

Plato, like the Socrates of Xenophon, knew it was futile to appeal to inspiration for the specialized knowledge of ordinary activities, like medicine and charioteering. He distinguished between those things that can be learned and those that are not a matter of 

That is a distinction that Plato himself almost always preserved,
though he enormously increased the province of human
understanding. And the irony that undoubtedly exists in the
Ion is not that Socrates is supposed to deny the bewildered Ion
all knowledge, but that Ion does not realize the meaning of
knowledge. Plato at all periods of his life attributes inspiration
to the poets in utter seriousness, as giving forth wisdom in a
way that can not be reduced to a What kind
of wisdom  this is, Plato had yet to consider.

Plato, at this time, had not made public (even if he had formulated) the doctrine of ideas, and so the inspiration of the poet is contrasted, not with knowledge from science and dialectic, but with the practical knowledge of everyday life.

If we had to recast the conclusion of the Ion in modern language,
it would be something like this: The poet’s work is not produced
in the same rational way that other things are produced; it is the
result of his having a peculiar power, greater at some times than
at others, of giving utterance to thoughts that are in some way
more precious than those of ordinary life. Naturally Plato does
not imply that all who pretend to be poets are thus inspired, even
though otherwise bad poets may have occasional flashes of
inspiration.

The Phaedrus gives an expanded account:

If Plato’s main subject in this dialogue had been the conditions
of a philosophical poetry, we should undoubtedly have more
indications of the methods by which the vision of truth was to
be realized in poetry; as it is, the notable thing is that Plato
cared at all to pause in his argument to give us the clues by
which we are enabled to relate his view of the aesthetic experience
as a whole, by means of the theory of ideas, to his view of poetry.
Perhaps, then, it is not too much to say that Plato in this manner
answers the question that he raised in the Ion about poetic
inspiration; he does not, indeed, do away with the conception
and the language of inspiration, but he replaces it in his mind
by the conception of the state of enthusiasm that the vision of
beauty produces in its lover. In a word, then, inspiration by a
god gives place to inspiration by the vision of ideas.

In the Laws, Plato admits comedy and tragedy into the city, but with certain severe restrictions. Comedy is allowed to use ridicule as long as it is mere pleasantry, and not vindictive; tragedy must submit to censorship. In the Republic Plato is working from sense to thought, from particular to universal, and, finding actual poets an obstruction, he resorts to the poetical expedient of banishing them.

In the Laws, Plato is speaking as a poet, but as a poet who
has achieved a greater degree of truth and hence a greater
seriousness of purpose than other poets. When he undertakes
to step back into the world of sense, he welcomes the cooperation
of these other poets, so far as their aims can be made to fall in
with his own . . . Plato is himself definitely announcing his own
belief in an austere and chastened poetry as a vehicle for the
realization of his ideals. The poetic faculty is still irresponsible;
yet the inspiration of the poet is to be enlisted in the discovery
of the best hymns. Thus the legislator (i.e. the philosopher)
does not surrender the right which he claimed in the Republic,
of laying down the forms to which the poets are to submit, but
he is more friendly to the poets than he was in the Republic,
since he is now dealing with a possible commonwealth more
like ordinary Greek states.

The latter part of this summary goes far beyond the Ion; in order to do justice to Greene’s views, it seemed useful to provide a sketch of the overall context in which he examined the dialogue.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1920)
 

 

The relevant major work of Wilamowitz is his Platon (Berlin, 1920). He had published some views on the Ion earlier in the century, but this seems to be his general view.

Originally, Wilamowitz had been strongly influenced by the opinions of Goethe, seeing the dialogue as essentially a satire, with Ion himself characterized as “incredibly stupid.” For a long time he rejected the work as Plato’s, but eventually conceded that Plato did, in fact, write it, but it was “youthful” with all the arrogance of a young writer; indeed, Wilamowitz asserted that it was Plato’s first work. He also thought that it had been written before the death of Socrates, but was really unworthy of Plato, it being incoherent and with a very limited purpose, namely, to make explicit the silly senselessness of the rhapsode’s so-called ‘art.’

Because of the agreement with the Apology, Wilamowitz supposes that Plato took over from Socrates his opposition to the excessive claims of the poets.

His interpretation is limited to the negative point that, according to Plato, poets have no knowledge (although, according to Wilamowitz, Plato admitted and recognized some good, for example, in the Phaidros). Plato was making fun of the rhapsodes in a kind of Aristophanic farce, and was making even more fun of the poets. Thepraise of poetical inspiration is not to be taken seriously, for it is certainly ironic, we are told.

Taylor (1926)

In his Plato: the Man and his Work A.E. Taylor classifies the Ion as a “Minor Socratic Dialogue.”

Little need be said about this slight dialogue on the nature
of “poetic inspiration.” The main ideas suggested are
expounded much more fully in those important Platonic
works with which we shall have to deal later.

Taylor insists that “inspiration” is foreign to the way of thinking of poetry in the fifth century B.C. Poets were thought of as craftsmen, as , along with doctors, engineers and the like. They were not endowed with “native genius.”

[The poet] was conceived as consciously producing a
beautiful result by the deft fitting together of words and
musical sounds, exactly as the architect does the same
thing by the deft putting together of stones. Of all the
great Greek poets Pindar is the only one who pointedly
insists on the superiority of , “native genius,” to the
craftsmanship () which can be taught and learned; . . .
On the face of it, the Ion is concerned with the question whether
rhapsodes and actors owe their success to some expert or
professional knowledge, or to “genius” or non-rational “inspiration.”
But it is clear that the real points intended to be made
are that the poet himself is not an “expert” in any kind of
knowledge and, as poet, has not necessarily anything to teach us.

These points are made more emphatically and impressively in other Platonic dialogues.

Lamb (1925)

The text and translation of the Ion in the Loeb Classical Library were provided by W.R.M. Lamb, who also furnished a three page introduction.

This graceful little piece is remarkable not only for the evidence
it affords of the popularity and procedure of Homeric recitals in
the fifth and fourth centuries, or again, for its brilliant witness
to Plato’s skill in characterization, but also for its insistence—
implied rather than expressed—on the doctrine that no art,
however warmly accepted and encouraged by the multitude,
can be of real worth unless it is based on some systematic
knowledge; and that the common claim of successful artists to
be useful servants of the public is probably a dangerous delusion.

In addition to recitals at great festivals, the rhapsodes gave lectures on the subject-matter of the poems, and in doing this they resembled the sophists.

It is this educative work of the rhapsode which interests Plato.

He is bent on criticizing the whole system—or rather, the

unsystematic tradition—of Greek education; and he seeks to

show that the rhapsode’s pretensions to any particular knowledge

of human affairs are absurd,, and further, that even his great

success in impassioned recitation is a matter not of studied art,

but of divine “possession”—something divorced from reason,

and a possible danger to the truth.

And yet, according to Lamb, Socrates’ tone towards Ion throughout is friendly and restrained:

Plato was ever aware of the mighty influence of the poets upon

himself as well as upon the mass of his countrymen, and there is

regret no less than respect in his voice when he bids them depart

from his ideal state (Rep.iii.398).

Meridier (1931)

In the first part of the fifth volume of the Guillaume Bude series, Platon: Oeuvres Completes, Louis Meridier provides texts and translations of the Ion, the Menexenus, and the Euthydemus, together with commentaries.

Meridier begins his commentary on the Ion with a discussion of the meaning of the word ‘rhapsode’ and a description of the rhapsode’s activities. He also points out that Plato often uses the two words andrhapsode and actor [or expounder], side by side. Ion merely mentions his essential function, the declamation of Homer, and concentrates on his commentary, on his “embellishment” of Homer. But he does not state on what occasions he reports these “improvements.” Is it at the recitations of Homer? Or at the festivals, in meetings of the rhapsodes? The word that is usedshows that it is in private conversations, not public ones, among a circle of admirers, in the same manner as the Sophists.

These commentaries of Ion are, presumably, allegorical interpretations, since he compares himself to well-known allegorists such as Metrodous and Stesimbrotos.

Meridier reports (but denies) the view of Dummler and Stahlin that behind the figure of Ion there lurks that of Antisthenes who, it is known, favored the poets for their interpretation of divine wisdom; he particularly admired Homer. In short, the Ion marks, so we are told, a phase in Plato’s polemic against Antisthenes. But at no point in the Ion is it a question of allegorical interpretation. In translation from the French original,

When one examines the dialogue closely, the solution of

the problem is discernible. In appearance, the purpose of the

debate is to know whether the commentaries of the rhapsodes

are directed by an art, . Socrates’ argument has the

effect of proving that Ion, the commentator on Homer, is

not in possession of an art, whatever he himself may think

about it.

The critique of the rhapsodes also falls on the poets they interpret, and the conclusions of Socrates apply equally to them. This is confirmed, according to Meridier, by what is the chief portion of the work, where Socrates replaces dialogue with two long speeches. The change of procedure, the didactic exposition, the solemnity with which the first speech is introduced, the sudden elevation of tone, all show that here is the true thought of the author and the key to his purpose. It is the magnetic chain, the inspiration, which animates the rhapsode.

The possession of a set of rules () based on scientific knowledge () is denied the poets. Plato allows them a divine gift (), a kind of enthusiasm, in which they are out of their minds, losing the rational faculty.

This reflects the passage in the Apology in which Socrates questions those who seem or claim to have some knowledge, the politicians, the poets, and the artisans.

Even if Plato must be taken seriously when he attributes divine inspiration to the poets, it is not clear that it would be mistaken to see it as anything other than a concession to politeness, at bottom irony, in its application to the rhapsode. Philosophy does not wish to speak directly to the poets, so Plato uses a simple rhapsode as a subterfuge, the rhapsodes being generally held in low esteem by the intellectual elite.

The dialogue is not incoherent. The two demonstrations of Socrates are inseparable; in the first part, if Ion has an art, then he can speak equally well of both Homer and Hesiod. The second argument shows that each particular art has its own proper competence, not shared by the rhapsode. By both arguments, Plato comes to the same conclusion: Ion does not have an art. The dialogue really deals with the nature of poetry.

G.M.A. Grube (1935)

In Plato’s Thought, Professor Grube devotes a whole chapter to Art and he makes some remarks about the Ion. He is more interested in the Republic and the Phaidros, as might be expected, but he offers some relevant comments.

Quoting the Apology,

that the works of the poets are not the product of wisdom, but

of a natural gift, and that they are inspired like prophets and

oracles,

Grube states that

the Ion, a short dialogue in the usual Socratic vein, is a fuller
statement of the same theme. . . .Ion is made to insist (535c) upon
the violence of his emotions when he recites, and upon his success
in communicating these emotions to his audience, We have here a
fundamental belief of Plato’s, and one which lies at the very root
of his attitude to art, namely that successful art depends upon a
stream of emotion which flows from poet to actor, and from actor
to audience.

The conclusion is

not only the inspiration of the poet, but the beauty of the work
he produces, is freely admitted in the Ion, and there is here no
quarrel between philosophy and poetry, so long as poetry does
not, like the poets in the Apology, lay any claim to knowledge.
In short it is the business of the poet, as Socrates tells us in the
Phaedo (61b) to tell stories () and not to give, qua poet
at least, a logical account of things ().

Lane Cooper, in his 1938 introduction to the Ion, notes that “the cadence of this dialogue” is different from the other dialogues he presents (Phaidros, Gorgias, Symposium, parts of the Republic and Laws); but the substance of the work seems Platonic.

He relates the Ion, first, to the Apology, and then to the Phaidros and the

Gorgias.

The connection with the Apology is found in Socrates’ examination of the politicians, the poets, and the artisans; specifically, the poets are moved to write “not by wisdom, but by genius and inspiration,” and they can give no account of what they write. Young men were led to imitate Socrates and could lead to the writing of ‘Socratic conversations’ like the Ion. In this case “the victim is a rhapsode, a combination of reciter with professor, so to speak, of ‘literature’.”

The Phaidros is similar in that it has a bearing on the study of literature, but is dissimilar in that Phaidros, unlike Ion, is permitted to recite his speech. The Gorgias is similar in that it insists on the question “What is the art of rhetoric?” (substituting rhetorician for rhapsode).

The Ion, in comparison with the Phaidros, makes light of inspiration and

. . . [t]he telling figure of the lodestone and the objects pendent
under it is yet less memorable than the allegory of the Charioteer
and his horses [in the Phaidros] . . .
The Phaidros “maintains a solid truth regarding eloquence”
True eloquence in poetry and prose arises from the union of
enthusiasm with superior knowledge, of emotion, properly
controlled, with reason, of nature, a divine nature, with art.

Cooper ends by approving “the spirited translation” of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

 which would enable him to recite and interpret Homer, but
that he is ‘possesed’ by the poet, and, indirectly, by the Muse.
Ion is therefore no expert but a divine and inspired man, like
the poet he praises. This is the thesis which the rhapsode is
forced to accept.

But is this the real theme? The heavy irony of the conclusion makes it difficult to believe that Plato seriously wants us to regard Ion as a “divine praiser of Homer.” But Ion states that he himself is well aware of the audience’s reaction—a degree of self-consciousness surely incompatible with possession.

This irony is directed either against Ion, individually, or against the group represented by Ion, namely the whole class of rhapsodes. It has been erroneously held that Socrates is attacking the ‘sophistic rhapsodes,’ a group for whom no evidence exists.

But if the real subject of the dialogue is neither Ion himself,
nor his art, nor the sophistic interpretation of poetry, it seems
that we will have to embrace the opinion of the great majority
of interpreters, from Classical Antiquity onwards, viz. that
what Plato really discussed in the Ion is poetry and the poets,
more exactly the nature of poetical inspiration.

This is confirmed by the fact that Plato’s long speech deals with this.

But poets are not mad and so Socrates words cannot be taken literally. Either they are a hyperbolic praise of poetry’s divinity, or they are an ironical disparagement of such claims. Interpreters disagree.

For reasons that are stated, Tigerstedt thinks that “the scales are heavily tilted in favour of the ‘ironical’ interpretation,” but irony leaves us “baffled and perplexed.” The more perfect the irony, the more uncertain we feel.

In the Ion, poetical inspiration is contrasted to  and  or toalone. In the Apology the opposite is , possessed by the artians.

There is a remarkable uniformity in Plato’s statements about the nature of poetical inspiration. With very minor differences, the poet is described as being in a state of total passivity, he does not know what he is doing; he is a holy madman. The one real difference in the Ion is that not only the poet, but also his reciters, interpreters, and his audience are also divinely inspired. This is not found elsewhere in the dialogues. Some have argued that Plato’s view is merely the traditional view (see Laws 719C), but there is no evidence to support this (possibly with the dubious exception of Democritus).

Plato never gives any explanation of the incompatibility of his praise for the poets’ divine inspiration and his harsh criticism of them. With one exception (Laws 719c), Plato never expresses both opinions in the same work.

What then, . . . does Plato really think of poetical inspiration?
I am afraid that this is a question which does not admit of an
unequivocal answer.

But the identification of poetical inspiration with religious possession is the vital point of Plato’s doctrine, for . . . in this way he succeeds in making the poet at once honored and harmless.

In 1976, the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch devoted her Romanes lectures to the question “why Plato banished the artists,” published as The Fire and the Sun the following year. The brief book of only 89 pages provides a very useful conspectus of Plato’s thought, with references to many of the dialogues, but especially to the Republic and Plato’s view on poets and poetry. Murdoch sees the Ion as a precursor:

Some of the views developed in the Republic are given a

trial run in the Ion, a dialogue regarded by scholars as very

early; the earliest, according to Wilamowitz. Socrates questions

Ion, a rhapsode (poetry-reciter), who specializes in Homer.

Socrates wonders whether Ion’s devotion to Homer is based

upon skilled knowledge (techne) or whether it is merely intuitive

or, as Socrates politely puts it, divinely inspired. Ion lays claim

to knowledge, but is dismayed when Socrates asks him what

Homeric matters he is expert on. What, for instance, does he

know of medicine, or sailing or weaving or chariot-racing, all

of which Homer describes? Ion is forced to admit that here

doctors, sailors, weavers, and charioteers are the best judges

of Homer’s adequacy. Is there then any Homeric subject on

which Ion is really an expert? With unspeakable charm Ion at

last says, yes, generalship, though he has not actually tried it

of course: a conclusion which Socrates does not pursue

beyond the length of a little sarcasm. Ion, though lightly

handled by Socrates, is presented as both naïve and something

of a cynic, or sophist. He may not know much about chariots

but he does know how to make an audience weep, and when

he does so he laughs to himself as he thinks of his fee. Socrates

finally consoles Ion by allowing that it must then be by divine

inspiration () that he discerns the merits of the great

poet. Plato does not suggest in detail that Homer himself ‘does

not know what he is talking about’, although he speaks in

general terms of the poet as ‘nimble, winged, and holy’, and

unable to write unless he is out of his senses. He confines his

attack here to the secondary artist, the actor-critic; and in fact

nowhere alleges that Homer made specific mistakes about

chariots (and so on).In the Ion Homer is treated with reverence

and described in a fine image as a great magnet which conveys

magnetic properties to what it touches. Through this virtue the

silly Ion is able to magnetize his clients. The question is raised,

however, of whether or how artists and their critics need to

possess genuine expert knowledge: and it is indeed fair to ask

a critic, with what sort of expertise does he judge a poet to be

great? Ion, looking for something to be expert on, might more

fruitfully have answered: a general knowledge of human life,

together of course with a technical knowledge of poetry. But

Plato does not allow him to pursue this reasonable line. The

humane judgement of the experienced literary man is excluded

from consideration by Socrates’ sharp distinction between

technical knowledge and ‘divine intuition’. The genius of the

poet is left unanalyzed under the heading of madness, and the

ambiguous equation ‘insanity—senseless intuition—divine

insight’ is left unresolved. It is significant that these questions,

this distinction and equation, and the portrait of the artist as a

sophist, make their appearance so early in Plato’s work. Shelley

translated this elegant and amusing dialogue. He did not mind its implications.

Murdoch wants to re-instate the poets (partly by extending the term ‘poets’ into the larger ‘artists’), but also seems to want to respect Plato’s opinions on the matter. The last dozen or so pages of The Fire and the Sun attempt valiantly to reconcile the two, but not successfully. The Ion gets little or no further attention, although it is with “airy ridicule” that Socrates says that “the artist” has no insight into his own activity.

However, the objection of Plato to “art” is identified by Murdoch as fundamentally religious: “Art is dangerous chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

Woodruff (1983)

In 1983, Paul Woodruff published a translation of the Ion, with an Introduction and footnotes. He holds that

The Ion is one of Plato’s riddles . . . the dialogue is a major
source for Plato’s views on poetry and the arts. It is also a
striking example of his comic technique.

Pride “in his authoritative knowledge . . . . is what makes Ion a fit target for Socrates.”

Like all of Socrates’ targets, Ion is proud; and though he is
no doubt good at his own trade, he is not able to make the
sorts of distinctions he would need to extricate himself from
Socrates’ traps.

The main point of interest in the dialogue is its discussion of inspiration.

After a paragraph on knowledge (Techne), Woodruff devotes more than two pages to inspiration. He claims that when Plato calls the inspiration of poets “an old story” it is not true.

What Plato says on inspiration is quite startlingly new: that
when poets compose poetry they are literally out of their
minds, that they are merely instruments through which the
gods speak.

But Plato’s account of inspiration is literally false, as he himself knows, for he does not accept the poets’ songs as true as oracles.

People in ecstatic conditions are known to dance and shriek
and to speak in tongues, but from a person in such a condition
we do not expect articulate speech to emerge, much less poetry.

There is no simple answer as to why Plato has Socrates speak so forcefully on behalf of an unbelievable theory of inspiration. Perhaps he wanted to make the theory believable, glorifying the poets (as Renaissance thinkers later held); perhaps he was just making a nasty joke about poetry (as Goethe held); or perhaps it is part of a broader critique of poetry, which either dismissed the poets as unknowing or set an agenda for philosophers so that they could do for poets what prophets did for the Pythia—namely, interpret.

Woodruff states his opinion that “Plato’s target in the Ion was poetry in general and Homer specifically, as in the Republic.”

The dialogue works through the medium of a rhapsode to
bring Socrates face to face with the poet he most admired,
his great antagonist, Homer.

Saunders (1987)

Trevor Saunders prefaces his 1987 translation of the Ion (in Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues) with an eight-page introduction.

The Ion of Plato is among the shortest of his dialogues; but
it has provoked controversy out of all proportion to its length.
It is light and amusing, with vivid characterization, a clearly
defined structure and a limited theme. Yet it is not easy to
interpret, and its wider implications are baffling. The question
it poses is: Do poets know what they are talking about? Socrates,
clearly, thinks the answer is ‘no’; indeed, he believes that poets
are ignorant fellows who can write poetry only when in a state
of madness. . . .

Saunders asserts that, for Socrates, morality is a skill, acquired by dialectic, and if that skill could be discovered, it would lead to far different conduct from that described by the poets. He admits that his attempt to draw out the Platonic implications of “the single and limited point made by Socrates in the Ion,” may be quite anachronistic:

In form, the Ion is an attack on rhapsodes, not on poets. If
criticism of poets is present, it is by virtue of the strong
implication of the image of the magnet: that mutatis mutandis
poets are to be given the same satirically unfavourable
assessments as rhapsodes, and for fundamentally the same
reasons. Nor does Socrates say anything about poets (or
rhapsodes) as moral teachers: he says nothing about forms; it is
not even quite clear that he intends to go beyond the ostensible
tone of light amusement, and to condemn poetry (and perhaps
the products of the other arts) as quite valueless; for all he
claims about poets is that they are not skilled but possessed
by a god, which not everyone would interpret as a criticism.

But the Ion has a “disconcertingly casual air” as if it were nothing more than a preliminary skirmish in the “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.” Saunders thinks that the dialogue reads like a somewhat arrogant work of Plato’s youth when

Intoxicated by the prospect of discovering an exact science
of morals he briefly dismissed poetry by attacking it at what
he thought was its weakest point, its lack of techne, and
supposed he had thereby demolished its claim to serious
attention. His argument has a touch of crudity, and few
readers will think that he does justice either to poetry or
to philosophy.

Allan Bloom (1987)

In 1987 there appeared a book, edited by Thomas L. Pangle, with the title The Roots of Political Philosophy, and sub-titled “Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues.” The last of these supposedly unremembered dialogues—all brief—is the Ion. It is translated by Allan Bloom who also provides a twenty-five page essay An Interpretation of Plato’s Ion, originally published in 1970.

The essay begins with a somewhat strained and tendentious summary of the dialogue, in which Ion is identified as “the most conventional agent of what is most conventional.” According to Bloom, Ion seems to have no need to see whether the thoughts of poets other than Homer might, in any way, be useful. Furthermore, he transmits the Homeric view and thus represents tradition. There are, of course, other traditions, but Ion cannot say why the Homeric one should be preferred.

The masters of the various arts, , know the different subjects of the poets’ works, such as divining or charioteering, but what is it that Homer speaks about? The answer is everything, whether human or divine:

Homer represents the authoritative view of the whole according
to which Greeks guide themselves: he is the primary source
of knowledge or error about the most important things.
Every group has a framework for the experience of its
members, who are educated in it from birth. This authoritative
view constitutes the deepest unity of the group. It claims to be
the true view.

Socrates, then, is testing the Greek understanding of things,
particularly of the gods. At least symbolically, he shows
the beginning point of philosophic questioning . . . In the
Ion, Socrates confronts authority, the authority for the
most decisive opinions. He does so with great delicacy, never
stating the issue directly, for he knows that the community
protects its sacred beliefs fanatically.

(Eventually, his caution here was insufficient to save him from hemlock.) Socrates adopts a moderate position: he is open to the whole, but knows that he does not know the answers even if he knows the questions.

In the Ion, he applies the standard of knowledge drawn
from the arts to the themes treated by poetry, thus showing
wherein poetry and the tradition fail and what stands in the
way of such knowledge.

But if Homer is better than the other poets, necessarily the others are worse. Who can judge between them?

The difficulty of responding to this question reveals the
problem of the dialogue. The premise of the discussion
with Ion is that the rhapsode is the competent judge of the
poets’ speeches, but rhapsodes are not even aware of the
questions, let alone the answers. The very existence of the
rhapsodes—these shallow replacements for knowers of the
art of the whole—serves to initiate us into a new dimension
of the quest for knowledge of the highest things. In investigating
Ion, Socrates studies a kind of popular substitute for philosophy.
When we reflect on who judges whether Ion speaks well or
badly, we recognize that it is not an expert but the people at
large. The issue has to do with the relation of knowledge and
public opinion in civil society.

Ion is not an expert as are other experts. He can speak only of Homer. Why is this? Ion asks and wants to hear one of “you wise men.” But Socrates refuses to be treated like a performer, a Sophist, but will speak only the truth, as befits a private man.

The opposition between what is here called wisdom and public
men, on the one hand, and truth and private man, on the other,
hints at the human situation which forces Ion to be ignorant
without being aware of it and points to the precondition of the
pursuit of truth. In order to satisfy their public, the public men
must pretend to wisdom, whereas only the private man, who
appears to belong to a lower order of being, is free to doubt
and free of the burden of public opinion. The private life seems
to be essential to the philosophic state of mind.

In speaking of poetry in terms of its subject matter (and not of its medium) Socrates abstracts from the poetic in poetry, from what constitutes its characteristic charm. In doing so, Socrates seems to forget the beautiful in poetry, but he is well aware of the uniqueness of poetry and he examines the role poetry plays in establishing the false but authoritative opinions of the community.

The need for poetry is one of the most revealing facts about
the human soul, and that need and its effect on the citizens
constitute a particular problem for Socrates’ quest. Ion’s
total confusion about the difference between speaking finely
and speaking well, between the charming and the true, is
exemplary of the issue Socrates undertakes to clarify.

Bloom discusses the central part of the dialogue, but here it should only be noted that the Ion is a representation of the emergence of philosophy out of the world of myth. It is not only ignorance that prevents the discovery of nature: man’s most powerful passion sides with poetry and is at war with his love of wisdom.

The way of the knower is unacceptable for the life of men
and cities. They must see a world governed by providence
and the gods, a world in which art and science are inexplicable,
a world which confuses general and particular, nature and
chance. This is the world of poetry to which man clings so
intensely, for it consoles and flatters him. As long as human
wishes for the significance of particular existences dominate,
it remains impossible to discover nature, the intelligible and
permanent order, for nature cannot satisfy those wishes. Ion
cannot imagine an art of the whole because, as rhapsode, he
most of all serves the longing for individual immortality, and
he used his poetry to that end.

Ion makes a living from speech but does not really respect or understand it. He admires the deeds of the Homeric heroes and the speeches he recites glorify those deeds, but he himself is not a hero; he has no deeds of his own. Since speech follows on deed, the life of action is the best kind of life. But this means that there is no theoretical life, and yet without a theoretical life speech is nothing more than a means. Ion sings the songs of Homer, not for their own sake, but for money.

Only in a world in which thought could be understood to be highest, in which there are universals—which means essentially intelligible beings—can there be significant general speech. Without such universals, only particulars exist.

Allen (1996)

In 1996, R.E. Allen published the third volume in his series of translations of the Platonic dialogues, and it includes his version of the Ion with an accompanying Comment. First, he connects the inquiries of Socrates reported in the Apology, specifically with the poets, to the Ion. Although the poets had a reputation for being wise, they were not: almost anyone present could give a better account than they of what they themselves had produced. Ion is a rhapsode, not a poet, and believes that the most important part of his work is not declaiming Homer but interpreting the thought of Homer. Ion believes himself to be a teacher, and the possessor of an art or techne.

Ion claims to possess the art of the rhapsode, but he and his art are limited to Homer. But since he cannot speak skillfully of other poets, he cannot have an art. But how can he speak so beautifully about Homer? The answer is given by the striking metaphor of the magnet, the Heraclean stone. Homer invokes the Muse in the Iliad, and asks her to teach him in the Odyssey; Hesiod knows that the Muse could speak the truth (and also what was not true); and Parmenides tells how the goddess revealed to him his vision, writing in the Homeric hexameter of an odyssey of the intellect.

Rhapsodes speak not by art but by divine apportionment, as do politicians (in the Meno). Nowhere in the Ion is it supposed that poetry has any intrinsic or autonomous value. Homer was the greatest poet because he was the greatest teacher, and was studied as a guide to conduct. Generally, the arts have a subject-matter. But what is the subject-matter of Homer? And of the rhapsode?

The Ion does not present a theory of poetry, or of rhapsody,
and to describe rhapsode or poetry as a matter of divine
apportionment without intelligence is not to praise it but
to dismiss it. The Socratic heritage, distinguished by its
respect for arguments, the ability to render an account,
is also distinguished by its recognition of the power of
the irrational forces which move the human soul.

Ion is divine, because if he were human he would be a wrong-doer.

Murray (1996)

In her book Plato on Poetry, Penelope Murray gives the complete text (but no translation) of the Ion and of two crucial passages from the Republic (376e–398b9 and 595–608b10).These are accompanied by a commentary and preceded by an introduction.

The Ion, Plato’s shortest work, probably belongs to his early period. But Ion himself is so stupid that he is not worth attacking: the target of the dialogue must be something other than this proverbially silly rhapsode.

Noting that no commentary on the Ion has appeared in English since “the early years of the century,” Murray states her aim as twofold. First, to provide a modern commentary and, second, to explore “the ambivalence of Plato’s pronouncements on poetry through the analysis of his own skill as a writer.”

Murray shares with Murdoch (and others) the general view that in the ancient world art could not be separated from morality, quoting Tolstoy to that effect:

. . .the ancients had not that conception of beauty separated

        from goodness which forms the basis and aim of aesthetics

in our time.

Plato’s views on art are not contained in a single treatise but are scattered about in “a collection of texts in which various attitudes, images and myths about poetry are expressed.” Accordingly, Murray concentrates on “two great themes” which dominate Plato’s treatment of poetry: the idea of poetry as mimesis, and the concept of poetic inspiration.

The term mimesis is used in a highly flexible manner by Plato and is used

. . . not only of the arts of poetry, painting, music and dance,

but also, for example, of the relationship between language

and reality, and of that between the material world and its

eternal paradigm; even the life of the philosopher is said to

‘imitate’ the forms.

[It should be noted that mimesis and its cognates do not appear in the Ion, a fact not noted by Murray, presumably because she is not interested in distinguishing that dialogue from the Republic, her main source for mimesis.]

Plato appears to be caught between two views. One is that mimesis is beneficial provided that its object is suitable; the other is that “there is something potentially harmful” about mimesis in itself. He sometimes thinks that mimesis is potentially beneficial and at other times that it is “trivial play.” Murray asserts that the products of mimesis can be evaluated in two different ways: one, in terms of the objects imitated, the other in terms of the quality of the imitation, and she attributes Plato’s ambivalence partially to this. But she forgets that an imitation of an evil man would never be approved by Plato, no matter how excellent. It is not, as she says, that poetry is incapable of producing a true likeness of goodness (because the poets do not know what goodness is), but, more radically, that it cannot produce a true likeness of anything, being third from reality. (This ignores the fact that the term “true likeness” is a contradiction.)

Plato, in the Ion, finds the source of poetry in divine inspiration, but he means something new by this, something different from the many previous allusions, by the poets themselves, to ‘poetic inspiration.’ They had meant that, while the poet is dependent on the Muse, he is never the unconscious instrument of the gods; there is a cooperation between the god’s gift and the poet’s skill, which implies the existence of some craft or techne. The poet’s activity is not totally irrational. But Plato insists that the god takes away the poet’s senses.

But Plato transforms the traditional notion of poetic inspiration

by emphasizing the passivity of the poet and the irrational nature

of the poetic process. He differs most significantly from his

predecessors in maintaining that inspiration is incompatible

with techne. . . . He denies poets techne not because he regards

them as shoddy craftsmen, but because they have no knowledge

of what they say.

Plato consistently attacks the poet’s lack of knowledge, whether the attack is veiled in the ambiguous language of praise, as in the Ion and Phaidros, or is more explicitly hostile as in the Republic.

Murray then turns to the topic of Plato as poet.

. . . he was clearly drawn towards poetry like no other

philosopher before or since. There are references to, and

discussions of, poetry in dialogues from all periods of his

life, and his work itself displays distinctly poetic qualities.

That the most poetic of philosophers banished poets from his ideal state and condemned mimesis while using mimetic techniques of poetry in his own work is an often noted paradox. Would the Platonic dialogues be banned? Murray resolves this by saying

But although the dialogues are poetic they are not poetry,

and it is poetry which is (Plato’s) real target.

Murray thinks that Plato is “so afraid of poetry that he has to abolish it altogether.” But it is hard to see why disapproval should be equated with fear; her formulation tends to make a psychological matter out of what is a moral, educational matter. Murray points out (following Havelock and others) that the values of society were transmitted through the medium of poetry, so that poetry was studied not for its aesthetic qualities but for its ethical content. The educative function of poetry was taken for granted. The Sophists were known as declaimers and expositors of poetry, and Protagoras made the claim that the most important part of a man’s education was

cleverness about words (). This means

being able to understand what poets say, both the good

things and the bad, to know how to distinguish them, and

to give one’s reasons when asked.

Plato’s purpose, according to Murray, is none other

than to reform society by expelling the cause of its corruption:

Homer and his fellow poets.

Plato’s attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past.

Greece in many ways continued to be an oral society:

historians, for example, regularly recited their works in

public, and Greek social and political life was dominated

by oratory, a performance art if ever there was one. But

after the fifth century, despite the enormous popularity

of drama, the performance of poetry was no longer at the

center of Greek culture as it had been in earlier times.

The important question that the Ion raises is what the critic and rhapsode (and by implication the poet) knows. By what means does Ion judge the merits of Homer’s poetry?

Murray refers, in fine, to Shelley who claimed, like Sir Philip Sidney before him, that the true basis for a defense of poetry was to be found in Plato’s Ion.

Murray suggests that the ‘ancient quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy, is not as old as Plato himself would like to think.

********

These admittedly abbreviated accounts of critical views of the Ion support the assertion that much of the scholarly discussion of the dialogue stems from the earliest views of Schleiermacher and Goethe. It cannot be said that the questions raised and their answers (if any) carry any sense of lofty thought or intellectual excitement.

Did Plato write the Ion? If so, when? If not, who did write it? If by Plato, it is, supposedly, a short early ‘Socratic’ dialogue, in which no definite result is achieved.

The topics alluded to in these critical accounts, whether in questions or in statements, are superficial and somewhat banal, being treated in most cases in isolation. The major exceptions to this are Friedlander and Bloom’s essay, which does attempt to provide a philosophical framework within which to understand the dialogue. But he is almost alone. Others read the dialogue superficially and report their superficial understanding; or, more charitably, the dialogue is superficial so that any analysis must be equally superficial. There are no philosophical ideas in it, and we should accept it as a light-hearted piece, bordering on comedy. Is it really without any ‘philosophical tendency’?

If the Ion did not concern itself with the general theme of poetry (a matter of some importance in Platonic thought) it would probably be ignored. As it is, we are variously told, the dialogue tells us Plato’s attitude towards poets and poetry or, alternatively, that whatever is said cannot be taken as Plato’s ultimate views. Nor is there any agreement about whether Plato is attacking or merely speaking about rhapsodes, commentators, poets, just Homer, or about the Sophists, or, specifically, about the unmentioned Antisthenes.

Opinions are equally divided about whether Plato is serious or not, and, if he is, in which statements. The two long speeches of Socrates are, for some, Plato’s true thought; for others they are mocking parodies. The image of the magnet is either mechanical or a striking image. As an image of divine inspiration, is it serious or a joke? Either way, does it indicate that the poet is elevated, enthused by the god, or does it mean that he is out of his mind. Plato’s view of inspiration (whatever it is) is startlingly new, we are told, although poets and rhapsodes have traditionally invoked a Muse. Some allege that the notion that the poet is inspired contains the true elements of a theory of poetry.

For some, the attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past, for others it is just another manifestation of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Perhaps there is no quarrel between poetry and philosophy as long as poetry does not lay claim to knowledge, which, in the Ion, it does.

Perhaps the Ion can only be understood when read in conjunction with other Platonic dialogues. And yet, before relating it to other dialogues, surely it must be understood first in its own terms.

On the assumption that Plato is ambivalent about poetry, the dialogue becomes a personal problem. Plato feels himself both poet and philosopher, both Homer and Socrates, and the dialogue is his way of dealing with the tension between them. Psychotherapy?

Does Ion have an art? If so, what is its subject matter and method? What, for that matter, is the subject matter of Homer? The inspiration of the poet is contrasted with the practical knowledge of everyday arts. It could be contrasted with knowledge that comes from dialectic or science, but isn’t. The meaning of art or slips into “Art,” and Plato’s objection to it is fundamentally religious, we are told. Another view says that Plato identifies poetical inspiration with religious possession, and by so doing honors the poet and renders him harmless. Yet another finds that art (meaning Art) may depend upon a stream of emotion from poet to actor and from actor to audience.

At a more general, philosophical level we are told that the Ion shows that there can be no general significant speech without universals. Or that the dialogue is about the one (sought by the pre-Socratics) and the many (the enthused Dionysiacs, united in their god.) Lurking in the background is the theory of Forms or Ideas, but it is not found in the dialogue, apparently.

Finally, there is much confusion about the relation between Socrates and Ion. Some say that Socrates is friendly and restrained in his relationship with Ion. Others that Socrates treats Ion like an idiot, and makes fun of him. Socrates shows “bland perversity” and thinks Ion “pretentious and stupid.” Some are sure that Socrates and Ion know each other well, others that they are meeting for the first time.

Over all looms the possibility of irony which would give multiple meanings to what otherwise might seem straightforward.

This welter of confused opinions and contradictory interpretations suggests that the dialogue needs to be approached in a somewhat different way. If the general and largely unstated scholarly approach only leads to opposite opinions, then the problem may be in the approach and in the fact that the wrong questions are being asked.

Appendix 1

Discussions of the Dialogue

When the Platonic dialogues began to be translated, read, and commented on at the end of the eighteenth century, two names stand out in relationship to the Ion.

One was Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who first thought it genuinely Platonic (but not very enthusiastically) and later changed his mind and rejected it as spurious. In 1796, the other, Goethe (1749-1832), accepted the dialogue as genuine but considered Ion to be completely stupid and a straw man for Socrates to destroy. These opinions of two very influential thinkers seem to have set the agenda for many of the discussions of the Ion that followed.

An English translation of all the dialogues, including the Ion, with notes, was completed by Thomas Taylor and Floyer Sydenham and published in 1804; however, after a devastating attack in the Edinburgh Review in 1809 the translations were largely ignored and forgotten (at least in Britain, but not in the United States.) The translators’ views, contained in introductions and notes, were quite independent and focused on the dialogues rather than on the circumstances and imagined intent of their author. But they were Neo-platonic in spirit and were not taken seriously. (See this author’s Thomas Taylor the Platonist and James Mill, Utilitarian.)

The most recent and complete account of Greek philosophy in English is A History of Greek Philosophy by W.K.C. Guthrie. It was published in six volumes between 1962 and 1981 and describes and comments on all the Greek thinkers from Thales to Aristotle. Plato is the subject of volumes IV and V, and the Ion is discussed in the first of the two, Plato: The Man and his Dialogues: Earlier Period, (pp.199-212).

In general, Guthrie’s history is well-regarded, primarily because of the serious, responsible and sober analysis that he offers, and the fairness with which he presents his views and the views of dissenting scholars. His account of the Ion, therefore, is instructive and provides a useful initial introduction to current thought on the significance of the Ion.

His account will be followed by brief summaries, in chronological order, of various authors’ opinions on the Ion. More details of the authors and their works may be found in the Bibliography.

Guthrie (1962)

Section 1. Although many scholars in the past have regarded it as spurious, Guthrie reports that today few doubt that it is Plato’s own work, written somewhere between Socrates’ death in 399 and 391, most probably between 394 and 391. This is followed by an explanation of the term ‘rhapsode’ and the Homeridae.

Section 2. The dialogue itself, written in a direct, dramatic form, is summarized. Little exception can be taken to the summary (which occupies about a third of the whole twelve or so pages), but to translate  as “Your words go straight to my heart” rather than “For somehow you touch my soul with your words” seems to sacrifice important accuracy for a stilted colloquialism. Plato does not use the word ‘soul’ carelessly or casually.

In a footnote, Guthrie remarks that “It is hardly worth pointing out all the fallacies committed by S. in this little work . . . .”

Section 3. The longest section of Guthrie’s account of the Ion occupies six or so pages and is devoted to Comment: poetic inspiration in the Ion. According to him

[t]he amount of attention accorded to this opusculum, only a few

pages long and certainly no more than half serious, is of course

accounted for by the importance attached to anything which will

throw light on Plato’s attitude to poets and poetry. Here we have

his first words on a topic to which he returns in some of his

greatest works, and on which his apparent ambivalence has led to

a variety of theories, notably that of a Plato divided against

himself, an ‘anti-Platon chez Platon’.

It is the old disagreement between philosophy and poetry. Guthrie remarks that

[t]he first thing to strike a modern reader must be the total

incomprehension of the nature of poetry shown by Socrates

in the questions through which he tries to elicit the requirements

of a good critic. He approaches a poem as if it were a textbook

of practical instruction in some craft or mode of life, to be judged

only by an expert in the particular practice described. Aesthetic

criteria are never mentioned . . . .

Guthrie observes that although we can criticize from our own point of view, to understand Plato we must know what was expected of a poet at that time. In general, the poet’s function was primarily didactic, and up to the fifth century moral and political advice was commonly offered in metrical form. The Platonic Protagoras even says that the poets in the past had the same educational mission as the Sophists, and Guthrie quotes Havelock to the effect that poetry was not literature, not an art form, but a necessity (although Guthrie does not really take account of the conditions in an oral culture).

The poet appealed to the Muses, but not for inspiration, only as a higher authority with greater wisdom. The Muse is not in the poet as Dionysius is in the bacchants, with whom Plato compares the poet (534a). The suggestion that the poet is divinely inspired, possessed, and ‘out of his mind,’ may be original with Plato, for it cannot be found earlier than Democritus; or Plato might have borrowed the idea from Democritus. Historical probability is that the “mystical explanation of poetry on the lines of Dionysiac possession” did not appear until the fifth century.

Guthrie sees this as related to the problem of the One and the Many, and their mysterious relationship and their strange kind of identity.

To the Pre-Socratic philosophers it appeared as the relation

between the one everlasting substance of the cosmos and its

manifold and changing phenomena, whereas the Dionysiac

worshipper sought the identification of the many separated

souls with the One divine being in the experience of

enthusiasmos, the spirit of the god entering into each one.

[NOTE: Homer was not “memorized by grown men like Niceratus (Xen. Symp. 4.6)” as Guthrie asserts; Niceratus is a grown man when he reports what his father had made him do as a boy]

Plato criticizes Homer and the poets without distorting how they were currently perceived. His objections were based on the fact that the poets did not understand the technical matters on which they wrote, and they told of actions of both gods and men that were not morally edifying.

How serious was Plato in his theory? Those who argue for respect for poetic inspiration omit references to phrases like “not in his senses” and “the god having taken away their wits”; and no mention is made of Tynnichus—a story “only intended for our amusement.” Moreover, politicians are given “divine dispensation” in the Meno, which cannot be taken as a view seriously held by Plato and Socrates. The magnet metaphor includes the poet, the rhapsode, and the citizens, and in later dialogues the poet is said to be mad (see the Phaidros) and also, because of the madness, needs to be legally controlled (Laws 719c-d).

The Ion is above all a Socratic dialogue, amusing us by displaying

the bland perversity of its hero when faced with one whom he

thinks pretentious and stupid . . .

I would tentatively suggest that in the theory of divine

possession he saw a possible defence of his own susceptibility to

their charm (which he confesses at Rep. 607c), sufficient at least

to account for the extremely respectful and honorific conge

accorded to a poet in the Republic (398a).

Here we may leave this light-hearted little piece, whose

concern with poetry has probably led us to give it more serious

attention than is good for the enjoyment that Plato intended it

to afford.

The conge, or unceremonious dismissal, is (in the Lindsay translation) as follows:

Then apparently if there comes to our city a man so wise that

he can turn into everything under the sun and imitate every

conceivable object, when he offers to show off himself and his

poems to us, we shall do obeisance to him as a sacred, wonderful,

and agreeable person; but we shall say that we have no such man

in our city, and the law forbids there being one, and we shall

anoint him with myrrh, and crown him with a wreath of sacred

wool, and send him off to another city, and for ourselves we shall

employ a more austere and less attractive poet and story-teller,

whose poetry will be to our profit, who will imitate for us the

diction of the good man, and in saying what he has to say will

conform to those canons which we laid down originally when

we were undertaking the task of educating the soldiers?

To summarize Guthrie’s view, the dialogue is an early Socratic dialogue (it being assumed that we know what that means—apparently a light-hearted exposure of a pretentious and pompous idiot and his opinions), in which Plato suggests the “inspiration” theory to account for the success and appeal of the poet and rhapsode. The suggestion is not really thought through, is not serious, and is only attended to because of what it has to say about poets and poetry.

Much of this may be found in other commentators and translators, both earlier and later, as will appear below.

Schleiermacher (1812)

Schleiermacher begins his brief introduction to the Ion as follows:

Socrates proves two things to the Athenian (sic) rhapsodist:

First, that if his business of interpretation and criticism is a

science or an art, it must not confine itself to one poet, but

extend over all, because the objects are the same in all, and

the whole art of poetry is one and indivisible. Secondly, that it

does not belong to the rhapsodist generally to judge of the poet,

but that this can only be done in reference to every particular

passage by one who is acquainted, as an artist and adept, with

what is in every instance described in these passages. Now it

will be at once manifest to every reader that it cannot have

been Plato’s ultimate object to put a rhapsodist to shame in

such a manner.

The reason is the lowly status of the rhapsodist who “enjoyed no such influence upon the morals and cultivation of the youth of higher rank.” The rhapsodist must be looked on only as “the shell,” while the true kernel of the dialogue is the art of poetry.

The real object and purpose of the dialogue is the nature of the art of poetry, but there lacks any real instruction about this, and the Phaidros (which Schleiermacher dates before the Ion) has already dealt with it; because of the obscurity and deficiency of “the execution” the only tenable theory contained in the work must be rejected.

But some parts are in the spirit of Plato, while others have weaknesses “such as we could scarcely ascribe to him in his earliest stages.” Possibly one of Plato’s pupils composed the dialogue after a hasty sketch by Plato, or it was written by Plato but remained an “imperfectly executed essay.” It cannot be determined whether the Ion is a prelude to some greater work, unexecuted, on the art of poetry, or a playful polemic based on parts of the Phaidros. Sooner could it be maintained that publication of the work was unintentional, but there is no evidence for this.

In any case, this little dialogue, betraying as it does so many

suspicious features, and devoid of any particular philosophical

tendency, could hardly lay claim to any other place but this

which we assign to it.

In a Supplement in a later edition, Schleiermacher condemns the work as not genuine:

But Bekker marks this and the following dialogues more

decisively as ungenuine, and, in so doing, has my full assent.

Thomas Taylor/Floyer Sydenham (1804)

Most of the translations are due to Taylor, and many of the notes were written by Sydenham, but Taylor edited the whole.

On the Ion, it is written:

. . . the main drift and end of this Dialogue, which is by no

means so slight and unimportant, as merely to show that

enthusiasm, or the poetic fury, is characteristic of a true poet;

but makes a part of the grand design of Plato in all his writings,

that is, the teaching of the true wisdom: in order to which,

every kind of wisdom, falsely so called, commonly taught in

the age when he lived, was to be unlearnt. The teachers, or

leaders of popular opinion, among the Grecians of those days,

were the sophists, the rhetoricians, and the poets; or rather,

instead of these last, their ignorant and false interpreters. Men

of liberal education were misled principally by the first of these:

the second sort were the seducers of the populace, to whose

passions the force of rhetoric chiefly is applied in commonwealths:

but the minds of the people of all ranks received a bad impression

from those of the last-mentioned kind, To prevent the ill influence

of these, is the immediate design of the Io[n]; and the way which

the philosopher takes to lessen the credit of their poems is not

by calling in question the inspiration of the poet, or the divinity

of the Muse. Far from attempting this, he establishes the received hypothesis, for the foundation of his argument against the

authority of their doctrine: inferring, from their inability to

write without the impulse of the Muse, that they had no real

knowledge of what they taught: whereas the principles of

science, as he tells us in the Philebus (16c-17d), descended

into the mind of man immediately from heaven; or, as he

expresses it in the Epinomis (976d-977b), from God himself,

without the intervention of any lower divinity.

Plato, “of all polite writers among the ancients the most polite,” is too respectful to attack the poets, those “sacred persons, the anointed of the Muses,” directly, so he does it indirectly by focusing on the rhapsodes, their interpreters.

Socrates, having derided “the personal arrogance and ignorance” of Ion, concludes with some ironical sarcasm at the expense of Ion’s countrymen, the Ephesians, who were “sunk in Asiatic luxury and effeminacy.” They valued themselves highly, first, on account of their descent from the Athenians (noted for both wisdom and valor) and, second, on their opulence and magnificent life style. The latter was, in reality, a source of shame; and they had “degenerated from their ancestors” and were “void of those virtues which raised them” to greatness.

Grote (1867)

George Grote, after his monumental History of Greece (1846), produced Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (1867) in which a chapter of fourteen pages is devoted to the Ion. He is more sympathetic than earlier (German) commentators and says outright:

I hold it [the Ion] to be genuine, and it may be comparatively

early; but I see no ground for the disparaging criticism which

has often been applied to it.

Given the two functions of the rhapsode as reciter and expositor, Socrates examines Ion in the former:

. . . . considering Homer, not as a poet appealing to the emotions

of hearers, but as a teacher administering lessons and

imparting instructions. Such was the view of Homer entertained

by a large proportion of the Hellenic world. . . .

Plato takes no account of—or declares war upon—those who arouse “chords of strong and diversified emotions”, either as childish delusions or as mischievous stimulants, which tend to overthrow the sovereign authority of reason.

The central point of the dialogue is the comparison with the Magnet. It is an expansion of a judgment found elsewhere in Plato (cf. Apology, Meno):

The contrast between systematic, professional procedure,

deliberately taught and consciously acquired, capable of being

defended at every step by appeal to intelligible rules founded

upon scientific theory, and enabling the person so qualified to

impart his qualification to others—and a different procedure

purely impulsive and unthinking, whereby the agent, having in

his mind a conception of the end aimed at, proceeds from one

intermediate step to another, without knowing why he does so

or how he has come to do so, and without being able to explain

his practice if questioned or to impart it to others—this contrast

is a favourite one with Plato. The last-mentioned procedure—the unphilosophical or irrational–he conceives under different aspects: sometimes as a blind routine or insensibly acquired habit,

sometimes as a stimulus applied from without by some God,

superseding the reason of the individual. Such a condition Plato

calls madness, and he considers those under it as persons out of

their senses. But he recognizes different varieties of madness,

according to the God from whom it came . . . .

Of course, privileged communications from gods to men were “acknowledged and witnessed everywhere” as a constant phenomenon of ancient Greek life. Socrates himself was guided by his daimon. But Plato, in the Ion and elsewhere, contrasts the prophet and the poet (and rhapsode) with reason and intelligence.

Ion wants to exhibit his rhapsodical powers to Socrates, but is never permitted to do so. Socrates has preliminary questions which need answering, and also requires an intelligible description of the subject. These Ion cannot provide.

If as a practitioner he executes well what he promises (which is

often the case), and attains success—he does so either by blind

imitation of some master, or else under the stimulus and guidance

of some agency foreign to himself—of the Gods or Fortune.

Jowett (1895)

Jowett, whose influence—of mixed value—on British Platonic scholarship is immense, published his translation of the complete dialogues in 1871 (followed by further editions in 1875 and 1892).

He opens his analysis of the Ion in the following way:

The Ion is the shortest, or nearly the shortest, of all the writings

which bear the name of Plato, and is not authenticated by any

external testimony. The grace and beauty of this little work

supply the only, and perhaps a sufficient proof of its genuineness.

The plan is simple, and the dramatic interest consists entirely in

the contrast between the irony of Socrates and the transparent

vanity and childlike enthusiasm of the rhapsode Ion.

There follows Jowett’s summary of the dialogue. He then goes on with his analysis:

The Ion, like the other earlier Platonic Dialogues, is a mixture

of jest and earnest, in which no definite result is obtained, but

some Socratic or Platonic truths are allowed dimly to appear.

The elements of a true theory of poetry are contained in

the notion that the poet is inspired. Genius is often said to be

unconscious, or spontaneous, or a gift of nature: that genius is

akin to madness is a popular aphorism of modern times. . . .

Jowett then alludes to the views in the Protagoras (316d et seq.) in which the poets are claimed as the original Sophists; certainly Ion belongs to the realm of imitation and of opinion and he, even more than the Sophists, is incapable of appreciating the commonest logical distinctions. His great memory contrasts with his inability to follow the steps of an argument.

The old quarrel between philosophy and poetry, which in the

Republic leads to their final separation is already working in the

mind of Plato, and is embodied by him in the contrast between

Socrates and Ion. Yet, as in the Republic, Socrates shows a sort

of sympathy with the poetic nature. . . .

Jowett concludes by suggesting that the unknown Ion must have belonged to the allegorical school of interpreters, since he claims to have surpassed two others considered to be of that school, Metrodorus of Lampsakus and Stesimbrotos of Thasos.

William Chase Greene (1918)

In 1918, the Harvard Studies in Classical Philology published a translation of W.C. Greene’s doctoral dissertation “Plato’s View of Poetry”; originally written in Latin with the title Quid de poetis Plato censuerit, it occupied some seventy-five pages and took into account the whole Platonic corpus. Some specific sections were devoted to the Ion and are here summarized.

In a preliminary survey, Greene asks:

When one remembers how far divergent are the views of the most

eminent scholars on this point [Plato’s view of poetry], it seems

pertinent to ask why such differences of opinion with regard to

the same author are possible.

He finds the answer in the fact that commentators have often concentrated on one dialogue (the Republic or Phaidros, for example) to the exclusion of others. All of the Platonic writings must be considered, and many remarks about poetry and inspiration and imitation are no more intended to be regarded as Plato’s ultimate views than are the ironical and dialectic obiter dicta and excursus of his logical discussions.

The origins of the good life and a stable political order are to be found in religion and poetry, rather than in science or history:

Both the Eleusinian mysteries and the Orphic religion

encouraged adherents to believe that through initiation and

their presence at certain rites they could win blessedness.

Yet the act of initiation or of participating in rites was not

an intellectual act; according to the testimony of Aristotle,

“the initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain

emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind.”

Greene quotes extensive passages from the Ion

. . . because they exhibit the traditional view of poetic inspiration

which Plato was coming to weigh. Some suppose that Plato is

here seriously upholding this view; others contend that the

dialogue was written expressly to ridicule and discard it.

Neither interpretation, I think, is right. Plato is here weighing

the common Greek notion that attributes the inspiration of

the poet to an external influence. Just as the Greeks tended

to find a myth in order to account for whatever they happened

to believe, and to find ancestors for everything, in the same

way, recognizing that poetry is obviously a different thing

from a man’s ordinary expression, they assumed that some

one else must have suggested it to him—a Muse or a god. So

the poet was not his normal self; he was , or the victim

of . Plato does not in the Ion discard this notion.

Plato, like the Socrates of Xenophon, knew it was futile to appeal to inspiration for the specialized knowledge of ordinary activities, like medicine and charioteering. He distinguished between those things that can be learned and those that are not a matter of 

That is a distinction that Plato himself almost always preserved,

though he enormously increased the province of human

understanding. And the irony that undoubtedly exists in the

Ion is not that Socrates is supposed to deny the bewildered Ion

all knowledge, but that Ion does not realize the meaning of

knowledge. Plato at all periods of his life attributes inspiration

to the poets in utter seriousness, as giving forth wisdom in a

way that can not be reduced to a What kind of wisdom

this is, Plato had yet to consider.

Plato, at this time, had not made public (even if he had formulated) the doctrine of ideas, and so the inspiration of the poet is contrasted, not with knowledge from science and dialectic, but with the practical knowledge of everyday life.

If we had to recast the conclusion of the Ion in modern language,

it would be something like this: The poet’s work is not produced

in the same rational way that other things are produced; it is the

result of his having a peculiar power, greater at some times than

at others, of giving utterance to thoughts that are in some way

more precious than those of ordinary life. Naturally Plato does

not imply that all who pretend to be poets are thus inspired, even

though otherwise bad poets may have occasional flashes of

inspiration.

The Phaedrus gives an expanded account:

If Plato’s main subject in this dialogue had been the conditions

of a philosophical poetry, we should undoubtedly have more indications of the methods by which the vision of truth was to

be realized in poetry; as it is, the notable thing is that Plato

cared at all to pause in his argument to give us the clues by

which we are enabled to relate his view of the aesthetic experience

as a whole, by means of the theory of ideas, to his view of poetry.

Perhaps, then, it is not too much to say that Plato in this manner

answers the question that he raised in the Ion about poetic

inspiration; he does not, indeed, do away with the conception

and the language of inspiration, but he replaces it in his mind

by the conception of the state of enthusiasm that the vision of

beauty produces in its lover. In a word, then, inspiration by a

god gives place to inspiration by the vision of ideas.

In the Laws, Plato admits comedy and tragedy into the city, but with certain severe restrictions. Comedy is allowed to use ridicule as long as it is mere pleasantry, and not vindictive; tragedy must submit to censorship. In the Republic Plato is working from sense to thought, from particular to universal, and, finding actual poets an obstruction, he resorts to the poetical expedient of banishing them.

In the Laws, Plato is speaking as a poet, but as a poet who

has achieved a greater degree of truth and hence a greater

seriousness of purpose than other poets. When he undertakes

to step back into the world of sense, he welcomes the cooperation

of these other poets, so far as their aims can be made to fall in

with his own . . . Plato is himself definitely announcing his own

belief in an austere and chastened poetry as a vehicle for the

realization of his ideals. The poetic faculty is still irresponsible;

yet the inspiration of the poet is to be enlisted in the discovery

of the best hymns. Thus the legislator (i.e. the philosopher)

does not surrender the right which he claimed in the Republic,

of laying down the forms to which the poets are to submit, but

he is more friendly to the poets than he was in the Republic,

since he is now dealing with a possible commonwealth more

like ordinary Greek states.

The latter part of this summary goes far beyond the Ion; in order to do justice to Greene’s views, it seemed useful to provide a sketch of the overall context in which he examined the dialogue.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1920)

The relevant major work of Wilamowitz is his Platon (Berlin, 1920). He had published some views on the Ion earlier in the century, but this seems to be his general view.

Originally, Wilamowitz had been strongly influenced by the opinions of Goethe, seeing the dialogue as essentially a satire, with Ion himself characterized as “incredibly stupid.” For a long time he rejected the work as Plato’s, but eventually conceded that Plato did, in fact, write it, but it was “youthful” with all the arrogance of a young writer; indeed, Wilamowitz asserted that it was Plato’s first work. He also thought that it had been written before the death of Socrates, but was really unworthy of Plato, it being incoherent and with a very limited purpose, namely, to make explicit the silly senselessness of the rhapsode’s so-called ‘art.’

Because of the agreement with the Apology, Wilamowitz supposes that Plato took over from Socrates his opposition to the excessive claims of the poets.

His interpretation is limited to the negative point that, according to Plato, poets have no knowledge (although, according to Wilamowitz, Plato admitted and recognized some good, for example, in the Phaidros). Plato was making fun of the rhapsodes in a kind of Aristophanic farce, and was making even more fun of the poets. Thepraise of poetical inspiration is not to be taken seriously, for it is certainly ironic, we are told.

Taylor (1926)

In his Plato: the Man and his Work A.E. Taylor classifies the Ion as a “Minor Socratic Dialogue.”

Little need be said about this slight dialogue on the nature

of “poetic inspiration.” The main ideas suggested are

expounded much more fully in those important Platonic

works with which we shall have to deal later.

Taylor insists that “inspiration” is foreign to the way of thinking of poetry in the fifth century B.C. Poets were thought of as craftsmen, as , along with doctors, engineers and the like. They were not endowed with “native genius.”

[The poet] was conceived as consciously producing a

beautiful result by the deft fitting together of words and

musical sounds, exactly as the architect does the same

thing by the deft putting together of stones. Of all the

great Greek poets Pindar is the only one who pointedly

insists on the superiority of , “native genius,” to the

craftsmanship () which can be taught and learned; . . .

On the face of it, the Ion is concerned with the question whether rhapsodes and actors owe their success to some expert or professional knowledge, or to “genius” or non-rational “inspiration.”

But it is clear that the real points intended to be made

are that the poet himself is not an “expert” in any kind of

knowledge and, as poet, has not necessarily anything to teach us.

These points are made more emphatically and impressively in other Platonic dialogues.

Lamb (1925)

The text and translation of the Ion in the Loeb Classical Library were provided by W.R.M. Lamb, who also furnished a three page introduction.

This graceful little piece is remarkable not only for the evidence

it affords of the popularity and procedure of Homeric recitals in

the fifth and fourth centuries, or again, for its brilliant witness

to Plato’s skill in characterization, but also for its insistence—

implied rather than expressed—on the doctrine that no art,

however warmly accepted and encouraged by the multitude,

can be of real worth unless it is based on some systematic

knowledge; and that the common claim of successful artists to

be useful servants of the public is probably a dangerous delusion.

In addition to recitals at great festivals, the rhapsodes gave lectures on the subject-matter of the poems, and in doing this they resembled the sophists.

It is this educative work of the rhapsode which interests Plato.

He is bent on criticizing the whole system—or rather, the

unsystematic tradition—of Greek education; and he seeks to

show that the rhapsode’s pretensions to any particular knowledge

of human affairs are absurd,, and further, that even his great

success in impassioned recitation is a matter not of studied art,

but of divine “possession”—something divorced from reason,

and a possible danger to the truth.

And yet, according to Lamb, Socrates’ tone towards Ion throughout is friendly and restrained:

Plato was ever aware of the mighty influence of the poets upon

himself as well as upon the mass of his countrymen, and there is

regret no less than respect in his voice when he bids them depart

from his ideal state (Rep.iii.398).

Meridier (1931)

In the first part of the fifth volume of the Guillaume Bude series, Platon: Oeuvres Completes, Louis Meridier provides texts and translations of the Ion, the Menexenus, and the Euthydemus, together with commentaries.

Meridier begins his commentary on the Ion with a discussion of the meaning of the word ‘rhapsode’ and a description of the rhapsode’s activities. He also points out that Plato often uses the two words andrhapsode and actor [or expounder], side by side. Ion merely mentions his essential function, the declamation of Homer, and concentrates on his commentary, on his “embellishment” of Homer. But he does not state on what occasions he reports these “improvements.” Is it at the recitations of Homer? Or at the festivals, in meetings of the rhapsodes? The word that is usedshows that it is in private conversations, not public ones, among a circle of admirers, in the same manner as the Sophists.

These commentaries of Ion are, presumably, allegorical interpretations, since he compares himself to well-known allegorists such as Metrodous and Stesimbrotos.

Meridier reports (but denies) the view of Dummler and Stahlin that behind the figure of Ion there lurks that of Antisthenes who, it is known, favored the poets for their interpretation of divine wisdom; he particularly admired Homer. In short, the Ion marks, so we are told, a phase in Plato’s polemic against Antisthenes. But at no point in the Ion is it a question of allegorical interpretation. In translation from the French original,

When one examines the dialogue closely, the solution of

the problem is discernible. In appearance, the purpose of the

debate is to know whether the commentaries of the rhapsodes

are directed by an art, . Socrates’ argument has the

effect of proving that Ion, the commentator on Homer, is

not in possession of an art, whatever he himself may think

about it.

The critique of the rhapsodes also falls on the poets they interpret, and the conclusions of Socrates apply equally to them. This is confirmed, according to Meridier, by what is the chief portion of the work, where Socrates replaces dialogue with two long speeches. The change of procedure, the didactic exposition, the solemnity with which the first speech is introduced, the sudden elevation of tone, all show that here is the true thought of the author and the key to his purpose. It is the magnetic chain, the inspiration, which animates the rhapsode.

The possession of a set of rules () based on scientific knowledge () is denied the poets. Plato allows them a divine gift (), a kind of enthusiasm, in which they are out of their minds, losing the rational faculty.

This reflects the passage in the Apology in which Socrates questions those who seem or claim to have some knowledge, the politicians, the poets, and the artisans.

Even if Plato must be taken seriously when he attributes divine inspiration to the poets, it is not clear that it would be mistaken to see it as anything other than a concession to politeness, at bottom irony, in its application to the rhapsode. Philosophy does not wish to speak directly to the poets, so Plato uses a simple rhapsode as a subterfuge, the rhapsodes being generally held in low esteem by the intellectual elite.

The dialogue is not incoherent. The two demonstrations of Socrates are inseparable; in the first part, if Ion has an art, then he can speak equally well of both Homer and Hesiod. The second argument shows that each particular art has its own proper competence, not shared by the rhapsode. By both arguments, Plato comes to the same conclusion: Ion does not have an art. The dialogue really deals with the nature of poetry.

G.M.A. Grube (1935)

In Plato’s Thought, Professor Grube devotes a whole chapter to Art and he makes some remarks about the Ion. He is more interested in the Republic and the Phaidros, as might be expected, but he offers some relevant comments.

Quoting the Apology,

that the works of the poets are not the product of wisdom, but

of a natural gift, and that they are inspired like prophets and

oracles,

Grube states that

the Ion, a short dialogue in the usual Socratic vein, is a fuller

statement of the same theme. . . .Ion is made to insist (535c) upon

the violence of his emotions when he recites, and upon his success

in communicating these emotions to his audience, We have here a

fundamental belief of Plato’s, and one which lies at the very root

of his attitude to art, namely that successful art depends upon a

stream of emotion which flows from poet to actor, and from actor

to audience.

The conclusion is

not only the inspiration of the poet, but the beauty of the work

he produces, is freely admitted in the Ion, and there is here no

quarrel between philosophy and poetry, so long as poetry does

not, like the poets in the Apology, lay any claim to knowledge.

In short it is the business of the poet, as Socrates tells us in the

Phaedo (61b) to tell stories () and not to give, qua poet

at least, a logical account of things ().

Lane Cooper (1938)

Lane Cooper, in his 1938 introduction to the Ion, notes that “the cadence of this dialogue” is different from the other dialogues he presents (Phaidros, Gorgias, Symposium, parts of the Republic and Laws); but the substance of the work seems Platonic.

He relates the Ion, first, to the Apology, and then to the Phaidros and the Gorgias.

The connection with the Apology is found in Socrates’ examination of the politicians, the poets, and the artisans; specifically, the poets are moved to write “not by wisdom, but by genius and inspiration,” and they can give no account of what they write. Young men were led to imitate Socrates and could lead to the writing of ‘Socratic conversations’ like the Ion. In this case “the victim is a rhapsode, a combination of reciter with professor, so to speak, of ‘literature’.”

The Phaidros is similar in that it has a bearing on the study of literature, but is dissimilar in that Phaidros, unlike Ion, is permitted to recite his speech. The Gorgias is similar in that it insists on the question “What is the art of rhetoric?” (substituting rhetorician for rhapsode).

The Ion, in comparison with the Phaidros, makes light of inspiration and

. . . [t]he telling figure of the lodestone and the objects pendent

under it is yet less memorable than the allegory of the Charioteer

and his horses [in the Phaidros] . . .

The Phaidros “maintains a solid truth regarding eloquence”:

True eloquence in poetry and prose arises from the union of

enthusiasm with superior knowledge, of emotion, properly

controlled, with reason, of nature, a divine nature, with art.

Cooper ends by approving “the spirited translation” of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Moreau (1939)

This critic denies the authenticity of the Ion completely, ascribing it to pupil of Plato’s.

The dialogue itself, whoever wrote it, is primarily concerned with education:

The Ion is . . .an attack not against the poets, as is commonly

supposed, but against the commentary of the poets as the

basis of education. It renews the protest, raised primarily in

the Protagoras, against a purely literary culture, which can

be only verbal.

Even if Plato was the author, the dialogue must have been written very early, simply because later there was no need for it to be written at all (its thoughts being presented more fully and more clearly in later works.)

W.J.Verdenius (1943)

According to Verdenius, Ion is not a caricature; his characteristic qualities are unmasked by Socrates but not as amusement but to clarify certain problems, and Plato would never write a dialogue with the sole intent of provoking laughter among the Athenians. He does, however, give an abstract problem concrete reality.

Socrates’ praise of poetical inspiration is serious. But Plato-Socrates distinguishes between Ion the reciter and Ion the commentator of Homer; the former is divinely inspired, the latter not.

Socrates speaks mostly of the reciter, although his description also applies to the interpreter. The explanation is that by concentrating on the reciter Socrates will gain Ion’s approval. In fact, this does not work, and Socrates has to use many sophisms before Ion reluctantly capitulates. Verdenius says nothing about Ion’s own descriptions of his recitals.

We can now give a more precise answer to the question of

the meaning of the Ion. It is not only that Socrates believes

that it is important to explain the difference between rational

and irrational knowledge, but he believes that it is his moral

duty to call attention to the dangerous character of such

irrational knowledge. In denying the competence of the

rhapsodes, he deprives them, at the same time, of their

pedagogic pretensions and of their right to guide the people.

In the authoritative position of Homeric wisdom and its propaganda there is danger to the independence of thought and the autonomy of conscience.

Friedlander (1957/64)

Friedlander’s magisterial study of Plato in three volumes was published, in German, beginning in 1928. An English translation, with revisions by the author, was completed in 1969.

In Volume II, Plato: The Dialogues: First Period, the second part is devoted to “A Group of Smaller Early Dialogues: Philosopher—Sophist—Poet”. Chapter IX is devoted to the Ion, preceded by a chapter on the Hipparchus, and succeeded by chapters on the Hippias Minor and Theages.

Socrates meets the victorious rhapsode of Ephesus, who is a strange mixture of the ancient artistic tradition of Homeric recitation and the new-fangled pseudo-knowledge of talking about Homer. In this, Ion does not differ from the Sophists (see Protagoras and Hippias Minor). Socrates, ironically, admires the rhapsode’s external appearance (ironical, presumably, because it omits any reference to the inner man) and congratulates Ion, wishing him “a victory at the Panathenaea at the very moment he is about to suffer a defeat.”

But why did Plato choose Ion?

It was not simply, as Goethe thought, ‘Ion, famous, admired,

crowned and well-paid, was to be exposed in all his nakedness.’

Plato does not need the “incredible stupidity” of an opponent to make Socrates appear clever. On the contrary,

The issue here concerns the nature of the poet (for whom the

rhapsode is a stand-in) at a time when the poet still claimed

to be the teacher of his nation and the philosopher is challenging

this claim. And the point is to warn against the danger inherent

in the nature of the poet who claims—and is expected—to

produce effects that go beyond his true powers and responsibilities. Perhaps Euripides is the best example of this kind of poet; but

the common practice, long before the Stoics, of making Homer

the inventor and guide in all spheres of life shows the

misunderstanding and the need for drawing limits.

The attack upon the rhapsodes and their claim to educate people was, at best, a secondary intention of the dialogue. It was the poets who were caught in self-deception, thinking themselves wise in other things as well (cf. Apology 22A et seq.). They are formless, Protean, and this is an essential characteristic of their “doxosophic” way of life. Indeed, the last words of the dialogue are “praiser of Homer” ().

The Ion takes the first steps towards working out the distinction between the man of knowledge and the poet as expressing different modes of existence.

Plato dealt with this problem because he felt within himself both Socrates and Homer:

That “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” to

which he refers in the Republic (X. 607B) cut through the

center of his own existence, and he was compelled to create

order between these two powers—knowledge and enthusiasm—

now converging, now diverging within himself, The primary

intention of this dialogue is not to depict satirically the clash

between Socrates and a vain artist. Instead, Plato has grasped

the Herakleitean tension in his own nature as a thinker and

had given it form as a poet . . .

On the last morning of his life, Socrates first speaks (Phaedo 60C) about his attempts at poetry and

. . . about the meaning of the voice that he, the philosopher

par excellence, has often heard in a dream: “Practice the

art of the Muses” . . . It should now be clear how little Ion

can be regarded . . . as merely a “harmless play” without

any “serious reverse side.”

Hellmut Flashar (1958, 1963)

The main thesis of Flashar is that the rhapsodes had been penetrated by the new spirit of the Sophists and that Ion is little more than a cover for the Sophists, Plato’s real target. He interprets the dialogue, in part, from this point of view.

His other point of view is the search for something of importance about Plato’s philosophy contained in the other dialogues but foreshadowed or hinted at in the Ion. It emerges that, according to Flashar, Plato holds enthusiamus (inspiration) to be the unifying theme that runs throughout the dialogues.

The two relevant works of Flashar are Der Dialog Ion als Zeugnis platonischer Philosophie (1958) and Platon: Ion: Griechisch-deutsch herausgegeben (1963).

According to Flashar, it appears that superficially the Ion provides an opportunity for Socrates to deal with a vain and stupid charlatan who shares, with the unprincipled Sophists, all the base motives and poor or dishonest logic ascribed to them elsewhere in Plato. This might possibly be directed against some contemporary (but, if so, he is unknown), but it must not be considered as an attack on the whole class of rhapsodes and certainly not on the poets. (Although Flashar does not make clear the reasons why not.)

In a footnote, Flashar states that the true subject of the dialogue is not the embarrassment of one obtuse rhapsode, but it is the problem of the real nature of poetry (“das eigentliche Problem des Dialoges”) and its interpretation. The poet and the interpreter are genuinely inspired, while the ascription of divine inspiration to Ion must be regarded as ironical. This does not entail the rejection of inspiration as such, but only in the case of the unfortunate rhapsode. (Again, no reason is given for this special treatment of Ion.)

While the dialogue has, at first glance, a negative result in the confounding of Ion, underneath there is a positive doctrine of enthusiasmus. According to Flashar (and in agreement with Schleiermacher), Plato had his mature doctrine in mind even when he was writing one of his earliest works (he holds that the Ion was written in 394 B.C.)

In the second part of his major work, Flashar, forgetting or modifying the “real problem of the dialogue,” attempts to create a full and consistent theory of enthusiasmus out of the major dialogues. This is not easy. He deals with the Republic in which poetry is attacked (although ignoring the fact that inspiration is not mentioned there). Moreover, it might be objected that the poet is at third remove from reality which would contradict the notion of authentic inspiration. Flashar also adduces the evidence of both the politicians (the Meno) and the philosopher (the Phaidros), which raises the question as to how inspiration can be common to the poets and politicians, and at the same time to the philosopher who might be seen as their opposite.

The answer lies in the ladder of love described in the Symposium (even though enthusiasmus in not mentioned in that dialogue). There are, according to Flashar, degrees of inspiration, as there are different levels of love, and the philosopher alone reaches the full knowledge of beauty itself, is fully inspired.

Flashar maintains that the apparent inconsistencies will all disappear when we see the total view of Plato’s philosophy, as a whole. But as one reviewer remarked:

By this ingenious correlation of passages which others may
think best left apart, Flashar build up a doctrine of enthusiasmus
at the heart of Platonism, which finds its first and partial
expression in the Ion. The Platonic dualism is bridged, and
Socrates’ strange state of philosophical excitement in the
Phaedrus can be compared with Ion’s description of the
emotions of the rhapsode.

Although Flashar speaks, not without some misgivings, about the dangers of attempting to turn Plato’s thought into a system, his work seems to over-interpret the dialogue and to find in it ideas that occur or may occur in other dialogues.

Tigerstedt (1969)In Plato’s Idea of Poetical Inspiration, a monograph of some seventy or so pages, E.N. Tigerstedt provides one section each on the Ion, the Apology, the Meno, the Phaidros, and the Laws, followed by two sections on the nature and the authority of poetical inspiration. There is also a brief Excursus on Plato and Democritus.

Few parts of Plato’s philosophy have been more discussed
than his treatment of poetry and poets. Since earliest times
it has evoked fierce opposition but also inspired stout defence.
Two ideas in the Platonic ‘poetics’—to use a misleading
expression—have above all claimed the readers attention:
the expulsion of poets from Plato’s ideal city and the description
of their inspiration as being a sort of possession. It is the latter
topic which will be discussed here.

Plato did not write systematic treatises but dialogues, each of which is a self-contained whole so that we need to understand each one before relating it to others. Truth can only be found in dialectical procedures.

Some (notably German) scholars have
found no serious intention in the Ion, only the satirist’s desire
to make a fool of his victim. Therefore the title should read
‘Ion oder der beschamte Rhapsode; denn mit der Poesie hat
das Gesprach nichts zu thun.’ Goethe’s statement made a deep
impression upon German scholars. While some of them . . .
found reasons to reject the dialogue, others accepted it as a
joke by Plato . . . If we are to believe all these scholars—and
Goethe too—it would be ‘love’s labour lost’ to search for any
philosophical ideas in the Ion. Indeed, the comical, not to say
farcical, elements in the dialogue cannot be denied. Goethe
justly spoke of the ‘true Aristophanic malice’ with which
Socrates treats Ion in a discussion in which the Socratic irony
more and more changes into an openly contemptuous sarcasm.
The end is pure farce. But, as always in Plato, mockery does
not exclude seriousness.

Tigerstedt finds “no difficulty” in stating the theme of the dialogue since the subject of the discussion between Socrates and Ion is the former’s assertion that the latter does not possess any expert insight, no 

which would enable him to recite and interpret Homer, but
that he is ‘possesed’ by the poet, and, indirectly, by the Muse.
Ion is therefore no expert but a divine and inspired man, like
the poet he praises. This is the thesis which the rhapsode is
forced to accept.

But is this the real theme? The heavy irony of the conclusion makes it difficult to believe that Plato seriously wants us to regard Ion as a “divine praiser of Homer.” But Ion states that he himself is well aware of the audience’s reaction—a degree of self-consciousness surely incompatible with possession.

This irony is directed either against Ion, individually, or against the group represented by Ion, namely the whole class of rhapsodes. It has been erroneously held that Socrates is attacking the ‘sophistic rhapsodes,’ a group for whom no evidence exists.

But if the real subject of the dialogue is neither Ion himself,
nor his art, nor the sophistic interpretation of poetry, it seems
that we will have to embrace the opinion of the great majority
of interpreters, from Classical Antiquity onwards, viz. that
what Plato really discussed in the Ion is poetry and the poets,
more exactly the nature of poetical inspiration.
This is confirmed by the fact that Plato’s long speech deals with this.
But poets are not mad and so Socrates words cannot be taken literally.
Either they are a hyperbolic praise of poetry’s divinity, or they are
an ironical disparagement of such claims. Interpreters disagree.

For reasons that are stated, Tigerstedt thinks that “the scales are heavily tilted in favour of the ‘ironical’ interpretation,” but irony leaves us “baffled and perplexed.” The more perfect the irony, the more uncertain we feel.

In the Ion, poetical inspiration is contrasted to 
and  or toalone. In the Apology the opposite
is , possessed by the artians.

There is a remarkable uniformity in Plato’s statements about the nature of poetical inspiration. With very minor differences, the poet is described as being in a state of total passivity, he does not know what he is doing; he is a holy madman. The one real difference in the Ion is that not only the poet, but also his reciters, interpreters, and his audience are also divinely inspired. This is not found elsewhere in the dialogues. Some have argued that Plato’s view is merely the traditional view (see Laws 719C), but there is no evidence to support this (possibly with the dubious exception of Democritus).

Plato never gives any explanation of the incompatibility of his praise for the poets’ divine inspiration and his harsh criticism of them. With one exception (Laws 719c), Plato never expresses both opinions in the same work.

What then, . . . does Plato really think of poetical inspiration?
I am afraid that this is a question which does not admit of an
unequivocal answer.
But the identification of poetical inspiration with religious possession
is the vital point of Plato’s doctrine, for . . . in this way he succeeds in
making the poet at once honored and harmless.

Murdoch (1976)

In 1976, the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch devoted her Romanes lectures to the question “why Plato banished the artists,” published as The Fire and the Sun the following year. The brief book of only 89 pages provides a very useful conspectus of Plato’s thought, with references to many of the dialogues, but especially to the Republic and Plato’s view on poets and poetry. Murdoch sees the Ion as a precursor:

Some of the views developed in the Republic are given a
trial run in the Ion, a dialogue regarded by scholars as very
early; the earliest, according to Wilamowitz. Socrates questions
Ion, a rhapsode (poetry-reciter), who specializes in Homer.
Socrates wonders whether Ion’s devotion to Homer is based
upon skilled knowledge (techne) or whether it is merely intuitive
or, as Socrates politely puts it, divinely inspired. Ion lays claim
to knowledge, but is dismayed when Socrates asks him what
Homeric matters he is expert on. What, for instance, does he
know of medicine, or sailing or weaving or chariot-racing, all
of which Homer describes? Ion is forced to admit that here
doctors, sailors, weavers, and charioteers are the best judges
of Homer’s adequacy. Is there then any Homeric subject on
which Ion is really an expert? With unspeakable charm Ion at
last says, yes, generalship, though he has not actually tried it
of course: a conclusion which Socrates does not pursue
beyond the length of a little sarcasm. Ion, though lightly
handled by Socrates, is presented as both naïve and something
of a cynic, or sophist. He may not know much about chariots
but he does know how to make an audience weep, and when
he does so he laughs to himself as he thinks of his fee. Socrates
finally consoles Ion by allowing that it must then be by divine
inspiration () that he discerns the merits of the great
poet. Plato does not suggest in detail that Homer himself ‘does
not know what he is talking about’, although he speaks in
general terms of the poet as ‘nimble, winged, and holy’, and
unable to write unless he is out of his senses. He confines his
attack here to the secondary artist, the actor-critic; and in fact
nowhere alleges that Homer made specific mistakes about
chariots (and so on).In the Ion Homer is treated with reverence
and described in a fine image as a great magnet which conveys
magnetic properties to what it touches. Through this virtue the
silly Ion is able to magnetize his clients. The question is raised,
however, of whether or how artists and their critics need to
possess genuine expert knowledge: and it is indeed fair to ask
a critic, with what sort of expertise does he judge a poet to be
great? Ion, looking for something to be expert on, might more
fruitfully have answered: a general knowledge of human life,
together of course with a technical knowledge of poetry. But
Plato does not allow him to pursue this reasonable line. The
humane judgement of the experienced literary man is excluded
from consideration by Socrates’ sharp distinction between
technical knowledge and ‘divine intuition’. The genius of the
poet is left unanalyzed under the heading of madness, and the
ambiguous equation ‘insanity—senseless intuition—divine
insight’ is left unresolved. It is significant that these questions,
this distinction and equation, and the portrait of the artist as a
sophist, make their appearance so early in Plato’s work. Shelley
translated this elegant and amusing dialogue. He did not mind its implications.

Murdoch wants to re-instate the poets (partly by extending the term ‘poets’ into the larger ‘artists’), but also seems to want to respect Plato’s opinions on the matter. The last dozen or so pages of The Fire and the Sun attempt valiantly to reconcile the two, but not successfully. The Ion gets little or no further attention, although it is with “airy ridicule” that Socrates says that “the artist” has no insight into his own activity.

However, the objection of Plato to “art” is identified by Murdoch as fundamentally religious: “Art is dangerous chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

Woodruff (1983)

In 1983, Paul Woodruff published a translation of the Ion, with an Introduction and footnotes. He holds that

The Ion is one of Plato’s riddles . . . the dialogue is a major

source for Plato’s views on poetry and the arts. It is also a

striking example of his comic technique.

Pride “in his authoritative knowledge . . . . is what makes Ion a fit target for Socrates.”

Like all of Socrates’ targets, Ion is proud; and though he is

no doubt good at his own trade, he is not able to make the

sorts of distinctions he would need to extricate himself from

Socrates’ traps.

The main point of interest in the dialogue is its discussion of inspiration.

After a paragraph on knowledge (Techne), Woodruff devotes more than two pages to inspiration. He claims that when Plato calls the inspiration of poets “an old story” it is not true.

What Plato says on inspiration is quite startlingly new: that

when poets compose poetry they are literally out of their

minds, that they are merely instruments through which the

gods speak.

But Plato’s account of inspiration is literally false, as he himself knows, for he does not accept the poets’ songs as true as oracles.

People in ecstatic conditions are known to dance and shriek

and to speak in tongues, but from a person in such a condition

we do not expect articulate speech to emerge, much less poetry.

There is no simple answer as to why Plato has Socrates speak so forcefully on behalf of an unbelievable theory of inspiration. Perhaps he wanted to make the theory believable, glorifying the poets (as Renaissance thinkers later held); perhaps he was just making a nasty joke about poetry (as Goethe held); or perhaps it is part of a broader critique of poetry, which either dismissed the poets as unknowing or set an agenda for philosophers so that they could do for poets what prophets did for the Pythia—namely, interpret.

Woodruff states his opinion that “Plato’s target in the Ion was poetry in general and Homer specifically, as in the Republic.”

The dialogue works through the medium of a rhapsode to

bring Socrates face to face with the poet he most admired,

his great antagonist, Homer.

Saunders (1987)

Trevor Saunders prefaces his 1987 translation of the Ion (in Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues) with an eight-page introduction.

The Ion of Plato is among the shortest of his dialogues; but

it has provoked controversy out of all proportion to its length.

It is light and amusing, with vivid characterization, a clearly

defined structure and a limited theme. Yet it is not easy to

interpret, and its wider implications are baffling. The question

it poses is: Do poets know what they are talking about? Socrates,

clearly, thinks the answer is ‘no’; indeed, he believes that poets

are ignorant fellows who can write poetry only when in a state

of madness. . . .

Saunders asserts that, for Socrates, morality is a skill, acquired by dialectic, and if that skill could be discovered, it would lead to far different conduct from that described by the poets. He admits that his attempt to draw out the Platonic implications of “the single and limited point made by Socrates in the Ion,” may be quite anachronistic:

In form, the Ion is an attack on rhapsodes, not on poets. If

criticism of poets is present, it is by virtue of the strong

implication of the image of the magnet: that mutatis mutandis

poets are to be given the same satirically unfavourable

assessments as rhapsodes, and for fundamentally the same

reasons. Nor does Socrates say anything about poets (or

rhapsodes) as moral teachers: he says nothing about forms; it is

not even quite clear that he intends to go beyond the ostensible

tone of light amusement, and to condemn poetry (and perhaps

the products of the other arts) as quite valueless; for all he

claims about poets is that they are not skilled but possessed

by a god, which not everyone would interpret as a criticism.

But the Ion has a “disconcertingly casual air” as if it were nothing more than a preliminary skirmish in the “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.” Saunders thinks that the dialogue reads like a somewhat arrogant work of Plato’s youth when

Intoxicated by the prospect of discovering an exact science

of morals he briefly dismissed poetry by attacking it at what

he thought was its weakest point, its lack of techne, and

supposed he had thereby demolished its claim to serious

attention. His argument has a touch of crudity, and few

readers will think that he does justice either to poetry or

to philosophy.

Allan Bloom (1987)

In 1987 there appeared a book, edited by Thomas L. Pangle, with the title The Roots of Political Philosophy, and sub-titled “Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues.” The last of these supposedly unremembered dialogues—all brief—is the Ion. It is translated by Allan Bloom who also provides a twenty-five page essay An Interpretation of Plato’s Ion, originally published in 1970.

The essay begins with a somewhat strained and tendentious summary of the dialogue, in which Ion is identified as “the most conventional agent of what is most conventional.” According to Bloom, Ion seems to have no need to see whether the thoughts of poets other than Homer might, in any way, be useful. Furthermore, he transmits the Homeric view and thus represents tradition. There are, of course, other traditions, but Ion cannot say why the Homeric one should be preferred.

The masters of the various arts, , know the different subjects of the poets’ works, such as divining or charioteering, but what is it that Homer speaks about? The answer is everything, whether human or divine:

Homer represents the authoritative view of the whole according

to which Greeks guide themselves: he is the primary source

of knowledge or error about the most important things.

Every group has a framework for the experience of its members, who are educated in it from birth. This authoritative view constitutes the deepest unity of the group. It claims to be the true view.

Socrates, then, is testing the Greek understanding of things,

particularly of the gods. At least symbolically, he shows

the beginning point of philosophic questioning . . . In the

Ion, Socrates confronts authority, the authority for the

most decisive opinions. He does so with great delicacy, never

stating the issue directly, for he knows that the community

protects its sacred beliefs fanatically.

(Eventually, his caution here was insufficient to save him from hemlock.) Socrates adopts a moderate position: he is open to the whole, but knows that he does not know the answers even if he knows the questions.

In the Ion, he applies the standard of knowledge drawn

from the arts to the themes treated by poetry, thus showing

wherein poetry and the tradition fail and what stands in the

way of such knowledge.

But if Homer is better than the other poets, necessarily the others are worse. Who can judge between them?

The difficulty of responding to this question reveals the

problem of the dialogue. The premise of the discussion

with Ion is that the rhapsode is the competent judge of the

poets’ speeches, but rhapsodes are not even aware of the

questions, let alone the answers. The very existence of the

rhapsodes—these shallow replacements for knowers of the

art of the whole—serves to initiate us into a new dimension

of the quest for knowledge of the highest things. In investigating

Ion, Socrates studies a kind of popular substitute for philosophy.

When we reflect on who judges whether Ion speaks well or

badly, we recognize that it is not an expert but the people at

large. The issue has to do with the relation of knowledge and

public opinion in civil society.

Ion is not an expert as are other experts. He can speak only of Homer. Why is this? Ion asks and wants to hear one of “you wise men.” But Socrates refuses to be treated like a performer, a Sophist, but will speak only the truth, as befits a private man.

The opposition between what is here called wisdom and public

men, on the one hand, and truth and private man, on the other,

hints at the human situation which forces Ion to be ignorant

without being aware of it and points to the precondition of the

pursuit of truth. In order to satisfy their public, the public men

must pretend to wisdom, whereas only the private man, who

appears to belong to a lower order of being, is free to doubt

and free of the burden of public opinion. The private life seems

to be essential to the philosophic state of mind.

In speaking of poetry in terms of its subject matter (and not of its medium) Socrates abstracts from the poetic in poetry, from what constitutes its characteristic charm. In doing so, Socrates seems to forget the beautiful in poetry, but he is well aware of the uniqueness of poetry and he examines the role poetry plays in establishing the false but authoritative opinions of the community.

The need for poetry is one of the most revealing facts about

the human soul, and that need and its effect on the citizens

constitute a particular problem for Socrates’ quest. Ion’s

total confusion about the difference between speaking finely

and speaking well, between the charming and the true, is

exemplary of the issue Socrates undertakes to clarify.

Bloom discusses the central part of the dialogue, but here it should only be noted that the Ion is a representation of the emergence of philosophy out of the world of myth. It is not only ignorance that prevents the discovery of nature: man’s most powerful passion sides with poetry and is at war with his love of wisdom.

The way of the knower is unacceptable for the life of men

and cities. They must see a world governed by providence

and the gods, a world in which art and science are inexplicable,

a world which confuses general and particular, nature and

chance. This is the world of poetry to which man clings so

intensely, for it consoles and flatters him. As long as human

wishes for the significance of particular existences dominate,

it remains impossible to discover nature, the intelligible and

permanent order, for nature cannot satisfy those wishes. Ion

cannot imagine an art of the whole because, as rhapsode, he

most of all serves the longing for individual immortality, and

he used his poetry to that end.

Ion makes a living from speech but does not really respect or understand it. He admires the deeds of the Homeric heroes and the speeches he recites glorify those deeds, but he himself is not a hero; he has no deeds of his own. Since speech follows on deed, the life of action is the best kind of life. But this means that there is no theoretical life, and yet without a theoretical life speech is nothing more than a means. Ion sings the songs of Homer, not for their own sake, but for money.

Only in a world in which thought could be understood to be highest, in which there are universals—which means essentially intelligible beings—can there be significant general speech. Without such universals, only particulars exist.

Allen (1996)

In 1996, R.E. Allen published the third volume in his series of translations of the Platonic dialogues, and it includes his version of the Ion with an accompanying Comment. First, he connects the inquiries of Socrates reported in the Apology, specifically with the poets, to the Ion. Although the poets had a reputation for being wise, they were not: almost anyone present could give a better account than they of what they themselves had produced. Ion is a rhapsode, not a poet, and believes that the most important part of his work is not declaiming Homer but interpreting the thought of Homer. Ion believes himself to be a teacher, and the possessor of an art or techne.

Ion claims to possess the art of the rhapsode, but he and his art are limited to Homer. But since he cannot speak skillfully of other poets, he cannot have an art. But how can he speak so beautifully about Homer? The answer is given by the striking metaphor of the magnet, the Heraclean stone. Homer invokes the Muse in the Iliad, and asks her to teach him in the Odyssey; Hesiod knows that the Muse could speak the truth (and also what was not true); and Parmenides tells how the goddess revealed to him his vision, writing in the Homeric hexameter of an odyssey of the intellect.

Rhapsodes speak not by art but by divine apportionment, as do politicians (in the Meno). Nowhere in the Ion is it supposed that poetry has any intrinsic or autonomous value. Homer was the greatest poet because he was the greatest teacher, and was studied as a guide to conduct. Generally, the arts have a subject-matter. But what is the subject-matter of Homer? And of the rhapsode?

The Ion does not present a theory of poetry, or of rhapsody,

and to describe rhapsode or poetry as a matter of divine

apportionment without intelligence is not to praise it but

to dismiss it. The Socratic heritage, distinguished by its

respect for arguments, the ability to render an account,

is also distinguished by its recognition of the power of

the irrational forces which move the human soul.

Ion is divine, because if he were human he would be a wrong-doer.

Murray (1996)

In her book Plato on Poetry, Penelope Murray gives the complete text (but no translation) of the Ion and of two crucial passages from the Republic (376e–398b9 and 595–608b10).These are accompanied by a commentary and preceded by an introduction.

The Ion, Plato’s shortest work, probably belongs to his early period. But Ion himself is so stupid that he is not worth attacking: the target of the dialogue must be something other than this proverbially silly rhapsode.

Noting that no commentary on the Ion has appeared in English since “the early years of the century,” Murray states her aim as twofold. First, to provide a modern commentary and, second, to explore “the ambivalence of Plato’s pronouncements on poetry through the analysis of his own skill as a writer.”

Murray shares with Murdoch (and others) the general view that in the ancient world art could not be separated from morality, quoting Tolstoy to that effect:

. . .the ancients had not that conception of beauty separated

from goodness which forms the basis and aim of aesthetics

in our time.

Plato’s views on art are not contained in a single treatise but are scattered about in “a collection of texts in which various attitudes, images and myths about poetry are expressed.” Accordingly, Murray concentrates on “two great themes” which dominate Plato’s treatment of poetry: the idea of poetry as mimesis, and the concept of poetic inspiration.

The term mimesis is used in a highly flexible manner by Plato and is used

. . . not only of the arts of poetry, painting, music and dance,

but also, for example, of the relationship between language

and reality, and of that between the material world and its

eternal paradigm; even the life of the philosopher is said to

‘imitate’ the forms.

[It should be noted that mimesis and its cognates do not appear in the Ion, a fact not noted by Murray, presumably because she is not interested in distinguishing that dialogue from the Republic, her main source for mimesis.]

Plato appears to be caught between two views. One is that mimesis is beneficial provided that its object is suitable; the other is that “there is something potentially harmful” about mimesis in itself. He sometimes thinks that mimesis is potentially beneficial and at other times that it is “trivial play.” Murray asserts that the products of mimesis can be evaluated in two different ways: one, in terms of the objects imitated, the other in terms of the quality of the imitation, and she attributes Plato’s ambivalence partially to this. But she forgets that an imitation of an evil man would never be approved by Plato, no matter how excellent. It is not, as she says, that poetry is incapable of producing a true likeness of goodness (because the poets do not know what goodness is), but, more radically, that it cannot produce a true likeness of anything, being third from reality. (This ignores the fact that the term “true likeness” is a contradiction.)

Plato, in the Ion, finds the source of poetry in divine inspiration, but he means something new by this, something different from the many previous allusions, by the poets themselves, to ‘poetic inspiration.’ They had meant that, while the poet is dependent on the Muse, he is never the unconscious instrument of the gods; there is a cooperation between the god’s gift and the poet’s skill, which implies the existence of some craft or techne. The poet’s activity is not totally irrational. But Plato insists that the god takes away the poet’s senses.

But Plato transforms the traditional notion of poetic inspiration

by emphasizing the passivity of the poet and the irrational nature

of the poetic process. He differs most significantly from his

predecessors in maintaining that inspiration is incompatible

with techne. . . . He denies poets techne not because he regards

them as shoddy craftsmen, but because they have no knowledge

of what they say.

Plato consistently attacks the poet’s lack of knowledge, whether the attack is veiled in the ambiguous language of praise, as in the Ion and Phaidros, or is more explicitly hostile as in the Republic.

Murray then turns to the topic of Plato as poet.

. . . he was clearly drawn towards poetry like no other

philosopher before or since. There are references to, and

discussions of, poetry in dialogues from all periods of his

life, and his work itself displays distinctly poetic qualities.

That the most poetic of philosophers banished poets from his ideal state and condemned mimesis while using mimetic techniques of poetry in his own work is an often noted paradox. Would the Platonic dialogues be banned? Murray resolves this by saying

But although the dialogues are poetic they are not poetry,

and it is poetry which is (Plato’s) real target.

Murray thinks that Plato is “so afraid of poetry that he has to abolish it altogether.” But it is hard to see why disapproval should be equated with fear; her formulation tends to make a psychological matter out of what is a moral, educational matter. Murray points out (following Havelock and others) that the values of society were transmitted through the medium of poetry, so that poetry was studied not for its aesthetic qualities but for its ethical content. The educative function of poetry was taken for granted. The Sophists were known as declaimers and expositors of poetry, and Protagoras made the claim that the most important part of a man’s education was

cleverness about words (). This means

being able to understand what poets say, both the good

things and the bad, to know how to distinguish them, and

to give one’s reasons when asked.

Plato’s purpose, according to Murray, is none other

than to reform society by expelling the cause of its corruption:

Homer and his fellow poets.

Plato’s attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past.

Greece in many ways continued to be an oral society:

historians, for example, regularly recited their works in

public, and Greek social and political life was dominated

by oratory, a performance art if ever there was one. But

after the fifth century, despite the enormous popularity

of drama, the performance of poetry was no longer at the

center of Greek culture as it had been in earlier times.

The important question that the Ion raises is what the critic and rhapsode (and by implication the poet) knows. By what means does Ion judge the merits of Homer’s poetry?

Murray refers, in fine, to Shelley who claimed, like Sir Philip Sidney before him, that the true basis for a defense of poetry was to be found in Plato’s Ion.

Murray suggests that the ‘ancient quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy, is not as old as Plato himself would like to think.

********

These admittedly abbreviated accounts of critical views of the Ion support the assertion that much of the scholarly discussion of the dialogue stems from the earliest views of Schleiermacher and Goethe. It cannot be said that the questions raised and their answers (if any) carry any sense of lofty thought or intellectual excitement.

Did Plato write the Ion? If so, when? If not, who did write it? If by Plato, it is, supposedly, a short early ‘Socratic’ dialogue, in which no definite result is achieved.

The topics alluded to in these critical accounts, whether in questions or in statements, are superficial and somewhat banal, being treated in most cases in isolation. The major exceptions to this are Friedlander and Bloom’s essay, which does attempt to provide a philosophical framework within which to understand the dialogue. But he is almost alone. Others read the dialogue superficially and report their superficial understanding; or, more charitably, the dialogue is superficial so that any analysis must be equally superficial. There are no philosophical ideas in it, and we should accept it as a light-hearted piece, bordering on comedy. Is it really without any ‘philosophical tendency’?

If the Ion did not concern itself with the general theme of poetry (a matter of some importance in Platonic thought) it would probably be ignored. As it is, we are variously told, the dialogue tells us Plato’s attitude towards poets and poetry or, alternatively, that whatever is said cannot be taken as Plato’s ultimate views. Nor is there any agreement about whether Plato is attacking or merely speaking about rhapsodes, commentators, poets, just Homer, or about the Sophists, or, specifically, about the unmentioned Antisthenes.

Opinions are equally divided about whether Plato is serious or not, and, if he is, in which statements. The two long speeches of Socrates are, for some, Plato’s true thought; for others they are mocking parodies. The image of the magnet is either mechanical or a striking image. As an image of divine inspiration, is it serious or a joke? Either way, does it indicate that the poet is elevated, enthused by the god, or does it mean that he is out of his mind. Plato’s view of inspiration (whatever it is) is startlingly new, we are told, although poets and rhapsodes have traditionally invoked a Muse. Some allege that the notion that the poet is inspired contains the true elements of a theory of poetry.

For some, the attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past, for others it is just another manifestation of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Perhaps there is no quarrel between poetry and philosophy as long as poetry does not lay claim to knowledge, which, in the Ion, it does.

Perhaps the Ion can only be understood when read in conjunction with other Platonic dialogues. And yet, before relating it to other dialogues, surely it must be understood first in its own terms.

On the assumption that Plato is ambivalent about poetry, the dialogue becomes a personal problem. Plato feels himself both poet and philosopher, both Homer and Socrates, and the dialogue is his way of dealing with the tension between them. Psychotherapy?

Does Ion have an art? If so, what is its subject matter and method? What, for that matter, is the subject matter of Homer? The inspiration of the poet is contrasted with the practical knowledge of everyday arts. It could be contrasted with knowledge that comes from dialectic or science, but isn’t. The meaning of art or slips into “Art,” and Plato’s objection to it is fundamentally religious, we are told. Another view says that Plato identifies poetical inspiration with religious possession, and by so doing honors the poet and renders him harmless. Yet another finds that art (meaning Art) may depend upon a stream of emotion from poet to actor and from actor to audience.

At a more general, philosophical level we are told that the Ion shows that there can be no general significant speech without universals. Or that the dialogue is about the one (sought by the pre-Socratics) and the many (the enthused Dionysiacs, united in their god.) Lurking in the background is the theory of Forms or Ideas, but it is not found in the dialogue, apparently.

Finally, there is much confusion about the relation between Socrates and Ion. Some say that Socrates is friendly and restrained in his relationship with Ion. Others that Socrates treats Ion like an idiot, and makes fun of him. Socrates shows “bland perversity” and thinks Ion “pretentious and stupid.” Some are sure that Socrates and Ion know each other well, others that they are meeting for the first time.

Over all looms the possibility of irony which would give multiple meanings to what otherwise might seem straightforward.

This welter of confused opinions and contradictory interpretations suggests that the dialogue needs to be approached in a somewhat different way. If the general and largely unstated scholarly approach only leads to opposite opinions, then the problem may be in the approach and in the fact that the wrong questions are being asked.

Appendix 1

Discussions of the Dialogue

When the Platonic dialogues began to be translated, read, and commented on at the end of the eighteenth century, two names stand out in relationship to the Ion.

One was Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who first thought it genuinely Platonic (but not very enthusiastically) and later changed his mind and rejected it as spurious. In 1796, the other, Goethe (1749-1832), accepted the dialogue as genuine but considered Ion to be completely stupid and a straw man for Socrates to destroy. These opinions of two very influential thinkers seem to have set the agenda for many of the discussions of the Ion that followed.

An English translation of all the dialogues, including the Ion, with notes, was completed by Thomas Taylor and Floyer Sydenham and published in 1804; however, after a devastating attack in the Edinburgh Review in 1809 the translations were largely ignored and forgotten (at least in Britain, but not in the United States.) The translators’ views, contained in introductions and notes, were quite independent and focused on the dialogues rather than on the circumstances and imagined intent of their author. But they were Neo-platonic in spirit and were not taken seriously. (See this author’s Thomas Taylor the Platonist and James Mill, Utilitarian.)

The most recent and complete account of Greek philosophy in English is A History of Greek Philosophy by W.K.C. Guthrie. It was published in six volumes between 1962 and 1981 and describes and comments on all the Greek thinkers from Thales to Aristotle. Plato is the subject of volumes IV and V, and the Ion is discussed in the first of the two, Plato: The Man and his Dialogues: Earlier Period, (pp.199-212).

In general, Guthrie’s history is well-regarded, primarily because of the serious, responsible and sober analysis that he offers, and the fairness with which he presents his views and the views of dissenting scholars. His account of the Ion, therefore, is instructive and provides a useful initial introduction to current thought on the significance of the Ion.

His account will be followed by brief summaries, in chronological order, of various authors’ opinions on the Ion. More details of the authors and their works may be found in the Bibliography.

Guthrie (1962)

Section 1. Although many scholars in the past have regarded it as spurious, Guthrie reports that today few doubt that it is Plato’s own work, written somewhere between Socrates’ death in 399 and 391, most probably between 394 and 391. This is followed by an explanation of the term ‘rhapsode’ and the Homeridae.

Section 2. The dialogue itself, written in a direct, dramatic form, is summarized. Little exception can be taken to the summary (which occupies about a third of the whole twelve or so pages), but to translate  as “Your words go straight to my heart” rather than “For somehow you touch my soul with your words” seems to sacrifice important accuracy for a stilted colloquialism. Plato does not use the word ‘soul’ carelessly or casually.

In a footnote, Guthrie remarks that “It is hardly worth pointing out all the fallacies committed by S. in this little work . . . .”

Section 3. The longest section of Guthrie’s account of the Ion occupies six or so pages and is devoted to Comment: poetic inspiration in the Ion. According to him

[t]he amount of attention accorded to this opusculum, only a few

pages long and certainly no more than half serious, is of course

accounted for by the importance attached to anything which will

throw light on Plato’s attitude to poets and poetry. Here we have

his first words on a topic to which he returns in some of his

greatest works, and on which his apparent ambivalence has led to

a variety of theories, notably that of a Plato divided against

himself, an ‘anti-Platon chez Platon’.

It is the old disagreement between philosophy and poetry. Guthrie remarks that

[t]he first thing to strike a modern reader must be the total

incomprehension of the nature of poetry shown by Socrates

in the questions through which he tries to elicit the requirements

of a good critic. He approaches a poem as if it were a textbook

of practical instruction in some craft or mode of life, to be judged

only by an expert in the particular practice described. Aesthetic

criteria are never mentioned . . . .

Guthrie observes that although we can criticize from our own point of view, to understand Plato we must know what was expected of a poet at that time. In general, the poet’s function was primarily didactic, and up to the fifth century moral and political advice was commonly offered in metrical form. The Platonic Protagoras even says that the poets in the past had the same educational mission as the Sophists, and Guthrie quotes Havelock to the effect that poetry was not literature, not an art form, but a necessity (although Guthrie does not really take account of the conditions in an oral culture).

The poet appealed to the Muses, but not for inspiration, only as a higher authority with greater wisdom. The Muse is not in the poet as Dionysius is in the bacchants, with whom Plato compares the poet (534a). The suggestion that the poet is divinely inspired, possessed, and ‘out of his mind,’ may be original with Plato, for it cannot be found earlier than Democritus; or Plato might have borrowed the idea from Democritus. Historical probability is that the “mystical explanation of poetry on the lines of Dionysiac possession” did not appear until the fifth century.

Guthrie sees this as related to the problem of the One and the Many, and their mysterious relationship and their strange kind of identity.

To the Pre-Socratic philosophers it appeared as the relation

between the one everlasting substance of the cosmos and its

manifold and changing phenomena, whereas the Dionysiac

worshipper sought the identification of the many separated

souls with the One divine being in the experience of

enthusiasmos, the spirit of the god entering into each one.

[NOTE: Homer was not “memorized by grown men like Niceratus (Xen. Symp. 4.6)” as Guthrie asserts; Niceratus is a grown man when he reports what his father had made him do as a boy]

Plato criticizes Homer and the poets without distorting how they were currently perceived. His objections were based on the fact that the poets did not understand the technical matters on which they wrote, and they told of actions of both gods and men that were not morally edifying.

How serious was Plato in his theory? Those who argue for respect for poetic inspiration omit references to phrases like “not in his senses” and “the god having taken away their wits”; and no mention is made of Tynnichus—a story “only intended for our amusement.” Moreover, politicians are given “divine dispensation” in the Meno, which cannot be taken as a view seriously held by Plato and Socrates. The magnet metaphor includes the poet, the rhapsode, and the citizens, and in later dialogues the poet is said to be mad (see the Phaidros) and also, because of the madness, needs to be legally controlled (Laws 719c-d).

The Ion is above all a Socratic dialogue, amusing us by displaying

the bland perversity of its hero when faced with one whom he

thinks pretentious and stupid . . .

I would tentatively suggest that in the theory of divine

possession he saw a possible defence of his own susceptibility to

their charm (which he confesses at Rep. 607c), sufficient at least

to account for the extremely respectful and honorific conge

accorded to a poet in the Republic (398a).

Here we may leave this light-hearted little piece, whose

concern with poetry has probably led us to give it more serious

attention than is good for the enjoyment that Plato intended it

to afford.

The conge, or unceremonious dismissal, is (in the Lindsay translation) as follows:

Then apparently if there comes to our city a man so wise that

he can turn into everything under the sun and imitate every

conceivable object, when he offers to show off himself and his

poems to us, we shall do obeisance to him as a sacred, wonderful,

and agreeable person; but we shall say that we have no such man

in our city, and the law forbids there being one, and we shall

anoint him with myrrh, and crown him with a wreath of sacred

wool, and send him off to another city, and for ourselves we shall

employ a more austere and less attractive poet and story-teller,

whose poetry will be to our profit, who will imitate for us the

diction of the good man, and in saying what he has to say will

conform to those canons which we laid down originally when

we were undertaking the task of educating the soldiers?

To summarize Guthrie’s view, the dialogue is an early Socratic dialogue (it being assumed that we know what that means—apparently a light-hearted exposure of a pretentious and pompous idiot and his opinions), in which Plato suggests the “inspiration” theory to account for the success and appeal of the poet and rhapsode. The suggestion is not really thought through, is not serious, and is only attended to because of what it has to say about poets and poetry.

Much of this may be found in other commentators and translators, both earlier and later, as will appear below.

Schleiermacher (1812)

Schleiermacher begins his brief introduction to the Ion as follows:

Socrates proves two things to the Athenian (sic) rhapsodist:

First, that if his business of interpretation and criticism is a

science or an art, it must not confine itself to one poet, but

extend over all, because the objects are the same in all, and

the whole art of poetry is one and indivisible. Secondly, that it

does not belong to the rhapsodist generally to judge of the poet,

but that this can only be done in reference to every particular

passage by one who is acquainted, as an artist and adept, with

what is in every instance described in these passages. Now it

will be at once manifest to every reader that it cannot have

been Plato’s ultimate object to put a rhapsodist to shame in

such a manner.

The reason is the lowly status of the rhapsodist who “enjoyed no such influence upon the morals and cultivation of the youth of higher rank.” The rhapsodist must be looked on only as “the shell,” while the true kernel of the dialogue is the art of poetry.

The real object and purpose of the dialogue is the nature of the art of poetry, but there lacks any real instruction about this, and the Phaidros (which Schleiermacher dates before the Ion) has already dealt with it; because of the obscurity and deficiency of “the execution” the only tenable theory contained in the work must be rejected.

But some parts are in the spirit of Plato, while others have weaknesses “such as we could scarcely ascribe to him in his earliest stages.” Possibly one of Plato’s pupils composed the dialogue after a hasty sketch by Plato, or it was written by Plato but remained an “imperfectly executed essay.” It cannot be determined whether the Ion is a prelude to some greater work, unexecuted, on the art of poetry, or a playful polemic based on parts of the Phaidros. Sooner could it be maintained that publication of the work was unintentional, but there is no evidence for this.

In any case, this little dialogue, betraying as it does so many

suspicious features, and devoid of any particular philosophical

tendency, could hardly lay claim to any other place but this

which we assign to it.

In a Supplement in a later edition, Schleiermacher condemns the work as not genuine:

But Bekker marks this and the following dialogues more

decisively as ungenuine, and, in so doing, has my full assent.

Thomas Taylor/Floyer Sydenham (1804)

Most of the translations are due to Taylor, and many of the notes were written by Sydenham, but Taylor edited the whole.

On the Ion, it is written:

. . . the main drift and end of this Dialogue, which is by no

means so slight and unimportant, as merely to show that

enthusiasm, or the poetic fury, is characteristic of a true poet;

but makes a part of the grand design of Plato in all his writings,

that is, the teaching of the true wisdom: in order to which,

every kind of wisdom, falsely so called, commonly taught in

the age when he lived, was to be unlearnt. The teachers, or

leaders of popular opinion, among the Grecians of those days,

were the sophists, the rhetoricians, and the poets; or rather,

instead of these last, their ignorant and false interpreters. Men

of liberal education were misled principally by the first of these:

the second sort were the seducers of the populace, to whose

passions the force of rhetoric chiefly is applied in commonwealths:

but the minds of the people of all ranks received a bad impression

from those of the last-mentioned kind, To prevent the ill influence

of these, is the immediate design of the Io[n]; and the way which

the philosopher takes to lessen the credit of their poems is not

by calling in question the inspiration of the poet, or the divinity

of the Muse. Far from attempting this, he establishes the received hypothesis, for the foundation of his argument against the

authority of their doctrine: inferring, from their inability to

write without the impulse of the Muse, that they had no real

knowledge of what they taught: whereas the principles of

science, as he tells us in the Philebus (16c-17d), descended

into the mind of man immediately from heaven; or, as he

expresses it in the Epinomis (976d-977b), from God himself,

without the intervention of any lower divinity.

Plato, “of all polite writers among the ancients the most polite,” is too respectful to attack the poets, those “sacred persons, the anointed of the Muses,” directly, so he does it indirectly by focusing on the rhapsodes, their interpreters.

Socrates, having derided “the personal arrogance and ignorance” of Ion, concludes with some ironical sarcasm at the expense of Ion’s countrymen, the Ephesians, who were “sunk in Asiatic luxury and effeminacy.” They valued themselves highly, first, on account of their descent from the Athenians (noted for both wisdom and valor) and, second, on their opulence and magnificent life style. The latter was, in reality, a source of shame; and they had “degenerated from their ancestors” and were “void of those virtues which raised them” to greatness.

Grote (1867)

George Grote, after his monumental History of Greece (1846), produced Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (1867) in which a chapter of fourteen pages is devoted to the Ion. He is more sympathetic than earlier (German) commentators and says outright:

I hold it [the Ion] to be genuine, and it may be comparatively

early; but I see no ground for the disparaging criticism which

has often been applied to it.

Given the two functions of the rhapsode as reciter and expositor, Socrates examines Ion in the former:

. . . . considering Homer, not as a poet appealing to the emotions

of hearers, but as a teacher administering lessons and

imparting instructions. Such was the view of Homer entertained

by a large proportion of the Hellenic world. . . .

Plato takes no account of—or declares war upon—those who arouse “chords of strong and diversified emotions”, either as childish delusions or as mischievous stimulants, which tend to overthrow the sovereign authority of reason.

The central point of the dialogue is the comparison with the Magnet. It is an expansion of a judgment found elsewhere in Plato (cf. Apology, Meno):

The contrast between systematic, professional procedure,

deliberately taught and consciously acquired, capable of being

defended at every step by appeal to intelligible rules founded

upon scientific theory, and enabling the person so qualified to

impart his qualification to others—and a different procedure

purely impulsive and unthinking, whereby the agent, having in

his mind a conception of the end aimed at, proceeds from one

intermediate step to another, without knowing why he does so

or how he has come to do so, and without being able to explain

his practice if questioned or to impart it to others—this contrast

is a favourite one with Plato. The last-mentioned procedure—the unphilosophical or irrational–he conceives under different aspects: sometimes as a blind routine or insensibly acquired habit,

sometimes as a stimulus applied from without by some God,

superseding the reason of the individual. Such a condition Plato

calls madness, and he considers those under it as persons out of

their senses. But he recognizes different varieties of madness,

according to the God from whom it came . . . .

Of course, privileged communications from gods to men were “acknowledged and witnessed everywhere” as a constant phenomenon of ancient Greek life. Socrates himself was guided by his daimon. But Plato, in the Ion and elsewhere, contrasts the prophet and the poet (and rhapsode) with reason and intelligence.

Ion wants to exhibit his rhapsodical powers to Socrates, but is never permitted to do so. Socrates has preliminary questions which need answering, and also requires an intelligible description of the subject. These Ion cannot provide.

If as a practitioner he executes well what he promises (which is

often the case), and attains success—he does so either by blind

imitation of some master, or else under the stimulus and guidance

of some agency foreign to himself—of the Gods or Fortune.

Jowett (1895)

Jowett, whose influence—of mixed value—on British Platonic scholarship is immense, published his translation of the complete dialogues in 1871 (followed by further editions in 1875 and 1892).

He opens his analysis of the Ion in the following way:

The Ion is the shortest, or nearly the shortest, of all the writings

which bear the name of Plato, and is not authenticated by any

external testimony. The grace and beauty of this little work

supply the only, and perhaps a sufficient proof of its genuineness.

The plan is simple, and the dramatic interest consists entirely in

the contrast between the irony of Socrates and the transparent

vanity and childlike enthusiasm of the rhapsode Ion.

There follows Jowett’s summary of the dialogue. He then goes on with his analysis:

The Ion, like the other earlier Platonic Dialogues, is a mixture

of jest and earnest, in which no definite result is obtained, but

some Socratic or Platonic truths are allowed dimly to appear.

The elements of a true theory of poetry are contained in

the notion that the poet is inspired. Genius is often said to be

unconscious, or spontaneous, or a gift of nature: that genius is

akin to madness is a popular aphorism of modern times. . . .

Jowett then alludes to the views in the Protagoras (316d et seq.) in which the poets are claimed as the original Sophists; certainly Ion belongs to the realm of imitation and of opinion and he, even more than the Sophists, is incapable of appreciating the commonest logical distinctions. His great memory contrasts with his inability to follow the steps of an argument.

The old quarrel between philosophy and poetry, which in the

Republic leads to their final separation is already working in the

mind of Plato, and is embodied by him in the contrast between

Socrates and Ion. Yet, as in the Republic, Socrates shows a sort

of sympathy with the poetic nature. . . .

Jowett concludes by suggesting that the unknown Ion must have belonged to the allegorical school of interpreters, since he claims to have surpassed two others considered to be of that school, Metrodorus of Lampsakus and Stesimbrotos of Thasos.

William Chase Greene (1918)

In 1918, the Harvard Studies in Classical Philology published a translation of W.C. Greene’s doctoral dissertation “Plato’s View of Poetry”; originally written in Latin with the title Quid de poetis Plato censuerit, it occupied some seventy-five pages and took into account the whole Platonic corpus. Some specific sections were devoted to the Ion and are here summarized.

In a preliminary survey, Greene asks:

When one remembers how far divergent are the views of the most

eminent scholars on this point [Plato’s view of poetry], it seems

pertinent to ask why such differences of opinion with regard to

the same author are possible.

He finds the answer in the fact that commentators have often concentrated on one dialogue (the Republic or Phaidros, for example) to the exclusion of others. All of the Platonic writings must be considered, and many remarks about poetry and inspiration and imitation are no more intended to be regarded as Plato’s ultimate views than are the ironical and dialectic obiter dicta and excursus of his logical discussions.

The origins of the good life and a stable political order are to be found in religion and poetry, rather than in science or history:

Both the Eleusinian mysteries and the Orphic religion

encouraged adherents to believe that through initiation and

their presence at certain rites they could win blessedness.

Yet the act of initiation or of participating in rites was not

an intellectual act; according to the testimony of Aristotle,

“the initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain

emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind.”

Greene quotes extensive passages from the Ion

. . . because they exhibit the traditional view of poetic inspiration

which Plato was coming to weigh. Some suppose that Plato is

here seriously upholding this view; others contend that the

dialogue was written expressly to ridicule and discard it.

Neither interpretation, I think, is right. Plato is here weighing

the common Greek notion that attributes the inspiration of

the poet to an external influence. Just as the Greeks tended

to find a myth in order to account for whatever they happened

to believe, and to find ancestors for everything, in the same

way, recognizing that poetry is obviously a different thing

from a man’s ordinary expression, they assumed that some

one else must have suggested it to him—a Muse or a god. So

the poet was not his normal self; he was , or the victim

of . Plato does not in the Ion discard this notion.

Plato, like the Socrates of Xenophon, knew it was futile to appeal to inspiration for the specialized knowledge of ordinary activities, like medicine and charioteering. He distinguished between those things that can be learned and those that are not a matter of 

That is a distinction that Plato himself almost always preserved,

though he enormously increased the province of human

understanding. And the irony that undoubtedly exists in the

Ion is not that Socrates is supposed to deny the bewildered Ion

all knowledge, but that Ion does not realize the meaning of

knowledge. Plato at all periods of his life attributes inspiration

to the poets in utter seriousness, as giving forth wisdom in a

way that can not be reduced to a What kind of wisdom

this is, Plato had yet to consider.

Plato, at this time, had not made public (even if he had formulated) the doctrine of ideas, and so the inspiration of the poet is contrasted, not with knowledge from science and dialectic, but with the practical knowledge of everyday life.

If we had to recast the conclusion of the Ion in modern language,

it would be something like this: The poet’s work is not produced

in the same rational way that other things are produced; it is the

result of his having a peculiar power, greater at some times than

at others, of giving utterance to thoughts that are in some way

more precious than those of ordinary life. Naturally Plato does

not imply that all who pretend to be poets are thus inspired, even

though otherwise bad poets may have occasional flashes of

inspiration.

The Phaedrus gives an expanded account:

If Plato’s main subject in this dialogue had been the conditions

of a philosophical poetry, we should undoubtedly have more indications of the methods by which the vision of truth was to

be realized in poetry; as it is, the notable thing is that Plato

cared at all to pause in his argument to give us the clues by

which we are enabled to relate his view of the aesthetic experience

as a whole, by means of the theory of ideas, to his view of poetry.

Perhaps, then, it is not too much to say that Plato in this manner

answers the question that he raised in the Ion about poetic

inspiration; he does not, indeed, do away with the conception

and the language of inspiration, but he replaces it in his mind

by the conception of the state of enthusiasm that the vision of

beauty produces in its lover. In a word, then, inspiration by a

god gives place to inspiration by the vision of ideas.

In the Laws, Plato admits comedy and tragedy into the city, but with certain severe restrictions. Comedy is allowed to use ridicule as long as it is mere pleasantry, and not vindictive; tragedy must submit to censorship. In the Republic Plato is working from sense to thought, from particular to universal, and, finding actual poets an obstruction, he resorts to the poetical expedient of banishing them.

In the Laws, Plato is speaking as a poet, but as a poet who

has achieved a greater degree of truth and hence a greater

seriousness of purpose than other poets. When he undertakes

to step back into the world of sense, he welcomes the cooperation

of these other poets, so far as their aims can be made to fall in

with his own . . . Plato is himself definitely announcing his own

belief in an austere and chastened poetry as a vehicle for the

realization of his ideals. The poetic faculty is still irresponsible;

yet the inspiration of the poet is to be enlisted in the discovery

of the best hymns. Thus the legislator (i.e. the philosopher)

does not surrender the right which he claimed in the Republic,

of laying down the forms to which the poets are to submit, but

he is more friendly to the poets than he was in the Republic,

since he is now dealing with a possible commonwealth more

like ordinary Greek states.

The latter part of this summary goes far beyond the Ion; in order to do justice to Greene’s views, it seemed useful to provide a sketch of the overall context in which he examined the dialogue.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1920)

The relevant major work of Wilamowitz is his Platon (Berlin, 1920). He had published some views on the Ion earlier in the century, but this seems to be his general view.

Originally, Wilamowitz had been strongly influenced by the opinions of Goethe, seeing the dialogue as essentially a satire, with Ion himself characterized as “incredibly stupid.” For a long time he rejected the work as Plato’s, but eventually conceded that Plato did, in fact, write it, but it was “youthful” with all the arrogance of a young writer; indeed, Wilamowitz asserted that it was Plato’s first work. He also thought that it had been written before the death of Socrates, but was really unworthy of Plato, it being incoherent and with a very limited purpose, namely, to make explicit the silly senselessness of the rhapsode’s so-called ‘art.’

Because of the agreement with the Apology, Wilamowitz supposes that Plato took over from Socrates his opposition to the excessive claims of the poets.

His interpretation is limited to the negative point that, according to Plato, poets have no knowledge (although, according to Wilamowitz, Plato admitted and recognized some good, for example, in the Phaidros). Plato was making fun of the rhapsodes in a kind of Aristophanic farce, and was making even more fun of the poets. Thepraise of poetical inspiration is not to be taken seriously, for it is certainly ironic, we are told.

Taylor (1926)

In his Plato: the Man and his Work A.E. Taylor classifies the Ion as a “Minor Socratic Dialogue.”

Little need be said about this slight dialogue on the nature

of “poetic inspiration.” The main ideas suggested are

expounded much more fully in those important Platonic

works with which we shall have to deal later.

Taylor insists that “inspiration” is foreign to the way of thinking of poetry in the fifth century B.C. Poets were thought of as craftsmen, as , along with doctors, engineers and the like. They were not endowed with “native genius.”

[The poet] was conceived as consciously producing a

beautiful result by the deft fitting together of words and

musical sounds, exactly as the architect does the same

thing by the deft putting together of stones. Of all the

great Greek poets Pindar is the only one who pointedly

insists on the superiority of , “native genius,” to the

craftsmanship () which can be taught and learned; . . .

On the face of it, the Ion is concerned with the question whether rhapsodes and actors owe their success to some expert or professional knowledge, or to “genius” or non-rational “inspiration.”

But it is clear that the real points intended to be made

are that the poet himself is not an “expert” in any kind of

knowledge and, as poet, has not necessarily anything to teach us.

These points are made more emphatically and impressively in other Platonic dialogues.

Lamb (1925)

The text and translation of the Ion in the Loeb Classical Library were provided by W.R.M. Lamb, who also furnished a three page introduction.

This graceful little piece is remarkable not only for the evidence

it affords of the popularity and procedure of Homeric recitals in

the fifth and fourth centuries, or again, for its brilliant witness

to Plato’s skill in characterization, but also for its insistence—

implied rather than expressed—on the doctrine that no art,

however warmly accepted and encouraged by the multitude,

can be of real worth unless it is based on some systematic

knowledge; and that the common claim of successful artists to

be useful servants of the public is probably a dangerous delusion.

In addition to recitals at great festivals, the rhapsodes gave lectures on the subject-matter of the poems, and in doing this they resembled the sophists.

It is this educative work of the rhapsode which interests Plato.

He is bent on criticizing the whole system—or rather, the

unsystematic tradition—of Greek education; and he seeks to

show that the rhapsode’s pretensions to any particular knowledge

of human affairs are absurd,, and further, that even his great

success in impassioned recitation is a matter not of studied art,

but of divine “possession”—something divorced from reason,

and a possible danger to the truth.

And yet, according to Lamb, Socrates’ tone towards Ion throughout is friendly and restrained:

Plato was ever aware of the mighty influence of the poets upon

himself as well as upon the mass of his countrymen, and there is

regret no less than respect in his voice when he bids them depart

from his ideal state (Rep.iii.398).

Meridier (1931)

In the first part of the fifth volume of the Guillaume Bude series, Platon: Oeuvres Completes, Louis Meridier provides texts and translations of the Ion, the Menexenus, and the Euthydemus, together with commentaries.

Meridier begins his commentary on the Ion with a discussion of the meaning of the word ‘rhapsode’ and a description of the rhapsode’s activities. He also points out that Plato often uses the two words andrhapsode and actor [or expounder], side by side. Ion merely mentions his essential function, the declamation of Homer, and concentrates on his commentary, on his “embellishment” of Homer. But he does not state on what occasions he reports these “improvements.” Is it at the recitations of Homer? Or at the festivals, in meetings of the rhapsodes? The word that is usedshows that it is in private conversations, not public ones, among a circle of admirers, in the same manner as the Sophists.

These commentaries of Ion are, presumably, allegorical interpretations, since he compares himself to well-known allegorists such as Metrodous and Stesimbrotos.

Meridier reports (but denies) the view of Dummler and Stahlin that behind the figure of Ion there lurks that of Antisthenes who, it is known, favored the poets for their interpretation of divine wisdom; he particularly admired Homer. In short, the Ion marks, so we are told, a phase in Plato’s polemic against Antisthenes. But at no point in the Ion is it a question of allegorical interpretation. In translation from the French original,

When one examines the dialogue closely, the solution of

the problem is discernible. In appearance, the purpose of the

debate is to know whether the commentaries of the rhapsodes

are directed by an art, . Socrates’ argument has the

effect of proving that Ion, the commentator on Homer, is

not in possession of an art, whatever he himself may think

about it.

The critique of the rhapsodes also falls on the poets they interpret, and the conclusions of Socrates apply equally to them. This is confirmed, according to Meridier, by what is the chief portion of the work, where Socrates replaces dialogue with two long speeches. The change of procedure, the didactic exposition, the solemnity with which the first speech is introduced, the sudden elevation of tone, all show that here is the true thought of the author and the key to his purpose. It is the magnetic chain, the inspiration, which animates the rhapsode.

The possession of a set of rules () based on scientific knowledge () is denied the poets. Plato allows them a divine gift (), a kind of enthusiasm, in which they are out of their minds, losing the rational faculty.

This reflects the passage in the Apology in which Socrates questions those who seem or claim to have some knowledge, the politicians, the poets, and the artisans.

Even if Plato must be taken seriously when he attributes divine inspiration to the poets, it is not clear that it would be mistaken to see it as anything other than a concession to politeness, at bottom irony, in its application to the rhapsode. Philosophy does not wish to speak directly to the poets, so Plato uses a simple rhapsode as a subterfuge, the rhapsodes being generally held in low esteem by the intellectual elite.

The dialogue is not incoherent. The two demonstrations of Socrates are inseparable; in the first part, if Ion has an art, then he can speak equally well of both Homer and Hesiod. The second argument shows that each particular art has its own proper competence, not shared by the rhapsode. By both arguments, Plato comes to the same conclusion: Ion does not have an art. The dialogue really deals with the nature of poetry.

G.M.A. Grube (1935)

In Plato’s Thought, Professor Grube devotes a whole chapter to Art and he makes some remarks about the Ion. He is more interested in the Republic and the Phaidros, as might be expected, but he offers some relevant comments.

Quoting the Apology,

that the works of the poets are not the product of wisdom, but

of a natural gift, and that they are inspired like prophets and

oracles,

Grube states that

the Ion, a short dialogue in the usual Socratic vein, is a fuller

statement of the same theme. . . .Ion is made to insist (535c) upon

the violence of his emotions when he recites, and upon his success

in communicating these emotions to his audience, We have here a

fundamental belief of Plato’s, and one which lies at the very root

of his attitude to art, namely that successful art depends upon a

stream of emotion which flows from poet to actor, and from actor

to audience.

The conclusion is

not only the inspiration of the poet, but the beauty of the work

he produces, is freely admitted in the Ion, and there is here no

quarrel between philosophy and poetry, so long as poetry does

not, like the poets in the Apology, lay any claim to knowledge.

In short it is the business of the poet, as Socrates tells us in the

Phaedo (61b) to tell stories () and not to give, qua poet

at least, a logical account of things ().

Lane Cooper (1938)

Lane Cooper, in his 1938 introduction to the Ion, notes that “the cadence of this dialogue” is different from the other dialogues he presents (Phaidros, Gorgias, Symposium, parts of the Republic and Laws); but the substance of the work seems Platonic.

He relates the Ion, first, to the Apology, and then to the Phaidros and the Gorgias.

The connection with the Apology is found in Socrates’ examination of the politicians, the poets, and the artisans; specifically, the poets are moved to write “not by wisdom, but by genius and inspiration,” and they can give no account of what they write. Young men were led to imitate Socrates and could lead to the writing of ‘Socratic conversations’ like the Ion. In this case “the victim is a rhapsode, a combination of reciter with professor, so to speak, of ‘literature’.”

The Phaidros is similar in that it has a bearing on the study of literature, but is dissimilar in that Phaidros, unlike Ion, is permitted to recite his speech. The Gorgias is similar in that it insists on the question “What is the art of rhetoric?” (substituting rhetorician for rhapsode).

The Ion, in comparison with the Phaidros, makes light of inspiration and

. . . [t]he telling figure of the lodestone and the objects pendent

under it is yet less memorable than the allegory of the Charioteer

and his horses [in the Phaidros] . . .

The Phaidros “maintains a solid truth regarding eloquence”:

True eloquence in poetry and prose arises from the union of

enthusiasm with superior knowledge, of emotion, properly

controlled, with reason, of nature, a divine nature, with art.

Cooper ends by approving “the spirited translation” of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Moreau (1939)

This critic denies the authenticity of the Ion completely, ascribing it to pupil of Plato’s.

The dialogue itself, whoever wrote it, is primarily concerned with education:

The Ion is . . .an attack not against the poets, as is commonly

supposed, but against the commentary of the poets as the

basis of education. It renews the protest, raised primarily in

the Protagoras, against a purely literary culture, which can

be only verbal.

Even if Plato was the author, the dialogue must have been written very early, simply because later there was no need for it to be written at all (its thoughts being presented more fully and more clearly in later works.)

W.J.Verdenius (1943)

According to Verdenius, Ion is not a caricature; his characteristic qualities are unmasked by Socrates but not as amusement but to clarify certain problems, and Plato would never write a dialogue with the sole intent of provoking laughter among the Athenians. He does, however, give an abstract problem concrete reality.

Socrates’ praise of poetical inspiration is serious. But Plato-Socrates distinguishes between Ion the reciter and Ion the commentator of Homer; the former is divinely inspired, the latter not.

Socrates speaks mostly of the reciter, although his description also applies to the interpreter. The explanation is that by concentrating on the reciter Socrates will gain Ion’s approval. In fact, this does not work, and Socrates has to use many sophisms before Ion reluctantly capitulates. Verdenius says nothing about Ion’s own descriptions of his recitals.

We can now give a more precise answer to the question of

the meaning of the Ion. It is not only that Socrates believes

that it is important to explain the difference between rational

and irrational knowledge, but he believes that it is his moral

duty to call attention to the dangerous character of such

irrational knowledge. In denying the competence of the

rhapsodes, he deprives them, at the same time, of their

pedagogic pretensions and of their right to guide the people.

In the authoritative position of Homeric wisdom and its propaganda there is danger to the independence of thought and the autonomy of conscience.

Friedlander (1957/64)

Friedlander’s magisterial study of Plato in three volumes was published, in German, beginning in 1928. An English translation, with revisions by the author, was completed in 1969.

In Volume II, Plato: The Dialogues: First Period, the second part is devoted to “A Group of Smaller Early Dialogues: Philosopher—Sophist—Poet”. Chapter IX is devoted to the Ion, preceded by a chapter on the Hipparchus, and succeeded by chapters on the Hippias Minor and Theages.

Socrates meets the victorious rhapsode of Ephesus, who is a strange mixture of the ancient artistic tradition of Homeric recitation and the new-fangled pseudo-knowledge of talking about Homer. In this, Ion does not differ from the Sophists (see Protagoras and Hippias Minor). Socrates, ironically, admires the rhapsode’s external appearance (ironical, presumably, because it omits any reference to the inner man) and congratulates Ion, wishing him “a victory at the Panathenaea at the very moment he is about to suffer a defeat.”

But why did Plato choose Ion?

It was not simply, as Goethe thought, ‘Ion, famous, admired,

crowned and well-paid, was to be exposed in all his nakedness.’

Plato does not need the “incredible stupidity” of an opponent to make Socrates appear clever. On the contrary,

The issue here concerns the nature of the poet (for whom the

rhapsode is a stand-in) at a time when the poet still claimed

to be the teacher of his nation and the philosopher is challenging

this claim. And the point is to warn against the danger inherent

in the nature of the poet who claims—and is expected—to

produce effects that go beyond his true powers and responsibilities. Perhaps Euripides is the best example of this kind of poet; but

the common practice, long before the Stoics, of making Homer

the inventor and guide in all spheres of life shows the

misunderstanding and the need for drawing limits.

The attack upon the rhapsodes and their claim to educate people was, at best, a secondary intention of the dialogue. It was the poets who were caught in self-deception, thinking themselves wise in other things as well (cf. Apology 22A et seq.). They are formless, Protean, and this is an essential characteristic of their “doxosophic” way of life. Indeed, the last words of the dialogue are “praiser of Homer” ().

The Ion takes the first steps towards working out the distinction between the man of knowledge and the poet as expressing different modes of existence.

Plato dealt with this problem because he felt within himself both Socrates and Homer:

That “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” to

which he refers in the Republic (X. 607B) cut through the

center of his own existence, and he was compelled to create

order between these two powers—knowledge and enthusiasm—

now converging, now diverging within himself, The primary

intention of this dialogue is not to depict satirically the clash

between Socrates and a vain artist. Instead, Plato has grasped

the Herakleitean tension in his own nature as a thinker and

had given it form as a poet . . .

On the last morning of his life, Socrates first speaks (Phaedo 60C) about his attempts at poetry and

. . . about the meaning of the voice that he, the philosopher

par excellence, has often heard in a dream: “Practice the

art of the Muses” . . . It should now be clear how little Ion

can be regarded . . . as merely a “harmless play” without

any “serious reverse side.”

Hellmut Flashar (1958, 1963)

The main thesis of Flashar is that the rhapsodes had been penetrated by the new spirit of the Sophists and that Ion is little more than a cover for the Sophists, Plato’s real target. He interprets the dialogue, in part, from this point of view.

His other point of view is the search for something of importance about Plato’s philosophy contained in the other dialogues but foreshadowed or hinted at in the Ion. It emerges that, according to Flashar, Plato holds enthusiamus (inspiration) to be the unifying theme that runs throughout the dialogues.

The two relevant works of Flashar are Der Dialog Ion als Zeugnis platonischer Philosophie (1958) and Platon: Ion: Griechisch-deutsch herausgegeben (1963).

According to Flashar, it appears that superficially the Ion provides an opportunity for Socrates to deal with a vain and stupid charlatan who shares, with the unprincipled Sophists, all the base motives and poor or dishonest logic ascribed to them elsewhere in Plato. This might possibly be directed against some contemporary (but, if so, he is unknown), but it must not be considered as an attack on the whole class of rhapsodes and certainly not on the poets. (Although Flashar does not make clear the reasons why not.)

In a footnote, Flashar states that the true subject of the dialogue is not the embarrassment of one obtuse rhapsode, but it is the problem of the real nature of poetry (“das eigentliche Problem des Dialoges”) and its interpretation. The poet and the interpreter are genuinely inspired, while the ascription of divine inspiration to Ion must be regarded as ironical. This does not entail the rejection of inspiration as such, but only in the case of the unfortunate rhapsode. (Again, no reason is given for this special treatment of Ion.)

While the dialogue has, at first glance, a negative result in the confounding of Ion, underneath there is a positive doctrine of enthusiasmus. According to Flashar (and in agreement with Schleiermacher), Plato had his mature doctrine in mind even when he was writing one of his earliest works (he holds that the Ion was written in 394 B.C.)

In the second part of his major work, Flashar, forgetting or modifying the “real problem of the dialogue,” attempts to create a full and consistent theory of enthusiasmus out of the major dialogues. This is not easy. He deals with the Republic in which poetry is attacked (although ignoring the fact that inspiration is not mentioned there). Moreover, it might be objected that the poet is at third remove from reality which would contradict the notion of authentic inspiration. Flashar also adduces the evidence of both the politicians (the Meno) and the philosopher (the Phaidros), which raises the question as to how inspiration can be common to the poets and politicians, and at the same time to the philosopher who might be seen as their opposite.

The answer lies in the ladder of love described in the Symposium (even though enthusiasmus in not mentioned in that dialogue). There are, according to Flashar, degrees of inspiration, as there are different levels of love, and the philosopher alone reaches the full knowledge of beauty itself, is fully inspired.

Flashar maintains that the apparent inconsistencies will all disappear when we see the total view of Plato’s philosophy, as a whole. But as one reviewer remarked:

By this ingenious correlation of passages which others may

think best left apart, Flashar build up a doctrine of enthusiasmus

at the heart of Platonism, which finds its first and partial

expression in the Ion. The Platonic dualism is bridged, and

Socrates’ strange state of philosophical excitement in the

Phaedrus can be compared with Ion’s description of the

emotions of the rhapsode.

Although Flashar speaks, not without some misgivings, about the dangers of attempting to turn Plato’s thought into a system, his work seems to over-interpret the dialogue and to find in it ideas that occur or may occur in other dialogues.

Tigerstedt (1969)

In Plato’s Idea of Poetical Inspiration, a monograph of some seventy or so pages, E.N. Tigerstedt provides one section each on the Ion, the Apology, the Meno, the Phaidros, and the Laws, followed by two sections on the nature and the authority of poetical inspiration. There is also a brief Excursus on Plato and Democritus.

Few parts of Plato’s philosophy have been more discussed

than his treatment of poetry and poets. Since earliest times

it has evoked fierce opposition but also inspired stout defence.

Two ideas in the Platonic ‘poetics’—to use a misleading

expression—have above all claimed the readers attention:

the expulsion of poets from Plato’s ideal city and the description

of their inspiration as being a sort of possession. It is the latter

topic which will be discussed here.

Plato did not write systematic treatises but dialogues, each of which is a self-contained whole so that we need to understand each one before relating it to others. Truth can only be found in dialectical procedures.

Some (notably German) scholars have

found no serious intention in the Ion, only the satirist’s desire

to make a fool of his victim. Therefore the title should read

‘Ion oder der beschamte Rhapsode; denn mit der Poesie hat

das Gesprach nichts zu thun.’ Goethe’s statement made a deep

impression upon German scholars. While some of them . . .

found reasons to reject the dialogue, others accepted it as a

joke by Plato . . . If we are to believe all these scholars—and

Goethe too—it would be ‘love’s labour lost’ to search for any philosophical ideas in the Ion. Indeed, the comical, not to say

farcical, elements in the dialogue cannot be denied. Goethe

justly spoke of the ‘true Aristophanic malice’ with which

Socrates treats Ion in a discussion in which the Socratic irony

more and more changes into an openly contemptuous sarcasm.

The end is pure farce. But, as always in Plato, mockery does

not exclude seriousness.

Tigerstedt finds “no difficulty” in stating the theme of the dialogue since the subject of the discussion between Socrates and Ion is the former’s assertion that the latter does not possess any expert insight, no 

which would enable him to recite and interpret Homer, but

that he is ‘possesed’ by the poet, and, indirectly, by the Muse.

Ion is therefore no expert but a divine and inspired man, like

the poet he praises. This is the thesis which the rhapsode is

forced to accept.

But is this the real theme? The heavy irony of the conclusion makes it difficult to believe that Plato seriously wants us to regard Ion as a “divine praiser of Homer.” But Ion states that he himself is well aware of the audience’s reaction—a degree of self-consciousness surely incompatible with possession.

This irony is directed either against Ion, individually, or against the group represented by Ion, namely the whole class of rhapsodes. It has been erroneously held that Socrates is attacking the ‘sophistic rhapsodes,’ a group for whom no evidence exists.

But if the real subject of the dialogue is neither Ion himself,
nor his art, nor the sophistic interpretation of poetry, it seems
that we will have to embrace the opinion of the great majority
of interpreters, from Classical Antiquity onwards, viz. that
what Plato really discussed in the Ion is poetry and the poets,

more exactly the nature of poetical inspiration.
This is confirmed by the fact that Plato’s long speech deals with this.

But poets are not mad and so Socrates words cannot be taken literally. Either they are a hyperbolic praise of poetry’s divinity, or they are an ironical disparagement of such claims. Interpreters disagree.

For reasons that are stated, Tigerstedt thinks that “the scales are heavily tilted in favour of the ‘ironical’ interpretation,” but irony leaves us “baffled and perplexed.” The more perfect the irony, the more uncertain we feel.

In the Ion, poetical inspiration is contrasted to  and  or toalone. In the Apology the opposite is , possessed by the artians.

There is a remarkable uniformity in Plato’s statements about the nature of poetical inspiration. With very minor differences, the poet is described as being in a state of total passivity, he does not know what he is doing; he is a holy madman. The one real difference in the Ion is that not only the poet, but also his reciters, interpreters, and his audience are also divinely inspired. This is not found elsewhere in the dialogues. Some have argued that Plato’s view is merely the traditional view (see Laws 719C), but there is no evidence to support this (possibly with the dubious exception of Democritus).

Plato never gives any explanation of the incompatibility of his praise for the poets’ divine inspiration and his harsh criticism of them. With one exception (Laws 719c), Plato never expresses both opinions in the same work.

What then, . . . does Plato really think of poetical inspiration?

I am afraid that this is a question which does not admit of an

unequivocal answer.

But the identification of poetical inspiration with religious possession is the vital point of Plato’s doctrine, for . . . in this way he succeeds in making the poet at once honored and harmless.

Murdoch (1976)

In 1976, the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch devoted her Romanes lectures to the question “why Plato banished the artists,” published as The Fire and the Sun the following year. The brief book of only 89 pages provides a very useful conspectus of Plato’s thought, with references to many of the dialogues, but especially to the Republic and Plato’s view on poets and poetry. Murdoch sees the Ion as a precursor:

Some of the views developed in the Republic are given a

trial run in the Ion, a dialogue regarded by scholars as very

early; the earliest, according to Wilamowitz. Socrates questions

Ion, a rhapsode (poetry-reciter), who specializes in Homer.

Socrates wonders whether Ion’s devotion to Homer is based

upon skilled knowledge (techne) or whether it is merely intuitive

or, as Socrates politely puts it, divinely inspired. Ion lays claim

to knowledge, but is dismayed when Socrates asks him what

Homeric matters he is expert on. What, for instance, does he

know of medicine, or sailing or weaving or chariot-racing, all

of which Homer describes? Ion is forced to admit that here

doctors, sailors, weavers, and charioteers are the best judges

of Homer’s adequacy. Is there then any Homeric subject on

which Ion is really an expert? With unspeakable charm Ion at

last says, yes, generalship, though he has not actually tried it

of course: a conclusion which Socrates does not pursue

beyond the length of a little sarcasm. Ion, though lightly

handled by Socrates, is presented as both naïve and something

of a cynic, or sophist. He may not know much about chariots

but he does know how to make an audience weep, and when

he does so he laughs to himself as he thinks of his fee. Socrates

finally consoles Ion by allowing that it must then be by divine

inspiration () that he discerns the merits of the great

poet. Plato does not suggest in detail that Homer himself ‘does

not know what he is talking about’, although he speaks in

general terms of the poet as ‘nimble, winged, and holy’, and

unable to write unless he is out of his senses. He confines his

attack here to the secondary artist, the actor-critic; and in fact

nowhere alleges that Homer made specific mistakes about

chariots (and so on).In the Ion Homer is treated with reverence

and described in a fine image as a great magnet which conveys

magnetic properties to what it touches. Through this virtue the

silly Ion is able to magnetize his clients. The question is raised,

however, of whether or how artists and their critics need to

possess genuine expert knowledge: and it is indeed fair to ask

a critic, with what sort of expertise does he judge a poet to be

great? Ion, looking for something to be expert on, might more

fruitfully have answered: a general knowledge of human life,

together of course with a technical knowledge of poetry. But

Plato does not allow him to pursue this reasonable line. The

humane judgement of the experienced literary man is excluded

from consideration by Socrates’ sharp distinction between

technical knowledge and ‘divine intuition’. The genius of the

poet is left unanalyzed under the heading of madness, and the

ambiguous equation ‘insanity—senseless intuition—divine

insight’ is left unresolved. It is significant that these questions,

this distinction and equation, and the portrait of the artist as a

sophist, make their appearance so early in Plato’s work. Shelley

translated this elegant and amusing dialogue. He did not mind its implications.

Murdoch wants to re-instate the poets (partly by extending the term ‘poets’ into the larger ‘artists’), but also seems to want to respect Plato’s opinions on the matter. The last dozen or so pages of The Fire and the Sun attempt valiantly to reconcile the two, but not successfully. The Ion gets little or no further attention, although it is with “airy ridicule” that Socrates says that “the artist” has no insight into his own activity.

However, the objection of Plato to “art” is identified by Murdoch as fundamentally religious: “Art is dangerous chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

Woodruff (1983)

In 1983, Paul Woodruff published a translation of the Ion, with an Introduction and footnotes. He holds that

The Ion is one of Plato’s riddles . . . the dialogue is a major

source for Plato’s views on poetry and the arts. It is also a

striking example of his comic technique.

Pride “in his authoritative knowledge . . . . is what makes Ion a fit target for Socrates.”

Like all of Socrates’ targets, Ion is proud; and though he is

no doubt good at his own trade, he is not able to make the

sorts of distinctions he would need to extricate himself from

Socrates’ traps.

The main point of interest in the dialogue is its discussion of inspiration.

After a paragraph on knowledge (Techne), Woodruff devotes more than two pages to inspiration. He claims that when Plato calls the inspiration of poets “an old story” it is not true.

What Plato says on inspiration is quite startlingly new: that

when poets compose poetry they are literally out of their

minds, that they are merely instruments through which the

gods speak.

But Plato’s account of inspiration is literally false, as he himself knows, for he does not accept the poets’ songs as true as oracles.

People in ecstatic conditions are known to dance and shriek

and to speak in tongues, but from a person in such a condition

we do not expect articulate speech to emerge, much less poetry.

There is no simple answer as to why Plato has Socrates speak so forcefully on behalf of an unbelievable theory of inspiration. Perhaps he wanted to make the theory believable, glorifying the poets (as Renaissance thinkers later held); perhaps he was just making a nasty joke about poetry (as Goethe held); or perhaps it is part of a broader critique of poetry, which either dismissed the poets as unknowing or set an agenda for philosophers so that they could do for poets what prophets did for the Pythia—namely, interpret.

Woodruff states his opinion that “Plato’s target in the Ion was poetry in general and Homer specifically, as in the Republic.”

The dialogue works through the medium of a rhapsode to

bring Socrates face to face with the poet he most admired,

his great antagonist, Homer.

Saunders (1987)

Trevor Saunders prefaces his 1987 translation of the Ion (in Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues) with an eight-page introduction.

The Ion of Plato is among the shortest of his dialogues; but

it has provoked controversy out of all proportion to its length.

It is light and amusing, with vivid characterization, a clearly

defined structure and a limited theme. Yet it is not easy to

interpret, and its wider implications are baffling. The question

it poses is: Do poets know what they are talking about? Socrates,

clearly, thinks the answer is ‘no’; indeed, he believes that poets

are ignorant fellows who can write poetry only when in a state

of madness. . . .

Saunders asserts that, for Socrates, morality is a skill, acquired by dialectic, and if that skill could be discovered, it would lead to far different conduct from that described by the poets. He admits that his attempt to draw out the Platonic implications of “the single and limited point made by Socrates in the Ion,” may be quite anachronistic:

In form, the Ion is an attack on rhapsodes, not on poets. If

criticism of poets is present, it is by virtue of the strong

implication of the image of the magnet: that mutatis mutandis

poets are to be given the same satirically unfavourable

assessments as rhapsodes, and for fundamentally the same

reasons. Nor does Socrates say anything about poets (or

rhapsodes) as moral teachers: he says nothing about forms; it is

not even quite clear that he intends to go beyond the ostensible

tone of light amusement, and to condemn poetry (and perhaps

the products of the other arts) as quite valueless; for all he

claims about poets is that they are not skilled but possessed

by a god, which not everyone would interpret as a criticism.

But the Ion has a “disconcertingly casual air” as if it were nothing more than a preliminary skirmish in the “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.” Saunders thinks that the dialogue reads like a somewhat arrogant work of Plato’s youth when

Intoxicated by the prospect of discovering an exact science

of morals he briefly dismissed poetry by attacking it at what

he thought was its weakest point, its lack of techne, and

supposed he had thereby demolished its claim to serious

attention. His argument has a touch of crudity, and few

readers will think that he does justice either to poetry or

to philosophy.

Allan Bloom (1987)

In 1987 there appeared a book, edited by Thomas L. Pangle, with the title The Roots of Political Philosophy, and sub-titled “Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues.” The last of these supposedly unremembered dialogues—all brief—is the Ion. It is translated by Allan Bloom who also provides a twenty-five page essay An Interpretation of Plato’s Ion, originally published in 1970.

The essay begins with a somewhat strained and tendentious summary of the dialogue, in which Ion is identified as “the most conventional agent of what is most conventional.” According to Bloom, Ion seems to have no need to see whether the thoughts of poets other than Homer might, in any way, be useful. Furthermore, he transmits the Homeric view and thus represents tradition. There are, of course, other traditions, but Ion cannot say why the Homeric one should be preferred.

The masters of the various arts, , know the different subjects of the poets’ works, such as divining or charioteering, but what is it that Homer speaks about? The answer is everything, whether human or divine:

Homer represents the authoritative view of the whole according

to which Greeks guide themselves: he is the primary source

of knowledge or error about the most important things.

Every group has a framework for the experience of its members, who are educated in it from birth. This authoritative view constitutes the deepest unity of the group. It claims to be the true view.

Socrates, then, is testing the Greek understanding of things,

particularly of the gods. At least symbolically, he shows

the beginning point of philosophic questioning . . . In the

Ion, Socrates confronts authority, the authority for the

most decisive opinions. He does so with great delicacy, never

stating the issue directly, for he knows that the community

protects its sacred beliefs fanatically.

(Eventually, his caution here was insufficient to save him from hemlock.) Socrates adopts a moderate position: he is open to the whole, but knows that he does not know the answers even if he knows the questions.

In the Ion, he applies the standard of knowledge drawn

from the arts to the themes treated by poetry, thus showing

wherein poetry and the tradition fail and what stands in the

way of such knowledge.

But if Homer is better than the other poets, necessarily the others are worse. Who can judge between them?

The difficulty of responding to this question reveals the

problem of the dialogue. The premise of the discussion

with Ion is that the rhapsode is the competent judge of the

poets’ speeches, but rhapsodes are not even aware of the

questions, let alone the answers. The very existence of the

rhapsodes—these shallow replacements for knowers of the

art of the whole—serves to initiate us into a new dimension

of the quest for knowledge of the highest things. In investigating

Ion, Socrates studies a kind of popular substitute for philosophy.

When we reflect on who judges whether Ion speaks well or

badly, we recognize that it is not an expert but the people at

large. The issue has to do with the relation of knowledge and

public opinion in civil society.

Ion is not an expert as are other experts. He can speak only of Homer. Why is this? Ion asks and wants to hear one of “you wise men.” But Socrates refuses to be treated like a performer, a Sophist, but will speak only the truth, as befits a private man.

The opposition between what is here called wisdom and public

men, on the one hand, and truth and private man, on the other,

hints at the human situation which forces Ion to be ignorant

without being aware of it and points to the precondition of the

pursuit of truth. In order to satisfy their public, the public men

must pretend to wisdom, whereas only the private man, who

appears to belong to a lower order of being, is free to doubt

and free of the burden of public opinion. The private life seems

to be essential to the philosophic state of mind.

In speaking of poetry in terms of its subject matter (and not of its medium) Socrates abstracts from the poetic in poetry, from what constitutes its characteristic charm. In doing so, Socrates seems to forget the beautiful in poetry, but he is well aware of the uniqueness of poetry and he examines the role poetry plays in establishing the false but authoritative opinions of the community.

The need for poetry is one of the most revealing facts about

the human soul, and that need and its effect on the citizens

constitute a particular problem for Socrates’ quest. Ion’s

total confusion about the difference between speaking finely

and speaking well, between the charming and the true, is

exemplary of the issue Socrates undertakes to clarify.

Bloom discusses the central part of the dialogue, but here it should only be noted that the Ion is a representation of the emergence of philosophy out of the world of myth. It is not only ignorance that prevents the discovery of nature: man’s most powerful passion sides with poetry and is at war with his love of wisdom.

The way of the knower is unacceptable for the life of men

and cities. They must see a world governed by providence

and the gods, a world in which art and science are inexplicable,

a world which confuses general and particular, nature and

chance. This is the world of poetry to which man clings so

intensely, for it consoles and flatters him. As long as human

wishes for the significance of particular existences dominate,

it remains impossible to discover nature, the intelligible and

permanent order, for nature cannot satisfy those wishes. Ion

cannot imagine an art of the whole because, as rhapsode, he

most of all serves the longing for individual immortality, and

he used his poetry to that end.

Ion makes a living from speech but does not really respect or understand it. He admires the deeds of the Homeric heroes and the speeches he recites glorify those deeds, but he himself is not a hero; he has no deeds of his own. Since speech follows on deed, the life of action is the best kind of life. But this means that there is no theoretical life, and yet without a theoretical life speech is nothing more than a means. Ion sings the songs of Homer, not for their own sake, but for money.

Only in a world in which thought could be understood to be highest, in which there are universals—which means essentially intelligible beings—can there be significant general speech. Without such universals, only particulars exist.

Allen (1996)

In 1996, R.E. Allen published the third volume in his series of translations of the Platonic dialogues, and it includes his version of the Ion with an accompanying Comment. First, he connects the inquiries of Socrates reported in the Apology, specifically with the poets, to the Ion. Although the poets had a reputation for being wise, they were not: almost anyone present could give a better account than they of what they themselves had produced. Ion is a rhapsode, not a poet, and believes that the most important part of his work is not declaiming Homer but interpreting the thought of Homer. Ion believes himself to be a teacher, and the possessor of an art or techne.

Ion claims to possess the art of the rhapsode, but he and his art are limited to Homer. But since he cannot speak skillfully of other poets, he cannot have an art. But how can he speak so beautifully about Homer? The answer is given by the striking metaphor of the magnet, the Heraclean stone. Homer invokes the Muse in the Iliad, and asks her to teach him in the Odyssey; Hesiod knows that the Muse could speak the truth (and also what was not true); and Parmenides tells how the goddess revealed to him his vision, writing in the Homeric hexameter of an odyssey of the intellect.

Rhapsodes speak not by art but by divine apportionment, as do politicians (in the Meno). Nowhere in the Ion is it supposed that poetry has any intrinsic or autonomous value. Homer was the greatest poet because he was the greatest teacher, and was studied as a guide to conduct. Generally, the arts have a subject-matter. But what is the subject-matter of Homer? And of the rhapsode?

The Ion does not present a theory of poetry, or of rhapsody,

and to describe rhapsode or poetry as a matter of divine

apportionment without intelligence is not to praise it but

to dismiss it. The Socratic heritage, distinguished by its

respect for arguments, the ability to render an account,

is also distinguished by its recognition of the power of

the irrational forces which move the human soul.

Ion is divine, because if he were human he would be a wrong-doer.

Murray (1996)

In her book Plato on Poetry, Penelope Murray gives the complete text (but no translation) of the Ion and of two crucial passages from the Republic (376e–398b9 and 595–608b10).These are accompanied by a commentary and preceded by an introduction.

The Ion, Plato’s shortest work, probably belongs to his early period. But Ion himself is so stupid that he is not worth attacking: the target of the dialogue must be something other than this proverbially silly rhapsode.

Noting that no commentary on the Ion has appeared in English since “the early years of the century,” Murray states her aim as twofold. First, to provide a modern commentary and, second, to explore “the ambivalence of Plato’s pronouncements on poetry through the analysis of his own skill as a writer.”

Murray shares with Murdoch (and others) the general view that in the ancient world art could not be separated from morality, quoting Tolstoy to that effect:

. . .the ancients had not that conception of beauty separated

from goodness which forms the basis and aim of aesthetics

in our time.

Plato’s views on art are not contained in a single treatise but are scattered about in “a collection of texts in which various attitudes, images and myths about poetry are expressed.” Accordingly, Murray concentrates on “two great themes” which dominate Plato’s treatment of poetry: the idea of poetry as mimesis, and the concept of poetic inspiration.

The term mimesis is used in a highly flexible manner by Plato and is used

. . . not only of the arts of poetry, painting, music and dance,

but also, for example, of the relationship between language

and reality, and of that between the material world and its

eternal paradigm; even the life of the philosopher is said to

‘imitate’ the forms.

[It should be noted that mimesis and its cognates do not appear in the Ion, a fact not noted by Murray, presumably because she is not interested in distinguishing that dialogue from the Republic, her main source for mimesis.]

Plato appears to be caught between two views. One is that mimesis is beneficial provided that its object is suitable; the other is that “there is something potentially harmful” about mimesis in itself. He sometimes thinks that mimesis is potentially beneficial and at other times that it is “trivial play.” Murray asserts that the products of mimesis can be evaluated in two different ways: one, in terms of the objects imitated, the other in terms of the quality of the imitation, and she attributes Plato’s ambivalence partially to this. But she forgets that an imitation of an evil man would never be approved by Plato, no matter how excellent. It is not, as she says, that poetry is incapable of producing a true likeness of goodness (because the poets do not know what goodness is), but, more radically, that it cannot produce a true likeness of anything, being third from reality. (This ignores the fact that the term “true likeness” is a contradiction.)

Plato, in the Ion, finds the source of poetry in divine inspiration, but he means something new by this, something different from the many previous allusions, by the poets themselves, to ‘poetic inspiration.’ They had meant that, while the poet is dependent on the Muse, he is never the unconscious instrument of the gods; there is a cooperation between the god’s gift and the poet’s skill, which implies the existence of some craft or techne. The poet’s activity is not totally irrational. But Plato insists that the god takes away the poet’s senses.

But Plato transforms the traditional notion of poetic inspiration

by emphasizing the passivity of the poet and the irrational nature

of the poetic process. He differs most significantly from his

predecessors in maintaining that inspiration is incompatible

with techne. . . . He denies poets techne not because he regards

them as shoddy craftsmen, but because they have no knowledge

of what they say.

Plato consistently attacks the poet’s lack of knowledge, whether the attack is veiled in the ambiguous language of praise, as in the Ion and Phaidros, or is more explicitly hostile as in the Republic.

Murray then turns to the topic of Plato as poet.

. . . he was clearly drawn towards poetry like no other

philosopher before or since. There are references to, and

discussions of, poetry in dialogues from all periods of his

life, and his work itself displays distinctly poetic qualities.

That the most poetic of philosophers banished poets from his ideal state and condemned mimesis while using mimetic techniques of poetry in his own work is an often noted paradox. Would the Platonic dialogues be banned? Murray resolves this by saying

But although the dialogues are poetic they are not poetry,

and it is poetry which is (Plato’s) real target.

Murray thinks that Plato is “so afraid of poetry that he has to abolish it altogether.” But it is hard to see why disapproval should be equated with fear; her formulation tends to make a psychological matter out of what is a moral, educational matter. Murray points out (following Havelock and others) that the values of society were transmitted through the medium of poetry, so that poetry was studied not for its aesthetic qualities but for its ethical content. The educative function of poetry was taken for granted. The Sophists were known as declaimers and expositors of poetry, and Protagoras made the claim that the most important part of a man’s education was

cleverness about words (). This means

being able to understand what poets say, both the good

things and the bad, to know how to distinguish them, and

to give one’s reasons when asked.

Plato’s purpose, according to Murray, is none other

than to reform society by expelling the cause of its corruption:

Homer and his fellow poets.

Plato’s attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past.

Greece in many ways continued to be an oral society:

historians, for example, regularly recited their works in

public, and Greek social and political life was dominated

by oratory, a performance art if ever there was one. But

after the fifth century, despite the enormous popularity

of drama, the performance of poetry was no longer at the

center of Greek culture as it had been in earlier times.

The important question that the Ion raises is what the critic and rhapsode (and by implication the poet) knows. By what means does Ion judge the merits of Homer’s poetry?

Murray refers, in fine, to Shelley who claimed, like Sir Philip Sidney before him, that the true basis for a defense of poetry was to be found in Plato’s Ion.

Murray suggests that the ‘ancient quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy, is not as old as Plato himself would like to think.

********

These admittedly abbreviated accounts of critical views of the Ion support the assertion that much of the scholarly discussion of the dialogue stems from the earliest views of Schleiermacher and Goethe. It cannot be said that the questions raised and their answers (if any) carry any sense of lofty thought or intellectual excitement.

Did Plato write the Ion? If so, when? If not, who did write it? If by Plato, it is, supposedly, a short early ‘Socratic’ dialogue, in which no definite result is achieved.

The topics alluded to in these critical accounts, whether in questions or in statements, are superficial and somewhat banal, being treated in most cases in isolation. The major exceptions to this are Friedlander and Bloom’s essay, which does attempt to provide a philosophical framework within which to understand the dialogue. But he is almost alone. Others read the dialogue superficially and report their superficial understanding; or, more charitably, the dialogue is superficial so that any analysis must be equally superficial. There are no philosophical ideas in it, and we should accept it as a light-hearted piece, bordering on comedy. Is it really without any ‘philosophical tendency’?

If the Ion did not concern itself with the general theme of poetry (a matter of some importance in Platonic thought) it would probably be ignored. As it is, we are variously told, the dialogue tells us Plato’s attitude towards poets and poetry or, alternatively, that whatever is said cannot be taken as Plato’s ultimate views. Nor is there any agreement about whether Plato is attacking or merely speaking about rhapsodes, commentators, poets, just Homer, or about the Sophists, or, specifically, about the unmentioned Antisthenes.

Opinions are equally divided about whether Plato is serious or not, and, if he is, in which statements. The two long speeches of Socrates are, for some, Plato’s true thought; for others they are mocking parodies. The image of the magnet is either mechanical or a striking image. As an image of divine inspiration, is it serious or a joke? Either way, does it indicate that the poet is elevated, enthused by the god, or does it mean that he is out of his mind. Plato’s view of inspiration (whatever it is) is startlingly new, we are told, although poets and rhapsodes have traditionally invoked a Muse. Some allege that the notion that the poet is inspired contains the true elements of a theory of poetry.

For some, the attack on poetry represents a radical break with the past, for others it is just another manifestation of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Perhaps there is no quarrel between poetry and philosophy as long as poetry does not lay claim to knowledge, which, in the Ion, it does.

Perhaps the Ion can only be understood when read in conjunction with other Platonic dialogues. And yet, before relating it to other dialogues, surely it must be understood first in its own terms.

On the assumption that Plato is ambivalent about poetry, the dialogue becomes a personal problem. Plato feels himself both poet and philosopher, both Homer and Socrates, and the dialogue is his way of dealing with the tension between them. Psychotherapy?

Does Ion have an art? If so, what is its subject matter and method? What, for that matter, is the subject matter of Homer? The inspiration of the poet is contrasted with the practical knowledge of everyday arts. It could be contrasted with knowledge that comes from dialectic or science, but isn’t. The meaning of art or slips into “Art,” and Plato’s objection to it is fundamentally religious, we are told. Another view says that Plato identifies poetical inspiration with religious possession, and by so doing honors the poet and renders him harmless. Yet another finds that art (meaning Art) may depend upon a stream of emotion from poet to actor and from actor to audience.

At a more general, philosophical level we are told that the Ion shows that there can be no general significant speech without universals. Or that the dialogue is about the one (sought by the pre-Socratics) and the many (the enthused Dionysiacs, united in their god.) Lurking in the background is the theory of Forms or Ideas, but it is not found in the dialogue, apparently.

Finally, there is much confusion about the relation between Socrates and Ion. Some say that Socrates is friendly and restrained in his relationship with Ion. Others that Socrates treats Ion like an idiot, and makes fun of him. Socrates shows “bland perversity” and thinks Ion “pretentious and stupid.” Some are sure that Socrates and Ion know each other well, others that they are meeting for the first time.

Over all looms the possibility of irony which would give multiple meanings to what otherwise might seem straightforward.

This welter of confused opinions and contradictory interpretations suggests that the dialogue needs to be approached in a somewhat different way. If the general and largely unstated scholarly approach only leads to opposite opinions, then the problem may be in the approach and in the fact that the wrong questions are being asked.