Plato’s Ion is the Greek philosopher’s shortest dialogue and truly one of his weirdest texts. There, Ion a professional reciter of epic poetry debates the Greek philosopher Socrates on the nature of art. For Plato’s aesthetic philosophy as presented Ion, art is divine inspiration. It is a divine madness similar to that overtaking a prophet when the god speaks through them.
Plato’s Philosophy Of Art
It is commonplace for people to think that Plato or Socrates was firmly against art. This idea is not unfounded. It stems from Plato’s Republic, where the Greek philosopher argued that poets would not be admitted in his idea society.
Plato seemed to believe that art’s mimesis of reality can only corrupt men and weaken their capacity for rational thought. Thus, in a society where the philosophers will rule and the rulers philosophize, art would have no place. This is a thesis that has received a lot of criticism and not without a good reason.
However, Plato’s philosophy of art is not as coherent as we might think. In fact, Plato discussed art in some of his other works exploring different ideas and from different perspectives. Still, Plato’s Ion is the only dialogue dealing exclusively with art, and more specifically poetry.
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Ion is listed amongst Plato’s early dialogues and offers seemingly contradictory ideas to those presented in the Republic. Whereas in the Republic artists are tricksters, imitating reality without capturing its essence and always presenting corrupt images of the truth, in Ion things are different. Plato’s Ion seems to imply that the artist, and more specifically the poet, is a vessel for the god to reveal a truth, but more on that later.
In a sense, Ion is more of an artwork than a philosophical treatise which is a great irony for a philosopher known for despising art. Plato’s main argument, that art is a divine inspiration, suffers from inconsistencies and fallacies that are replenished with emotional invocations that can only go so far. But let’s take a closer look at the two protagonists of the dialogue, Socrates and Ion.
Socrates is a philosopher and the classic protagonist of all Platonic dialogues. A great debate amongst scholars is whether Plato uses Socrates as a theatrical device or he is actually writing down the teachings of Socrates. In any case, Socrates is known for employing irony against his opponents who typically claim to know something while he only claims to know that he knows nothing.
The other character is Ion, a rhapsode, i.e. a professional performer of epic poetry, specializing in Homer. Ion claims to know Homer better than everyone else alive. This entices Socrates to question whether Ion also knows the things Homer is talking about.
Ion is a rather silly character. He performs in king-like clothing while wearing a golden crown. He admits that his skill is driven by profit and does not really appear to have much to say. At one point he even claims that he is the best general in Greece. One can even wonder as to why Socrates chose to debate Ion and not someone better equipped.
Nevertheless, the fact that Socrates is willing to engage in an intellectual discussion with Ion, only shows that Plato’s philosophy of art in this dialogue differs from his other works. Actually, Plato here appears not only to value poetry but also the poet and the rhapsode.
The First Foundations
At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates meets Ion coming back from the festival of Asclepius in Epidaurus having won the first prize in the poetic contest.
Socrates congratulates Ion proclaiming his admiration for the profession of the rhapsode. Ion appears rather arrogant saying that he in all of Greece is the one who knows Homer the best.
Socrates then asks Ion if his knowledge extends to other poets or Homer only. Ion replies that he specializes solely in Homer only to receive the following reply:
“But how did you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument? and does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one anothermand with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not these the themes of which Homer sings?”
Socrates will then claim that it is strange for poets to claim proficiency in only one poet since many poets treat the same topics. If someone knows war, he should be able to understand all of the poets when they are talking of war. However, that is not the case.
In addition, a painter, unlike a rhapsode, can be equally interested in many painters. It is very rare to find a painter only interested in copying Polygnotus, for example. How is it then, asks Socrates, that rhapsodes are obsessed with only one poet in particular like Ion is with Homer?
The Stone of Heraclea
For Socrates, there is a chain of attraction explaining why Ion loves reciting only Homer. The poet is attracted to the muses – goddesses of the arts – like a metallic object to a stone of Heraclea (i.e. a magnet). In his turn, the poet attracts the rhapsode who is thus indirectly attracted to a muse.
In addition, the muses inspire and possess poets, like Homer, to produce artworks of exceptional beauty. This explains how poets can describe things they do not know, like how a captain manages his ship, but cannot manage a ship themselves. A muse uses a poet like the messenger of a divine message. How else could we explain the divine beauty of poetry?
Socrates: “And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true.
For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.”
The Divine Madness
So is poetry a matter of skill or inspiration? Socrates believes it is the latter and Ion agrees. The poet is possessed by the muse and the rhapsode attracted to the poet. In their turn, rhapsodes can also attract the audience:
Socrates: […] The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases, and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse.
After all this, Socrates asks Ion if he feels out of his mind while on stage in order to confirm that he is being possessed. Ion states that he usually does not feel mad, which leads Socrates to ask:
“What are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not?”
After Ion agrees, Socrates recites some lyrics of Homer concerning different professions (from fishing to conducting war). He then asks Ion if the fact that Homer talks about all those fields makes him an expert in all of them. Ion answers that, of course, no poet can be an expert in all of those things.
At this point, Ion and Socrates conclude that a rhapsode cannot gain the practical skill of a fisherman by simply reciting a passage about fishing. However, when it comes to passages about military issues, Ion thinks that he is reciting them with the expertise of both a general and a rhapsode. This is a weird idea that Socrates will dismantle by blaming Ion for inconsistency.
So What Is Ion’s Art In Plato’s Philosophy?
The conclusion that Socrates’ and, through him, Plato’s philosophy is drawing, is that Ion’s art is not an ordered system of skills. Instead, it is a divine inspiration, a madness of a sort.
Before sealing this conclusion Socrates presents Ion with a dilemma; either poets and rhapsodes are humans and need to responsibly explain the nature of their wisdom, or they are receiving divine inspiration. Ion will of course take the second option. Could he have fallen into a trap set by Socrates to make him succumb to hubris? If that is the case, then Ion could be a first step in the development of Plato’s philosophy and critique of art in the Republic.
However, nothing compels us to believe that Socrates is being ironic and does not believe that poetry is divine inspiration. Maybe, Plato in this early dialogue is exhibiting some reflections on art which he will reconsider in his later work.