Plato Project #8: Ion

[Up Next: Laches]

A Greek vase depiction of a rhapsode – of whom Ion claims to be the best

In this dialogue, Ion of Ephesus speaks with Socrates.  Ion is identified as a “rhapsode,” which means he was a professional performer of epic song.  He claims to be the best interpreter of Homer alive.  Socrates allows him this claim, but is more concerned with the question of the reason for Ion’s success, or of the success of rhapsodes more generally.  Is being an interpreter of poetry an “art” (probably better translated as “skill” on our everyday use of the term) or does it arise from some more mysterious form of divine inspiration?

In a way, this is a dialogue-length meditation upon one statement Socrates makes in the “Apology:”  

… not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.

Now in “Ion,” we’re talking about art, rather than wisdom, as a potential explanation, and we’re also talking about rhapsodes, that is, interpreters of poets, not the poets themselves.  But the spirit of the remarks seems to come from the same place: Socrates thinks poetry and its interpretation come from some sort of mystical experience, rather than from study, work, practice and rational thought.

Much of the dialogue centers on demonstrating that Ion cannot articulate just what it is that his “art” is.  He concedes that though he is able to tell stories about things like horsemanship and warfighting, he does not have skill in either of those areas.  At first, this distinction sounds contrived, but upon further reflection, it seems like a reasonable one.  Just what is it that creative artists know that makes them good at what they do, and how can it be distinguished from the knowledge of those whose works they write about?  The old saw about “writing what you know” gestures towards the idea that writing doesn’t contain any new knowledge over and above the object of your writing, but of course, this feels wrong.  I’m quite sure many of the greatest authors knew very little about actually doing the things their characters do.

Anyway, the dialogue moves around a lot of central questions about authorship, creativity and knowledge.  It feels like closer study would reveal a lot of confusing questions lingering beneath the surface.  A lot is left unstated, or assumed, but assumed in a way that very interestingly poses questions.

One thing that feels worth talking more about is the idea of a “rhapsode” in general.  Plato’s picture seems to be of some Homer (he doesn’t really take a stance here about “the Homeric question” per se), and then “rhapsodes” who memorize and perform parts or all of the Homeric epics.  The rhapsode interprets “Homer’s mind,” as Socrates puts it at one point, and does so in an emotionally powerful manner.

On Gregory Nagy’s reading (in Homeric Questions and elsewhere) this is only a third of the story of how Homer came to be Homer.  Nagy thinks this notion of a rhapsode skips over an important part of the history: orally composed story.  The idea is that before there were rhapsodes, who memorized canonical versions of the Homeric epics, there were earlier bards, who created them as they went.  They took bits and pieces of each other’s stories, but did something much more like improvisation than recitation.

Over time, canonical versions of these stories arose, and professional rhapsodes who memorized and then performed them came on the scene.  Ion reports going to two festivals – one of which is the Panathenaia.  Nagy’s argument is that as these festivals – especially the Panathenaia – became more established, the art of telling an improvised version of the story gave way to the expectation that you would perform it verbatim, using the canonical version.  Socrates misses this aspect of performance, which, if Nagy is right, would still have, by Plato’s time, been just been gone long enough to seem never to have existed.

The last third of the story is that at some point along the way, these rhapsodes’ performances were written down, and then we got the permanent text we have today.

If that’s how things worked (not saying Nagy is right, just if), then Socrates’ argument in “Ion” runs into some trouble.  Because the poets don’t just charismatically inhabit the mind of Homer, at least not the original ones.  What they do instead of definitely a “skill” – it involves assembling various formulae and themes together under time pressure to please an audience.  Theirs becomes the ultimate act of storytelling invention, not just channeling of the divinely inspired Homer.

That’s obviously further afield than Ion and Socrates press matters, but it provides an interesting perspective on how Socrates (and presumably Plato) viewed art – as something that you just sort of do from your heart, not so much your mind.  It’s oddly Romantic, and also highly romanticized.  Works of art just sort of come into existence, without real thought, planning or development on the parts of their creators – just feelings.

I recently read a book called Bach: The Patterns of Invention by Lawrence Dreyfus.  Dreyfus spent most of the book trying to argue against seeing Bach’s work in this way.  Instead of understanding his music in this late-romantic way, involving essential ideas and intuition unfolded through inexplicable genius, he tried to show Bach’s working procedure as a rational, practiced and constructed one that can be given cognitive, almost algorithmic content.  Which is in a lot of ways what Lord and Perry, and Nagy after them, have tried to do for Homer.  In a way Plato, in “Ion,” starts the debate about this newer 20th century Homeric Question – about the nature of the composition of the text – by not starting it, and by attributing to Homer a mystical quality that might deserve a second look.

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