The Ion, a dialogue by Plato, was composed during the philosopher’s early (or Socratic) period of authorship. It discusses the relation of poetry with knowledge.
The Ion is of a direct dialogue between Socrates and Ion, an Ephesian rhapsode who has just arrived in Athens after winning the first prize in a contest of poetry recital in Epidaurus. Ion is visiting Athens with the purpose of entering the rhapsodic contest of the Panathenaic Festival. This fictional discussion is placed sometime around 413 B.C. The dramatic scenery is among the most simple ones in Plato’s work. As for Ion, there is no other source of information about him.
In the 18th c., Goethe characterized Ion as a “persiflage” against poetry that is inconsonant with Plato. His claim was endorsed firstly by Schleiermacher, and by many eminent philologist of the 19th c. later. They all claimed that Ion was spuriously ascribed to Plato. This debate has now closed in favor of the authenticity of the dialogue.
The dialogue sets out with a casual Socrates saluting Ion, who just arrived in Athens, and engaging with him in a discussion about poetry. Socrates is trying to prove to Ion that his ability to affect his audience is not induced by some mastery that he possesses, but by divine inspiration. Although Ion concedes (535a), he finds it hard to accept that he is indeed “possessed or crazed” when he recites poetry (536d). At any rate, Socrates bears his claim on the fact that although Ion understands wonderfully the verses of Homer, he is unable to do so with the verses of other poets in spite of their common subject (531a-533c). Additionally, poets are able to compose poems only for one type of poetry (e.g., epics, dithyrambs, or paeans; 534c). If the composition (and recital) of poetry was effected by mastery of the subject, then every poet (and rhapsode) could compose (and recite) every type of poetry.
In what follows, Socrates draws Ion’s concession that the person qualified to pass judgments on different subjects is the expert in each one of them (e.g., the doctor in medicine, the mathematician in numbers, the fisherman in fishing, etc.). Naturally, the question is raised: what is the specific field of expertise of a rhapsode? At first blush, Ion responds that the rhapsode knows everything (539e); then he narrows down his response by claiming that the rhapsode knows what is fitting for a man or a woman to say, as well as for a slave or a freeman, or for a follower or a leader (540b). Finally, after Socrates’ objections, Ion narrows down the knowledge span of the rhapsode even more, and claims that at least he knows what a general would say (540d). The inference, however, is that the mastery of the rhapsode is the same as that of the general, which is inconsistent with the previous concession of the interlocutors that every mastery bears on a proper field of knowledge that separates it from all others (538a). With an ironic overtone, Socrates asks Ion why he doesn’t become a general. Ion’s credulous reply is that there is no need for that. The discussion ends abruptly with a dilemma: either Ion indeed possesses a mastery that he is unwilling to disclose, in which case he is an impostor, or he possesses none, in which case he is indeed divine. Ion opts for the second alternative.
The Ion presents us with a theory of how poetic inspiration is disseminated from the inspiring Muse all the way down to the last member of the audience. The theory might be drawing on. On account of the imagery employed by Plato, it is worth citing the exact excerpt:
“As I said earlier, that’s not a subject you’ve mastered—speaking well about Homer; it’s a divine power that moves you, as a “Magnetic” stone moves iron rings. (That’s what Euripides called it; most people call it “Heraclean.”) This stone not only pulls those rings, if they’re iron, it also puts power in the rings, so that they in turn can do just what the stone does—pull other rings—so that there’s sometimes a very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another. And the power in all of them depends on this stone. In the same way, the Muse makes some people inspired herself, and then through those who are inspired a chain of other enthusiasts is suspended. You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems. The same goes for lyric poets if they’re good [..] For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him” (533d-534b, Woodruff’s translation).
The focal point of the Ion, i.e. the discrimination between rational knowledge and divine inspiration, is also broached in other Platonic dialogues. What Plato aims at is to demonstrate the inadequacy of the poets to meet the task that has been assigned to them by the society: to educate the young and cultivate the adults. Plato’s model for a new education was based on a severe criticism of the traditional wisdom of the poets, on due emphasis on the importance of expertise, and, last but not least, on a new kind of reflective and dialectical research that is aware of its cognitive limits and maintains its positions with logical arguments. The Ion thematizes, for the first time in the Platonic corpus, the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” on which Plato will later expand in the Republic (607b). The rhapsode Ion, who has a difficult time following the consequences of the arguments developed by Socrates, personifies the self-content naivety of an old mode of thinking.
- Allen, R.E. Plato: Ion – Hippias Minor – Laches – Protagoras. London, 1996.
- Moore, J. D. "“The Dating of Plato’s Ion,”." GRBS 15 (1974)
- Murray, P. Plato on Poetry (Ion, Republic 376e-398b, Republic 595-608b). Cambridge, 1997.
- Woodruff, P. Plato, Two Comic Dialogues: Ion, Hippias Major. Indianapolis, 1983.